Frank Schalow: Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction: Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence

Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction: Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence Book Cover Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction: Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence
Contributions To Phenomenology, 93
Frank Schalow
Hardcover 96,29 €
XIV, 191

Reviewed by: Dr. Peter Antich (Department of Philosophy, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, United States of America)

Frank Schalow’s new book, Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction, offers an important contribution to the philosophical study of addiction. While, as Schalow notes at the start of his work, the topic of addiction has spawned many studies from a variety of fields in the past years, relatively few of these have examined addiction using the methods of philosophy, and specifically, of phenomenology. Schalow argues that this leaves an important gap in our approaches to addiction, given that studies that consider addiction in purely physiological terms overlook the meaningful dimension of the addict’s experience, specifically, they fail to consider the life world of the addict. It is this lack that Schalow’s new book intends to redress.

Schalow uses phenomenological methods and concepts, primarily drawn from Heidegger’s Being and Time and later work on technology, to illuminate the phenomenon of addiction, often with considerable success. As the subtitle, “Embodiment, Technology, Transcendence,” suggests, Schalow is primarily interested in understanding addiction with respect to the body, the technological context of addiction, and the existential dimension of addiction. While anyone seeking a detailed account of the role of the body in addiction might be left wanting more from Schalow’s book, they will nevertheless find probing analyses of the role that technology and transcendence can play in understanding addiction. With respect to the former, Schalow argues that the prevalence of addiction in the present era ought to be considered a referendum on the role of technology in our culture. With respect to the latter, Schalow argues that the phenomenological concepts of transcendence and authenticity can provide a key to addiction treatment.

Schalow’s first five chapters offer a phenomenological diagnosis of addiction, while the final three begin to develop phenomenological principles of addiction treatment. The first chapter argues for the importance of a philosophical, as opposed to neurological or psychological, approach to addiction. Schalow does this, in part, through the contention that addiction ought to be understood as a cultural-historical phenomenon – a “historical and cultural transformation of our ‘way to be'” (4) – which therefore cannot adequately be understood merely in terms of the physiology of the body, but only in terms of the meaningful features of the addict’s life-world. Schalow makes clear from the first that he intends to broaden our concept of addiction and to stand the common sense appraisal of the place of addiction in our society on its head, via his claim that addiction ought to be understood as a way of being that is in a certain sense the norm for our society (9).

Chapter 2 begins work on the phenomenological study of addiction, showing how many of Heidegger’s key concepts from Being and Time provide the existential preconditions of addiction. Schalow’s central argument here is that the possibility of addiction is rooted in structures of Dasein common to addicts and non-addicts alike, namely everydayness and being-with-others. Specifically, Schalow proposes to understand addiction as “a permutation of inauthenticity or unownedness” (29). Similarly, addiction can be seen as rooted in being-with-others: dissimulating one’s self-responsibility in terms of conformity with the they-self, as described by Heidegger, creates an environment in which addiction can flourish. Further, Schalow shows how phenomenological analyses of spatiality, in terms of de-severance, and temporality, in terms of making-present, can illuminate the situation of the addict. Chapter 3 continues this work, specifically with regard to the “hook” of addiction. Schalow argues that the hook ought to be understood in terms of the concept of a “fetish,” insofar as one becomes “hooked” on a substance or process when it acquires a disproportionate significance in one’s life, when an object or process operates as a locus of attraction beyond its immediate meaning, e.g., as a means of escape or inducing satisfaction. For such mediate significances, fetishes rely on our capacity for fantasy, or imagination. In a commodity fetish, for example, a commercial object becomes invested with the meaning of a marker of economic status. This is only possible insofar as the imagination opens up a space of possible meanings for an object over and beyond its immediate significance. However, when the fetish supplants the fantasy, according to Schalow, the fetish closes off other possible meanings and becomes addictive. Insofar as the addict, in being fixated on this object, is taken in by it, rather than projecting a meaning for it, addiction is in Heidegger’s terms a form of “fallenness,” i.e., of being lived by the world rather than choosing oneself (62). Chapter 4 completes the existential analysis of addiction, focusing on self-understanding and being-with-others. Here, Schalow argues that addiction corresponds to a form of self-evasion familiar in terms of “denial.” At the same time, addiction often corresponds to inauthentic modes of relation to others, e.g., in terms of leaping-in familiar as a kind of “co-dependency.”

In chapter 5, Schalow turns to the technological dimension of his project. As I indicated above, his claim is that addiction can be considered as a referendum on technology (91), or in other words, the ubiquity of addiction in our society can only be understood in terms of its technological backdrop. Schalow makes this point by connecting technology and addiction in a number of ways. First, new technologies often facilitate certain kinds of addiction that pre-exist those technologies, as, e.g., the internet facilitates a gambling addiction. Second, new technologies give rise to unique forms of addiction, e.g., addictions to social media or video games (89-90). But, thirdly, Schalow is engaged in a larger claim, namely the Heideggerian claim that technology essentially amounts to an “enframing” of the world, characteristic of our culture, i.e., in which everything (including humanity) becomes standing reserve. This “enframing,” in turn, is bound up with addiction in a number of ways. First, it fosters a culture of excess and immediate gratification which promote addiction. Second, this technological culture infuses the life-world of the addict with boredom and stress, and thereby motivates release via addictive substances or processes (section 5.2). Finally, there seems to be a deeper sense in which technology mirrors addiction: just as in addiction one seeks control over one’s life and moods through the use of a substance or process, but thereby in fact gives control of one’s life over to the substance or process, similarly technology offers the promise of control, the “enframing” of resources, only at the price of losing control of human life to this enframing (110). It is, I think, especially in this sense that Schalow understands his central claim that addiction should take on the broad sense of a “historical and cultural transformation of our way-to-be” (4).

In the final chapters of his work, Schalow turns to an existential analysis of methods of treatment. Since Schalow considers the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program to be the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111), Chapter 6 investigates the historical backdrop for the development of this program, explaining connections between AA founder Bill Wilson and the important figures and movements of his time, including Carl Jung, Rudolf Bultmann, and the Oxford movement. In chapters 7 & 8, Schalow argues that existing approaches to treatment are overly dependent on a mind-body dualism – i.e., they focus on either spiritual practices (e.g., AA or talk therapy) or purely physiological treatments – and so leave an important gap in treatment that would be targeted at the addict’s life-situation. Further, the hermeneutic-phenomenological method, insofar as it has long subverted the dualism of mind and body, can prove an important corrective here, by suggesting contours of treatment that would fill this gap. While these contours are multifaceted – e.g., involving the addict adopting new life-contexts (147) – Schalow focuses on transcendence, or responsibility, claiming that addiction cannot be treated without some “resoluteness” (in Heidegger’s sense) on the part of the addict. According to Schalow, “resoluteness” is the appropriate category by which to understand the addict’s choice of recovery, because the decision to quit a habit is not merely a choice, but really a choosing to choose. One does not overcome addiction through a single choice, but rather through choosing, day by day, sobriety, in a manner that is thus the opposite of the culture of immediate gratification fostered by technology. Addiction can only be treated with a commitment, on the part of the addict, and thus insofar as the addict takes responsibility for her or himself.

These analyses accomplish a number of important tasks. Schalow’s greatest accomplishment is to translate Heidegger’s phenomenological concepts into the context of addiction, and show that these concepts can be productively employed in this context. Second, Schalow draws together and develops Heidegger’s scattered thoughts about addiction into a sustained account, offering a cohesive existential analysis of the phenomenon. Third, Schalow makes a number of interesting claims about the cultural backdrop for the prevalence of addiction in today’s society, in particular, raising important questions about the role technology may be playing in this phenomenon. Fourth, in his final chapters, Schalow suggests the principles of an existential approach to recovery, an approach which may indeed offer some novel principles for treatment. Fifth, Schalow makes and supports the provocative claim that addiction is in some sense the norm for our society, and cannot be considered merely pathological. Finally, especially in Chapter 6, Schalow draws connections between a number of figures important in the early 20th century and demonstrates their relevance to the formation of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program.

Along with these significant accomplishments, there are some problems with Schalow’s account. In the following, I’ll outline four kinds of concerns about Schalow’s book: those dealing with his interpretation of Heidegger, with the connection he draws between technology and addiction, with his reliance on the AA program, and with his principles of treatment.

First, there are some issues with Schalow’s interpretation of Heidegger, three of which are especially significant. First, Schalow uses Heidegger’s analysis of technology to shed light on the role technology might play in the present addiction crisis. But it seems to me that Schalow often blurs the distinction, important to Heidegger, between technology and the essence of technology (e.g., Heidegger’s claim that “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological” [311]). But Schalow seems to move readily between the claim that specific technologies facilitate addiction and the claim that enframing, or the essence of technology, permeates the present addiction crisis, leaving it unclear to what extent his argument is Heideggerian. Second, and relatedly, it seems to me that Schalow risks misunderstanding the “danger” posed by the essence of technology according to Heidegger. Heidegger writes that “Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. … The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing is the danger” (333). The danger is not that of “the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” but that enframing blocks a more primordial engagement with Being. But Schalow is at the very least ambiguous in his understanding of the danger when he writes that “Heidegger argued that technology wields a double-edged sword, namely, that the greater opportunities afforded to human beings, including leisure-time, simultaneously brings its specific drawbacks and even risks. In his words, for every mode of ‘unconcealing’ what is, i.e., the opportunities created by new innovations, there are also equally ominous modes of ‘concealing,’ i.e., unanticipated and destructive consequences” (96). Third, if Schalow is right to think that addiction is a symptom of the essence of technology, then it is unclear that an individual’s resoluteness could free her or him of addiction. Heidegger writes that “Human activity can never directly counter this danger. Human achievement alone can never banish it. But human reflection can ponder the fact that all saving power must be of a higher essence than what is endangered, though at the same time kindred to it” (339). Schalow presupposes that terms like “resoluteness” (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s early work in Being and Time) can offer a resolution to a problem posed at least in part by technology (as understood in the context of Heidegger’s later work), a presupposition which is at least contentious. And if no human activity or achievement can directly counter the danger, then it is unclear to me how efficacious reflection on the kinship of the endangered and the saving power would be for the addict.

Second, the connection between technology and addiction could be better established. For example, at times Schalow claims that certain technologies or technological processes are addictive. But it would be helpful to cite some empirical research in this regard, especially given that the medical community has not yet concluded that there are such addictions (though some research does support this conclusion, e.g., Leeman and Potenza [2013]). Here too it would be helpful if Schalow were clearer about the kind of connection he envisages between technology and addiction, whether in terms of technologies influencing addiction or technological thinking being in some sense essentially addictive.

Third, Schalow focuses much of his thinking about treatment around the AA twelve-step program, but does little to argue for the validity of this program. Instead, Schalow seems to assume that the AA program offers a valid point of departure for analysis, justifying it by appealing to it as the “enduring spiritual plan of our today” (111) or as the first addiction treatment program (ix). But the efficacy of the twelve-step program is controversial (see, e.g., Dodes [2014] or Humphreys et. al. [2014]). Granted, Schalow sets out to offer a philosophical and existential approach, rather than an empirical or medical approach, but a phenomenological approach must exercise care in its choice of a point of departure for analysis. Some other finer points raise similar concerns, e.g., Schalow’s referral to “neurasthenia” (161), a condition no longer recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In general, Schalow’s analysis would have benefitted from greater fluency with psychological and medical results.

Fourth, I have some concerns about Schalow’s principles for treatment. Foremost of these is that it is hard to see how Schalow’s prescription of “resoluteness” wouldn’t entail a return to the moralistic myth that the addict is merely lazy. Schalow recognizes this possibility, and certainly aims to avert it, for example, writing that he defines “responsibility” in a Heideggerrian manner (in terms of “answerability”) rather than in the traditional sense of a volitional act or exercise of the will (151). Nevertheless, the ensuing discussion of responsibility (especially Schalow’s use of Kant) makes it hard to see how he is not resorting to a more traditional sense of responsibility. Schalow is very likely correct that resoluteness is a necessary condition for recovery, but it is unclear how far it is supposed to get the addict. Further, if Schalow’s aim is to bridge the gap between treatments aimed at the mind and treatments aimed at the body (considered in biological terms), then “resoluteness” or “choosing to choose” might not be the best resource: a phenomenological analysis of human existence aimed at a level beneath deliberate choice might provide more novel approaches to treatment. Indeed, some of Schalow’s most interesting insights about treatment are found in discussions not directly oriented toward resoluteness, e.g., in his suggestion that for the addict to reorient her priorities she must begin to “inhabit a new space” of relations with others (146).

Schalow’s Toward a Phenomenology of Addiction succeeds in developing a phenomenological framework for thinking about addiction, and raises interesting questions about the role of technology and transcendence in addiction. Anyone led by Schalow’s subtitle to look in this book for a close treatment of the role of embodiment in addiction might be left wanting more, for Schalow treats this theme more sparingly than the others. One wonders if Husserl or Merleau-Ponty might have proven better resources in this regard for Schalow than Heidegger, and indeed, some of the most acute passages related to embodiment come from Schalow’s brief discussion of habituality and Merleau-Ponty (40-1). Nevertheless, Schalow succeeds in this work in knitting together a host of phenomenological themes around the topic of addiction, and perhaps it would be unfair to ask him to incorporate yet another with equal care. Its successes make this book a considerable step in the phenomenological and existential analysis of addiction, and no doubt it will prove an important study for anyone interested in this topic.


Dodes, Lance and Zachary Dodes. 2014. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 2008. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. 307-352. New York: HarperCollins.

Humphreys, Keith, Janet C. Blodgett, and Todd H. Wagner. 2014. “Estimating the Efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous without Self-Selection Bias: An Instrumental Variables Re-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 38 (11): 2688-2694.

Leeman, RF and MN Potenza. 2013. “A Targeted Review of the Neurobiology and Genetics of Behavioral Addictions: An Emerging Area of Research.” The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 58 (5): 260-73.

Antoine Grandjean (Ed.): Kant et les Empirismes

Kant et les Empirismes Book Cover Kant et les Empirismes
Rencontres, n° 270
Antoine Grandjean (Ed.)
Classiques Garnier
Paperback €34.00

Reviewed by: Michele Cardani (University of Barcelona)

Immanuel Kant affirmed in the first Critique that “if the size of a book is measured not by the number of pages but by the time needed to understand it, then it can be said of many a book that it would be much shorter if it were not so short” (KrV A xix). For the pleasure of the reader (and with Kant’s blessing), even though Kant et les Empirismes is not an imposing volume, the time needed to go through its interesting analysis and to approach all arguments proves that Kant’s maxim does not apply here.

Even if we might all have in mind that Kant’s dogmatic slumber was interrupted by the remembrance of David Hume (Prol, Ak iv, 260), i.e., even if we might all recognize the important relationship between empiricism and transcendental philosophy at least for its genesis, an accurate survey such as that lead by Antoine Grandjean deserves dedication, to better get acquainted with Kant’s thought. It goes without saying that the keystone of the book is the final s in Empirismes: not only because “the pre-Critique Kant knew an empiricist phase, in such a way that the years 1755–1766 constitute the ‘quasi-Humean’ phase of Kant’s thought” (11) (so that we can speak of a Kantian empiricism), but also because there exist diverse forms of empiricism which Kant converses with. Certainly, some of these forms might have influenced the German philosopher more than others, as is the case of Hume and John Locke; however, the volume has the merit to present and discuss the doctrines of less-commonly debated authors, thus providing a clear idea of how an intense interlocutor the multifaceted empiricist tradition was for Kant—or vice versa (see, for example, the essays by Matthieu Haumesser, 57–73, by François Calori, 75–96, and by Raphaël Ehrsam, 173–193).

The volume is organized in three sections, providing a detailed account of this plural dialogue: “Concepts, Problems, Traditions”, “The Transcendental and the Empiric”, and “The Empiric of the Transcendental”.

The first two assess the most relevant theoretical issues linked to Kant’s thought and its relationship with empiricisms. They deal with the very legacy of transcendental philosophy in regard to empirical reality (“there is no doubt whatever that all our cognition begins with experience” (KrV, B 1), with its relationship to freedom and both the feeling of pleasure and displeasure (after all, as rational beings, our will is “pathologically affected” (KpV, A 36)), along with its bond with scientific epistemology and science in general (Kant’s method is “imitated from the method of those who study nature” (KrV, B xviii)).

The reader will immediately note that what emerges here is an extraordinary complex picture that cannot be attributed to Kant only—even if his philosophy is notoriously not so easy to interpret. Rather, and this is a very valuable achievement of the volume, it is a consequence of the great depth of all the essays, which present and discuss the main concepts of Kant’s system from different perspectives. Particular attention is paid to the first Critique, but there are indeed many other cross references to other works of the Kantian corpus. The different points of view where Kant and the empiricisms are looked from are not only the expression of each author’s personal reading of the problems at stake, but it must also be said that there exist as many different Kants as there are forms of empiricism he was called to answer to.

This is also the very reason why there are so many ways to receive and to understand Kant’s overcoming of empiricism. This question is dealt with by the essays included in the third section, which are dedicated to Georg W.F. Hegel’s, Jakob F. Fries, and Edmund Husserl’s readings of transcendental philosophy.

Olivier Tinland shows, for example, that Hegel carries out a “radicalization of critical philosophy unveiling the deficiencies of the Kantian critical reflection and notably attenuating the effects of contrast made by Kant in order to distance himself from dogmatic metaphysics and empiricism” (166): after all, according to Hegel, “critical philosophy has in common with Empiricism that it accepts experience as the only basis for our cognitions” (Enz, W8, 121).

Claudia Serban invites us to reflect on the ambiguous position attributed by Husserl to Kant, who would stand between René Descartes and Hume. Even if “Husserl’s phenomenology claims for itself the name of transcendental idealism, it clearly places itself in Kant’s wake” (195), his material ontology (the eigentliche Ontologie) opens a completely different philosophical space. The modest “analytic of the pure understanding” (KrV, B 303) would not resist a thorough analysis due to Kant’s misunderstanding of the radicality of English empiricism and his commitment to rationalism.

The essay authored by Ehrsam has many merits, but probably the most remarkable is to bring back the attention to Fries. Fries’ insistent demand to justify transcendental principles based on empirical psychology not only offers the possibility to think more deeply about the presuppositions and the legitimacy of Kant’s system, but also allows to question the intimate essence of other forms of idealism and of Kantianism. Transcendental philosophy, in fact, “did not satisfy itself announcing the caducity of the pretensions of classical empiricism […]; it paved the way for possible future empirical investigations, whose task, from now on, would be to explain genetically the possession of concepts and knowledge a priori” (192–193).

Considering the evolution of the debate around Kantianism in the 19th and 20th centuries, of which Fries surely was one of the protagonists (remember, for example, the quarrels with Hegel and Johann F. Herbart), Ehrsam’s essay, with the support of the chapters included in the first two sections, indeed inspires new readings of Kant and of history of philosophy. The emergence of neo-Kantianism and new empiricisms (think, for example, about the different positions inside the sole Wiener Kreis), is a clear sign that the problems discussed in this volume are not limited to Kant’s direct sphere of influence, and that they still deserve our interest. It is true: even if it is correct to talk about empirismes, some of the patterns are repeated, and can probably be summed-up with the idea that “consistent empiricism is immanentism” (24). This, however, should not be an excuse to simplify the problems at stake. Rather, this recurrence should be considered a further confirmation of the importance of works that shed light on the controversial relationship between Kant (and neo-Kantianism) and empiricisms (and neo-empiricisms). In this sense, it would be a great addition to philosophical corpus that Kant et les Empirismes would be soon translated into English—and into many more languages—for it really proves to be a valuable volume to understand Kant’s philosophy as well as its past, present, and future interlocutors.

Further readings:

Cardani, Michele, and Marco Tamborini. 2017. Data-Phenomena: Quid Juris?. Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 70: 527–549.

Cassirer, Ersnt. 1927. Erkenntnistheorie nebst den Grenzfragen der Logik und Denkspsychologie. Jahrbücher der Philosophie 3: 31–92.

Cassirer, Ernst. 2000. Substanzbegriff und Funktionsbegriff. Untersuchungen über die Grundfragen der Erkenntniskritik. In Gesammelte Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, Hrsg. von B. Recki, 26 Bände, Meiner, Hamburg, 1998-2009, Band 6, Text und Anm. Bearbeitet von R. Schmücker.

Massimi, Michela. 2011. From data to Phenomena: a Kantian Stance. Synthese 182: 101–116.

Jason J. Howard: Conscience in Moral Life

Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society Book Cover Conscience in Moral Life: Rethinking How Our Convictions Structure Self and Society
Jason J. Howard
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95

Reviewed by: Paniel Reyes Cárdenas (UPAEP, Puebla, Mexico / The University of Sheffield)

In this text Jason J. Howard presents a reflective piece of reasoning that enables one to grasp the origins of the contemporary idea of conscience along with its uses and abuses. If we were to trace Howard’s work it seems as though the present book is a natural consequence of the different paths of his philosophical inquiry. Indeed, previous works such as: Adventures in Reasoning: Communal Inquiry Through Fantasy Role-Play (2015); “Kant and Moral Imputation: Conscience and the Riddle of the Given” (2004); and in particular “Political Identity and the Dynamics of Accountability in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (2006) seem to converge for the nuanced view presented in this book. He proposes a renewed way of approaching conscience through phenomenological study and brings to a reasoned reflection all that constitutes an element of morality for an individual and a community: practical reason, the formation of moral character and, most importantly, the interplay of our moral emotions. One of the most important claims Howard makes is that as a result of over-estimation, conscience has become an inflated concept which makes it difficult for one to refer to it in order to gain a clear understanding of how to solve moral conflicts. However, this is not a plea to get rid of the concept, but to articulate it with our moral emotions in a conscious synthesis, as we will see below.

How did we arrive at such criticised concept of conscience? Howard explores the history of moral philosophy chasing the origins of the concept. Howard presents the development of the modern usage of ‘conscience’ from two important sources; a medieval concept of conscience as sinderesis and what he names the faculty view of conscience. On the one hand Howard presents the history of philosophy, and shows that the ancient conception of conscience and the medieval (sinderesis) are not the origin of the modern concept. The concept of sinderesis is accompanied of the concept of conscientia “Synderesis becomes largely interpreted as innate moral knowledge that cannot be effaced, while conscientia is the belief or application of our innate moral knowledge, of which we can be mistaken.” (20) On the other hand, Howard explains that from the perspective of modernity it has become clear that an obscurely ontological notion of conscience has started to play a large role in the discussion; a kind of independent moral voice that was not required to explain motives or reasons, and that this became what he calls “the faculty view of conscience” (see 21-22). Authors like Butler, Newman and even Kant favored this movement, placing particular emphasis in the (perhaps protestant-originated) conviction that the voice of conscience is not subject to questioning. Howard shows how philosophers such as Hegel (1976, 397-406) and Ricoeur (1992, 236) acknowledge a problem with the false consciousness that can be hidden through a solipsistic view of conscience; a view that presents conscience as a sort of independent and inscrutable source of moral decision that isolates itself and the acting individuals from rational scrutiny and accountability. Howard’s argumentation aims to show that the “faculty view of conscience” presents conscience as an alien a priori moral agent within us, a claim near to impossible to justify, whereas he shows that the views of Hegel, Ricoeur and his own make conscience emerge from a reasoned interplay of core moral emotions.

According to Howard, the faculty view of conscience is used as an umbrella term which constitutes a constellation of assumptions and presumptions and the core of his critique concerns questioning what this view amounts to. Indeed, the faculty view “commits one to assuming that conscience is an independent component of human nature” (32), and the independence of conscience is thus explained or justified in the light of its infallibility and innateness. The faculty view, in Howard’s opinion, adopts a sense of infallibility and innateness that are empirically and conceptually empty and indefensible. Howard seems to interpret this aspect of the faculty view as a metaphysically thick concept, one that begs far too many concessions as even if the infallibility and innateness can appear plausible they are not and any effort to save the phenomenon of conscience must do so without relying on this conception. Howard states that there is a definite need “… for an alternate conception of conscience other than the faculty view if we want to retain a notion of conscience that is explanatorily relevant” (32). Howard´s proposal emerges from the assumption that morality is best understood in terms of social interaction. According to him, the problem with the faculty view is that it does not allow for a fully-fledged conscious response to the legitimate needs, concerns and expectations of not only others, but even of the individual agents themselves.

Alongside his own criticisms, Howard introduces some historical challenges aimed at the faculty view. As we see in Charles Taylor’s description of a secular age (2007, 17-21) while Freud attacked the instinctual renunciation present in the faculty view; Nietzsche fought the radical moral conformism that could conceal; and Heidegger the conformism that prevents people from taking account of the meaning of their own being (33).

Chapter Four furthers the critique addressed to the faculty view, nonetheless, does not mean that there is no need of a view of conscience at all, and in Chapter Four Howard introduces his actual proposal to rescue the relationship between conscience and our core moral convictions. The structure of this chapter includes an analysis of the three emotions he believes to be at the core interplay that should ground conscience: shame, guilt and pride. In order to do it, Howard analyses the role that conscience should play in relation to the “internalization and evaluation of certain core norms and values” (87). He elaborates by showing the phenomenological interplay of the structuring of our characters, values, convictions with a special emphasis in the phenomenology of three prominent moral emotions; pride, guilt and shame. Howard aims to specify the way in which the case for a “good conscience” needs to articulate itself with practical reasons, character and moral emotions. Pride plays a role in structuring our moral convictions, but it also bears the risk of isolating us and rendering us insensitive to the needs of others. Shame reminds us of the public character of our actions and makes us aware of it at all times, and guilt, rightly managed, helps us monitoring how we behave in the past in order to picture our future actions. In Howard’s opinion, conscience can be recovered as a horizon of fulfillment between the prideful self-absorption and a thoroughgoing commitment and sensitivity to other’s needs. In order to facilitate this we need to integrate moral emotions with a sense of moral accountability. This is the way in which the faculty view can give way to a more reasoned view of conscience, one that does not isolate us from a reflective character in our moral commitments, whichever these are.

In Chapter Five Howard also traces the consequences of the substantive view of conscience in the legal system of the United States; his aim is to show that the way in which this discussion unfolds reveals a problem with the faculty view of conscience that brings jurisprudence to a halt. Indeed, it seems that the legal system in the U.S. has proved vulnerable to cases in which conscience is used to avoid giving reasons. Howard stresses that the mentioned cases are usually impending problems that involve rights to uphold and obligations to fulfil that an agent could cunningly avoid. Howard carefully traces different cases related to objections of conscience given to stop individuals from having to comply with military service or issues of healthcare. An outstanding case is the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of California People vs. Stewart of 1857 (130): this case is a representative fact where the faculty view of conscience helps somebody to avoid legal obligation by claiming a view of conscience as an inaccessible “black box”. The way conscience was described in this particular way was a conscience that “acknowledges no superior, bows to no authority, yields to no demonstration… is governed by no law” (130). Howard aims to be very impartial in presenting these cases: he doesn’t want to argue for or against a particularly contentious moral problem such as the objections of conscience in cases of the provision of services in healthcare, which of course makes us consider the case of abortion or other issues. Howard wants us to recover the space for serious discussion rather than appealing to a mysterious agency of an inaccessible conscience. According to Howard, those who object to an appeal to conscience often exploit and/or profit from the obscurity inherent in our understanding of the term. In Howard’s opinion (154) the term conscience understood from the faculty view point of view is intractable to sustain a “right of conscience”.

We must agree with Howard that the notion of conscience used in the U.S. legal system is obscure to say the least, but it does not necessarily follow that the concept of conscience cannot be grounded. Howard advocates for the preservation of the aspects of conscience that represents our deepest moral convictions, but he is critical of its use as a “get out of jail free card” i.e. of conscience as something which could halter discussions which seek to solve problems in relation to obtaining justice. One of Howard’s greatest achievements in the book is that, though he criticizes the history, uses and abuses of the faculty view of conscience, he rescues a true place for conscience as that which can be shaped by reasoned evaluation of our moral beliefs and emotions. He emphasizes in Shame, Guilt and Pride, and the reader might profit of a beginning of a phenomenological study of each of these.

In addition, Howard helps us to reflect how moral formation has to take place at an early stage when our convictions form and get strengthened by a responsible engagement in public and social life. He states how important it is e.g. to convey to children the value of grasping and understanding other people’s emotions in order for them to form their own moral character. Philosophical reflections on our ethos as individuals within a society help us to form a true consciousness (as Hegel explains in the Phenomenology of the Spirit). Our moral emotions need to be made conscious so that we can tell whether they are a true ethical response to our way of being in the world as flourishing human beings. Howard reminds us of Dewey’s (1992, 575-98) efforts to understand that our responses to ethical issues have a dynamic character, framing these evolving aspect of morality as early as childhood. Hence, we must adapt by the use of our reason and dialogue, as well as utilizing a democratic spirit, to ongoing and future situations. Howard draws attention to the formation of conscience which is key in relation to Peirce’s metaphor of knowledge (1868, 140-57); not a chain that is as strong as the weakest link but a cable formed by different fibers and strands that become strengthened by their mutual configuration. His intention is to illustrate that moral character and a positive view of conscience require integration with the complexity of our moral life.

One could argue that Howard goes too far with his repeated suggestions that all the convictions that contribute to the formation of conscience must be equally traceable by a phenomenological as well as rational scrutiny. To be clear, this would require every individual who feels damaged in his convictions to be philosophically trained to offer a reconstruction of these convictions, and the appeal to conscience would suggest something very serious that touches the core of these beliefs, even if the individual is not in any condition to offer reasons for his own moral behavior. Requesting such articulation from an individual is tantamount to asking for everybody to become philosophically trained to examine all aspects of their psyche which could contribute to the formation of a moral character. However, as Howard points out, many of the elements of the formation of our moral character are complex relations between values and emotions that are not apparent despite harsh philosophical scrutiny.

Of course, this does not mean that we must endorse the faculty view of conscience, but we should bear in mind that, whatever we happen to feel as a dictate of our own conscience reports a sensitive aspect of our moral character, even when we are not in a position to p.make this explicit. Therefore, we should not overlook such issues as they raise questions in relation to something that, rather than being a hidden inaccessible ‘will within our will’, it is itself a moral emotion which ought not to be downplayed. Suppose, for example, that an individual is in a very upsetting order of things and that she has little or no reflexive access to her own moral convictions (moral intuitions that group together in what we call “conscience” seem to be informative of our overall ethical flourishment) should we ignore these helpful feelings, intuitions and blurry convictions because they are not expressible in terms of a reasonable debate? Perhaps Howard’s work can assist us with a future study of the importance of moral intuitions that can be integrated with the traditional concept of conscience; this would significantly widen the scope of his own original approach. Howard’s book will be of great use for any scholar that wishes to understand how to establish some clarity on the conscientious objections, though seems still just the beginning of such intellectual inquiry, as the book falls short in fully reconstructing the new approach to conscience that Howard promised.


Dewey, John. (1992). “The Construction of the Good” from On Certainty. In The Philosophy of John Dewey, 575-98. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1976). Phenomenology of the Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howard, Jason J. (2007). “Political Identity and the Dynamics of Accountability in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Proceedings of the Hegel Society of America 18:233-252.

Howard, Jason J. (2009). “The Historicity of Ethical Categories.” Proceedings of the Hegel Society of America 19: 155-176.

Peirce, Charles S. (1868). “Some consequences of four incapacities”. Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2: 140-57.

Ricoeur, Paul (1992). Oneself as another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Charles (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge MA: Belknap University Press.

Luca M. Possati: L’ inconsistenza del numero. Ipotesi sulla natura della computabilità

L' inconsistenza del numero. Ipotesi sulla natura della computabilità Book Cover L' inconsistenza del numero. Ipotesi sulla natura della computabilità
I centotalleri
Luca M. Possati
Il Prato
Paperback € 15,00

Reviewed by: Sergio Genovesi (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, Germany)

Nel saggio L’inconsistenza del numero, pubblicato di recente dalla casa editrice “Il Prato”, Luca Possati si propone di elaborare una fenomenologia della computabilità basandosi sull’assunto che l’operazione logica dell’identità è interpretabile. Mettendo in discussione il principio di identità degli indiscernibili e introducendo la logica paraconsistente nel discorso sulla computazione, Possati prende di mira l’idea che la base di ogni calcolo e ragionamento risieda in un’operazione di uguaglianza basilare e univoca e apre la strada a una vera e propria ermeneutica del concetto di identità.

Il lavoro si presenta come un’elaborazione originale e per certi aspetti eterodossa di alcune tematiche controverse molto discusse nel dibattito filosofico attuale sia in ambito analitico che continentale. Da un lato è possibile notare una ripresa delle idee derridiane di différance, traccia e archiscrittura, così come un riferimento alla struttura originaria di differenza e ripetizione descritta da Deleuze e in generale al paradosso dell’iterazione infinita che riecheggia negli scritti di molti autori francesi contemporanei. Questo percorso tematico è stato in passato già ampiamente sviluppato dall’Autore nel saggio La ripetizione creatrice, dove viene trattato il tema dell’analogia in Derrida, Ricoeur e Melandri. Dall’altro lato Possati si distacca dalla tradizione francese e si serve – assieme ad altre fonti provenienti dal pensiero analitico e dalla filosofia della matematica – degli studi di Graham Priest e Francesco Berto sul dialetheism e la logica paraconsistente al fine di costruire un diverso fondamento teorico per la sua trattazione della contraddizione e del paradosso, riuscendo ad apportare nuovo materiale alla critica dell’identità classica intesa come fondamento del pensiero. Il risultato di questa operazione è una trattazione accurata che riesce a trasporre molte delle intuizioni fondamentali che hanno animato la decostruzione della metafisica sostanzialista nel corso del XX secolo sul piano di una fenomenologia del numero e della computazione, congedandosi da un certo lessico e da determinati topoi filosofici tipici del pensiero poststrutturalista francese e dando una diversa consistenza logica alle idee che lo hanno ispirato.

Ripercorriamo adesso nello specifico le principali tappe di questo lavoro. Come indicato dall’Autore stesso, il libro si divide in tre parti: anzitutto viene formulato un approccio ermeneutico alla questione dell’identità; in seguito è fornita una definizione dell’iterazione come trasgressione del principio di identità degli indiscernibili; infine si individua la radice logica del numero e della computazione nell’iterazione (15). Come accennato in prima battuta, Possati mette in questione il principio di identità degli indiscernibili e il suo converso, quello di indiscernibilità degli identici, assieme all’idea generale che l’identità qualitativa sia condizione necessaria e sufficiente per l’identità. Egli riprende l’esempio dell’esperimento mentale di Max Black, nel quale viene mostrato che non vi è nulla di contraddittorio nella discernibilità degli identici: se prendiamo due sfere di metallo identiche in tutto e per tutto, è comunque possibile distinguerle sulla base di coordinate spaziali (8-9). Possati evidenzia che in generale è sempre possibile individuare due oggetti diversi ma qualitativamente uguali – che siano concreti, astratti, reali o finzionali, e che si sovrappongano o meno. Infatti, qualora l’attribuzione di coordinate matematiche non basti a distinguere gli oggetti, il nostro semplice atto di discriminare due items, per esempio chiamando uno di essi x e l’altro y, basta affinché essi non siano esattamente la stessa cosa: l’auto-identità non è condivisa tra oggetti identici (8). Quando asseriamo l’identità di due oggetti, l’operazione che stiamo conducendo può dunque avere significati diversi a seconda del concetto di identità al quale ci stiamo riferendo: potrebbe trattarsi dell’identità di proprietà, di un’identità quantitativa, o ancora di un’identità personale o di genere, etc. Possati mette in luce due sensi principali di identità, la cui confusione porta al paradosso di non riuscire a distinguere due sfere identiche situate in due luoghi diversi: l’identità qualitativa e l’identità numerica. Nella prima «si presuppone un gruppo di qualità per poi, a partire da esse, identificare l’oggetto che le soddisfa. Si va dalle qualità all’oggetto» (23). La seconda «risponde invece al criterio dell’unità o coincidenza. In questa grammatica, “essere identico” vuol dire coincidere con un locus (fisico o teorico) determinato da un frame di coordinate più o meno fisse» (24). Questi due tipi di identità sono inversi ma complementari: senza l’identità numerica non avremmo mai dei singoli e il nostro linguaggio sarebbe puramente aggettivale, senza l’identità qualitativa avremmo solo singoli e classi senza proprietà (28-9). Come sarà chiaro tra breve, le x che questi diversi tipi di identità discriminano sono degli items differenti e proprio per questo si rende necessaria un’ermeneutica del concetto di identità: l’identità qualitativa sembra rimandare a delle x astratte, a esponenti generici e non ben individuati di classi di proprietà; l’identità numerica sembra invece determinare dei singoli non interscambiabili e non confondibili in alcun caso con altre x (che dovrebbero piuttosto essere chiamate y o z).

Possati definisce l’iterazione come «la discrepanza tra le due grammatiche, identità qualitativa e identità numerica» (39). Essa è una struttura logica che ha una natura paraconsistente e dialethetica, vale a dire che ammette la contraddizione e postula l’esistenza di alcune proposizioni vere ma paradossali, dalla forma contraddittoria “A e non A” (47). Questo tipo di contraddizione è proprio ciò che otteniamo se combiniamo i due tipi di identità di cui abbiamo appena parlato, per cui due items x e y possono essere identici qualitativamente, ma non numericamente. Se itero l’item x otterrò un numero grande a piacimento di altri items che hanno allo stesso tempo la proprietà di essere e non essere identici a x. La tesi dell’Autore è che l’iterazione sia la radice logica di ogni possibile concetto matematico: alla base della computazione e del numero ci sarebbero un principio di iterazione e un principio di contraddizione continua secondo i quali a ogni iterazione la contraddizione non distrugge il sistema – come farebbe in una logica tradizionale – ma anzi lo preserva moltiplicando gli item. L’item infatti ha due facce: «è molteplice (x≠x) perché si sviluppa in una serie, differendo sul piano dell’identità numerica; è singolo (x=x) perché la moltiplicazione non aggiunge nulla alla sua identità qualitativa» (53). Il ruolo della contraddizione diventa in questo modo costruttivo e imprescindibile al fine dello sviluppo del sistema e il numero, oggetto iterabile per eccellenza, rappresenta l’emblema di questo principio che sembra governare tutto il dominio della concettualità e dell’astrazione.

Come atto finale del suo lavoro Possati procede dunque nel ripercorrere il processo di costruzione iterativa del numero, scegliendo di seguire la definizione di numero naturale come classe di insiemi aventi uguale cardinalità finita e costruendo i numeri interi e razionali su questa base. Il punto di partenza di questo meccanismo sarà quindi la costruzione dello zero come cardinalità dell’insieme vuoto e l’iterazione dell’insieme vuoto per produrre insiemi di insiemi vuoti con cardinalità corrispondente ai numeri successivi. Per ottenere un numero specifico basterà limitare il processo di iterazione fino al raggiungimento della cardinalità desiderata. Iterazione, contraddizione continua e limite si rivelano così essere «i tre passi che compongono la procedura logica alla radice di ogni possibile numero» (63). In maniera analoga Possati procede alla definizione di somma e prodotto sulla base dell’iterazione (68 sg.). La computazione può dunque definirsi come «la riduzione di un numero alla sua base iterativa» (72): i numeri sono infatti calcolabili fintanto che conservano la loro base iterativa (78) e in generale – potremmo aggiungere – è possibile operare concettualmente con un oggetto fintanto che la sua iterazione è possibile. Questa iterazione può essere concreta, come nel caso della ripetizione di segni su un foglio di carta per scrivere, o astratta, come nel caso dei concetti che pensiamo. Una delle osservazioni conclusive di Possati riguarda proprio questo ultimo punto. L’Autore, seguendo in parte una tesi formulata da Gualtiero Piccinini, sostiene che «all’apparato formale della computazione corrisponda sempre un sistema fisico computazionale che è un’immagine del primo» (81). Una delle osservazioni più interessanti che è possibile fare a proposito dei sistemi computazionali fisici – organici o inorganici – è che la loro esistenza non presuppone una semantica (86). In altri termini, l’emergenza del significato è posteriore all’attuazione dell’iterazione, come già i filosofi poststrutturalisti avevano cercato di mostrare tramite altre vie teoriche, analizzando per esempio il fenomeno della scrittura. Proprio la scrittura, intesa a sua volta come sistema computazionale, rappresenta l’unico modo che un segno ha di parlare di se stesso: iterandosi. Possati chiama principio dell’identità simbolica questa controparte fisica del principio d’iterazione (92).

All’inizio del volume l’Autore ci avverte che lo studio che stiamo leggendo non aspira a essere esaustivo, ma si propone piuttosto di aprire nuove prospettive. Prima di concludere vorrei dunque menzionare due punti critici presenti nel lavoro che meriterebbero un maggiore approfondimento. Non si tratta di passaggi che rischiano di inficiare la validità della trattazione, quanto piuttosto di problematiche che sarebbe bene indagare ulteriormente per orientare gli sviluppi futuri della ricerca. Una prima istanza riguarda la contraddizione nel caso dell’auto-identità. Nel corso dell’opera Possati illustra chiaramente come l’identità qualitativa tra due items sia sempre accompagnata dalla loro non-identità numerica. Tuttavia non è esattamente evidente come l’identità numerica possa a sua volta essere pensata assieme alla non-identità qualitativa. Poniamo un item x considerato in un determinato punto spaziale e istante temporale (o al di fuori di un contesto spaziotemporale o dimensionale in generale): se esso è numericamente identico a se stesso, non dovrebbe esserlo anche qualitativamente? E se per assurdo non fosse identico a se stesso qualitativamente, si tratterebbe sempre dello stesso item singolare? Non si avrebbe forse anche una disuguaglianza numerica? Nella prima parte del saggio Possati adduce alcuni esempi di oggetti numericamente identici che hanno proprietà contraddittorie: in uno spazio curvo, per esempio, un oggetto può essere distante da se stesso. Queste proprietà contraddittorie vengono però mantenute nella relazione di auto-identità e non mettono in questione l’auto-identità qualitativa di un oggetto. In altre parole, se la natura relazionale condivisa da tutti oggetti e l’identità pensata come rete concettuale o cluster (21 sg.) possono evidenziare dei meccanismi di contraddittorietà nel rapporto degli item con se stessi o con altri items, non si capisce se anche l’auto-identità numerica – considerata nel caso puramente astratto dell’assenza di altri fattori di interferenza – possa e sopratutto debba da sola comportare una non auto-identità qualitativa e quindi un’auto-contraddittorietà originaria di un qualsiasi item.

Un secondo punto critico riguarda la costruzione dei numeri sulla base del principio di iterazione e di contraddizione continua: se questo processo risulta ben evidente nel caso dei numeri naturali, interi e razionali, non è chiaro come vada applicato alla costruzione dei numeri reali e complessi. Questi numeri infatti non sono costruibili tramite la cardinalità degli insiemi, né tramite rapporti di altri numeri tra di loro. Come l’Autore stesso ribadisce, è un dato di fatto che questi ultimi tipi di numeri siano computabili (65). Per salvare la validità della teoria avanzata in questo saggio, pena la sua falsificazione, occorre dunque mostrare come i principi di iterazione e contraddizione continua possono essere applicati alla costruzione dei numeri reali e complessi. L’operazione non sembra impossibile: se si sceglie di costruire i numeri reali attraverso le sezioni di Dedekind, è sufficiente osservare che ogni sezione viene individuata da due numeri razionali (a loro volta costruibili tramite i nostri principi); per quanto riguarda i numeri complessi il procedimento va applicato alla costruzione dell’unità immaginaria e alla sua addizione alla parte reale del numero. Questo breve esercizio, assieme alla definizione di «tutte le principali operazioni aritmetiche» tramite l’iterazione (68) – la cui possibilità viene garantita dall’Autore –, dovrebbe essere svolto una volta per tutte nel corso dei futuri sviluppi delle idee avanzate nel saggio.

L’inconsistenza del numero ha sicuramente il merito di trattare il tema ostico delle contraddizioni e dei paradossi che stanno alla base del nostro pensiero attraverso un linguaggio chiaro e uno stile brillante. Senza alcun desiderio di addomesticare la contraddizione o di ingigantirla e mitizzarla, Possati si pone di fronte a essa con un approccio laico e neutrale, evidenziando con grande onestà intellettuale la portata costruttiva dell’incapacità della ragione di pensare univocamente l’identità e dell’indecidibilità fondamentale di questo primo atto del ragionamento logico. Tutto ciò senza voler inneggiare a uno scacco del pensiero: l’apertura verso un’ermeneutica del concetto di identità non intende di certo porsi come una debilitazione della ragione, né si presenta come un manifesto della sua inanità. Al contrario, nel destituire il principio di identità l’Autore pone il principio di iterazione come autentico fondamento della razionalità, un fondo iterativo che sorge proprio dalla crisi dell’identità classica e che si presenta come l’esatto contrario del dogma di un principio assoluto.


Francesco Berto, Teorie dell’assurdo, Roma, Carrocci, 2006.

Max Black, “The Identity of Indiscernibles”, Mind, vol. 61, n. 242, 1952.

Gualtero Piccinini, Physical Computation. A Mechanistic Account, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Luca Possati, La ripetizione creatrice. Melandri, Derrida e lo spazio dell’analogia, Milano, Mimesis, 2013.

Idem, L’inconsistenza del numero, Saonara, Il prato, 2017.

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Banality of Heidegger

The Banality of Heidegger Book Cover The Banality of Heidegger
Jean-Luc Nancy. Translated by Jeff Fort
Fordham University Press
Paperback $25.00

Reviewed by:  Zühtücan Soysal (Middle East Technical University)


A recent wave of Heidegger scholarship has been developing with the ongoing publication and translation of the Black Notebooks. The notebooks created an immediate controversy, so much so that Heidegger’s thought was a subject of discussion in popular Anglophone media even before the appearance of the English publication of the first volume. Planned to be published as the concluding volumes of Heidegger’s Collected Works, the notebooks are found particularly interesting in relation to their antisemitic content. The prevalent issue for many commentators and critics revolves around whether Heidegger’s apparent antisemitism is a personal engagement which would keep his philosophy sterile or whether there is an inherent antisemitism at the core of his thought, indispensable to the very notion of the truth of being. Nancy’s The Banality of Heidegger departs from this context and overreaches that basic either/or predicament by undertaking a rather post-Heideggerian reading of the notebooks. Holding on to what he thinks to be the essential resource of the Heideggerian enterprise of “reduction of naive ontology” (5),[1] Nancy puts into question what remained unthought by Heidegger and reveals the play of deconstructive and antisemitic motifs within his thought.

The Banality of Heidegger consists of 12 numbered chapters, a coda and a supplementary chapter on a passage from Anmerkungen I-V, the fourth volume of the Black Notebooks, which was published after Nancy’s book. The merits of the Heidegger-Levinas-Derrida lineage are visible throughout the book with carefully situated ambivalences and rigorously structured interpretations at the limits of the possibility of a discourse. Nancy focuses primarily on the notebooks and operates within their discourse by assuming an earlier acquaintance with Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. The first two chapters introduce the framework and lay out a few preliminary remarks.

The book does not have the author’s preface or introduction; thus, the first chapter bears the responsibility to justify the title, “the banality of Heidegger.” Nancy repeatedly notes that the fact that antisemitism is “banal” is not to be taken as something that would result in a relative indifference to the horrific moments in empirical history. It means, rather, that Heidegger’s corpus inherited some values of the dominant antisemitic discourse of its time. In fact, Heidegger’s identification of Jewishness with calculative reasoning, manipulation, historylessness, internationalism, and the will to domination is drawn from the “most banal, vulgar, trivial, and nasty discourse . . . propped up for some thirty years by the miserable publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (23).

Yet Nancy seeks the philosophical significance of what Heidegger has to say with this notorious jargon, which will go beyond the crude fact of its notoriety. To this end, before any close reading, Nancy eliminates a certain untenable—yet still widespread—interpretation in which Heidegger’s antisemitism is identified as or at least associated with a form of racism. Notwithstanding, Heidegger explicitly renounces the racial principle in the notebooks, and also in Contributions to Philosophy, because it “proceeds from a biological, naturalist, and therefore ‘metaphysical’ conception” (4). This is not to say that Heidegger did not argue about the Jews as the embodiment of a greedy vulgarization of the world (24), but to say that “Jews” in that context does not signify a racial determination. What does it signify, then? This is a question Nancy resolves by first outlining a few cardinal concepts from the broader context of the Heideggerian thought in the second chapter.

The first of those concepts is “the reduction of naive ontology” (5), a term Nancy uses with reference to Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena and equates with both Heideggerian Destruktion and Derridean deconstruction (6), which here designates the general critical stance of Heidegger and of the thinkers following the pathway opened by him—including Nancy—on traditional Western metaphysics from Ancient Greece to Hegel and beyond. Secondly, the reduction of naive ontology requires an essentially novel way of grasping metaphysics, a “second beginning” of metaphysics (6). This new beginning or the “other beginning” [Anfang] would be driven by the thoughtful scrutiny and radical questioning directed at the conceptualization of the human essence as something shared equally by the entire homogeneous bulk of humankind irrespective of how Dasein constitutively understands itself with regard to its being. Such a conception of human essence, which lies at the heart of the Western metaphysics and in particular of the Enlightenment, amounts to the uprooting of Dasein from its ecstatico-horizontal temporality (Being and Time, H. 388; pagination of the later German editions). Thirdly, the constitutive understanding of being which belongs to a “people” [Gemeinschaft], whose shared understanding implicates a shared history [Geschichte] as their shared ground. As Nancy summarizes Heidegger’s point concisely, “a people—which is not a race—can be considered as a . . . force of historial [geschichtlich] beginning” (7-8). The reciprocity among a people, history, and being has thus been established.

It has already been said that a people is not a race but a historial determination, and Nancy touches upon the purport and significance of a particular people at the beginning of the third chapter, the Jewish people, in the context of the Black Notebooks. The opening passage has this remarkable quote from Heidegger: “The question concerning the role of world Jewry is not a racial question but the metaphysical question that bears on the type of human modality which, being absolutely unbound, can undertake as a historial ‘task’ the uprooting of all beings from being” (10). Such is called “historial anti-Semitism” by Peter Trawny. Accordingly, being Jew is being in a certain human modality, which does not stipulate consanguinity or any other biological or natural circumstance. From all these, an affinity between the Jews and the “they” [das Man] as evinced in Being and Time is visible (H. 129). To be sure, Heidegger presumes that he has the right to use the word “Jews” to designate a people who are eo ipso dispersed into the “they,” that is, entrapped in their everyday, inauthentic existence in which they see the world through a scientific-historiological objectification. Yet it would be untenable to claim that “they” is just a euphemism for “Jews,” because, as the above quote shows, for Heidegger, the Jews are not only characterized by being “absolutely unbound” and thus “groundless” but also specified as those whose historial task is “the uprooting of every being” by way of calculative reasoning and machination (11), which have only been aggravated since the “first beginning” of Western metaphysics in Ancient Greek thought. In other words, Heidegger takes Jewishness to be more than an inauthentic human modality; it also indicates the task with whose accomplishment such an inauthenticity would dominate the world.

In the fourth chapter, this line of thought is furthered and one of the major questions of The Banality of Heidegger, namely, the question of how Heidegger locates the Jews with respect to the history [Geschichte] of being, or, in other words, to the destiny [Geschick] of the West, is introduced. Nancy here draws a striking parallel between the Marxist narrative and Heidegger’s account of the Jews. To begin with, Marx’s interpretation of the homogenization of labor in the form of a “general equivalent” as alienation from the proper value of the human productivity calls for a specific understanding of, and a political-spiritual stance against, a certain type of nondifferentiation (cf. Capital, 46-55). It is under the light of this portrayal that Nancy reads the Jews’ claiming for themselves the principle of “‘domination of life by machination’ . . . in the direction of a complete ‘deracialization’ (Entrassung) of a humanity reduced to the undifferentiated equality of all, and in general of all beings” (15). In a mixed discourse of Marx and Heidegger, then, the Jews would be the commodity fetishists par excellence. Moreover, a different as yet even more striking parallelism suggests that both the Jews of the Black Notebooks and the proletariat suggests “a certain eschatological and figural regime of thought: an end is approaching—an end, and therefore a beginning—and this advent requires a figure, the identification of the annihilating force” (15). This time, the Jews are the proletariat par excellence as the bearers of the task of annulling the multiplicity of peoples’ being. Therefore, with their incapability of acknowledging Dasein’s essential belongingness to a people, the Jews in the discourse of the Black Notebooks constitute the historial force which drives the West to its devastating self-alienation [Selbst-entfremdung].

In the following few chapters, Nancy expands the scope of his investigation into the designation of the Jews in the context of Geschick/Geschichte. It has been said that the Jews, with regard to their historial determination, embody the decline of the West, and Nancy shows that the historico-destinal possibility of the devastation of Western civilization is put to be the ultimate condition of its salvation, viz., of the second beginning. Indeed, Heidegger had already maintained in “Overcoming Metaphysics” that overcoming metaphysics necessitates a stage of decline, and the notebooks confirm that the Heideggerian depiction of the West resembles a phoenix; the “other beginning” is possible only after the destruction of the predecessor (19). This does not mean, nonetheless, that the historial force that has been characterized by Jewishness is to achieve complete annihilation of the West or its turning into nothingness, but means that the Western-destinal schema must harbor the epitome of “a failure to identify itself, to recognize itself, and to accept itself” (20) and thus must employ the Jewishness as a part of its ownmost destining (25).

Once the task of “destruction of the spirit of beginning” is set to belong to the West itself, the task becomes at once self-affirmation and self-destruction. By destroying itself, the West fulfills “a necessity of its destining, and it requires the destruction of its destructiveness, so as to liberate another beginning” (25). Thus, there are multiple tasks and intertwined historialities, which constitute the unique history of being. Nancy examines these interweaving historialities. This does not only put forward a framework to read Heidegger’s historial understanding of the people of the West, but it also provides Nancy with a textual margin within which a manoeuvre of radicalization would render Heidegger’s narrative to be the subject of its own questioning. While doing so, Nancy proceeds from a play of equivocalities to a relatively clear interpretation of how Heidegger positions the Jews with respect to the history of being. There are four particularly important nodes that set the ground for a deconstructive discourse within the margins of the Black Notebooks.

The first of those nodes is the “first beginning,” i.e., the Ancient Greek thinking. “The West bears within itself a fatality [Verhängnis]” (19), which is inscribed by the destining of being in the “first beginning” (30). That is to say, the self-detestation of the West was not alien to Ancient Greek thought, as if imposed by the Jews as an external force, but to the contrary was inaugurated by it. “[The] erosion began with Plato . . . [who] is not Jewish” (33), and it is not by accident but as a necessity that the initial unveiling (ἀ-λήθεια) stipulates the subsequent decline. Nancy states that investigating this necessity falls outside the scope of the book, except just once he gives a hint: “Thus have we learnt that the unveiling is always initial, but also that it was necessary that the veiling come along to show this to us” (53-4). Then, given that “Jewishness” is inscribed within Ancient Greek thought, one questions Heidegger’s choice of the “Jews” as the leading agent of modern devastation. The answer will be given in the second nodal point of the discourse, which is Christianity.

Heidegger’s account of Christianity displays a double character. On the one hand, he reduces Christendom to the Jews and sees the former as an extension or as the twin of the latter. It is not so seldom that Heidegger arrives at Christianity as the roots of an idea by way of a rigorous and elaborate investigation, then jumps to Judaism by simply stating that Christianity is issued from Judaism (cf. 69). Bringing Christianity and Judaism together results in nothing but the calcification of the status of the Jews as the principal agent of the devastation of the West in Heidegger’s discourse, because Christianity in this way is seen as the Roman appropriation of the Jewish groundlessness and nothing more. By insistently avoiding any interest in questioning this “self-evident” caricature and by submitting to a violent and hateful depiction of the Jews, Heidegger joins the banality and vulgarity of the antisemitism of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion without a question, which is also why he feels no discomfort at labeling the entire tradition of the forgetting of being as “Jewish.” On the other hand, Heidegger’s narrative is shown by Nancy to exhibit an affinity with Christianity insofar as Christianity itself is antisemitic. From this perspective, Christendom is the first to renounce the groundlessness in Judaism by claiming for itself an identity which is detached from the Jews. However that identity is rooted in the Jewish convictions, its historial legacy fosters antisemitism, which Heidegger eagerly adopted (34-5). On the whole, Christianity as a historico-destinal human modality stands in contradistinction to itself, and thus becomes the true heir of the West’s self-rejection.

Thirdly, there is Jewishness, whose portrayal by Heidegger is already the main thematic of The Banality of Heidegger. To sum up, there are three aspects to Jewishness in Heidegger’s understanding. First, the Jews are inherently bound with technics and machination, and thereby epitomize the primary historial force that leads to the devastation of the West. In this respect, the Jews are thoroughly repudiated by the destining of being. However, for this exact reason, secondly, they appear as an indispensable part of the history of the West and hence of its second beginning. In this respect, the Jews are included as a cardinal part of the Western destiny. And thirdly, by being a people whose historial task is the dissolution of all peoples into a non-differentiated array of calculable atoms, that is, by being self-destructors per se, they represent the grounding possibility of the Western beginning in general. As Nancy confirms, “the Jew is the oldest figure of a self-destruction of the West” (30), and in this respect, the Jews’ historico-destinal standing is elevated, although in the form of a “detestable exception . . . of a foreign intrusion” (28). Thus, repudiation, inclusion and elevation frame the constitutive aporia of Jewishness.

Finally, Nazism. In the notebooks, Heidegger states that “[o]nly someone who is German can in an originarily new way poetize being and say being—he alone will conquer anew the essence of θεωρία and finally create logic” (Ponderings II-VI, 21). Here and in many other places, for example, in Being and Truth and in “Europe and German Philosophy”, the Germans appear as the “spiritual nucleus” of the West. Accordingly, the Germans are the rightful bearers of the task to undertake the second beginning. Notwithstanding, by the very fact that they are the nucleus of the West, they carry within themselves the self-annihilating force, which led to the self-betrayal of Germans with the thoughtlessness of the Nazi regime (8, 71), so much so that through the end of 1941 Heidegger even considered the possibility of a non-German “new beginning” that might arise out of Russian authenticity as opposed to communism (7-8). It is important here to clarify that for Heidegger, the horror of Nazism is not related to a moral, political, or sociological account of the extermination camps but has always been “the extreme destinal point of technics” and machination (40). For this matter, the Nazi regime, for Heidegger, indulged in the ultimate German hypocrisy, as it were, by taking as its principle the domination of the masses despite the Greek legacy of authentic thought. It is ontically the closest to the possibility of the second beginning, that is, by being German, yet ontologically maybe the farthest.

Nancy’s investigation into the historial-political discourse of the Heidegger of the Black Notebooks does not employ the schematic description outlined here. The four textual nodes of tension, namely, the first beginning, Christianity, Jewishness, and Nazism, are rather to be taken as the outcome of an effort to structurize the unsystematic unfolding of The Banality of Heidegger. Furthermore, they are neither the consecutive stages in a continual history nor the moments of a dialectic movement. They rather designate a set of non-sequential yet in a way interrelated encounters of the peoples with the historial possibility they open.

World War II is seen from this perspective as the Jews’ “simultaneous combat against its counterpart (the Nazi racial principal) and against itself [Bolshevism]” (50). Thus, Nazi thoughtlessness is seen to be the counterpart of the Jewish groundlessness. While Jewishness dictates metacultural neutrality, Nazism dictates its extreme opposite: the racial principle. “This struggle—at once Jewish/Nazi and Bolshevik/American—determines ‘the high point of self-annihilation [Selbstvernichtung] in history’” (69). Yet “at the height of devastation ‘there continues to shine [and is therefore undestroyed] the light of a history capable of decision’” (21; Nancy’s insertion). In other words, neither the Nazi betrayal nor the overarching ravage of the war, which, in the eyes of Heidegger, is nothing but the domination of the technical calculating machination, then, does eliminate the possibility of the second beginning. Accordingly, there remains an untouched authenticity within the West, not in the sense of a self-subsistent spirit but as a necessity of the overflowing of being, which ultimately grounds the possibility of all forgetting and concealment, and thus of all machination and also the war itself (cf. 30). Apparently, Heidegger locates his own discourse within this authentic Germanness, whose victory over the historyless can only arrive through the self-destruction of the agent of the Western destruction. Depending on this, Nancy concludes that “Heidegger was not only anti-Semitic: he attempted to think to its final extremity a deep historico-destinal necessity of anti-Semitism” (51-2).

The historial, non-racial antisemitism of Heidegger stems from the banality of Heidegger, which puts the Heideggerian discourse on the Jews in contradistinction to itself, and this is where Nancy extends his reading towards questioning the unthought of Heidegger. The demonstration is spread throughout the book, but is condensed in the final chapters. One facet of the banality of Heidegger has already been mentioned, in that, Heidegger’s antisemitism “carts around the vulgarity spread by an incessant discourse crystallized as hateful, racist denunciation” (71). In other words, Heidegger adopts the antisemitic vocabulary of his time, a time which is shaped by the mass propaganda of the antisemitic discourse. If one prefers the rhetoric of Being and Time, the vocabulary that Heidegger so blatantly adopts is the “public” [Öffentlich] vocabulary of the “they” (cf. H. 126-7). Therefore, to the extent that Heidegger remains reluctant to question what is ordinarily self-evident, i.e., a deep-rooted antisemitism, his narrative rivets the “long error and/or wandering of the West” (30). And yet if one prefers rewording this finding in the rhetoric of the Black Notebooks, it would be Heidegger’s own “thoughtlessness” to assume the antisemitism of the tradition.

There is another facet of Heidegger’s banality, and that is more deeply entangled with the core of the Heideggerian enterprise. Nancy quotes Elisabeth Rigal to summarize the issue: “Heidegger’s error is to have believed in a unique destining” (42). To explain, despite its difference from the traditional understanding of history as the succession of happenings [Historie], Heidegger’s understanding of history as destining of being inherits the idea of “origin” from the tradition. Thus, having a proper, authentic, delineable and determinable origin, viz., Ancient Greek thought, which is also free from the “darkening of the world” (69), the entire history is perceived with reference to that origin and to everything inscribed within it, that is, decline, second beginning, etc. Hence, the multiplicity of peoples is—not melted into or sublated by but—conglomerated into one single heterogeneous play of forces revolving around the first beginning towards the second beginning upon the unique destining of being (41-2). Having related the concept “origin” to the “uniqueness of destining,” Nancy claims that this obsession with the origin is the “metaphysical” obsession par excellence, which led Heidegger into his own way of self-hatred (47), which is in general the peculiarity of Western metaphysics. Therefore, what is obstructed [verstellt] in the discourse of Heidegger is the possibility of a wholly other destining, which would entail the acknowledgement of, if not respect for, the Jews as a people towards an other destiny than what Heidegger thinks to be the singular one.

However, these do not mean that the Destruktion of ontology, as an attempt to destabilize that which is ordinarily self-evident, has to operate within a self-annihilating banality. As for the first facet of the banality of Heidegger, Nancy points out that the Heideggerian impetus has resulted in the flourishing of many philosophical pathways, such as that of Levinas, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, which did not “pick up anything remotely resembling anti-Semitism from the always murmuring gutters of banality” (47). As for the second facet, Nancy considers Heidegger’s thought not as a static doctrine but as a way of questioning which is open to transformation. Thus, he still has the hope that the currently unpublished volumes of the Black Notebooks may harbor a transformation in Heidegger’s understanding of “beginning” (38). Furthermore, Nancy also thinks that Heidegger’s thought already implies the Destruktion of the “rage for the initial or for the archi-” even though that rage is one of the main tenets that shape how Heidegger considers historiality; accordingly, it would still be “thinking” [Denken] even if the uniqueness of destining is questioned (43).

On the whole, by way of deconstructive plays with the intertwined textual tensions in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, Nancy’s reading demonstrates that Heidegger’s unthought partakes in the antisemitism which has been a constitutive element of the discourse of Western thought since the early days of Christianity. Identification of the Jewish people with the “thoughtless will to domination” is the persistent characterization on which the entire antagonism is built in the Black Notebooks. Nevertheless, it must also be noted that Heidegger’s antisemitism does not stem from the racial principle of Nazism; it rather takes its departure from the concept of the destining of being, according to which, as Nancy’s reading shows, Nazism is the German counterpart of “Jewishness,” both serving to the spiritual decline of the West. While Nancy examines the antisemitic character of the Black Notebooks, he in no way disregards the fact that Heidegger is one of the leading figures—and indeed he states Heidegger’s “operation was the most frontal” (12)—of contemporary thought. All in all, Nancy does not only think that the Destruktion of ontology can operate without the antisemitic elements in Heidegger’s thought, but also demonstrates that the Heideggerian legacy paves the way for the deconstruction of those very elements.


Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Harper & Row, 1962.

———. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Trans. Richard Rojcewicz. Indiana UP, 2016.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Vol. 1. Trans. Samuel Moore. Wordsworth, 2013.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Banality of Heidegger. Trans. Jeff Fort. Fordham UP, 2017.

[1] All page references are to The Banality of Heidegger unless stated otherwise.

Hans-Georg Gadamer: Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Works of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I

Hermeneutics between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I Book Cover Hermeneutics between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer: Volume I
The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer
Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer
Hardcover $207.00

Reviewed by: Christopher Noble (Villanova University)

Hermeneutics Between History and Philosophy: The Selected Writings of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Volume 1, edited and translated by Pol Vandevelde and Arun Iyer, collects eighteen essays by Gadamer on the topic of the philosophy of history. Of these sixteen essays, two have previously appeared in English (“Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person,” Gadamer 2000; “Hermeneutics on the Trail,” Gadamer 2007). This volume on the philosophy of history is the first of a projected three of Gadamer’s selected works, and will be followed by volumes on ethics and aesthetics. By providing these materials in English translation, the editors aim to contribute to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophy and its evolution, as well as provide new context through which to understand his views:

“When it comes to a major philosopher like Gadamer a strong case can be made that scholars need to have all available essays in order to assess the different components of the philosopher’s theses, to measure the evolution of his thought through time, and to grasp all the intricacies of his views in the different contexts of their application. This is the aim of this edition.” (viii)

Note that this project is not meant to collect Gadamer’s most significant works on the philosophy of history. Rather, it supplements what is currently available in other locations in English. It also excludes short speeches and book reviews, as well as essays the editors deem not to add anything of philosophical significance to what is already available. This project is commendable, and although Gadamer develops many of the themes of this volume in books and essays already available in English, it constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, and more broadly, the overall nature, context, and development of German philosophy in the twentieth-century. This volume should therefore be of interest to readers of Gadamer, continental philosophy more generally, and indeed anyone concerned with the relation between philosophy and its history.

Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, which involves a vision of human life as continuously interpreting the world, attempts to show that thought and language bear an essential relation to the past. For Gadamer, what we are able to think and the questions that we are able to ask in the present emerge on the basis of historical tradition. Famously, in his magnum opus Truth and Method [Wahrheit und Methode], first published in 1960, Gadamer sought to rehabilitate the notion of “prejudice” [Vorurteil] that he thought had been unfairly maligned as a result of the Enlightenment rejection of external authority (Gadamer 2004, 268-83). Although Gadamer does not think that we should uncritically accept the judgments and ideas that have been handed down to us by tradition, he maintains that the judgments that we find pre-given as part of our cultural heritage and experience provide the positive basis for our intellectual horizons in the present. On this view, philosophy unfolds as a dialogue with the past, where we both uncover and interpret what is implicit in how we already think about the world, and in which we take up and renew what still speaks to us from across temporal distance.

From the standpoint of the historiography of philosophy, Gadamer’s position thus carves a path between approaches to philosophical history that see themselves as working to understand the past on its own terms without reference to present day philosophical concerns, and those approaches that mine the history of philosophy for arguments and solutions that can provide insight into contemporary problems without taking into account the historical genesis of these philosophical problems themselves. From a Gadamerian perspective, both of these types of approach sever the living connection between the philosophical past and the present at the heart of any genuine philosophical project. For Gadamer, the history of philosophy should not only be the province of self-described historians of philosophy; rather, every working philosopher is responding to philosophical tradition, whether they realize it or not.

The essays collected in this volume span the years of 1964-94, the period after the 1960 publication of Truth and Method, and thus represent a period in he was recognized as a major philosophical voice both in Germany and internationally. Many of the essays develop and explicate themes from Truth and Method, as well as provide Gadamer space to reflect upon his own philosophical development. Most prominently in this latter regard, ample space is given to the respective roles of Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger (Gadamer’s teacher in the 1920s, and whose reputation Gadamer helped restore in the post-World War II period) in the development of Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. Whereas Dilthey’s historicism, philosophy of life, and hermeneutics played a major role in shaping the “hermeneutical situation” of Gadamer’s youth, Heidegger’s influence lent shape to Gadamer’s views of language, scientific objectivity and the role that the history of philosophy plays in determining our philosophical horizons.

The editors divide the volume into four parts. Part one includes six essays covering the general topic of history, and develop Gadamer’s distinctive notion of human life as “historically affected.” Part two features three essays on Dilthey’s historicist philosophy of life, and how Gadamer viewed it as an impetus for his own philosophical hermeneutics. The third part collects five essays on the works of European philosophers and intellectuals including Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida. The material on Bourdieu, Habermas, and Derrida is particularly illuminating as it presents Gadamer’s responses to contemporaries, each of whom, in their own way, represent direct challenges to Gadamer’s phenomenological, linguistic, and hermeneutical positions. Part Four includes four essays on Heidegger from the mid-1980s, consisting of reminiscences of Gadamer’s experiences as a student of Heidegger, Gadamer’s interpretation of Heidegger’s so-called Kehre as a “return” [“Ruck-kehre”], and his account of Heidegger’s interpretations of ancient Greek philosophy. In light of the recent revival of controversy over Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism, spurred by the publication of the Black Notebooks (Heidegger 2014/2016), it may be of note that these essays give little insight into Gadamer’s knowledge of, or perspective on, Heidegger’s political engagements (Gadamer himself worked to maintain distance and intellectual independence from the National Socialist regime. See Grondin 2003, 150-230). Perhaps an editors’ note with clarification, or that points the reader to independent discussion of these issues would have been of use.

In addition to translating Gadamer’s essays, the editors contribute a preface and introduction, as well as notes and glossaries of German, Latin, and Greek expressions used by Gadamer. The preface introduces the contents of the volume and characterizes Gadamer’s philosophical and rhetorical style. The introduction provides a general introduction to Gadamer’s philosophical project, focusing on the role of history within it. In addition to treating Gadamerian themes including interpretation, dialogue, the speaking voice, and philosophical praxis, the introduction examines Gadamer’s philosophical influences and interlocutors such as Plato, Aristotle, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida. This reader found especially helpful the editors’ account of how Gadamer’s philosophy of history relates to his philosophy of language.

In approaching this volume, I have adopted the perspective of a historian of philosophy concerned with the methodological question of how to understand the relation between the philosophical past and present. For this reason, as well as in the interest of space, the review will focus more on Gadamer’s philosophy of history, and less on the details of Gadamer’s interpretations of other philosophers that are found in this volume. This philosophy of history is directly developed in the first part of the volume. These essays include reflections on themes including historical causality, the relation between historicity and truth, the relation between human history and the natural history of the universe, what it would mean to try to separate oneself from all history, the meaning of the terms “old” and “new”, and death. Together, they provide an overarching account of Gadamer’s understanding of human life as embedded within history.

In the first essay, “Is there a Causality in History?” (1964), Gadamer argues that history is a network of events that determines our lives and that can never be reduced to a “causal analysis.” Neither naturalistic explanation in the form of efficient causality, nor a Kantian analysis of historical causality as the realm of human freedom, can capture the way that history determines human life and possibilities:

“Investigating the deeper reasons for the historical course of things is absolutely not an attempt at a ‘causal’ explanation, which would only ask for the causa efficiens. When we discern historical connections, we have not discovered a web of causal factors – of nature and freedom – whose threads we isolate only to be able to get our hands on them for the future – history never repeats itself. It is precisely in this that the reality of history consists: to be and to determine us, without ever being able to be mastered through a causal analysis.” (12)

We are embedded within history, and can never extricate ourselves from it such that we can provide an exhaustive causal account of the past and future. For Gadamer, the hermeneutic task becomes understanding that the past constrains our possibilities for action while remaining open to the contingencies of the future.

The second essay, “Historicity and Truth”, from 1991, concerns itself with the question of historical relativism. Against the view that the truth-claims found in history are relative to their times and places, Gadamer argues that this belief assumes a notion of objective knowledge as that which aims to control and master. Under this regime, we would reduce truth-claims to their specific position within history, thereby eliminating their capacity to attain a form of truth that transcends mere circumstance. If we resist this assumption, not only can we treat past philosophers as potential interlocutors, but we can understand how their ideas are capable of attaining universal application with respect to the understanding of human life and its possibilities:

“Objectivity means objectification. It signifies a constricting prejudice everywhere in that realm where breaking resistance and achieving control are not actually paramount, but rather being together and participating in the hermeneutic universe in which we live with one another. In this regard, I could show how Platonism, in addition to Aristotelianism, makes itself repeatedly relevant for the exegesis of Christian mystery and, altogether, how in the time of the enlightenment the pronouncements of art reach deep into the life of individuals and peoples, beyond all historical distances and differences as well as beyond practical and political decisions.” (23)

For Gadamer, the relevance of history and historical knowledge lies in the way that ideas may continue to speak to us across time. In taking up old ideas, we may of course translate them in applying them to our own contexts. However, this mode of application is not a distortion of the original idea; rather, it reveals what was true and therefore universal within it.

In the third essay, “The History of the Universe and the History of Things,” written in 1998, Gadamer argues that human history represents a sphere distinct from the progression of natural events or facts. Gadamer distinguishes between what he calls the “history of the universe” and “the history of the world”:

“Obviously, there also belongs to the history of the universe the question as to when humanity first appeared on this planet, which we call the Earth, and how the human species evolved – and perhaps also whether and when to expect the extinction of this species. Human beings would then be recorded like key fossils in a chapter of the history of the universe. Yet, this historical past, which we awaken through what monuments and tradition give us as hints, means something else. ‘World history’ is not a phase in the history of the universe, but is a whole in its own right. It is not primarily through the so-called ‘facts’, which can be established in objective research with the methods of the natural sciences, that we have a knowledge of this history that we call world history.” (30)

Although the history of the human world unfolds within the temporal arc of natural history of the universe, and its components can be analyzed as facts from the perspective of universal history, qua features of the history of the human world, they are not reducible to natural facts. Unlike the fossilized remains of natural history, that which belongs to the history of the human world is, for Gadamer, what is retained in living memory in the form of monuments and traditions. This history is that which provides significance for our lives, as well as what gives us an inkling of our specifically human possibilities in the future.

Whereas the “history of the universe” is the object of the natural sciences [Naturwissenschaften], the “history of the world” is the domain of the human sciences. Gadamer argues that we do not know the truths pertaining to the human sciences with certitude or in an objective manner. Rather, the human sciences such as philosophy, anthropology, or art history, participate in the very cultural practices that they study, helping to open up new human possibilities through their modes of reflection:

“Human sciences rather belong to orders that constantly configure and reconfigure themselves through our own concrete participation in them and thereby contribute to our knowledge about the human possibilities and normative commonalities that affect us […] There are no certainties here like the guarantees of the theoretical and ‘scientific’ kind and here we always need to consider the other side – not only what we have in mind, but also what others think.” (41)

One upshot of all of this, for Gadamer, is that the human sciences have an important role to play in moving our multicultural, global world into the future. Not only do the human sciences have the potential to create dialogue between disparate groups around the world, but Gadamer maintains that they have a further potential to help resist the global domination of technology insofar as they eschew objectifying forms of knowledge:

“In our pluralistic world, the other also includes foreign cultures and distant inhabitants of this earth. We will have to learn all this more and more in the future. Our human goal cannot be to use a technological civilization in order to stifle everything that has been handed out to us or to others and has shaped us all in the forms our life has taken. Only when we put the capacities of understanding and mutual acceptance to use in the new tasks that bring and hold the world in equilibrium, will we be able to create new forms of organization. Of all the sciences, it is especially the so-called human sciences that contribute the most to the nurturing of these capacities. They force us to confront constantly in all its richness the entire scale of what is human and all too human.” (41)

The fourth essay, a lecture given in 1969 entitled “A World without History?”, defends the importance of the art of reading and specifically historical knowledge against what Gadamer characterizes as “the omnipresence of a constant flood of information” (48) in the modern world. Together with the view that all knowledge should be modeled on the knowledge proper to the natural sciences, Gadamer suggests that this flow of information from the media threatens to produce thoughtless conformity and manufactured opinion. Within this situation, Gadamer advocates for a recognition of the importance of playful reading and historical knowledge. Here, Gadamer is less concerned with history in the sense of the objective facts of what took place at what time, and more with what is handed down in the living memory of the past:

“Without knowledge and without reflecting on our own proper possibilities, there is for us no future. However, this means, not without history. History does not mean an evasion into the past, but is a memoria vitae, a memory of life, as Cicero calls historiography. History, the world of history, is not a second world of the past alongside the natural world that surrounds us. History is a completely inexhaustible system of all the worlds that are out there, which are closer to us than the nearby satellite orbiting our earth. For, history is the world of human beings. To study history is to keep open the entire range of what it means to be human. Thanks to history we are not confined to what we know or think by ourselves. History describes all our possibilities. As for what kind of future we will have, it will depend on how broadly we preserve and increase the heritage of the historical tradition from which we all originate and which unifies us all more and more.” (49)

Within the context of the social criticism of this essay, we recognize the larger significance, for Gadamer, of history for human life. Beings historically affected means that there is no gap between the historical world of the past and our world in the present. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of information threatens to cut us off from this living history, trapping us in the present and constraining our ability to genuinely think. Thus, Gadamer fears that a “world without history” is a world in which human beings are servile and manipulable.

The fifth essay, “The Old and the New” (1981), presents a phenomenological analysis of the categories of the “old” and the “new.” Here Gadamer argues that, in a strict sense, the “old” is that which appears as so familiar as to be irrelevant. We may indeed become interested in things that are “old” in the sense of being from the past, but insofar as we do, we have discovered new possibilities for their application, thereby making them “new” again.

“‘Always after the new.’ The expression betrays us: it is not the old and the new that are up for choice, but this or that, what promises something and because it promises something. It can also be something old. It is in fact never the choice between the old and the new. The old is never up for choice as something old. To the extent that it is old, it has reached the obviousness of what is familiar. Only in light of new possibilities can it be put up for choice at all as a counterpossibility and elicit our attention.” (54)

Gadamer then takes occasion to reflect upon our phenomenological experience of time, which is split between the dimensions of the past, present, and future. What is truly past or old, is what is no longer possible. The future, by contrast, Gadamer conceives of as that which stands before us, and in this sense may include “past” possibilities that have been made new:

“This is precisely the experience that time is for us: its two dimensions, future and past, are never the present. However, this means that they do not stand in front of us like two equal possibilities. One is the possible, the past is well and truly gone. Even a god cannot make unhappen what has happened. What stands before us [was vor uns steht] is what may await us [was uns bevorstehen mag]. Even when it is something well-known that awaits us, it is no longer what is usual and known, but appears in a new light.” (54)

For Gadamer, the category of the “new” — as that which awaits for us in the future — will always include elements of the [temporal] past for which we have found new applications and possibilities.

The final essay of the first part, a philosophical reflection upon death from 1975 entitled “Death as a Question”, presents a formulation of the philosophical activity that connects it to tradition. For Gadamer, the universality of hermeneutics means that we are always interpreting ourselves and our world. In this sense, philosophy becomes a knowledge of the already known, which Gadamer associates with the Platonic theory of recollection or anamnēsis:

“These are questions to which philosophy must devote itself in its own way because the task of philosophy is to want to know what we know without knowing that we know it. This is a precise definition of what philosophy is and an [164] apt description of what Plato first recognized: the knowledge with which we are dealing here, anamnēsis, is a bringing out of the interior and a raising to consciousness. Let us, thus, ask what one knows without knowing it when one knows about death. What does the philosophical tradition we inhabit have to say about it? Should we also ask about these attempts at thinking whether they are attempts to know or whether they are yet again ways of not wanting to know what we know?” (62)

Insofar as human life and philosophizing is embedded within history, Gadamer argues that philosophical reflection is one of recollection. Specifically, we are attempting to make present to ourselves that which, by virtue of the traditions in which we stand, we have always already known.

From a review of the philosophy of history sketched in Part 1, we learn that, for Gadamer, human life is embedded within history, which provides the horizon of our future possibilities. Not only is our human history distinct from the natural history of the universe, but we cannot avoid the way that it determines and constrains what is possible for us. The hermeneutical task becomes one of surveying the past, [re]-discovering that which continues to speak to us across time, and making it new again in applying it to the present.

If this is Gadamer’s general view of the place and role of history in human life, in the remainder of this review, I wish to apply this philosophy of history to the particular view of the history of philosophy that Gadamer presents in this volume. In so doing, I aim to test the limits of Gadamer’s account in order to pose the question of whether or not present-day readers should take up Gadamer’s hermeneutics as part of the “philosophical new,” or if they ought to, rather, consign it to a place in the history of philosophy with the “philosophical old.”

As is clear in this volume, and especially in the essays on Heidegger in part four, Gadamer himself understood his own philosophy as part of a larger Western/European tradition stretching back to Greek antiquity. For Gadamer, this Greek beginning of philosophy, and its subsequent effects, enable us to form a principled distinction between philosophy as it has been practiced in Europe and the Western world more broadly, and what we might think of, for instance, under the rubric of “Eastern philosophy.” As Gadamer describes the Heideggerian theme of the “end of philosophy” in the lecture “On the Beginning of Thought” in 1986:

“When Heidegger speaks of the end of philosophy, we immediately understand that we can only talk like this from the Western perspective. Elsewhere, there was no philosophy that set itself apart so much from poetry or religion or science, neither in East Asia nor in India nor in the unknown parts of the earth. ‘Philosophy’ is an expression of the trajectory of Western destiny. To speak with Heidegger: it is a destiny of being that has in fact become our destiny. The civilization of today, as it appears, finds its fulfilment in this destiny.” (229-30)

Following the “history of being” traced by Heidegger, the Greek beginning of philosophy is decisive insofar as its echoes shape the subsequent development of Western thinking. In Gadamer’s view, philosophical thinking as it descends from Greece self-consciously differentiates itself from religion. Further, philosophy aims for theoretical knowledge of nature, and as becomes evident in the Modern period and its separation of philosophy from the natural sciences, it attempts to produce methodological justification for the epistemic activity carried out in the natural sciences. These features of Greek-inspired Western philosophy may be found in such historical instances as the codification of Greek metaphysics in the Latin tradition, the emergence of Cartesian subjectivity and method in the seventeenth-century, the Kantian critique of metaphysics, the great philosophical systems of German idealism, and the ongoing technological domination of the natural world. Thus, Gadamer does seem to affirm a distinction between philosophy as a specifically “Western” intellectual tradition and forms of intellectual activity carried out in other coordinates in the human world:

“When we hear about the end of philosophy, we understand it from such a situation. We realize that the separation between religion, art, and philosophy, and perhaps even the separation between science and philosophy, are not originally common to all cultures, but precisely shaped the particular history of the Western world. One can ask oneself what kind of destiny this is. Where does it come from? How is it that technology could develop into such an autonomous force of necessity that it has become the hallmark of human culture nowadays? When we question in this manner, Heidegger’s surprising and apparently paradoxical thesis suddenly appears to be disturbingly plausible: it is Greek science and metaphysics, whose effects in today’s global civilization dominate our present.” (230)

On the basis of this account of the history of philosophy, it becomes natural to identify the philosophical task as one of interpreting and making explicit one’s own philosophical heritage. Indeed, we have seen that this task corresponds to Gadamer’s own philosophy of history as outlined in Part 1 of this volume: only by these means can one understand the linguistic and conceptual influences that shape one’s philosophical horizons, and indeed thereby have any hope of breaking free or of thinking something genuinely new.

However, what if one does not identify with this particular tradition of philosophy? Or, for that matter, what if one rejects the particular Gadamerian narrative of the history of philosophy? On this score, readers may be skeptical, for instance, of the distinction that Gadamer, following Heidegger, draws between “philosophy” [i.e. “Western philosophy”] and the rich traditions of metaphysical, ethical, and social-political thinking found in other parts of the human world. Though this distinction is drawn on the basis of a substantive claim regarding the existence of a distinct tradition of philosophical thinking originating in Classical Greek antiquity, one may contest the historical, linguistic, or theoretical continuity and integrity of such a tradition as set apart from the rest of global intellectual history. Further, if we assume its existence, we may worry that reserving the name “philosophy” for it alone might permit philosophers to disregard the contributions of thinkers from other parts of the world, insofar as those not in dialogue with the Western tradition were, by definition, not engaging in “philosophy.”

For readers skeptical on these grounds, the measure of Gadamer’s continuing philosophical relevance or “newness” may well be the degree to which one is willing to separate Gadamer’s broader philosophy of history from the history of philosophy as he himself conceived of it. Indeed, in Gadamer’s defense, one could imagine him replying that all genuine human questioning unfolds upon the backdrop of some tradition, and that it would therefore be a mistake to reject this insight and its consequences as a result of a disagreement over the facts of philosophical history. In any case, he would very likely agree that the task of delineating the true scope, meaning, nature of philosophy is one that must be continuously renewed, not least in the course of interacting with those from outside of the particular traditions one may call home.

As this volume of essays on Gadamer’s philosophy of history makes clear, the significance of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for us today is dependent upon our willingness and ability to apply it within our own philosophical situation and questions. In this regard, I could not escape the impression that the editors could have done more to provide guidance regarding how Gadamer’s hermeneutics could productively contribute to ongoing philosophical projects. Though they indicate, for instance, Gadamer’s critical relationship with Derridean deconstruction (xviii-xix), or that the philosopher John McDowell has acknowledged a Gadamerian inspiration present in his 1994 book Mind and World (xiii), are there more recent, active philosophical projects that are being carried out in what we might think of as a Gadamerian spirit? Does Gadamer’s critique of the objectivizing methodology of the natural sciences hit its mark, or may he find sympathetic ears in contemporary post-positivist practitioners of the philosophy of science? In this reviewer’s view, areas in which Gadamer’s philosophy of history may prove relevant and fruitful include methodological discussions in philosophical historiography (e.g. Catana 2008, 299-304), and comparative philosophy aiming for cross-cultural dialogue (Berger et al. 2017). In light of Gadamer’s insistence that philosophical truth emerges in the application of ideas from the history of philosophy to the present, the editors may have missed an opportunity to test Gadamer’s applicability today and lend further support to the continuing relevance of his philosophical hermeneutics.


Berger, Douglas L., Hans-Georg Moeller, A. Raghuramaraju, and Paul A. Roth. 2017. “Symposium: Does Cross-Cultural Philosophy Stand in Need of a Hermeneutic Expansion?” Journal of World Philosophies 2: 121–43.
Catana, Leo. 2008. The Historiographical Concept “System of Philosophy”: Its Origin, Nature, Influence and Legitimacy. Leiden: Brill.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2000. “Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity, Subject and Person.” Translated by Peter Adamson and David Vessey. Continental Philosophy Review 33: 275–87.
———. 2004. Truth and Method. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. 2nd, Revised Edition ed. London; New York: Continuum.
———. 2007. “Hermeneutics Tracking the Trace [On Derrida].” In The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings, edited by Richard E. Palmer, 372–406. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Grondin, Jean. 2003. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 2014. Uberlegungen II-VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931-1938). Edited by Peter Trawny. Martin Heidegger Gesamtausgabe 94. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.
———. 2016. Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Ronald C. Arnett: Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics

Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics Book Cover Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics
Ronald C. Arnett. Foreword by Algis Mickunas
Southern Illinois University Press
Paperback $40.00

Reviewed by: Simon Thornton (University of Essex)

Any attempt to practically apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy within the domain of normative or applied ethics is bound to be controversial. In considering recent attempts to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to the fields of nursing and psychology, for instance, Diane Perpich has argued that it is a mistake to think that Levinas’s philosophy can be read as a ‘constructive ethics that offers ethical norms that can be put to work in care-giving professions’ (Perpich 2012: 128): Levinas’s ethics, Perpich continues, ‘is not a defence of our inherently ethical nature nor a guarantee of our ethical responsibility’ (Perpich 2012: 128), rather what one finds in Levinas’s philosophy, above all, is a painstaking attempt to excavate the ‘constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life’ (Perpich 2012: 128). That is, while the resonant – if often baroque – terminology employed by Levinas may seem eminently relatable to certain clinical settings, the metaphysical complexities and phenomenological ambiguities lying behind this terminology precludes any straightforward practical application. On first blush, then, the conception of Ronald C. Arnett’s Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics, which sets out to find ‘practical application of Levinas’s work…in explicating communication ethics’ (Arnett 2017: 4), is apt to invite considerable suspicion from Levinasians.

Yet, there are two reasons why such suspicion may be misplaced. Firstly, while some construals of communication ethics may aim at providing a constructive ethics composed of ethical norms for communication, construed more broadly communication ethics concerns the study of ‘communication phenomena from the standpoint of ethics and morality’ (Cheney et al. 2011: 1). And it is evident even from a cursory reading of Levinas’s key works, Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974), that Levinas himself was centrally concerned with the ethical significance of language and interpersonal communication. So the practical application of Levinas’s work in explicating communication ethics initially looks to be a more natural fit than those attempts to apply Levinas’s ethics to other practical domains isolated for criticism by Perpich. Secondly, the central insight Arnett that hopes to import from Levinas to the field of communication ethics is that ‘our responsibility to and for the Other has no demarcation or conclusion’ (Arnett 2017: 1). That is to say, for Arnett, ‘communication ethics from a Levinasian perspective admits the challenge, ambiguity, and necessity of learning in the performative enactment of responsibility’ (Arnett 2017: 2). Thus, what Arnett’s study promises to provide is an attempt to apply Levinasian insights concerning the constitutive uncertainty and fragility of ethical life to the domain of communication ethics. And, in this respect, Arnett’s study initially looks to be consonant with Perpich’s claim that ‘if practical professions are to make anything practical of Levinas’s thought, it is this fragility and vulnerability that must arguably become central to their self-understanding and to their appropriation of texts like Totality and Infinity’ (Perpich 2012: 129).

Importantly, then, the conception of Arnett’s study looks to be philosophically fruitful, in that it proposes a plausible application of Levinas’s ethics to a relevant practical domain, and exegetically sensitive, in that it resists the temptation to derive a system of norms from Levinas’s ethics and instead focuses on the uncertainty and fragility of ethical life emphasised by Levinas. However, in terms of its execution, Arnett faces some not inconsiderable difficulties: Centrally, we might wonder what, if anything, Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life can offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? On the one hand, to attempt to derive any practical guidance from such Levinasian insights risks descending into vague, pious exhortation. Yet, on the other hand, to refrain from proposing any direct practical applications of Levinas’s ethics within the domain of communication risks exposing the limited utility of a Levinasian perspective for explicating communication ethics, and, thus, the limited interest of Arnett’s study as a whole. Does Arnett manage to avoid these two risks in the execution of his study?

The book begins with a foreword by Algis Mickunas comprised of ‘a brief introduction to the main trends in Russian literature and aspects of phenomenology, relevant to understanding Levinas’s encounter with “the other”’ (Arnett 2017: vii). Presumably, the aim of the foreword, then, is to provide orientation for readers new to Levinas to his complex and involved path of thinking. As such, however, while not without interest, Mickunas’s strategy is curious and provocative. The majority of the discussion is devoted to developing the provocative claim that Russian literature, which Levinas often emphasised as being a formative influence on his thinking, occupies a ‘point of crisis’ between two worlds – the industrial, enlightened West and the spiritualized and provincial East.[1] Mickunas claims that it is from this point of crisis that a vantage point opens up within Russian literature whereby the comparative worth of these respective life-worlds is adjudicated by a third factor – namely, intrinsic human worth. Thus, Mickunas appears to be suggesting that Levinas’s philosophical focus on the pre-cultural ethical significance of the Other germinated in his readings of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. Both aspects of Mickunas’s argument – concerning the spiritual impetus of Russian literature and its effect on Levinas’s thinking – are contestable. But for the purposes of this review, the important point is whether this discussion provides a helpful and illuminating way in to Levinas’s thought. And it seems to me that it does not. This worry is only compounded by Mickunas’s comparatively brief and rather curious discussion of the ‘phenomenological issues’ at stake in Levinas’s thinking, which constitutes the second part of the foreword. Rather than providing a context for Levinas’s thinking within the phenomenological tradition, perhaps by explaining the ways in which Levinas critically appropriates elements of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s respective philosophies or the ways in which Levinas tests the limits of phenomenology by drawing on religiously loaded terminology, Mickunas engages in rather curious discussion of ‘corporeity,’ mythology and kerygma. Again, it seems to me that if the purpose of this foreword is to provide the reader with some orientation and context for Levinas’s thinking then it is not particularly helpful.

The main body of the text is composed of ten chapters which tend to repeat a similar structure: Beginning with a ‘case study’ relevant to the domain of communication ethics, Arnett then goes on to draw on different aspects of Levinas’s ethical thought in order to explicate the communication phenomena at stake in the case study before concluding each chapter by proposing a set of Levinas-inspired theses to be adopted by communication theorists. These chapters are framed in the introduction by two guiding principles concerning (1) Arnett’s basic conception of communication ethics and (2) his interpretive approach to Levinas. Concerning the former, Arnett writes that ‘this work understands communication ethics [as] an obligation to discover multiple means of understanding and ratifying communication ethics action in the depths of attentiveness to uniqueness and particularity’ (Arnett 2017: 5-6). Plausibly, this definition is already imbued with certain Levinasian emphases, but the point is nonetheless clear: Communications ethics, for Arnett, aims to make explicit the ethical significance of communication through careful phenomenological analyses of the interpersonal context of communication. As for Arnett’s approach to Levinas, he writes that ‘Levinas’s work has practical application when met as an awakening guide about responsibility that refuses to shelter “me” from accountability in my actions to and for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 5). Here, the point seems to be that all interpersonal communication has ethical significance which can be specified in terms of a ‘rhetoric of demands’ (Arnett 2017: 9) made on the self by the Other. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy will be used in this text as a resource to give shape and definition – in the form of ‘awakening’ – to the nature of this rhetoric of demands putatively intrinsic in interpersonal communication. The aim of the following chapters, then, will be to bring Levinas’s ethical philosophy to bare on certain prototypical instances of communication in order to explicate their ethical significance.

Before moving on to the arguments, I want to register two ambiguities present in Arnett’s introduction. The first concerns to whom the arguments of the text are addressed: Is the ethical awakening putatively provided by Levinas’s philosophy an awakening for communications theorists or for us qua communicators? This question may sound facetious, but it is compounded by further ambiguities concerning Arnett’s heavy use of the term ‘rhetoric’ in his introduction. While Arnett admits that in Totality and Infinity, Levinas ‘offers a contentious response to rhetoric’ (Arnett 2017: 1), Arnett nonetheless asserts that, from a Levinasian perspective, ‘one must respond to the rhetorical demands of the face of the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 2). But, one wonders, isn’t this move exegetically illegitimate? In Totality and Infinity, Levinas states that ‘Our pedagogical or psychological discourse is rhetoric, taking the position of him who approaches his neighbour with ruse…It approaches the other not to face him, but obliquely…[I]t is pre-eminently violence, that is, injustice – not violence exercised on an inertia (which would not be a violence), but on a freedom…’ (Levinas 2012: 70). Given Levinas’s associations of rhetoric with a violence which, rather than facing the other tries to manipulate her and rob her of her freedom, Arnett’s claim – inscribed in the title of his book – that Levinas advocates for a rhetorical demand at the centre of interpersonal communication looks interpretively problematic. However, read in a different way, it might be the case that Arnett’s claim here is a subtler, reflexive one: Namely, that communication ethics as a practically-oriented discipline is a form of ‘pedagogy’ or ‘psychological discourse’ which, for that reason, must, in Levinas’s eyes, take the form of rhetoric. As such, the practical import of Levinas’s ethics to communication ethics is to impress on communications ethicists the limitations of their practice and to encourage greater restraint and sensitivity when it comes to proscribing codes of conduct for communication. In either case, the major claim of Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand is not made ideally clear in Arnett’s introduction.

The first chapter compares Levinas to the work of George Herbert Mead and Jeffrey Murray in developing the claim that ‘the human being is defined by ethics, not as first philosophy, but via a communicative first gesture of responsibility toward and with another’ (Arnett 2017: 38) in which ‘communication ethics is a primordial gesture that ignites a series of ethical events performed within a difficult freedom, a world without assurance or clarity of formulas that demands urgency of response from no one by me’ (Arnett 2017: 40). In other words, the work of the first chapter is devoted to emphasising (1) the primitive ethical significance of symbolic gestural interaction for communication and (2) the fragility and uncertainty intrinsic to such primordial forms of interaction. What is surprising about this claim is that Arnett seems to immediately discard Levinas’s central claim that ‘ethics is first philosophy’ in favour of Mead’s behaviourist theory of symbolic interactionism. It is left unclear what motivates this unexpected move and, indeed, whether Mead’s sociological method is at all compatible with the parts of Levinas’s phenomenology that Arnett seeks to appropriate.

In chapter 2, Arnett provides as his case study a rich and interesting discussion of Levinas’s life, aimed at describing how Levinas’s life influenced his ethical thinking. It is comprised of a discussion of Salomon Malka’s biography of Levinas, Phillipe Nemo’s interviews with Levinas, published as Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo, and Levinas’s autobiographical fragment, ‘Signature,’ published in Difficult Freedom. The chapter, ‘working under the metaphors of footprints and echoes, reminds us of the importance of concrete experiences in conjunction with ideas of weight and height that infuse time before time with ethical import’ (Arnett 2017: 65). While it is not ideally clear what Arnett means by this, the thrust of the claim appears to turn on Levinas’s distinction between the Saying and the Said. As Michael Morgan aptly describes the distinction, the Said refers to the construction of languages, ‘the form and content of linguistic systems of systems of symbols’ (Morgan 2011: 135), that enable interpersonal interaction, while the Saying is the ‘ethical matrix in which language as communication takes place;’ it describes the ‘social, concrete context for language’ which has at its core ‘the call of the other person to the self to accept and acknowledge it’ (Morgan 2011: 135). And, without wanting to be reductive, Arnett’s claim in this chapter could perhaps be summarized as arguing for the need to take account of both the Saying and the Said in the practice of communication ethics.

The third chapter meditates on Levinas’s claims concerning the enigma of the face of the Other and the ethical importance of remaining attentive to this enigmaticalness rather than reducing the Other to a caricature. The case study for this chapter is Levinas’s relationship with a fantastical and legendary Jewish mystic called Chouchani. Chouchani cultivated an air of mystery about himself; he ‘functioned as an enigma to those he taught; he intentionally kept his life a mystery from others’ (Arnett 2017: 71). The lesson Levinas drew from Chouchani’s cultivated mysteriousness, Arnett avers, was the importance of ‘patience and waiting’ (Arnett 2017: 77) – what Arnett sometimes describes as ‘existential trust’ – in interpersonal communication. That is, ethical communication requires cultivating in oneself a sensitivity to the thought that the Other always exceeds the pictures, theories and prejudices one may naturally impose on them, where the ethical task of communication is to refrain from imposing meaning on the other and rather to learn from them. As Arnett puts it, ‘the task was to learn from Chouchani, not to violate the infinity of learning. To understand from the enigma of Chouchani, one had to watch and learn without the assurance of one’s assessment of this man of difference’ (Arnett 2017: 84). The appeal to Levinas’s relationship to Chouchani is interesting and informative. But it leads me to wonder how much of an exemplar Chouchani actually is for communication ethics: Is cultivating a sense of mystery around oneself and refusing to answer other’s questions in a straightforward way ethically commendable? This seems debatable. Furthermore, to my mind, there is a philosophical worry arising from the lesson taught by Chouchani – at least as it is presented by Arnett – namely, that interpersonal communication requires patience and waiting. The worry is that by overstating the enigma of the Other, one will be lead to confusion and paralysis in one’s interpersonal communications. Surely there are many things about the Other that are self-evident? This is not to contest the important point made in the chapter, but just to urge caution and restraint in stating it: The point, surely, is not simply that we should behold the deep enigma of the other, but, more modestly, that we should remain sensitive to the other’s alterity in our encounter with them.

Chapter 4 looks to Levinas’s text Proper Names. The chapter is comprised of an informative reconstruction of the text, in which Levinas discusses his relations with the thought of figures that influenced his way of thinking, such as Kierkegaard, and his philosophical, theological and literary contemporaries, like Martin Buber. The philosophical point made in this chapter is that proper names occupy a particular place in language in that, while they are part of linguistic system of symbols that make up the Said, they resist full incorporation into the Said and retain a ‘trace’ of Saying. Arnett illustrates this point by way of an episode in To Kill a Mocking Bird in which Scout manages to keep an angry mob at bay by calling on the proper names of some of the members of the mob. In a sense, the philosophical point made here compliments and tempers the one made in the previous chapter: While there is an intrinsic enigmaticalness to the Other, they also have a name, and that name has an important ethical resonance that seems to bridge the distinction between the Saying – and the enigma of the Other more generally – and the Said.

The fifth chapter turns to a discussion of ‘the impersonal’ and ‘the sacred.’ The chapter aims to investigate ‘the pragmatic limits of a personal consideration that seeks to possess certainty of answers for the Other’ (Arnett 2017: 115). As its case study, this chapter looks to Gregory Bateman’s book Angel’s Fear: Towards and Epistemology of the Sacred. The central insight of Bateman’s text taken up by Arnett is the thought that it is sometimes important to leave certain dimensions of interpersonal communication inexplicit and unarticulated, where this sometimes involves acknowledging, rather than trying to overcome, one’s epistemic limitations and embracing forms of ‘metaphorical understanding’ (Arnett 2017: 119). Turning to Levinas, Arnett pursues a comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant based on Catherine Chalier’s text What Ought I to Do? Morality in Kant and Levinas. Arnett’s aim here is to elucidate Levinas’s emphasis on the importance of a disinterested – rather than self-interested – stance and the correlative importance of embracing an impersonal rather than personalized relation to the other in interpersonal communication. Arnett concludes by claiming that ‘for Levinas, the sacred embraces ethics devoid of reification and imposition. Ethics has an impersonal cast of disinterest that nourishes the sacred dimension of the human condition’ (Arnett 2017: 128). The difficulties of this chapter stem initially from the fact that it is not clear in what way Arnett’s introduction of notions such as the sacred, the impersonal and disinterestedness move the discussion forward: How does the conclusion reached in this chapter add to the conclusion in chapter 3 concerning the importance of remaining sensitive to the enigma of the Other? Moreover, Arnett’s introduction of such loaded terms as ‘the sacred’ and his comparative discussion of Levinas and Kant may seem to muddy the waters: The introduction of a dimension of the sacred into his discussion invites familiar worries concerning the secular intelligibility of Levinas’s theologically-inspired ethics, and his comparison of the impersonal in Kant, which is based in the impersonality of reason, with the impersonal in Levinas, which is based in the face of the Other, invites a different set of difficulties concerning the normative foundations of Levinas’s ethics.[2]

Chapter six concerns Levinas’s conception of justice, where Arnett draws on Umberto Eco’s celebrated novel The Name of the Rose as a case study. Arnett notes that justice is a protean term in Levinas’s oeuvre and, for that reason, is difficult to pin down. However, Arnett focuses on one core feature of Levinas’s notion of justice, namely, that it involves an attentiveness to ‘the Third,’ or the wider community of individuals, who temper the face-to-face relation in important ways. More specifically, Arnett emphasises that Levinas’s notion of justice draws our attention to the disempowered and voiceless members of the community. The importance of this point for Levinas’s philosophy and, Arnett suggests, for communication ethics more generally, is in balancing one’s immediate obligations to the Other in the face-to-face relation with the wider demands of the community – and specifically the oppressed and the voiceless within society. As Arnett explains, Levinas’s notion of justice introduces ‘a form of equality and measure’ (Arnett 2017: 147).  

The seventh chapter considers the News of the World phone-hacking scandal from a Levinasian perspective. The moral failings exemplified in the phone-hacking scandal are obvious: They reflected an intrusive invasion of privacy for the sake of producing sensational news stories that, in some cases, seriously affected the lives of those involved. However, from a Levinasian perspective, Arnett avers, the phone-hacking scandal ‘functions as an exemplar of Levinas’s critique of the West seduced by the demand for totality. This story displays possession at work with little resistive creative thought that invites space for reflection on the “should”; instead decisions emerge from the technological “can,” alone’ (Arnett 2017: 159). In other words, for Arnett, the phone-hacking scandal is seen to be symptomatic of a need to know everything, so to speak; to recuperate everything into the totality of the Same. And Levinas’s ethical philosophy ‘awakens’ us to this damaging tendency through his critique of the primacy of ontology. Construed as a chapter about the lessons to be learned from the phone-hacking scandal, this point is pretty uncontroversial. However, it seems to me that the force of this argument would be stronger if Arnett had devoted more space to explaining why Levinas’s ethical philosophy helps us to expose the distinctive wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal in a way that, say, the public reaction that led to the newspaper’s closure missed. As it stands, the specific Levinasian contribution to our understanding of the wrongness of the phone-hacking scandal remains unclear.

Chapters 8 and 9 consider Levinas’s fraught relation to Heidegger. Chapter 8 considers Levinas’s experience of, and subsequent reflection on, the infamous Davos conference, where Heidegger debated the prominent neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer. There are many dimensions to the discussion in this chapter: For instance, it involves a discussion of Levinas’s reflections on his own behaviour at the conference, of his relation to humanism and to Cassier’s cosmopolitanism; and of his relation to Heidegger’s meditations on ‘dwelling’ and enrootedness. However, the central point of the chapter is that, in contrast to Cassirer’s ‘philosophy of culture’ (Arnett 2017: 184), Levinas proposes an analysis of the ethical significance of the face-to-face encounter that is pre-cultural. Chapter nine continues the discussion of Heidegger by turning to Heidegger’s notorious rectorate address in 1933, which is often seen as the moment where Heidegger was most aligned with the Nazi project. In discussing Levinas’s response to Heidegger, Arnett claims that, on the one hand, Levinas was concerned to move away from the kind of existential phenomenology promoted by Heidegger – which focuses on dwelling and enrootedness – by ‘re-transcendentalizing’ (Arnett 2017: 214) his own philosophy in terms of an analysis of the transcendence of the Other. However, curiously, on the other hand, Arnett concludes with the thought that ‘Levinas understood ethics as dwelling within the concrete in contrast to Heidegger’s notion of dwelling, which is “spare” and seeks to “preserve”’ (Arnett 2017: 218). From an exegetical perspective, the claim that Levinas understood ethics as dwelling seems very dubious: While it is true that ‘the dwelling’ forms part of Levinas’s architectonic in Totality and Infinity, it is treated as a function of separated being – not as the place of ethics as Arnett implies.[3] Furthermore, when compared with Arnett’s earlier claim, that Levinas sought to ‘re-transcendentalize’ phenomenology, and, thus, move away from Heidegger’s focus on dwelling and enrootedness, Arnett’s argument in this chapter is apt to confuse.

The final chapter discusses Levinas’s thinking on death, as laid out in God, Death and Time, in conjunction with Jacques Derrida’s text Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. In contrast to Heidegger, for whom resolutely facing up to one’s own death is a central aspect of authenticity, Levinas emphasises the death of others. As Arnett puts it, ‘the death of another awakens my ethical responsibility, and my own death calls forth responsibility in another’ (Arnett 2017: 231). More specifically, on Arnett’s reconstruction, Levinas holds that the Other’s calling us to responsibility survives their death. We might think, for instance, how the memory of a loved one who has passed away exerts an influence on our behaviour. Then, without much ceremony, Arnett finishes his text, concluding that ‘communication ethics, for Levinas, resists an apriori metaphysic, the imposition of a code or procedure, and, fundamentally, the self-righteous smirk of a knowing do-gooder. Communication ethics dwells in an immemorial space before, beyond, and ever more powerful than death itself’ (Arnett 2017: 245).

In concluding this review, I will return to the framing questions specified in the introduction. Namely, (1) what, if anything, can Levinasian insights concerning the fragility and uncertainty of ethical life offer in terms of practical guidance for communication? And (2) to whom is this book addressed? Concerning the first question, Arnett’s book is successful in raising some important Levinasian issues relevant to communication ethics. In particular, Arnett’s discussions of the enigma of the face and its pre-cultural ethical significance are interesting and relevant. Yet, the practical applicability of these Levinasian insights always remains in doubt. Arnett should be commended for his inventive use of examples and illustrations in attempting to apply Levinas’s ethical philosophy to concrete communication phenomena: Attempting to illustrate Levinas’s high-altitude and often ponderous path of thinking through examples is a difficult task, and Arnett’s efforts in this direction are valiant. But, in the end, it seems to me that what Arnett’s discussion demonstrates above all else is the limited applicability of Levinasian ethics to practical domains: Levinas’s ethical philosophy is descriptive and speculative, and resists direct and prescriptive application to empirical events. Whether this signals a weakness in Arnett’s text or a limitation of Levinas’s philosophy, of course, remains debatable.

Concerning the second question, there seems to be an unresolved issue in the text concerning how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a critique of communication ethics as it is often practiced and how much the discussion is supposed to constitute a modification of it. If Arnett intended the former, then he certainly shies away from making this explicit. Yet, if he intended the latter, then lingering issues concerning Levinas’s reservations towards ‘rhetoric’ and the compatibility of Levinas’s methodological framework with the more empirically-focused resources and methodologies on which Arnett draws remain unanswered. Moreover, I feel the text often sacrifices the task of detailed exegesis of Levinas’s texts for the sake of discussions of empirical case studies and their Levinasian resonances. As a result, there is a surprising omission of any sustained discussion of Levinas’s important interventions into the nature of language and discourse in Totality and Infinity and communication in Otherwise than Being, for instance, where such discussions would, to my mind, have contributed to a more satisfying argument. Nonetheless, Arnett’s text contains many interesting and important insights and will surely stimulate further discussion within the field of communication ethics.


Arnett, R. C., Review of Ronald C. Arnett Levinas’s Rhetorical Demand: The Unending Obligation of Communication Ethics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 2017

Cheney, G., et al., ‘Encountering Communication Ethics in the Contemporary World: Principles, People, Contexts’ in Cheney, G., May, S., & Munshi, D., Eds., The Handbook of Communication Ethics. London: Routledge. 2011: pp. 1-14

Janicaud, D., ‘The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology.’ Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn:” The French Debate. Trans. B. G. Prusak. New York: Fordham University Press. 2000: pp. 16-103.

Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo. Trans. R. A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 1985.

Levinas, E., Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. A. Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012.

Morgan, M. L., The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas. Cambridge: CUP. 2011.

Perpich, D., ‘Don’t try this at home: Levinas and Applied Ethics’ in Davidson, S., & Perpich, D., Eds. Totality and Infinity at 50. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 2012: pp. 127-152

Stern, R., The Radical Demand in Løgstrup’s Ethics. Oxford: OUP. Forthcoming.

[1] Cf. Levinas (1985): 22.

[2] Cf. Janicaud (2000) and Stern (forthcoming), Ch. 9 for two examples of these criticisms.

[3] Cf. Levinas 2012: ‘The primary agreement, to live, does not alienate the I but maintains it, constitutes its being at home with itself. The dwelling, inhabitation, belongs to the essence –to the egoism – of the I.’ (143)

Leonard Lawlor: From Violence to Speaking Out

From Violence to Speaking Out: Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze Book Cover From Violence to Speaking Out: Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze
Leonard Lawlor
Edinburgh University Press
Paperback £19.99

Reviewed by: Lode Lauwaert (Husserl-Archives: Center for Phenomenology and Continental Philosophy, Institute of Philosophy, University of Leuven)

Beyond Technicity: On Violence and Otherness

For two decades — and certainly since the bloody attacks in London, Paris, and Brussels, among others — on the old continent and elsewhere, people have the impression that violence has increased worldwide. Even though leading scientists claim that humankind is constantly improving (life expectancy has increased, environmental awareness ameliorates, etc.), it seems that there is more violence than there was roughly two centuries ago. However, the question is whether this impression is justified or not.

According to some, including linguist Steven Pinker (2012) and historian Ian Morris (2014), it is in fact not the case that violence is on the rise. It may be that we believe ourselves to be living in the cruelest of times, yet that impression lacks solid ground. Moreover, according to both Pinker and Morris, the fact that there is such an impression has everything to do with the fact that there are fewer and fewer acts of violence. It is precisely because our living environment has become safer that we have become more sensitive to everything that relates to violence, whether it actually ‘is’ violence or not. This is what has ultimately led to the misconception that violence is on the rise. Although this explanation seems plausible, it nevertheless raises many (especially methodological) questions. Is it possible, for example, to make scientifically reliable statements on this subject, given that we know that acts of violence are now being recorded more frequently than in the past?

Although there is great disagreement among scientists concerning the question of whether violence has increased or decreased, there is no doubt that the scientific interest in violence has increased considerably in recent years. This is not only the case in disciplines such as history, sociology, and psychology, but also in philosophy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, and specifically since the pioneering work of, among others, Walter Benjamin and Georges Sorel, thinking about violence has a firm footing in philosophy. This increase in the philosophy of violence applies to different domains within philosophy. For example, in analytical philosophy, Robert Audi focuses on analyzing the concept of violence, whereas in normative ethics, thinkers such as Michael Walzer work within the ancient tradition of Just War Theory. And with regards to the tradition of continental philosophy, it is clear that, for example, (post)structuralists reflect upon the relationship between power and violence, and that phenomenologists focus on the experience of violence.

If we zoom in on the phenomenological tradition, we see that violence has also become an important topic there. In this context, we are, of course, thinking primarily of the works by Jacques Derrida and Jan Patočka, but more recent authors within that tradition are also considering this subject matter. Take, for example, the volume The Phenomenologies of Violence (2014) by Michael Staudigl and two studies by James Dodd: Phenomenology and Violence (2009) and Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach (2017). Within this line of thought we must also situate the last study of Leonard Lawlor (Edwin Earle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University): From Violence to Speaking Out. Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, in a beautiful edition published by Edinburgh University Press.

It would come as no surprise if, in the future, this study was to become one of the most influential philosophical contributions on violence. There are several reasons for this: not only because the author’s profound knowledge of the subject is evident, but also because of his original approach. The point of departure of Lawlors’ study are two phenomena that, at first sight, have little to do with each other but which, it is argued, have the same ground structure. The first phenomenon is the contemporary late-modern variant of capitalism, namely neoliberalism. Lawlor argues that neoliberalism is primarily characterised by the fact that all subjects and all objects acquire a kind of value in order to be exchangeable. The author emphasizes not so much the economic logic behind this, but the regime that lies behind that logic: everything is comparable to each other, so everything falls under the name of the One. This logic is not limited to the West alone, however, but spreads to all corners of the world. Capitalism oppresses all local lifestyles and rituals, making them a commodity on the global free market. Today’s capitalism can therefore be described, following Lawlor, as the globalisation of commodification.

The second phenomenon from which the author begins his study is likewise a form of violence that, however, takes place on a more individual level and is always physical. In this category, Lawlor primarily gives the example of hate crimes committed by Einzalgängers, whereby an individual indiscriminately kills passing civilians in a public space, and finally kills himself (in an act of murder-suicide). Of course, the countless (often religiously inspired) suicide attacks in which a perpetrator inflates himself with the aim of killing as many innocent people as possible, also fits into this category. The logic behind these murders is crystal clear, according to Lawlor: anyone who has a different way of thinking from the murderer (usually atheists or other believers) must disappear from the globe. This form of violence is characterised by globalisation. The shootings and suicide attacks do not only occur in the West and North, but also in the East and South; they are furthermore not only carried out in the name of Christianity or Islam, as we know, there are also Jewish or Buddhist inspired terrorist attacks. In short, just as neoliberalism is all-encompassing, physical violence is both total and limitless.

Many scholars believe that there is a causal link between the two phenomena. The physical violence, such as religiously inspired suicide terrorists, is a reaction to the violence of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the same scholars also stress that although these two phenomena are causally linked, they differ fundamentally in ontological terms. Lawlor distinguishes himself from these scholars, first of all because he does not make any statements about a possible causal connection. This is actually not particularly surprising, since making such empirically verifiable claims is not the task of the philosopher, but of the social scientist. More importantly (and philosophically more relevant) is that Lawlor argues that the ground structure of both phenomena is clearly the same. Broadly speaking, one can argue that both fall under the primacy of the One, which means that, in both cases, the other is radically ignored, or worse still: destroyed. Or to put it in Heidegger’s jargon (which is virtually absent from Lawlor’s study, although traces of the German philosopher’s ideas can be clearly sensed therein): both neoliberalism and physical violence are the cruel expression of (a platonic-inspired) onto-theology. However, on the other hand and following Lawlor, we must not lose sight of the differences between the two kinds of violence that suppress the other. While capitalism is displacing the other by expressing everything in economic value and thus making it interchangeable, suicide bombers will kill anyone who does not like their dogmatic view of the world.

Both phenomena are referred to by Lawlor, after Derrida’s famous expression, as examples of “the problem of the worst violence”. Before we expand upon this topic, I first reflect on Lawlor’s understanding of globalisation. Globalisation, in its common use, connotes a certain levelling of intercultural differences. The author shares this deeply rooted belief, but never explains why we should accept it. This assumption is striking, not only because it is the starting point of the study, but also, and above all, because it is not at all certain that this claim is as justified as it appears to be. Slavoi Žižek (2004), for example, argues convincingly that globalisation is characterised by the opposite; namely by the opening-up of the Other. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that Lawlor is correct. In that case, is it justifiable to state, as Lawlor does, that the neoliberal hegemony is nothing other than violence? Indeed, the author believes that the failure to respect the otherness of the other — of the face, to employ Lévinas’ term — also means that violence is done to this other. If Lawlor does not understand ‘violence’ here in a metaphorical sense — and that is something we can take for granted, given the structure of the study — then the author allows the meaning of ‘violence’ in this context to fit in with the etymology of the word. One of the original meanings of the Latin violare was “crossing a moral border”. This assimilation of violence and violation is not further justified by the author. This is also striking, because violence and violation do not necessarily encapsulate each other. For example, it is clear that most but not all forms of violence imply the transgression of a moral border. A building company can destroy a building by means of explosives in order that the construction of a new building may begin in its place. Likewise, it is common in various fight sports to “play hard”, to tackle or kick, for example, a member of the opposite team in order to win. In both cases, we speak of violence without exceeding the limit of what is permissible. Conversely, of course, it is not the case that “violation” means that an act of violence was committed. Lying, for example, is usually interpreted as an act that is morally reprehensible, while we do not typically understand it is a form of violence.

After emphasizing the ontological similarity between neoliberalism and physical violence (shootings, religious terror, etc.), Lawlor makes a new step in his line of argument. With this step, the author addresses the transcendental level, in the Kantian sense of the word. After all, Lawlor aims to explore the conditions of possibility of experience, more specifically, the experience that a subject has of himself and of the way that subject experiences the other. Lawlor explains that the two phenomena mentioned earlier (neoliberalism and physical violence) are both a reaction to the transcendental structure he exposes. This is, at the very least, a surprising statement especially as most researchers look primarily at psychological and socio-economic factors to explain violence. Let us therefore focus on the transcendental part of the study, a part with which the author, who previously published intriguing studies such as The Implication of Immanence and This is not Sufficient, once again demonstrates why he is one of the most prominent scholars in continental philosophy.

The starting point of Lawlor’s transcendental research, about which the author is explicit, coincides with the phenomenological reduction, which breaks down into two steps. First, the scientific attitude, and second, the natural attitude is replaced, meaning that any belief in the existence of the world that exists independently of experience is given up. When all external assumptions are suspended, phenomenology ultimately collides with consciousness; that is to say, we end up with the most fundamental level of auto-affection and internal monologue. More importantly, however — Lawlor clearly indicates that he owes much to countless phenomenological and Bergsonian thinkers — this auto-affection is not absolute. The reason is that it is marked by the movement of time. How should we understand this?

When we state that Lawlor’s study is based on earlier research, we mean that the author is very clearly on the Derridean trail². More specifically, he refers to the ingenious analysis of time consciousness in La Voix et le phénomène from 1967. This earlier study highlights the two following aspects of time consciousnesses: On the one hand, this analysis shows that experience in the present always differs from the past. There is a gap between the present and the past and we clash with alteration. This means, according to Lawlor, that the movement of time can be described as an event (here, Lawlor employs fashionable terminology, it seems, somewhat indiscriminately). Lawlor’s remark about “events” is all the more compelling since his study does not seek any connection with recent work on “the event”, and also because he uses “event” here in a very broad sense: not every alteration has an eventful character. On the other hand, we also know that the present can be remembered and thus be repeated, so that it installs the expectation that the same will also take place in the future. In short, besides difference there is always also repetition, to speak with Deleuze. Or, in the vocabulary of Lévinas (who, incidentally, is as good as absent in Lawlor’s study): the movement of time must be understood in terms of le même and l’autre.

This double structure is the ontological foundation for both the experience that the subject has of himself and for the experience that the same subject has of another person. First, looking at self-experience, we must ask ourselves whether we really hear ourselves talking when we speak to ourselves. According to a long tradition in phenomenological research, we must answer this question negatively, which means that every auto-affect is less pure than one usually assumes and is always hetero-affective. Lawlor endorses these findings, as we read in the following passage (which illustrates the clear and sometimes evocative style of Lawlor): “In other words, we must unlearn how to hear badly, hearing only oneself, and learn to hear better, so that we hear those others inside of us. The essential fact that the sphere of interior life is not strictly my own implies, positively, that there are others within me.” (282) This ambivalence between sameness and otherness also characterizes interpersonal relationships. On the one hand, I am involved in a performance that is inextricably linked to the signifier “man”, which I employ every time I meet a member of the species of man, whereby I immediately recognize living beings that are human beings as such. It is precisely this representation that gives the interpersonal relationship a repetitive character, and thus also ensures continuity. Lacan, with whom Lawlor himself does not enter into discussion, would argue that the relationship with the other has an imaginary meaning in this context, and is the result of an identification with the overall image of the other. On the other hand, the relationship with the other can never be completely homogenised, so that the other never fully merges into the image we have of the other, and so that the other inevitability is permeated by strangeness and otherness. In this context, Lacan would speak of le réel; Lévinas has taken that dimension into account when he talks about the distinction between le visage on the one hand and la face on the other.

The fact that the homogeneity of the other is always partially cancelled by heterogenization is violent, according to Lawlor. More specifically, he refers in this context to ‘transcendental violence’. Once again, we can raise the question that we have already asked (especially because Lawlor himself remains completely silent on this): why, precisely, is the heterogenization of homogeneity a form of violence? Although it may be the case that the abolition of equality is regrettable, it does not necessarily mean that it is violent. There are, in fact, many things that we would prefer to see continue to exist, without describing them as violence. Moreover, Lawlor seems to forget that ‘violence’ is a normative concept. It brings together deeds that may not all appear to be unjustified at second glance (because of utilitarian considerations) but, at the very least, those deeds are prima facie morally wrong because they stem from the intention to inflict harm. However, my question to Lawlor is this: how can we describe a transcendental given (the heterogenization of the homogeneous) as violent given that it inevitably occurs and, more importantly, since such heterogenization does not result from an intention? This transcendental violence, in addition to the two forms of ‘worst violence’, is the third violence that Lawlor distinguishes. Apart from the fact that he never explains why he understands these things as violence, he also never explicitly indicates his definition of transcendental violence, and what exactly the differences and similarities are between the three forms of violence. These lacunae are extremely puzzling for a philosophical book, the title of which suggests that it is primarily about violence.

This critical note to Lawlor, however, does not change the author’s original position in the debate on violence, especially in the philosophical debate. The central thesis of his book is that both forms of violence must be understood as reactive phenomena, a position that runs counter to the thinking of a number of prominent thinkers. Freud, for example, in his writings on war and violence (think of the famous correspondence with Einstein, published as “Why war?”) argues that the propensity for violence is in human nature, which means that it regularly comes to the surface and must then be satisfied. Such a view, which can also be found in Georges Bataille, among others, is interesting because violence is understood as the expression of a force, and therefore as an active fact. Lawlor goes against this by claiming that the violence to which he refers is rather an answer to another prior fact. More specifically, he defends the proposition that the two forms of violence are a reaction to fundamental violence. Or better formulated: both forms of violence are a reaction to the inability to deal with transcendental violence, more specifically the fact that the self-experience and experience of the other person are not only a matter of repetition and togetherness, but also of difference and otherness. However, Lawlor rightly emphasises that we must not lose sight of the differences in the way in which both forms of violence specifically deal with this inability. For example, if we look first at the hate crimes and religious terror, according to Lawlor, this is based on the fact that the subject’s identity has always been marked by differences. Terror, understood here as the radical destruction of any radical other thing, is an attempt to destroy the other person who has always been part of me. Second, if we focus on the violence of neoliberalism, on the other hand, we see that this violence is trying to reduce the other’s ‘differentness’, to homogenise the other. In Lacan’s vocabulary: neoliberalism brings the other into the register of the imaginary.

That Lawlor understands violence as a reactive phenomenon implies that his study is less distant from other non-philosophical studies on the same subject than might be expected. Indeed, the author claims that the violence is a consequence of the subject’s inability to deal with the fundamental element of difference. This means that Lawlor tries to understand violence from a causative, and therefore scientific, point of view: the inability is the cause of the violence because without it there would be no violence. The formal structure of this reasoning is identical to what researchers in scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology or anthropology claim: X (think of a mental disorder or socio-economic situation) is the cause of violence because without X there, would be no violence. Moreover, can we not speak of a similarity in terms of content? For while the inability does have to do with a transcendental given, that inability is of course a psychological fact, so that Lawlor is not at all far away from, for example, psychologists who claim that certain forms of violence are related to an unprocessed past or a somewhat untenable mental situation. For these similarities alone, it is quite striking that Lawlor makes no reference in his study to other scientific research on violence.

Yet even if the author had made such references, the reader could nonetheless raise at least two interrelated questions. First, what exactly is the gap in the existing debate that Lawlor wants to fill with his study? Secondly, and more importantly, it is not clear why precisely the statement proposed by Lawlor is plausible. Although he may claim that the violence, namely the homogenisation of the other, is a reaction to the inability to deal with the other, nowhere is there any detailed argument as to why we should adopt this explanation. For the author, it seems sufficient that there is a similarity between the two facts (physical violence and neoliberalism on the one hand, and transcendental violence, on the other hand) to conclude that there is also a causal connection. This is not enough, however, because there are many things that chronologically follow each other, without a causal connection.

If, however, Lawlor’s thesis proves to be true, it is not at all surprising that a particular solution is linked to the problem of violence. If violence does indeed intend to deal with difference, then Lawlor’s cognitive solution could signal a shift in philosophical thought since his is a solution that indicates a paradigmatic shift in a Kuhnian sense (with the help, according to Lawlor, of Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida). Lawlor explains: “If we want to reduce the impulses that drive the hate criminal, the suicide bombers and the hegemony of the economic genre, we need a new way of thinking, or, more precisely, a new way of writing and speaking.” (3) This solution, which one could say can be formulated in Heideggerian terms as ‘a thinking beyond technicity’, sounds particularly attractive. But, as mentioned above, the effectiveness depends entirely on the accuracy of the explanation behind it. As a reader, it is precisely at this point that we are simultaneously slightly disappointed and yet still looking forward to Lawlors’ new study; perhaps even more so, since it is quite possible that the validity of the author’s thesis may well emerge in that new book, which, as outlined in the book’s introduction, will be about peace.


Derrida, Jacques (1967). La voix et le phénomène. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Dodd, James (2009). Phenomenology and Violence. New York; Routledge.

Dood, James (2017). Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach. New York: Routledge.

Morris, Ian (2014). War! What Is Is Good For?. London: Profile Books.

Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.

Staudigl, Michael (Ed.) (2014). The Phenomenologies of Violence. Leiden: Brill.

Žižek, Slavoj (2004). Plaidoyer en faveur de l’intolérance. Paris: Climats.

Véronique M. Fóti and Pavlos Kontos (Eds.): Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux

Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux Book Cover Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux
Contributions To Phenomenology
Véronique M. Fóti, Pavlos Kontos (Eds.)
Hardback 96,29 €

Reviewed by: Douglas Giles (University of Essex)

This volume of fourteen essays honors and explicates the underappreciated Belgian phenomenologist Jacques Taminiaux. The essays cluster around the theme that there is in phenomenology and society a primacy of the political echoing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s primacy of perception. The book treats the political not as foundational to philosophical inquiry but as inescapable. The claim made by the editors is that “almost any sort of philosophical research, whatever its specific object, will find itself confronted by the mirror of the political,” and, therefore, phenomenology cannot claim the attitude of the uninvolved spectator and “exempt itself from being reflected in the mirror of the political.” (vii) Instead, phenomenology must enact a fundamental attitude of judgment and respect. Not all of the essays in this book, however, directly address the thought of Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology, but all of the essays contribute to phenomenology in general.

Shaun Gallagher’s essay, “The Struggle for Recognition and the Return
of Primary Intersubjectivity,” explores the distinction between primary and secondary intersubjectivity. Gallagher’s approach is to contrast Fichte’s concept of summoning, Honneth’s concept of a Hegelian struggle for recognition, and Ricoeur’s concept of a gift. The question that Gallagher takes on is whether mutual recognition emerges as a natural and automatic event regardless of any practical response an individual makes. His response is basically that it does not. He takes a somewhat negative view of Honneth’s Hegelian theory that dialectical struggles for recognition lead to self-realized individuality and then onward to politico-economic justice and social solidarity. Acknowledging that an individual’s autonomy depends on intersubjective mutual recognition, Gallagher astutely points out that that this situation does not necessitate that we accept that mutual recognition is perfectly reciprocal. Gallagher proposes a model of primary intersubjectivity that does not depend on reciprocal recognition but instead acknowledges that recognition relations are imperfect. At times, we give recognition without expecting reciprocation and receive recognition without being able to return it. In these circumstances, recognition is best seen as a gift or summons. Primary intersubjectivity, therefore, does not require a dialectical struggle to find ourselves where we are.

Fabio Ciaramelli in “Intuition and Unanimity: From the Platonic Bias to the Phenomenology of the Political” extends Taminiaux’s claim of a Platonic bias in philosophy. For Taminiaux, the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy subordinated the body politic’s life and action to the sage’s life of contemplation that brought with it a problematic failure in understanding human affairs. (16) Ciaramelli takes the impetus of Taminiaux’s antispeculative research to connect the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy’s ontological paradigm of an ideal truth with the preference for unanimous solutions to social and political issues. For Ciaramelli, the issue is a matter of totality versus plurality because the Platonic bias to unanimous solutions implies a repression of plurality. (18-19) Ciaramelli takes an unexpected and interesting approach to the issue, basing his essay on a 16th century text by Etienne de La Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. La Boétie’s essay criticizes passive submission to a unique center of power. La Boétie goes so far as to blame the people for their servitude, reasoning that by continuing to submit to power, they prefer servitude to liberty. Ciaramelli interprets La Boétie as advocating two conflicting social models: a pluralism that allows uniqueness to flourish and a totalizing model that dominates individualities and produces uniformity. (20-21) La Boétie argues that nature does not give us a model for either servitude or freedom; therefore, the ways to safeguard individual uniqueness and pluralism must be socially instituted. From this concept, Ciaramelli deduces that it is necessary to reject the Platonic bias of a universal solution. He insightfully extends this thought to La Boétie’s conception that to achieve liberty “nothing more is needed than to long for it,” connecting this conception with the preference for unanimous solutions that threaten plurality. (25) Ciaramelli concludes that La Boétie, despite his insights, is also guilty of confirming the domination of unanimous solutions.

In “Phronêsis and the Ideal of Beauty,” Danielle Lories extends Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the difference between Aristotelian phronêsis and the Kantian judgment of taste. Lories’s close analysis of particular passages in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s Third Critique is of interest to scholars of those books, or of Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, but Lories does not connect her topic to Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology.

Rosemary R.P. Lerner’s essay, “The Ethical Dimension of Transcendental Reduction,” attempts to craft a “coherent, unitary view of [Edmund Husserl’s] thought that integrates all of its various dimensions.” (46) Her first step is to free Husserl from Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Husserl’s project as intellectualist, and Lerner gives a useful overview of the history of Husserl interpretation as background for her argument. Lerner recasts Husserl’s phenomenological reduction “as an eminently practical—namely, ethical—achievement (Leistung), driven by a practical virtue, responsibility.” (45) Lerner argues that ethics were a systematic locus in Husserl’s proposed idea of philosophy. She describes Husserl’s gradual transition from viewing ethics as founded upon formal a priori laws to viewing the ethical motivation of right and valuable actions as love in its diverse forms. (52) Husserl never wavered in his view of the importance of the rational, but, Lerner points out, Husserl also included acts of loving, hating, and desiring. This connects with Lerner’s thesis that Husserl’s motivation is responsibility as a function of practical reason. “The intellect is the servant of the will in the same way that I am the servant of those that configure our practical life, as leaders of humanity,” she quotes Husserl as writing and offers other quotes to back up the idea that this idea guided Husserl’s thought. (55) Lerner connects this thought to the primacy of the political in that even if Husserl does not mean that philosophers should immediately dedicate themselves to political life they should set the bedrock of the essential structures of being human, a bedrock on which authentic moral philosophy can be built. (55) She concludes that Husserl’s transcendental reduction can be understood as a resolution to adopt an authentic, good, and responsible life and, therefore, as an ethical renewal. (61-62)

“Individuation and Heidegger’s Ontological ‘Intuitionism’” by accomplished Heidegger scholar Mark A. Wrathall explores the meaning of individuation. Following Taminiaux, Wrathall defines intuitionism as the privileging of perception over thought and the necessity of approaching the Self by means of intuition rather than symbolism. For Wrathall, this means that what individuates each of us is something to which we have direct access. (71) It is possible and necessary to see the distinct individual that I am and to do so in the most radical way. We transcend everyday intelligibility and arrive at an intuitive apprehension of Self that is required for an authentic selfhood. Wrathall states, however, that the transcendental moment in the intuition of the self can never dispense with shared, everyday modes of self-interpretation. Again agreeing with Taminiaux, Wrathall holds that Heidegger erred in thinking that the Self is separated from and constituted independently from relations with others, a view that closes off the Self from ethical demands. Intuition is the priority of “seeing” over thought, (75) but the kind of sight involved in individuating oneself as an authentic agent is a particular type of seeing: perspicuity. (78) Wrathall says that “the sight of perspicuity plays an intimate role in the process of the realization of myself as a self, because it allows me to recognize myself as co-responsible for the opening up of the world.” (83) We are not cut off from others when we individuate ourselves but we see our Self in a shared public world within which we realize ourselves as individuals. The purpose served by achieving a perspicuous grasp of myself and an authentic disclosure of the world, then, is to allow me to comport myself toward my existence in such a way that I “own” or take responsibility for it. The end goal of owning myself is to forge a stable, autonomous character. A responsible existence ultimately depends on an intuitive grasp of myself.

Pol Vandevelde’s “Historicizing the Mind: Gadamer’s ‘Hermeneutic Experience’ Compared to Davidson’s ‘Radical Interpretation’” is as the title advertises. Vendevelde contrasts the two differing views of interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer characterizes interpretation as an event of hermeneutic experience, whereas Donald Davidson, against what he sees as Gadamer’s relativism, sees interpretation as an ahistorical but empirical process of triangulating subjective, objective, and intersubjective positions. The difference between the two theories of interpretation, Vendevelde argues, lies in their treatments of concrete individuals within their own historical situations. (104) Davidson’s theory, by dehistoricalizing interpretation, depersonalizes the concrete historical individuals who have made their own interpretations. The political ramifications of Davidson’s presumed neutrality is a neutralizing, if not empowering, of dominant cultural narratives that prevents concrete individuals, who perform interpretation, from being observed and considered, and therefore is a marginalizing of individual interpretations from subaltern groups.

Focusing on Merleau-Ponty, Stephen Watson addresses the issue of the incompleteness of the phenomenological reduction. Watson observes that “the search for truth is always an embodied truth, but equally a veiled truth.” (108) In “On the Metamorphoses of Transcendental Reduction: Merleau-Ponty and ‘The Adventures of Constitutive Analysis,’” Watson analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s writings on incompleteness to uncover the nature of what is incomplete in the reduction. Watson’s position is that the incompleteness is owing to the inexhaustible transformations involved in the work of making origins manifest rather than a failure fully to grasp originary evidence. Watson links this realization with what he claims is Merleau-Ponty’s idea that we barely coincide with the originary: “what justification we have comes to an end without attaining ultimate determinacy—but not because its itinerary does.” (122) Therefore, Watson concludes, phenomenology itself becomes an open multivocal practice of symbolic institutions as the world is revealed.

Also writing on Merleau-Ponty is Babette Babich in her essay, “Merleau-Ponty’s Lamellae: Aesthetic Feeling, Anger, and Politics.” Babich attempts to show how throughout Merleau-Ponty’s writings is a sustained engagement with psychology and biology. She draws mainly on Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on embodiment and bodily engagement with the lifeworld to show how his phenomenology is a multifaceted topography of thought and intercorporeal life. Babich’s overview of Merleau-Ponty’s views on flesh, spacings, and lamellae does not break new ground, nor do her observations on the relevance of Merleau-Ponty warning’s against violence and capitalist imperialism. She does make some good observations on Merleau-Ponty’s connection between lamellae and flare-ups of anger in relation to embodiment and space (137-139) but does not pursue them fully. A further pursuit of the political implications of personal anger would be highly valuable to social and political theory, and Babich provides some thoughts and resources on this important issue.

Of significant value to addressing the current crisis in education is Sharon Rider’s insightful essay, “Coercion by Necessity or Comprehensive Responsibility? Hannah Arendt on Vulnerability, Freedom and Education.” Speaking on an important current topic, Rider questions recent trends in education policy and provides a much needed counterpoint to them. First, she argues that there is a false image in education of children’s autonomy. She accuses educational “progressivism” of advancing the idea that there is “a child’s world” separate from the adult world that educators and the education process must take into account and therefore not guide but merely support children. (165) She then turns to the related assumption in educational progressivism that there that there can be a science of teaching that can be studied and implemented without mastery in the subject matter taught. Any teacher who has been dragged into certain “training sessions” will commiserate. Armed with an understanding of these two false assumptions, Rider argues, we can move to the more fundamental problem of what the crisis in education says about our form of life. Rider applies Hannah Arendt’s thought to the philosophy of education and proposes the idea of an institution of truth-telling and critique (173) in which we understand human beings as part of the world, always beginning again. Rider says that “it is within the public organization of a collectivity where we are not under the sway of necessity that the new emerges.” (173) The answer to the crisis in education is to treat education as a collectivity that recognizes our shared vulnerability and exercises authority to build stable institutions in which children learn to face facts about who we are and what the world is, as well as learning the discipline of sound judgment.

Environmental ethics are at the center of “Edmund Husserl, Hannah Arendt, and a Phenomenology of Nature” by Janet Donohoe. She starts with Husserl’s concepts of the lifeworld and the distinction between homeworld and alienworld. Donohoe contends that lifeworld is so deeply intertwined with homeworld and alienworld as to be inseparable, providing the foundation for the objective world but not being itself an objective world. (177) She then addresses the question of whether nature is something separate from us that we define ourselves against or whether we are immersed in and inextricably part of nature. Donohoe is firmly on the side of the latter, drawing on Arendt and Kelly Oliver to craft an understanding of us as intertwined with nature. Her purpose in this analysis is to argue for a conception of animal ethics based on the idea that our human lifeworld is not separate from the animal environment. In other words, animals are not an alienworld to our homeworld, but our homeworld is grounded in the same environment shared with nonhuman animals. We are therefore responsible to Earth and the other creatures with whom we share the Earth. (187)

In the most directly political essay in the book, Paul Bruno’s “Symbols and Politics,” the author takes on the thorny issue of the display of the Confederate flag in the United States. Taking as his starting point debates over display of the flag at a particular university, (190) Bruno understands the conflict as regarding the definition and meaning of a symbol, not only in a political sense, but in an aesthetic sense. Bruno is employing aesthetics less in an artistic sense and more in the sense of how humans perceive the meanings of objects. With this move, he can adroitly position the symbol of the flag within the setting of a culture and language. To assist in his analysis, he engages in a phenomenological reading of Kant’s Third Critique, assisted by Taminiaux, focusing on the concepts of symbol and imagination. Our thought takes into account others’ ways of presenting something to compare our own judgments with human reason in general. Importantly, this means that “impartiality is achieved by taking into account other people’s way of seeing or feeling, including those ways of seeing and feeling that we may not find palatable.” (202) Education and politics require that we interact with others’ biases so that we may see our own biases in a new light. Bruno therefore concludes that: “Becoming sensitized to evils perpetrated under the Confederate flag or Nazi flag requires a place in public discourse for those flags. Putting those images in a lockbox is a recipe for them becoming rancid, tools of resentment and disillusion that fester in the hands of the disengaged, or dare I say, the excluded.” (203)

In “Poetics and Politics,” Françoise Dastur examines Taminiaux’s interpretation of tragedy from 1967 to 1995. Dastur reconstructs Taminiaux’s argument of the connections between poetics and politics from Aristotle to Heidegger, assessing it mostly positively. Dastur is critical, however, of Taminiaux’s attempt to argue for a distinction between praxeological and speculative readings of Greek tragedy. She is skeptical of the need for a speculative reading, and drawing on the German Idealists and Niezsche, states that perhaps a praxeological reading of tragedy is adequate to uncover the varied speculative aspects of Greek tragedy. Dastur then questions Taminiaux’s core thesis that poetics and politics are two sides of the same coin. Dastur instead holds that both the ontological
dimension and the political dimension of the tragedy have to be taken into account because they concern human beings in their entirety.

Finally, the two editors each contribute an essay. Véronique M. Fóti stresses the impotence of understanding Merleau-Ponty to understand Taminiaux in “Nature, Art, and the Primacy of the Political: Reading Taminiaux with Merleau-Ponty.” Similar to Donohoe, Fóti argues against treating nature as separate from us. Fóti uses Merleau-Ponty’s arguments against the intellectual subjugation of nature and in favor of the intercorporeality, or interanimality, of animal being and humanity. Her exegesis of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature highlights the need to understand our place in nature as the inter-being of self and other and that our unique spatio-temporal emplacement is a radical contingency, leading us to accept that we cannot intellectually dominate nature. From this concept, we can place our emphasis on lateral rather than hierarchical relationships of power that reject structures of domination. Fóti then turns to Merleau-Ponty’s interrelation between political philosophy and the philosophy of art, a question she relates to an ontology of nature. The political dimension, Fóti says, is not a region set apart but is fundamentally co-extensive with the lifeworld and we must abandon a binary opposition of political and nonpolitical life.

The book concludes with Pavlos Kontos’s “The Myth of Performativity: From Aristotle to Arendt and Taminiaux.” “The Myth of Performativity” in the title Kontos understands
as the conception in philosophy that some actions constitute pure performances in that they do not leave behind them concrete traces in the world. Kontos identifies the pitfall of the myth in Heidegger who, Kontos claims, celebrates pure performativity, distorting the performativity proper to actions. Kontos praises Taminiaux’s theory of political action, which speaks against the legitimacy of the Myth. Kontos sees Taminiaux as a corrective for how philosophers like Heidegger and Arendt, under the influence of the Myth, misunderstand the notion of solidarity, power, and memory. For example, Arendt’s idea that the actor and storyteller occupy two different positions is problematic. The storyteller is portrayed as not engaged in the web of political action so that the elusive character of actions is therefore not a predicament. When we reject the Myth, we put the storyteller and the actor into a new light showing that the practice of historical storytelling is intrinsically political.

Jacques Derrida: The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II

The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II Book Cover The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II
The Seminars of Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida. First volume translated by Peggy Kamuf. Second volume translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg
University of Chicago Press
2013, 2017
312, 304

Reviewed by: Aaron Aquilina (Lancaster University)

Jacques Derrida presented these seminars at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, improvising their translation when presenting abroad at New York University and the University of California, Irvine, between 1999-2000 and 2000-2001. The English translations of these seminars come directly from Derrida’s typed notes and are rigorous, including footnotes transcribing comments added by Derrida during the presentation of his lectures as well as reproducing his own private marginal notes.

While these two sets of seminars first and foremost deal with the question of the death penalty, the two volumes approach the principal enquiry from perceptibly different angles, and include several instances of (nonetheless relevant) digression that characterises Derrida’s style. Indeed, within these same seminars, there are conjured some surprising questions of literature, euthanasia, alterity, age, the heart, sexuality, grief, suicide, psychoanalysis, the animal, and deconstruction itself, alongside more expected discussion around law, justice, religion, history, politics, spectacle, sovereignty, cruelty, blood, murder and death.

The simplest way of describing the somewhat disparate interests of the two sets would be to say that, while the first volume is concerned with understanding what the death penalty is, the second explores what the death penalty means. This is not to say that the same questions are not repeatedly posed and transposed throughout both volumes, as most exemplified by Derrida’s chief interest in thinking with and through talk of abolition or retention and towards further unveiling the gestures of deconstruction, ‘becoming or revealing itself finally as that which finds itself grappling, in order to deconstruct it, with […] the strange and stupefying and shocking fact that never, but never, it turns out, has any philosophical discourse as such, in the system of its properly philosophical argument, opposed the principle, I repeat, the principle, of the death penalty’ (DPII, 2). While Derrida is himself against the death penalty, as he once clearly states, his main task is ‘to think otherwise the interest there could be in standing up against the death penalty and in universally abolishing the death penalty’ (DPI, 254). In fact, by the end of the last seminar one finds that Derrida, typically, has not provided a singular or conclusive position against the thoughts of that strongest advocate of the death penalty—Immanuel Kant.

He does, however, offer seminal insights and openings by which one might position oneself beyond arguments of, for instance, life imprisonment as opposed to the effect of criminal deterrence. Such arguments, Derrida points out, operate from within the death penalty’s own modality rather than interrogate its rationality; as such, even arguments against the death penalty are ultimately subsumed or enslaved within its logic. The death penalty seems inescapable; it seems to ‘[hide] a nonunifiable multiplicity of concepts and questions’, a ‘collective experience of putting to death’ (DPII, 18). Derrida, in fact, situates the death penalty at the heart of human sociality, quoting Kant in (at least partial) agreement: ‘The mere idea of a civil constitution among human beings carries with it the concept of punitive justice belonging to the supreme authority’ (first quoted DPII, 134).[i]

Being ‘at the origin of the social contract or the contract of the nation-state, at the origin of any sovereignty, any community, or any genealogy, any people’, that which kills us, then, is what lets us live (DPI, 20-1). Moreover, in its entrenchment in law and society, it stands to reason that the penalty is at the heart, also, of economics, and this Derrida meditates at length through common phrases such as “to pay with one’s life”, “cost him his life”, “risk one’s neck” or “the value of life”. These are words belonging to the economy of the talionic law (jus talionis), at its most extreme an economy of death, and more shall be said on this later.

In light of this troubling twist—it is the death penalty that allows us to live—Derrida examines throughout this idea of the penalty at the heart of law (going as far back as to the trial of Socrates) and with it, necessarily, this figure of ‘supreme authority’ and the logic of the exception. To this end, he repeatedly engages with contemporary political situations such as the case of Buffet and Bontems, the unwillingness or even inability of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights to outlaw the death penalty, and, at length, the rather strange case of the United States—this both through an analysis of its history, so closely tied to the penalty, as well as through more tangential approaches, such as reading Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Even in the US’s temporary abolition of the death penalty (1972-77), Derrida says, ‘the court did not rule on the principle of the death sentence, but on the cruelty of its execution’ (DPI, 53). This is, perhaps, the point that he wishes to make most clear throughout the seminars: that there can be no law, nor society, without punishment as epitomised by the principle of the death penalty. This is why he claims that ‘it will always be vain to conclude that the universal abolition of the death penalty, if it comes about one day, means the effective end of any death penalty’, and, as such, ‘even when the death penalty […] will have been purely and simply, absolutely and unconditionally, abolished on earth [sic.], it will survive: there will still be some death penalty’ (DPI, 282-3).

Thus, we see Derrida’s second point: the death penalty is not only what is proper to law—‘the right to law [le droit au droit], the right to the violence of law’ (DPII, 48)—but also what goes beyond it. In its position as the foundation and birth of every law, every society, it also outside such laws and societies. It persists throughout both peace and wartime—however difficult it is, Derrida remarks, to properly distinguish between the two. Justice, then, is not what employs the death penalty, but rather it is the other way around. Keeping this in mind, one recalls the cases of King Charles I or Louis XVI, whom Derrida also talks about (especially of the latter, of course): the death penalty is not only that which the sovereign can wield, but also that which ends him.

Sovereignty is, in fact, one of the main concepts in question here. It is interesting, especially in light of Michel Foucault’s conception of biopolitics with which Derrida briefly engages, that, following the above understanding, presidency (and with it democracy) is viewed as a continuation of sovereign rule. Following commentary on Georges Pompidou and the 2000 American election (George W. Bush, Al Gore, Ralph Nader), Derrida talks of how this modern ‘sovereign known as “President”’ points to ‘something like a contradiction internal sovereignty: unconditional sovereignty is conditional’—here, the votes of a society given form by the death penalty. (DPII, 1, 57). In the French Revolution, where the death penalty made itself clearly known as what persists even in the suspension of law, that condition was the very physicality of the king, the body natural, which the guillotine severed.

When, however, the death penalty is utilised as a tool of law, one is indeed at the mercy of ‘he who decides the exception’ (first quoted DPI, 83).[ii] It is safe to say that Derrida here leaves Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty uncontested, and similarly critiques the problematic of the exception (in continuation from the previous seminars, Perjury and Pardon) as the location from which order is maintained precisely because it is in opposition to the general law. Connecting back to the idea that the death penalty is what allows us to live on, Derrida explains ‘how this logic [of the exception], which is that of absolute sovereignty and the self-preservation of the political body, [authorizes] the absolute maintenance, even though or because it is exceptional, of the death penalty, in the name of the self-preservation of the sociopolitical body’ (DPI, 86). Sovereignty thus not only constitutes the penalty but is constituted by it: ‘the question of the death penalty,’ Derrida says, ‘is a question of the different ways the state has of affirming its sovereignty by disposing of the life of certain subjects’ (DPII, 19). This, in turn, is an affirmation utilised in the face of defiance—and here Derrida thinks with Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’—a challenge to the very figure of the sovereign: ‘The great criminal is […] the sovereign exception of one who has been able to defy and contest the monopolization of violence by law’; ultimately, what can be seen in ‘the one condemned to death [is] an absolute, almost sovereign power’ (DPII, 46). In the case of the death penalty, it would also be true, therefore, to say that the exception decides itself.

Derrida presents another way of understanding the exception: as miracle. ‘The exceptional situation, that is, the criterion of sovereignty […] is the same thing as what are called miracles in religion. It’s the same structure: a pure decision’ (DPII, 249). Throughout these seminars especially, Derrida upholds that one cannot understand the order of the political without understanding how it is interwoven with the religious. This point is frequently made through Political Theology, either overtly or in the seminars’ subtext, and serves to highlight the theologico-political role of the sovereign as underlined throughout. Derrida in fact reminds us how it is often through religion that the death penalty is sustained (namely Christianity, and occasional comments are indeed made on what is arguably the most prevalent figure of those condemned to death, Jesus). The death penalty found its first manifestation in human society as an implement not of human law but of the divine.

This is how the essence of sovereign power, as political but first of all theologico-political power, presents itself, represents itself as the right to decree and to execute a death penalty. Or to pardon arbitrarily, sovereignly. If one wants to ask oneself “What is the death penalty?” or “What is the essence and meaning of the death penalty?” it will indeed be necessary to reconstitute this history of sovereignty as the hyphen in the theologico-political. (DPI, 22-23).

This is perhaps best taken up in Derrida’s overall discussion of the US. The consequences of religion as shaded into US law and vice versa—one aspect of which being their culmination into a vague concept called the right to life—at times confound Derrida. Speaking of abortion, for instance, he says: ‘It is always in the name of the right to life that these militants (most often Christian) claim to be fighting, and often violently […]. The fact that sociologically, statistically, historically, these militants are most often, notably in the United States, […] in favour of the death penalty […] is but one of the signs we have to interrogate’ (DPI, 121).

It was earlier stated that Derrida wanted to move away from arguments of abolition and retention, but this is not to say that such arguments were ignored. He does, in fact, continually interrogate the theologico-political matrix, at work in the US and elsewhere, through the writings of those living in states where the death penalty—in its most naked form, as legal punishment—is still at work. Aside from discussing more general arguments, Derrida also looks to specific thinkers such as Victor Hugo (Writings on the Death Penalty and his 1832 preface to The Last Day of a Condemned Man), Albert Camus (‘Reflections on the Guillotine’), Mumia Abu-Jamal (Live from Death Row), and several others (the most familiar names would be, perhaps, Locke, Rousseau, Sophocles, Diderot, Montesquieu, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Voltaire, Montaigne—the list goes on).

All this amounts to nothing short of a spectacle, albeit one that is not always visible; despite the ‘optimistic and teleological [global] tendency’ towards abolition, the show goes on (DPI, 136). This is the reason Derrida chooses to use the term “death penalty” throughout the seminars and not “capital punishment”. The latter phrase connotes the head principally, and one must keep in mind that ‘[w]ithin the legal procedure of execution, putting to death has not always involved attacking the head, decapitating, practicing decollation, hanging or strangulation of the condemned one, or again by a firing squad aiming at the condemned one’s face’ (DPI, 41). Furthermore, this phrase brings to the forefront the very idea of method, which of course connotes also the diverse histories of execution, cultures and religions, technologies, theatricalities.

Hence, “death penalty”, unlike “capital punishment”, goes some way towards revealing the increasing invisibility of the penalty. Following Foucault’s theories of both the spectacle and despectacularization (the latter with some divergence, namely in terms of what Derrida terms the virtual), Derrida attempts to peer into the (in)visibility of the penalty, from the crowds around the guillotine or town hangings to the electric chair and the lethal injection, in order to look at what he calls a history of blood, and the change ‘from the moment that one loses the visibility of literal blood, the visible literality of blood’ (DPII, 261). He goes on: ‘No history of the death penalty will be possible without a history of blood’ (and here Derrida points out the homonyms sans sang), and in this light he muses whether, in the same way that the guillotine was viewed as a humanitarian advancement, this might also be the case with the disappearance of blood—a ‘humanization’, ‘humanism’, and ‘humanitarianism’ of the death penalty (DPI, 191-2). Whenever this history of blood is brought to light, the subsequent points made by Derrida regard, much more often than not, the machine and the mechanistic, calling into question the concepts of progressivism and care (for the condemned individual) so closely associated with the death penalty—a surprising association, as Derrida evidences in several seminars, with something so barbaric and of which the sole purpose is the eradication of the individual. The process of erasure of the death penalty’s visibility, Derrida warns, should therefore not be taken as some gradual fulfilment of the abolitionist’s goal; visibility is erased only because the death penalty is so unmovingly entrenched within human society that it is itself a part of the progressions, technological or otherwise, of the ages.

This move from the public to the private space, even to the secret space (and the fact that crime is most often done secretly is not irrelevant, as Derrida muses), prompts him to explore the psychoanalytic concepts in which the penalty is shrouded, an endeavour undertaken mostly within the second volume. The conscious and the secrets of the unconscious is here read mainly through Theodor Reik, one of Sigmund Freud’s first students and who writes in his name. Apart from repeatedly commenting on this delegation of power through the act of writing in someone’s name (writing in blood, perhaps), Derrida brings in Reik primarily for his Freudian argument against the death penalty (in The Compulsion to Confess; this in lieu of Freud, who never directly wrote about the death penalty).

Reik traces the progress of punishment—from a death penalty of retaliation and vengeance to one of protection, deterrence and prevention—and suggests a further possible path of progress: that of ‘the complete elimination of [criminal, judicial] punishment’ (DPII, 130). Realising that punishment is nonetheless integral to society, Reik advocates self-punishment, a taking on of our collective unconscious guilt, formulated as that which, ‘far from succeeding the crime, […] precedes it from the most archaic formation of the unconscious’, a guilt which ‘always refers back to an Oedipal situation’ (DPII, 12, 181). In psychoanalysis, then, all crime is at origin sexual. Ultimately, what Reik proposes amounts to ‘the psychoanalytic treatment of society as a whole’, ‘a worldwide autoanalytic treatment’ that deals with the foreign nature of forgiveness in the unconscious—foreign, Reik and Freud say, as are the ideas of caution, gratefulness or death itself (DPII, 132-33).

Though never stating it clearly as such, Derrida presents Reik’s ideas as compelling, and deserving of lengthy rumination, but ultimately unconvincing. On the aptness of Reik’s position within the history of thought of the death penalty, Derrida is also unsure: ‘I wouldn’t say either yes or no’ (DPII, 183). Such thinking, Derrida points out (and which, in fairness, Reik’s writings also deliberately evidence to some degree), follows a direct trajectory from the talionic law and its ‘interests and calculations’, the economy of punishment and death (DPI, 140). It is a law of obvious Greek and biblical proportions, but its rationality is epitomised through Kant, whose thought, callous as it is, remains improperly understood or else only weakly rebutted (and hence the very real need for these seminars, through which Derrida offers a diversity of counter-thoughts).

Though Reik acknowledges the theories of the talion, he seems to underestimate or at least under-represent the Kantian theory of law and ‘its reference to talionic law as pure rational principle and categorical imperative’ (DPII, 180). Derrida makes clear how Kant is already there before Reik on auto-punishment, and this, for Kant, by no means circumvents the necessity and even inevitability of the death penalty. In trying to understand ‘the extraordinary rationality but also the stupid uselessness of this Kantian logic […] as rigorous as it is absurd’, Derrida begins by underscoring Kant’s conception of the dual nature of man—the homo noumenon (the rational aspect) and the homo phaenomenon (man’s empirical life, as governed by Euclidian and Newtonian laws)—and Kant’s idea that, when condemned to death, it is the noumenon that punishes itself, condemning the phaenomenon to death conjointly with the ultimate figure of rational morality, the sovereign (DPI, 127).

Despite bringing in anti-rationalist arguments—chief among them those made by Cesare Beccaria, whose writings can be read as highlighting some of the problems one can already see with Kant’s division, and who attempts to disassociate the exception from the sovereignty of law—the ‘extraordinary rationality’ of the penalty perseveres. Further complication is added in Kant’s distinction between the two kinds of punishment: poena forensis (punishment delivered from the outside, by a judge or executioner) and poena naturalis (when the criminal spontaneously suffers from the crime, such as in the case of bankruptcy as a result of vice; self-punishment). Derrida strongly questions the rigour of this divide between the forensis and the naturalis, doubtful of whether there is ever pure auto-punishment or pure hetero-punishment (to use his terms), but even here Kant seems to have arrived already.

For Kant, the death penalty ‘must not serve any purpose, and it must take place even if it does not serve any purpose’, this because punishment ‘can never be decreed as a means to promote an end’, but solely as an end in itself, inflicted because the criminal ‘has made himself guilty of a crime’ (DPII, 39). This is what makes the death penalty a categorical imperative, and any idea of deterrence, social security, revenge or utility becomes merely subsequent or even completely irrelevant. Thus the death penalty—the poena forensis—is neither useful nor socially necessary, but must be maintained on the basis that it gives the human being—the noumenon—dignity and honor. The death penalty, in Kant, works in two directions: as both self- and external-punishment, working with the porousness of auto- and hetero-punishment.

In consequence, added to Kant’s strict defence of the figure of the sovereign (as his comments on the Revolution, for instance, make most lucid), there is also a counter-logic here which Derrida identifies: ‘To put to death a guilty citizen according to law and justice is in no way, according to Kant, to dispose sovereignly of his body’ (DPII, 42). In this framework, the rational aspect of man must comply with the idea that putting a human being to death is to respect the fact that it is a human being, a respect for the innate personality of man, which ‘makes every human being what he or she is, human, and thus a rational subject of law’, even if the criminal has forsaken their civil personality (DPII, 90). To abolish the death penalty would be to outlaw justice, and it is only moral justice that makes us human. To do away with the death penalty would be, to use a term with which Derrida credits Kant for its appearance in philosophy, a crime against humanity. Once again, the seminars revolve around the revolutions of the guillotine: the death penalty kills us only so that we may live; the death penalty kills us only so that we may be us, human.

Taking his cue from a response penned by Kant in his 1798 edition of Doctrine of Right—where Kant outlines the crimes and appropriate punishments for rape and pederasty (castration) and bestiality (social exclusion)—Derrida points out several times how one never quite hears, in the tones above, of condemning the animal to death. A deconstruction of this line between human and animal, more specifically human death and animal death, seems to be suggested by Derrida as one possible way forward through this deeply anthropocentric rationality which would, in turn, create a space for a possible radical rethinking of the death penalty itself (here one begins to see the reasoning behind Derrida’s choice for the following and last seminar at the École: The Beast and the Sovereign).

This possible radical rethinking is more than a rethinking of all the above concepts, but furthermore a rethinking of death itself. Derrida asks, not exactly rhetorically: ‘must one start out from the question of the death penalty […] in order to pose the question of death in general?’ (DPI, 238). This question—one the ‘great thinkers of death never seriously spoke and which they no doubt held to be a circumscribable and relatively dependant, secondary question’—he answers in the affirmative, stating that ‘if there was one thing, one word to deconstruct, it is indeed what is called death’ (DPI, 237, 240). It must here be noted, however, that at this and other instances where a “deconstruction of death” is meditated, it is not taken up by Derrida, in part because of his main concerns in the seminars as recounted here and also because this would mean undertaking a “deconstruction of life itself”.

Derrida, however, does constantly think of death itself and what the death penalty unearths of this thought at the horizon of thought. One particular examination is of our way of being-towards-death (and Martin Heidegger is obviously here invoked, albeit only mentioned infrequently in the seminars), and the question of whether being condemned to death in some way alters our relationship with our death. This Derrida attempts to characterise through a distinction between being “condemned to die”, as we all are, and being “condemned to death”, where one is afforded a ‘calculable knowledge’ of one’s own time of death, knowing ‘in all certitude […] that the hour of [their] death is fixed, by others, by a third party, at a certain day, a certain hour, a certain second’ (DPI, 218). However, just like all border lines and divisions, this is a porous distinction: the case of terminal illness comes uncomfortably close to breaching it, and so does the ‘paradigm of the fatwa [such as the one unleased on Rushdie] [which] complicates all the more the question’ of condemnation and the human being’s relation to death (DPII, 197). Another question of death asked by the penalty, perhaps slightly less academic but all the more hard-hitting for it, is the following one which Derrida asks his audience:

If, given that I am in any case, like every living being, condemned to die, if not condemned to death, if, condemned to dying sooner or later, like everyone else, I had the choice between, on the one hand, dying at such and such an age, tomorrow or later today, of natural causes, as the result of an automobile accident or an illness (like almost everyone, in fact), and, on the other hand, of dying at another age, later, the day after tomorrow, in a year, ten years, twenty years, in a prison, because I will have been sentenced to death by capital punishment (the guillotine, the electric chair, lethal injection, hanging, the gas chamber), what would I choose, what age would I choose for my death?

As one can see, these seminars are vast in scope and ambitious in thought, in constant dialogue with the thinkers above. There are yet others that have not been mentioned here: the literature of Shakespeare, Genet, Baudelaire; the philosophies of Blanchot, Levinas, Marx, Descartes, and Hegel; the political theology of Donoso Cortés, the linguistic studies of Émile Benveniste, and the theories of Charles Darwin. The seminars also include frequent strands that Derrida transparently cuts short, having no time to devote to these thoughts the perseverance they deserve. While some of these are then taken up in The Beast and The Sovereign and elsewhere in his later works, these seminars deserve a close reading on the merits of both what Derrida said and what he leaves unsaid.

[i] Kant, Immanuel. ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’. In Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 497.

[ii] Carl Schmitt. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 5.