Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy

The Beginning of Philosophy Book Cover The Beginning of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
Ancient Philosophy, History of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Academic
Paperback $20.66

Reviewed by: Zachary Isrow (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Where does philosophy begin? Often, in the West, Thales of Miletus is considered father of philosophy. Yet, if one looks Eastward towards India and China, or South towards Egypt, there are surely philosophical origins long before Thales existed. Still, in the West the presocratics are where we look to uncover the beginning of philosophical thought. While many texts have been written addressing and interpreting the presocrates and their thought, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s The Beginning of Philosophy is not one of these – at least not in the typical sense. Gadamer’s book, based on the lectures he gave in 1988 at the Naples Institute for the Study of Philosophy in Italy, does not strictly seek to explore presocratic philosophy in its own regard, but rather hopes to address the hidden origins of philosophy.

Gadamer, a renowned philosophy of the 20th Century, with these lectures, introduces a new approach to ancient philosophy. Much of the current literature on presocratic philosophy focuses strictly on the ideas generated and discussed in relation to their influence on the future development of philosophy. While Gadamer does not fall far from this in his lectures, the book’s beginning two chapters “The Meaning of Beginning” and “Hermeneutic Access to Beginning” pave the way for a unique approach to thinking about presocratic philosophy. For this review, I will focus on this new approach Gadamer suggests and then briefly discuss how this new approach to presocratic thought lends itself to a more complete system of thought, rather than a series of seemingly sporadic fragments.

When we ask ourselves “where does philosophy begin?,” it is often question answered by reference to a time, place, or individual. Interest in actual interpretation of presocratic philosophy was never really a task set forth by intellectuals until the nineteenth century romantics in Germany, with Hegel and Schleiermacher (10). Still, none questioned the very origins of presocratic thought. Why did it develop the way it did? Was it mere curiosity? Was it the myths that sparked interest in things unseen? Gadamer, thinks that there is a secret origin to which “beginning” refers. He writes that “there is yet another, far more obscure precursor – something that lies prior to all rich in tradition, prior to medical literature as well as presocratics, namely, the language spoken by the Greeks” (13).

The Greek language is well-formed to investigate philosophical questions. Gadamer notes two aspects of the Greek language which make it most suitable for philosophic inquiry as being, in the first place, the use of the neuter, and in the second, the existence of the copula (14). Regarding the former, he writes that “It has to do not with the quality of a being, but the quality of a whole space, “being,” in which all beings appear” (14). This poses Greek as a language not only capable of abstraction, but rooted in an abstraction. The copula, which relates to the actual sentence structure in Greek, refers to the “use of the verb ‘to be’ to link the subject and the predicate” (14). Together, these two important distinguishing characteristics of the language used by the presocratics, positioned them to be able to immerse themselves into what would become philosophy.

The second sense of “beginning” is reflective, in that it already presupposes an end. “The anticipation of an end is a prerequisite for a concrete beginning” Gadamer suggests (15). In other words, beginnings always have an end or goal towards which they progress. There is, then, a teleology at work in the development of history, particularly in the history of philosophy. However, this development, already contains its end within its beginning and as such, nothing given to it along its progression is innovative or unexpected. So long as “nothing new, no innovation, and nothing unforeseen is present, there is also no history to relate” and so thus the “primordial opposition between nature and spirit” enters into philosophical discourse (16).

Gadamer here offers a final consideration of the meaning of “beginning,” which is most suitable for discussing the presocratics and their role in the history of philosophy. This is “beginning” as incipience, rather than the incipient entity. This allows that “many eventualities – within reason, of course – are still possible (17). More so, it escapes a predetermined or a presupposed path – it signifies an element of “uncertainty”. Gadamer thinks this is true of presocratic thought, in which there is “a seeking without knowledge of the ultimate destiny” that their seeking will have or at which it may conclude.

After setting up the three meanings of beginning as his premises, Gadamer shifts to focusing on the history of philosophy from a hermeneutic standpoint. This is what he calls ‘effective history’ and approaches the issue of scholarship through problemgeschichte, or, “problem history.” “In this sense,” writes Gadamer, “a problem is something that impedes the progress of knowledge” (25). Thus, in different fields and disciplines, the problemgeschichte is different. In more scientific fields we must continuously seek additional confirmation, never feeling fully satisfied by the current theory. Likewise, in most fields, if we disprove a theory, it is of little to no more use.

Philosophy, unlike other disciplines, does not disregard the problem simply because any possible solution has also been eliminated. It is, then “not correct to say that if a problem admits of no falsification then it presents no question to the thinker” (26). We must therefore approach the presocratics differently than has been previously attempted. Rather than interpreting the texts out of our own vantage point, that is, via reflection, we should instead let the text itself provided us with an interpretation. This means simply that “it is not correct to assert that the study of a text or tradition is completely dependent upon our own decision making” (28).

As Gadamer continues on with his lectures on the presocratics, he uses this approach so as to only use what the text itself allows for, without filling in gaps with speculation and reasoned interpretation. Only what the texts suggest does he consider to be a valid method of understanding the presocratic philosophers and their views. In doing so, he offers a unique approach to the contemplation of the very origin of philosophic thought.

Overall, this work provides an attempt to reconsider the presocratics in a way not typically found. The approach offered by Gadamer is one which enables the reader to reconnect with the texts themselves rather than resting only upon various interpretations. While this gives one a different method with which they can approach the presocratic texts and philosophies, it does not actually result in a new way of perceiving the presocratics. No real new insight is offered into the presocratics and their views, other than some details which have perhaps at times been overlooked due to the current “survey” methods used.

Due to its depth, I would not recommend this book to anyone altogether unfamiliar with ancient Greek thought as much of the value of the book would be lost in such a case. However, this text is valuable, especially for those who study philosophy and ancient philosophy in particular. It carries with it not only the new approach offered throughout, but also a new appreciation for the presocratics which are so often overlooked or by-passed.

John Sallis: The Return of Nature

The Return of Nature: On the Beyond of Sense Book Cover The Return of Nature: On the Beyond of Sense
Studies in Continental Thought
John Sallis
Continental Philosophy
Indiana University Press
August 10, 2016

Reviewed by: Zachary Isrow (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

There is a growing concern in the world today, especially in contemporary philosophy, regarding nature. However, despite the strong concern, few texts adequately address the topic. In his work The Return of Nature, John Sallis attempts to show just how imperative it is that we reflect on nature and come to a new understanding of the relationship between humans, the current state of our world, and nature. This book serves as a solid call to arms, forcing us to reevaluate the meaning of nature and compelling us to take up the challenge of re-envisioning a future that is both sustainable and more fulfilling of our being.

The work emerges at the forefront of an ever growing concern with nature. With increased awareness of climate change and other environmental issues we face today, scholars from a wide array of disciplines have sought to address ways we can combat the evolving crises. In philosophy, nature has long been subject to investigation. Up until recently, the focus on nature was aimed at understanding its relationship to being or law, and related issues. Today, much of the focus has been on reconsidering various perspectives of nature in an attempt to account for the current movement to “return to nature,” with advocates for natural medicine, ecological living and energy.

This is indeed where Sallis fits; the goal of his text is to raise awareness to the necessity of accounting for nature in such a way that a paradigm shift occurs from man vs. nature, to man with nature. As with any text in this field it must not only provide a coherent and valid argument, but it must also draw from the tradition out of which it arises. Sallis utilizes German Idealism and American Transcendentalism to establish differing conceptions of nature as well as to interpret what a return to nature might mean for us today. Specifically, he focuses on the works of Emerson, Hegel, and Schelling in order to give an account of nature.

I believe that Sallis’ book can be broken down into three major sections based on the goal of each chapter. These are as follows: understanding nature, evaluating nature, and connecting nature to man. The first of these is the objective in the first three chapters, the second the middle three chapters, and the last the final two chapters. I will consider each of these sections as I see them in greater detail.

First, Sallis must provide a detailed background for viewing nature in the many ways that it has been understood. Accounting for the pre-Socratics through Nietzsche, he has done precisely this. In the first section, Sallis discusses the various ways in which nature can be said to “return.” He points out changing seasons, abandoned cities or buildings, and other instances in which nature may return – the meaning of return changing in different senses. In addition, “There are occasions when nature lets its beauty appear, when it shines forth in a scene so wondrous that it draws us into a contemplative repose in which we linger before the scene” Sallis writes (7).

Having set forth an explanation of the ways in which nature can be said to return, that is, the various meanings of “return” such that nature may do so, Sallis attempts to outline, in the second chapter, the origins of thought regarding nature, or what the Greeks termed φύσις, which reveals the etymological origins of the word to mean “birth” (28). Sallis then seeks to explore the foundations of nature in theoretical thought. He suggests that nature is “the place from within which natural things are born and determined as such” (29). Tracing nature in thought through German Idealism, and specifically through the philosophy of Schelling, Sallis concludes that nature tends to serve as grounding, a replacement for God. With this, “God can no longer be regarded as the causa sui but rather as progeny of the ground, as given birth by nature” (42).

Next, Sallis insists upon stablishing a distinction between the phrasing a “return of nature” and a “return to nature,” the former having been dealt with in the first chapter. The return to nature represents an often philosophical assertion, that we must derail the current trend of societal development and instead return to a state in which we give more regards to nature. As Sallis writes, it is an imperative which “presupposes that its addressees either have themselves retreated from nature or somehow been withdrawn from it, so that in either case they have been separated or at least distanced from nature” (44). Sallis considers the focus on a ‘return to nature’ through the theories of natural man in Rousseau, aesthetic judgment in Kant, and nature in Emerson. Following this, he briefly continues on into the German idealist tradition, as well as its successors in Nietzsche and Heidegger.

In accounting for Rousseau’s position on natural man as a starting point for a ‘return to nature’, Sallis notes that it “opens the way to a condition that, though not that of a savage, in a way accordant with modern life, approximate the state of nature” (46). It is thus theoretical and descriptive in content as it describes the state of nature, with the goal of leading to a method of critiquing or analyzing the modern political state. In the case of Rousseau then, the notion of a ‘return to nature’ is not asked on a sharp contradistinction between the separation of nature and this return. However, the opposite is true in Kant.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant “begins by acknowledging the dependence of knowledge on experience, the primary movement enacted in the critical project consist in a regress from experience – primarily the experience of nature – to the a priori conditions of such experience, conditions that lie not in nature but in the subject,” Sallis notes (49). The separation of man from nature is evident in Kant’s theoretical philosophy, but is perhaps more profound in his practical, moral theory. According to Kant, morality consists in acting in accordance with the categorical imperative and goes against nature. Sallis writes “morality itself lies in self-determination that, utterly detached from natural inclination, is carried out in accordance with the moral law” (49).

Stemming out of this separation, this fierce distinction between man and nature, Emerson’s essay Nature,  argues in favor of a ‘return to nature’ considering that man has so far removed himself from nature due to his entrapment in urban atmospheres. Emerson, Sallis suggests, saw “the human spirit is expanded by coming into proximity to nature, by returning from the detachment from nature inculcated and enforced by city life” (50). Thus nature serves as the means through which spirit manifests itself and presents itself contrary to its becoming subservient to materialism and the goals associated with materialism.

While I will not comment further on the general outline of the views of a return to nature as it develops in the German idealist tradition, it is clear the direction which it is headed. As Sallis writes, “From nature one is displayed to oneself in some specific manner” and that “The return to nature also awakens a sense of the elemental in nature and of our capacity to master and control it,” we can already note the progression this takes (51). For example, Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘Will to Power’ is easily traced and tied into this development of a ‘return to nature.’

In the first section of the text, Sallis has set-up the background for the ability to analyze the concept of ‘nature’ as such, a task which I have described as understanding nature. He has provided a detailed history of the development of ‘nature’ as a concept, including its ancient Greek origins as well as its changing tone in German Idealism. Additionally, he examined the conceptions of “return of nature” and a “return to nature” differentiating the two and clarifying the concern over nature in contemporary continental philosophy. In doing so, Sallis has given the reader the ability to understand nature such that they may critique and analyze nature along with the next aim of the text: evaluating nature.

The goal of evaluating nature is one of analysis and critique, through examining in detail the theories in which a certain conception of nature is presupposed. This section is condensed into a single chapter, chapter four, “Return to Nature from a Beyond Nature,” though it penetrates into the remainder of the work. In this chapter, Sallis argues that nature is, in one sense, reduced to mere sensation, i.e., colors and shapes. In this case, nature is no longer ‘nature’, i.e., landscapes and environs. In order that the former can be determined to be “reconstituted” as the latter, “determinacy must supervene upon it from elsewhere, from somewhere beyond nature,” and so thus, “posits a nature beyond nature” (61). Sallis traces this ‘beyond nature’ through Nietzsche’s thought and notes that the metaphysical ground of the beyond nature is shifted to a subjective ground. “Nature is thus recalled to nature,” or, in other words, nature is not constituted by a “nature beyond nature” anymore, but instead contains its own self-determinacy, nature as such (63).

Sallis then shifts in chapter five, “The Elemental Turn,” to applying philosophy to practical political and ecological concerns. This final section of the book, which I have termed, connecting man to nature, seeks, by making philosophy contemporary in its goals, to illustrate ways the philosophical conception of “return to nature” may be applied to a revised concern for nature and the environment. Thus, this section serves ultimately as a “call to arms,” a militancy, with the objective of eliminating a particular mode of living in the world that is not only contrary to, but ultimately destructive of our nature. It is the task of philosophy to “dismantle the frame of this turn so as to return to a nature,” which we have neglected throughout the whole of philosophy (74).

Overall then, this book is one of many in a push to reconsider and reevaluate nature, and our place within it. More importantly however, it joins the contemporary effort to utilize humanities research, especially philosophical research, to impact the global effort to combat our own actions that have proven devastating to the environment as well as to our very own nature. With that said, while this book expertly provides insight into how we ought to conceive of ‘nature’ such that a “return of nature” is possible, and even necessary, little is done to suggest where this might lead. The one effort made to provide a suggestion is what Sallis calls the “disintegration of difference” which involves the elimination of being a particular of being, and instead focused on the “plurality of being.” It is, Sallis writes, “precisely in being the kind it is, it would be devoid of selfsameness and so would not be a kind. There would be a disintegration of difference at the very heart of being” (119).

Sallis ends with questioning what this would lead to, but does not himself posit this future. Without this, the book almost feels incomplete. Unless, however, one considers this book amongst another which may perhaps put into perspective this emphasis on the plurality of being. Read together with the other works that complement each other in this emerging push for philosophy to influence practical issues, this book might be able to offer an alternative to our current mode of being in the world.

The Return of Nature is nevertheless an inspiring read which engages its readers from the very beginning. It can be read by anyone looking to open up their mind to the reflection on other ways to live more closely in tune with their own nature and to the nature that is around them.