Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe: Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference

Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference Book Cover Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference
Jacques Derrida, HansJacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber, Translated by Jeff Fort, Foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe
Fordham University Press
2016
Hardback $85.00
116

Reviewed by: Facundo Bey (Universidad Nacional de General San Martín / CONICET-Universidad de Buenos Aires)

On the evening of February 5, 1988, at the University of Heidelberg, three of the major and most influential figures of the 20th-century philosophy met in Heidelberg before a large audience. Fifty five years before, in the same lecture hall, Martin Heidegger, as Rector of the University of Freiburg, had given a speech that would be part of the firsts steps towards a running sore, “a wound in thought itself” [c’est une blessure de la pensée] in Maurice Blanchot’s words[i], a proper caesura, entitled “Das Universität im neue Reich” [The University in the New Reich]. Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg-Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, three unquestionable distinguished Heidegger’s interpreters, came together that February of 1988 for over two days to discuss the philosophical and political implications of Martin Heidegger’s thought and legacy, under a Gadamer’s sign of hospitality: the encounter took place in the common linguistic territory of the French language. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference, edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber, and translated into English by Jeff Effort, collects the fruitful dialogues between these three thinkers and their exchanges with the audience during this unforgettable debate officially entitled “Heidegger: Portée philosophique et politique de sa pensée” [Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of his Thought].

Days after the conference, once the text of the public debate was ready, Derrida, Gadamer, Lacoue-Labarthe, but also, Calle-Gruber—who was in charge of the presentation—and Reiner Wiehl—president of the session—, all of them, agreed to defer the publication[ii]. Those were unquiet days: only a year before had been published the “spectacular” book by Víctor Farías, Heidegger et le nazisme[iii] (1987) and, by the time of the Heidelberg Conference—partially motivated by the whirlwind generated by the Farías’ book—the media focus was as never before concentrated on Heidegger’s documented Nazism (which was already known from the 1960s, provided by Guido Schneeberger[iv], as Gadamer remembers[v]). Both Lacoue-Labarthe[vi] and Gadamer[vii], as it is well known, had largely discussed Farías provocative book, and had considered that was written not without recourse to misrepresentations and malicious omissions. Farías also devoted himself to denounce not only Heidegger Nazism but the so-called “heideggerianism”, especially what he understood as its French decline: Jean Beaufret and Jacques Derrida, both unfairly associated to Robert Faurisson and his revisionist-negationist theories regarding the non existence of gas chambers in the nazi concentration camps. Thus, the gadamerian decision that the conference be delivered in French, besides representing an act of generosity, acquires a new meaning.

Derrida, Gadamer and Lacoue-Labarthe faced in this conference the complexities of the discussion on a shared ground, each resorting to their own considerations while attempting to set up a dialogue (despite the manifest intention, at least from Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, of not giving a full account of their own most well-known published texts). To begin, Lacoue-Labarthe invoked his thesis on the confrontation, “the inmense debate”, that Heidegger, after the rectorship at Freiburg, would have started with what National Socialism meant in the history of the West, through the calling of art into question and the deconstruction of Western aesthetics, that is to say, the understanding of the essence of tékhne [viii]. One of the central thesis of Lacoue-Labarthe, that is present in his participation in the conference, is that the question of art occupies a nodal place in Heidegger’s self-interpretation of the enigma of his own political commitment, since it would constitute his self-confrontation with National Socialism, his own Auseinandersetzung subsequent to the experience of the Rectorship. After 1934, Heidegger introduces poetry and the poet figure as the main references for the reflection on the German identity and, in this way, Nietzsche’s previous dominant influence begins its decline to give way to the new hero: Hölderlin. The terms in which the myth and the tragedy would be thus later understood will not be those of the great German mimetic dream of Greece proper to nazi Wagnero-Nietzscheanism, but those of Dichtung, Sprache and Sage, which, in turn, overflow the aesthetic determination of the poetic.

Gadamer, contributed to the conference with both his irreplaceable reflections and testimonies, but also reopening the interrupted conversation started in April 1981 at the Paris Goethe Institute with Jacques Derrida. Therefore, Gadamer’s intervention was focused, on one hand, in its testimony value, maybe because the questions of the audience had conducted him too much in this way. In this respect, “surprise” and “shock” are the recurrent adjectives he used for describing what was then in 1933 his reaction to Heidegger’s Rectorship chair acceptation, indissociable of the latter’s public nazi commitment, specially when he had seemed to Gadamer politically much closer to National-Bolshevikism[ix] (which, in the eyes of Gadamer, as political Movement, had not a biologicist discourse). The main hypothesis of Gadamer is that Heidegger really believed for a moment that the nazi revolution was the possibility of a true spiritual renovation, but once he understood Nazism had become not more than a “decadent revolution”, it was for him no more his revolution, he felt no responsible at all for anything. And that would explain his great ambiguities: first of all, his silence. But also the responsibility with respect to the great number of colleagues and students who followed him in his political decision together with the disturbing contradiction of writing contemporary on the “forgetting of being”, the predominance of technics and the devastating consequences of the industrial revolution.[x] On the other hand, Gadamer presented a critical point of view of Heidegger’s path to the “fragmentation of metaphysical conceptualization by means of this force he exerted against words”[xi], that involved a similar consideration regarding to Derrida, and that allowed Gadamer to understand himself closer to Paul Celan and his sense of fragmentation.

Derrida, for its part, during the conference superbly questioned Heidegger’s own questions and avoidances, as well as the meaning of legacy and responsibility. He asserted—by way of an improvised and risky hypothesis, later shared by Lacoue-Labarthe and Gadamer—that Martin Heidegger’s silence, his unforgivable silence in the face of the barbaric horror of Nazi extermination, is the legacy that has bequeathed us. In Derrida’s words:

What I am saying here is very risky, and I risk it as a hypothesis, while asking you to accompany me in this risk. […] with a phrase spoken in the direction of an easy consensus, Heidegger woul have closed the matter. […] I believe that if he had let himself go for a statement, let’s say, of immediate moral reaction, or of a declaration of horror, or of non- forgiveness—a declaration that would not itself be a work of thought at the level of all that he had already thought—, well, perhaps we would feel more easily spared the work that we have to do today: because we have to do this work. That is what we have inherited.[xii]

This hypothesis is, ultimately, the beginning of a response, an answer to the question of responsibility of thought. On the one hand, improvisation would be a kind of responsibility by means of risking a disarmed speech.[xiii] On the other hand, to be heir to a legacy supposes always a response, the act of responding for not only a call not chosen, but also one that comes before oneself[xiv]. This is the call that Farías book wanted to mute, the path this book tried to close by doing a “case closed” out of the Heidegger nazi commitment. For this commitment was not in 1988 nor now something someone can put into question. Heidegger’s Nazism is indisputable. But to be heir to a legacy in the sense Derrida expressed it means a response to the dogmatic question where Faría’s book seem to lead: “is it posible yet to read Heidegger?”.

Somehow, today the 1988 scenario recurs. The publication for the first time of the Heidelberg Conference in 2014, in its French first edition[xv], concurrent with the beginning of the publication of the Schwartze Hefte in Germany, revealed a “dislocation” [décalage], as Jean-Luc Nancy has said[xvi], which comes not only from the very root of the problem itself, the relationship between Martin Heidegger and his political commitment with Nazism, but also from the mediatic racket generated by the very publication of the Schwartze Hefte themselves.

The process, begun in 2014, of the gradual publication of the Schwartze Hefte, which are loaded with resounding anti-Semitic expressions (that occupy a new and important place in the philosophical work of Martin Heidegger, although are not the only elements of these books), challenges us today to think, demands pronouncements and explanations, in a climate of opportunism, confusion, obscurantism and controversy as it was that of the late eighties. Once again, the mass media (but not only the media) raise a false alternative that may be summarized as it follows: “If he was a great philosopher, then he was not a Nazi; if he was a Nazi, then he has not been a great philosopher”[xvii]. Thus, the task would be enormous for the heirs: none other than the terrifying and valuable mandate to think what Heidegger did not think, to say what he was not able to say[xviii], namely, the affinities and common roots among his thought, the essence of the West and Nazism; the subject of Nazism by itself; the basis for his National-Socialist engagement.

Nowadays, the publication of the Schwartze Hefte came to dispel the silence, but did not liquidate the task. In any case, today there is no way to avoid the inevitable. As Donatella Di Cesare said:

Even the stereotype of the philosopher lying in an impolitic conformity seems totally unmotivated. Heidegger was by no means a “conformist” and in the Black Notebooks—as in other works of the thirtiesappears a politically radical philosopher. It will therefore be necessary to rewrite the chapter “Heidegger and politics” which promises to be much more complex than what has been assumed so far[xix].

That chapter today is beginning to be rewritten, little by little. To be sure, Donatella Di Cesare and Peter Trawny[xx]—editor of the Schwarze Hefte, published by Klostermann—provide today the most penetrating and accurate analysis on Heidegger’s anti-Semitism (although each one from a different point of view). In particular, in direct relation to one of the main reflections that the publication of the Heidelberg Conference brings up, Di Cesare dedicated half of his Heidegger & Sons. Eredità e futuro di un filosofo (2015) to face the problem of Heidegger’s legacy. Two paths seem to be shaped in the face of the intellectual inheritance of the German thinker. On the one hand, “orthodoxy”, which either denies or trivializes the status of Heidegger’s political statements, reacts with loyal impotence, marginalizing texts, problems, even people. On the other hand, a spectacular parade of pamphleteer whistleblowers sets out to hunt down the “Heideggerians”, suspected subscribers of any action or omission of Heidegger. Of course, these are false options that take us to just a single alternative: refusing to think. For, as Di Cesare affirms, “an inheritance is never something that can be either fully received or, on the contrary, totally refuted”[xxi]. We are heirs, whether we want it or not; that means having to learn to be both faithful and unfaithful[xxii]. Reading Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference will not dissipate the new questions that the publication of the Schwartze Hefte opened, but may give us both a vision of a path that must be understood as well as an understanding of some initial conclusions of three major philosophers that should be necessary overcome if we are really willing to confront once again to the challenges posed by Martin Heidegger’s thought.

References:

Blanchot, Maurice. “Notre compagne clandestine”, in Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1980).

Cohen, Richard A. Face to face with Lévinas (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986).

Derrida, Jacques, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference (Fordham University Press, 2016).

Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger e gli ebrei. I «Quaderni neri» (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2014).

Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger & sons: eredità e futuro di un filosofo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2015).


[i] Cohen, Richard A. Face to face with Lévinas (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986), 43. Originally in Blanchot, Maurice, “Notre compagne clandestine”, in Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas (Paris: J.-M. Place, 1980), 81.

[ii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference (Fordham University Press, 2016), xiii.

[iii] Farías, Víctor. Heidegger et le nazisme (Paris: Verdier, 1987).

[iv] Schneeberger, Guido. Nachlese zu Heidegger (Bern: Suhr, 1962).

[v] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 63.

[vi]Sur le livre de Victor Farias, Heidegger et le nazisme”, in Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. La fiction du politique: Heidegger, lart et la politique (París: Christian Bourgois, [1987] 1998), 173-188. The text resumes with some modifications an article appeared in the Journal Littéraire: “Le procès Heidegger”, Le Journal Littéraire, no. 2: 115-117, December 1987-January 1988.

[vii] Published originally as “Zurück von Syrakus?”, in Die Heidegger-Kontroverse, ed. Jürg Altwegg (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum, 1988), 176-79; later was published in French in Le Nouvel Observateur, January 22-28, 1988, translated by Geneviève Carcopino. It was also translated into English as “Back from Syracuse?,” trans. John McCumber, Critical Inquiry 15, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 427-30. The English version of Gadamer’s text was included in the edition here reviewed.

[viii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 37-38.

[ix] Ibid., 64-75.

[x] Ibid., 11-12.

[xi] Ibid., 41.

[xii] Ibid., 35-36.

[xiii] Ibid., 16.

[xiv] Ibid., 65-68.

[xv] Derrida, Jacques, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Mireille Calle-Gruber. La conférence de Heidelberg, 1988: Heidegger, portée philosophique et politique de sa pensée (Paris: Lignes, 2014).

[xvi] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, vii.

[xvii] Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger e gli ebrei. I «Quaderni neri» (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2014), 3. All Di Cesare’s translations by Facundo Bey.

[xviii] Derrida, Jacques, Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Philosophy, and Politics: the Heidelberg Conference, 35.

[xix] Di Cesare, Donatella. Heidegger & sons: eredità e futuro di un filosofo (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2015), 79.

[xx] Trawny, Peter. Heidegger und der Mythos der jüdischen Weltverschwörung (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, 2015).

[xxi] Di Cesare, Heidegger & sons, 33.

[xxii] Di Cesare, Heidegger & sons, 33-34.

Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman: The Rise of Realism

The Rise of Realism Book Cover The Rise of Realism
Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman
Polity
2017
Paperback €19.02
240

Reviewed by: Mark Losoncz (Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, Belgrade / Novi Sad)

This book presents an enthusiastic dialogue between two contemporary philosophers, Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman. Neo-materialism and object-oriented ontology face each other as equally inspiring conceptual approaches to the key issues of new realism. One might have thought that DeLanda’s philosophy of dynamic relations and intensities, strongly influenced by Deleuzian concepts, can only be interpreted as a devoted rival of Harman’s philosophy which is very clear, in a partially neo-Aristotelian manner, about the priority of individual-substantial objects. But as the dialogue evolves, we have to realize that things are much more complicated.

So, what binds the interlocutors of this book together? First of all, they needed a common enemy to unite them. Indeed, the enemy has no clear outline – it embraces as different currents and thinkers as social constructivism and Alain Badiou, culturalist pseudo-Marxism and Karen Barad. According to DeLanda and Harman, they can all be brought together under the flag of anti-realism, either because of the denial of a mind-independent cosmos or because of treating human subjectivity as an ontologically outsized (co-)creator of the world. While DeLanda and Harman sometimes present realism as a heretic alternative with respect to mainstream continental trends, they also offer another perspective according to which 20th century continental philosophy can be re-read, at least partially, as a series of realist tendencies. For example, it is claimed that Deleuze is a continental realist, that Husserl’s concept of the object as an invariant form can serve as an inspiration for contemporary realism and that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has also serious realist consequences. Roughly speaking, in continental philosophy, realism is both an excommunicated pseudo-problem and the hidden message of its exciting underground. What is more, Harman does not hesitate to mention the fellow travelers: the speculative realists, Maurizio Ferraris and Markus Gabriel.

Although DeLanda and Harman are careful to emphasize their shared rejection of anti-realism throughout the book, the lines between their respective philosophies are not blurred. Already in the first chapter it is obvious that DeLanda’s neo-materialism cannot easily be reconciled with Harman’s “realism without materialism” which denounces materialism as a reductionist approach, being unable to account for immaterial entities such as fictional characters in novels. From the viewpoint of Harman’s flat ontology, “materialism has often led to premature decisions about what should and should not count as real.” (15) In contrast to this position, DeLanda proposes a material-energetic-informationism that “involves a rejection of entities that transcend the world of patterned matter-energy” (16). This immanentist model gives fiction a less mystifying status by defining it as an emergent property, or, more precisely, as a level of emergence. The first chapter of the book is valuable for several reasons. In particular, it is useful for clarifying the difference between materialism and realism, for being critical of various reductionist approaches (“undermining” / micro-reductionism and “overmining” / macro-reductionism) and for thematizing the dilemma of aprioristic and aposterioristic thinking in philosophy. Furthermore, there is an interesting debate on Aristotelian essences and forms, Harman being sympathetic to these concepts and DeLanda rejecting them on the grounds of his historical-genetic theory of singularities. The critique of Marxism is arguably the worst part of this chapter, especially when DeLanda suggests that Marxists have a “special brand in which a priori schemes of synthesis (the negation of the negation) form the core of their position” (12). It seems almost superfluous to say that this extremely abstract use of the term “Marxism” ignores the rich diversity of classical and contemporary Marxisms, with special regard to those that are highly critical of dialectical categories and the Hegelian legacy of Marx.

The second chapter relies upon Lee Braver’s 2007 book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism in order to make precise distinctions between realist and anti-realist positions. The key issues are the mind-dependence of the world, truth as correspondence, the possibility of a complete description of the world, the possibility of true and untrue statements, the relationship between knowledge and the knowable, and the claim according to which the human subject has a fixed character. DeLanda and Harman complete Braver’s list with three more problems. The first concerns the question whether the relation of the human subject with the world should be considered a privileged relation for philosophy, the second is whether subjective experience is linguistically structured and the third is about the world as a holistic entity in which everything is inextricably related. One of the most valuable aspects of this chapter is DeLanda’s and Harman’s insistence on defining the concepts of relation and relationism as precisely as possible. While Harman criticizes Whitehead, Latour and Barad for conceptualizing relations without properly taking into consideration the relata that are prior to them, DeLanda emphasizes that we should not accept “intrinsic relations that determine the very identity of what they relate”, but only extrinsic relations (32). The other aspect that deserves special mention is the interlocutors’ agreement with respect to the impossibility of a complete description of the world. According to the conclusions of object-oriented ontology, Harman claims that “things in the world cannot be converted into bundles of accurate descriptions” (44), that is to say, there is always and necessarily a withdrawal of real objects. On the other hand, by relying on insights from the philosophy of chemistry and fuzzy logic, DeLanda focuses upon the problem of emergence, i.e. of new properties that cannot be reduced to the interactions of already existing entities and that can never be exhaustively described.

The third chapter is by far the richest one. DeLanda and Harman carry on with the topic of realism, but this time by focusing more on the main statements of object-oriented ontology and neo-materialism. It is almost impossible to summarize this chapter as it ranges from the concept of possibility, through the critique of reductionisms, to the ontological status of objects. We would like to underline two important aspects: one concerns essences, and the other is about dispositions. With a strong background in Aristotelian-Zubírian ontology, Harman argues that essences are “salvageable” and that otherwise it would not be possible to interpret objects as consistent entities. Whereas DeLanda claims that the concept of essence is illegitimate and unnecessary, the interlocutors seem to make a compromise by concluding that there is haeccity (“thisness”) that makes objects identifiable. In this context, DeLanda rightly insists on the fact that, according to Deleuzian ontology, the virtual is segmented into distinct actual objects as products. There is another extremely exciting debate on dispositions, i.e. on capacities to affect and being affected. Harman refuses to put dispositions into things and comes to the conclusion that dispositions should be treated as new compound entities that result from interactions between objects. DeLanda elaborates his philosophy of tendencies and capacities in details, with a special emphasis on defining the identity of actual objects as a combination of actual properties and virtual dispositions. In short, DeLanda suggests that we should account for the enduring identity of objects “by the mechanisms of emergence behind the historical genesis and day-to-day maintenance of an object’s identity” (88).

The fourth chapter deals with the question of cognition and experience. The interlocutors seem to agree that “epistemology” is a bad term, either because it implies a dualist ontology that privileges the relation between humans and everything else, or because epistemological debates tend to ignore many kinds of “rightness of fit”, e.g. the know-how dimension of experience. Accordingly, this chapter is very critical of various scientist epistemologies (empiricism, mathematic reductionism, etc.). Harman explains his approach to cognition by stressing the point that certain essential aspects of objects are necessarily withheld or withdrawn and that our access to objects is always mediated by processes of translation. In light of this, he presents his view on the difference between real and sensual objects. DeLanda’s concept of cognition resonates with the object-oriented approach only partially: he emphasizes that “we can use the possibility of future novelty, the imperfect record of past traces, the spatial and temporal scale-dependence of the world’s presentations … to spell … out [the withdrawal of objects]” (103). Similarly to Harman, DeLanda’s theory gives importance to the mechanisms of transformation between real objects and our experiental patterns, but with more attention to the biologic origins of embodied cognition and selective attentional processes. The common ground in this  chapter is the insight that absolute knowledge is impossible, either because of the fundamental withdrawal of objects, or because of the open-ended character of nature and the untraceable aspects the past.

The last chapter articulates conceptual dilemmas with respect to time, space and philosophy of science. Harman equates “real time” with changes in space and defines sensual time as a relational entity that is derivative of the succession of objects. While he seems to accept the irreversibility of sensual time, on the other hand, he claims: “if we consider time as belonging to the real itself, then I guess I’m not a realist about time” (119). DeLanda is strongly opposed to this non-realist philosophy of sensual time and he emphasizes the irreducibility of real time, i.e. the succession of causes and effects by relying upon insights from the theory of relativity. DeLanda also offers a very useful analysis of the concept of intensity. After a longish debate on Latour, the interlocutors debate on the role of knowledge, semantics, falsification and the definition of truth. Harman summarizes the difference between their respective philosophies as follows: 1. while DeLanda privileges dynamic entities, Harman gives importance to the “inertia” of objects; 2. in contrast to the emphasis on the philosophy of science (especially on the philosophy of chemistry) in DeLanda’s philosophy, Harman’s philosophy seems closer to the arts (and for Harman “the exemplar is aesthetics”); 3. while object-oriented ontology focuses on individual-substantial entities, DeLandian neo-materialism offers a detailed conceptualization of outside factors such as phase-spaces and attractors; 4. while Harman puts emphasis on formal causes, for DeLanda it is more important to clarify the role of final causes. DeLanda completes this list with his critique of the object-oriented concept of fundamental withdrawal and Harman’s denial of real time.

Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber: Heidegger, Philosophy and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference

Heidegger, Philosophy and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference Book Cover Heidegger, Philosophy and Politics: The Heidelberg Conference
Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Edited by Mireille Calle-Gruber, Translated by Jeff Fort, Foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy
Fordham University Press
2016
Hardback $85.00
116

Reviewed by: Raymond Aaron Younis (Australian Catholic University)

In this valuable, timely and in many respects, enlightening volume, Mireille Calle-Gruber gathers together a number of important documents: the transcripts of a discussion between Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe at a seminar in Heidelberg on Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of his Thought; a series of questions to Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, and their answers concerning Heidegger’s thinking, political affiliations and commitments; and a thought-provoking and altogether memorable appendix by Gadamer.

Gadamer’s response is, in some ways, not surprising, and striking. First of all, he chooses to speak in French (since the other two speakers, Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida, are French, and visitors to Germany); he asserts that there is “no authentic conversation without dialogism, that is, without the basis of a common language” (6) – one might add: also without authentic hospitality. He brings no text; he sees the invitation to speak as “license permitted to an improvisation” (6). He insists on a familiar note: “there is no point in speaking about Heidegger if one is not familiar with the origins of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics” (6-7). Indeed, he reminds us that this was the main reason why he had begun to read the works of Derrida. He explains that his interest lies not just in a “set of problems touching on Heidegger” but also in the question of “how, to some extent, it also determined us” (7).

He then turns to Derrida’s “concept” of deconstruction: “the term ‘deconstruction’ then, taught me immediately to recognize this connotation [destruktion as a ‘return to living speech’] that had never come to mind for us when we were listening to the young Heidegger speak of Destruktion. ‘Deconstruction’ wants, it seems to me, to underscore that it is a question not simply of destroying, but also of constructing something” (7). He hastens to add, however, quite unsurprisingly, that he is not “inhabited” (as Derrida “is”) “by the conviction that there is a total rupture of communication among men today” (8). He reminds the audience also that the hermeneutics at the basis of his reflection on communication is not as interested in “the hidden meanings of words and discourse” (8).

He argues that Derrida sees in Heidegger‘s interpretation of Nietzsche a “form of continuation, unintended and involuntary, of the tradition of metaphysics and even of logocentrism” – a “true provocation”, he calls it (8). In Gadamer’s view, Heidegger’s greatness lay in this: that he had taught Gadamer “that logocentrism was in a way the destiny of the West. That it was at the foundation of metaphysics…. That this logocentrism had constituted, for Heidegger himself, the true invitation to philosophy” (8). In a sense. Heidegger had begun to “comprehend” something “not comprehensible by means of the conceptuality or the metaphysics of the Greeks and of medieval or even modern thinkers” (8-9).

Gadamer then turns to the question of Heidegger’s “engagement in the National-Socialist movement” (9). He introduces a deeply personal, and troubling, note:

we were troubled by it from the moment when we began working with him, when we were his students. I was at Marburg and was a young colleague of Heidegger’s when he began to get involved in the Nazi movement in Freiburg. It is true and must be confessed, that for many of us this came as a surprise. Perhaps one will say: you were blind! Young people are blind, in a way, when they are guided by a master with great energy and force; so they give their attention only to what corresponds to their own interests and their own questions (9-10).

This insight brings him to the “crucial and absolutely inevitable problem,… the problem of German Nazism” (10). And he is insistent on this point: “it is clear that one cannot dissociate Heidegger’s philosophy from the fact of the extermination that took place” (10) – presumably because they had been troubled by Heidegger’s direct “involvement” in “the Nazi movement in Freiburg”. He does not note that the involvement was uncritical, of course, but his alarm could perhaps be explained by the very nature of that “involvement”. He insists also on the context: a period of liberalism, a bourgeois culture in decline, an age of artistic visions of the destruction of German culture, and so on. The young Heidegger had been “determined” by this kind of background, which extended to the critique of transcendental idealism, neo-Kantianism, “the critique on the part of Jewish thinkers and Catholic thinkers” during World War 1, and so on (11).

Nonetheless, he emphasises two problems

that have remained very troubling… throughout my life. The first has to do with the responsibility assumed by a man as excellent and paradigmatic as the thinker that Heidegger was in 1933… but also… there is the other fact, contradictory and disturbing: to wit, the same thinker, at the same moment—at a time when he supported, certainly not everything, not the anti-Semitism, not the racism, not the biologism of Nazism, but all the same some of its fundamental decisions—this thinker was writing texts that we still today can read as an anticipation of the coming reality. I am thinking in particular of “Die Zeit des Weltbildes,” of the description of the “forgetting of being,” as he called it, of the predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution; in short, of everything that, as we know, began long ago but became evident only more recently, and is evident for young people to such a degree that this is perhaps today, in the eyes of the old man I am now, the most troubling fact there is: I mean, the pessimism of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity (11).

The question of responsibility is a profound one, given the context that Gadamer highlights; the question of Heidegger’s support for some of the “fundamental decisions” of Nazism is also a profound and troubling one, as are its connections with his writings concerning the “predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution” (11), and the emerging pessimism “of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity” (11).

So the first “great ambiguity” in the case of Heidegger is the question of responsibility; the second one concerns the “ambiguity of his silence” (11). (“Heidegger never spoke of his error”, though Gadamer adds that “he did say once that it was ‘the greatest error of my life’”, in relation to his “engagement” with the Nazi Party). He intensifies the analysis considerably, in searing terms:

But that is superficial with regard to the serious affinities that exist between Heidegger’s philosophical position and certain tendencies of that movement. It is this question that has always preoccupied the Jewish friends I have met in America during my travels. They all say: the error of Heidegger, his participation in the movement, these are things that could be forgiven. But why did he never evoke that? Why did he refuse to speak of it? (11-12).

He explains how his attempt to explain “why Heidegger did not recognize any responsibility” in an article in Le Nouvel Observateur had been “very mutilated” (“but what can one expect, when a German writer engages in a Parisian debate”, 12). He critiques Farias’ book except “on one point”:

I am referring to the date of June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives. It was there that my difference with Heidegger, I believe, revealed itself as fundamental. For both of us, this was a date with fatal consequences, but we did not understand this fatality in the same way. For Heidegger, it was the end of the revolution as he understood it: that is to say, a spiritual and philosophical revolution that ought to have brought with it a renewal of humanity in all of Europe. Whereas for me this stabilization of the Nazi revolution through the support of the army brought the irrevocable certainty that it would never be possible to be liberated from this regime without a catastrophe. This was, in my eyes, the prospect we were facing. And for me it is clear that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it? When faced with weapons one does not counter them with preaching (12).

The bifurcation of their two paths is striking: for Heidegger, according to Gadamer, the Night of the Long Knives signalled the end of a revolution, in a “spiritual and philosophical sense”, that promised to bring in its wake, a renewal of all Europe; for Gadamer, it signalled a national “stabilization” which brought him the certainty that it would not be possible to be liberated from the “revolution”, except in catastrophic terms. It may be, as he argues, “that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it?” But the question cannot be disengaged quite so readily: when one is faced with weapons, admittedly preaching may be futile, but it could be argued that critical thinking and questioning need not be abandoned entirely (notwithstanding the “determining” elements that Gadamer identifies incisively).

So, Gadamer concludes with some observations on that article in French, on a hermeneutical note that is long familiar from his writings, in which optimism and the possibility of authentic and meaningful communicative relations are affirmed, in the knowledge that the next speaker will be Derrida: he reaffirms his conviction that “communication can always take place, and that in my work there is not at all this insistence on the rupture that formed the destiny of human culture today” (13).

Derrida’s response is significantly longer than Gadamer’s, perhaps not surprisingly, though interestingly, he does not respond directly to Gadamer’s forceful claims about Heidegger. He begins with a startling claim: he professes to be happy, afraid, “very impressed” and “very intimidated” by “what is developing here”! (13) Derrida imagines Heidegger’s specter, or “something of his specter, predicting that this evening there will be no thinking [ça ne pensera pas]! And that is indeed what may happen” (13).

Perhaps. But it is evident that some thinking has already taken place, deep thinking or pondering, as Heidegger would have it, on the part of Gadamer. Derrida seems to mean that thinking may not take place in this challenging and less than ideal context: a short meeting, speaking briefly rather than reading (or writing) in detail, and so on. He clarifies his meaning:

an agreement in favour of improvisation: we are improvising, and we will continue to improvise. Why improvise in this case? Whereas everything, on the contrary—the gravity of the matter, the complexity of the problems, of the texts, of the political and historical situations, of the traps awaiting us at every moment—all this, precisely, would push us to weigh our words, to leave nothing to chance, to never improvise…. And I must say that personally, each time that I have attempted to speak of these questions—as I have done again recently—, I avoided improvisation as much as I possibly could. Not in order simply to defend or protect myself, but because the consequences of every phrase and sentence are so grave that all this deserves, precisely, to be removed from the element of improvisation (14).

He reasons that they are “improvising”, yet the complexity of the issues, the gravity of the situation, and so on, demand that they do not improvise. But it is not obvious that Gadamer had merely improvised; on the contrary, his talk seemed to come out of some deliberation, and over a sustained period of time, on the complexities and gravity of the situation –  hardly without preparation. Yet Derrida insists on the point about improvisation. So, Derrida turns to Gadamer’s talk and to “a philosophical question… in what terms responsibility will be defined. Which category of responsibility ought to guide us, not only in the definition but in the taking of responsibilities?” (14)

On the one hand, Derrida insists on the improvisatory aspect, and on the other hand, speaks of Gadamer’s abundant attention to some of these things. Yet he raises an important question about the meaning of responsibility and the responsibilities that one has, for example, in relation to reading Heidegger carefully: since the publication of Farias’ text among others, “many of those who were not professional philosophers, or experts on Heidegger, if you will…  have accused those who have been interested in Heidegger either of being uninformed regarding Heidegger’s Nazi engagement or, if they were informed… of not having transformed into a common problem, what they were aware of as professional philosophers” (14-15). The point about non-professional philosophers is fair enough. The “accusations” ought to be examined carefully and not merely in a purely improvisatory way which is after all, in a sense, an unphilosophical way of inquiry, as Derrida would have it.

Farias’ book has provoked emotions, Derrida claims; a provocation that compels “professional philosophers” to explain their own work on Heidegger, and in less than ideal circumstances, namely in terms of improvisation. Now, if Derrida is correct on this question, then the point is a strong one. Such issues, such “provocations”, largely on the part of non-professional philosophers, in a philosophical sense, demand not improvisation but pondering, deliberation, systematic and careful reflection, in short, all the things that improvisation makes impossible. He therefore introduces a complication, an aporia concerning improvisation, or in other words, the very mode of discourse and format of the exchange, as he sees it, that day, which makes him fearful: “improvising runs the risk of preventing us… from maintaining a certain refinement, a certain rhythm in the discussion that we are used to. In short, a certain style of discussion that is ours” (15). He seems to believe that such a mode, or format, runs a grave risk: it prevents the philosophers, who are also teachers, from maintaining a “certain style of discussion” which is inherently philosophical (though he does not name it here), which belongs to philosophy (and by implication, it seems, not to the style or mode which belongs presumably to those who are not professional philosophers).

 A grave risk and a formidable but necessary one, then, according to Derrida, since philosopher-teachers in their philosophical mode (whatever that may be, but certainly involving complications and qualifications) are disarmed by the demands of the operative mode of discourse: disarmed in at least two senses, that is, deprived of a kind of power and disabled or weakened considerably. But he insists, “that no one here is in any way favorable, or wishes to be favorable, to what we always very cursorily call Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism” (16), or is to be suspected of wishing to defend them; no one wishes, he claims, to disculpate him [Heidegger] or render him innocent of every kind of fault in that respect (16).

So, though he feels disarmed, and though he fears the risks, he nonetheless feels that it is necessary to speak, and requests a “protocol of discussion”: that no one is to be suspected of defending the theses of Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism; that no one “claims to absolve Heidegger, to disculpate him or render him innocent” of fault in these respects. The point he makes here is an important one: he is characteristically going, not just to improvise, but to introduce a number of complications, and he wishes to maintain a distinction between complication as a philosophical (aporetic) mode and justification or evasion. He wishes to affirm the possibility of being vigilant “with regard to the discussions that develop on this subject… with regard to our discourse and our improvisations, in such a way that they would not contain or reproduce the gestures, the aggressions, the implications, the elements of scenography that recall the very thing against which we are allied” (16). He warns against modes that improvisation may valorise and promote: “every gesture that proceeds by conflation, precipitous totalization, short-circuited argumentation, simplification of statements, etc., is politically a very grave gesture that recalls…the very thing against which we are supposed to be working” (17).

He also warns, characteristically, against gestures which seem to attack totalitarianism yet unwittingly reproduce the very thing they attack; against attacks upon him for not denouncing “Heidegger’s Nazism”, even as he denounces this in his writings (“I speak of nothing else”, 18). He returns to the question of the significance “of the encounter this evening” (18). He asks why the “intense phase” of the debate took place in France, and reflects again on the sufficiency of the analyses in relation to the complexity of the “phenomenon” (18-19), on the over-determination, and points to a number of threads, even as he admits that they are insufficient. And he attacks the unreflective linking of France and Heideggerianism with good reason: he points out that such a linkage is both reductive and simplistic, for there is “not one single French Heideggerianism”, just as he insists on this point in order to detotalize the matter and insist on the differences and the ruptures that have marked the legacy of Heidegger (19).

He rightly insists on the amount of work that “remains to be done” (20), in relation to such complications, and complexities. He insists also on bringing the discussion back to

the political situation in France and in Europe. At a moment when the destiny of Europe, as one says, is taking a certain path, when a certain political discourse dominates the discourse on politics in Europe, in France, in Germany, and in many other Western democracies, we see a confrontation between, on the one hand, a resurgence of ideologies and comportments that are not unrelated to what one identifies very quickly as Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism; and, on the other hand, a social-democratic discourse whose values of reference are those of the rights of man, of democracy, of the liberty of the subject (21).

This is a “confrontation” between two discourses, one “not unrelated” to what may be identified, “very quickly” (again), with “Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism”, on the one hand, and a discourse that revolves around rights, democracy, liberty and the subject, on the other hand. One of the symptoms of this clash is anxiety or fear or distrust, not always informed, he argues, by a careful and reflective approach to reading the complex texts, but also “the compulsion to accuse very quickly, to judge, to simplify” – an “extremely grave” symptom (22) of an age in which nothing less, as he would have it, than the destiny of Europe and its path, are at stake. He also finds the accusations in Germany “unjust”: “so compulsive, so precipitous and globalizing” (22). Accordingly, he presents two “hypotheses”: first, “that for well-known historical reasons, the relation to Heidegger became so intolerable that, aside from a few exceptions, naturally, Heidegger has been little read in Germany since the war” (22). In France, he believes Heidegger was read with less of a bad conscience, for one bypassed a certain reading of Heidegger. He argues that “the reading of Heidegger in Germany was rather repressed since the war” (22).

The second hypothesis is that this “repression was bound to produce, in the form of a projection-expulsion, a desire to accuse, from the other side of the border, those who for their part had anything to do with Heidegger” (23). So, what the encounter “this evening” symbolizes “is the possibility, today, thanks to these provocations, of lifting the inhibitions on every side, and of not only reading Heidegger with the political vigilance required, but of reading him” (22-23).

Now, the first hypothesis is not supported by strong evidence, it has to be said, by Derrida. Of course, one can grant it as a hypothesis, but hypotheses without supporting evidence remain tenuous; they remain suppositions. The second hypothesis is that the “repression” of the reading of Heidegger’s works “since the war” in Germany, which has lead, amongst other things, to the “encounter” between the three thinkers at the conference nonetheless symbolically offers a possibility, namely that of lifting prohibitions (just how is not explained by Derrida) and that of actually reading Heidegger “with the political vigilance required”. It has to be said though, notwithstanding Derrida’s justifiable insistence of reading Heidegger carefully, vigilantly, responsibly and within a political context of human rights, liberties and the subject very much to the fore, the second hypothesis concerning a “projection-expulsion” is no less tenuous than the first. Of course, it may be true, but it is impossible to tell for sure from this contribution.

He closes on three important points at least: first, he reminds the audience of what interests him, in particular, about Heidegger’s thinking, namely “what, in Heidegger, on the one hand, made it possible to question the traditional categories of responsibility, of the subject, for example, of right [du droit], and what let itself nonetheless, up to a certain point, be limited by this questioning—and even, perhaps, by the form of the question” (23). Second, he argues that “deconstruction” is not an “abdication of responsibility”, even when it “places in question this axiomatic of subjectivity or of responsibility, or when it places in question certain axioms of Heidegger’s discourse” – he insists that it is, at least in his view, the “most difficult responsibility that I can take. And to trust in traditional categories of responsibility seems to me today to be, precisely, irresponsible” (24). Finally, he points, characteristically, to an aporia, and therefore to the importance of vigilance: “complicities between a discourse that is, let’s say, humanist and democratic but that has not reelaborated in a critical fashion its own categories, and that which it is meant to oppose” (24-25).

Lacoue-Labarthe speaks briefly (perhaps because Derrida spoke for too long!), but he makes a number of critical points, clearly, forcefully and concisely: he notes, firstly, that he belongs, unlike Derrida, to “the generation of 1940”, and so, sees the question differently:

This is still a family affair because, in the discourse, the language, the statements that suffused my childhood and my adolescence, in high school and in my surroundings, I heard pass a countless number of anti-Semitic phrases pronounced by schoolmates and friends, by adults, who were not particularly extreme right wing, but for whom this language was more or less natural (26).

In an important sense, he tackles the question of French antisemitism directly, and without protestation or equivocation: the “language” and “discourse” of antisemitism and the extent to which it had become “natural” for a whole generation. Or more. He reminds the audience of the importance of such questions: “when one touches on these problems, this is a question that one should never forget to ask oneself. What would I have done, given that it was only afterward that I gradually discovered all this?” (27). It is notable that he wishes to note the importance of this question without aporiai, without hesitation, just as it is notable that he emphasised the practical response, not the merely theoretical one: there is something that needed to be done, or that should have been done.  He warns, with remarkable and clear insight, against an attack that is “emerging”, that Farias’ book, or its conclusions, “will help to authorize, to legitimize” (28): he refers to a “kind of liberal philosophy, social-democratic, if you like, founded on what one of the two journalists I mentioned a moment ago calls a ‘juridical humanism’” (28), and notes the role played by Stalinists and ultra-Stalinists: “it is the same people who, in order to construct that humanism, are in the process of finding authorization in Farias’s denunciation” (28). He insists on this point: there is in this an undeniably political scene being played out. And I believe that this must not be passed over in silence (28).

It is a remarkable and striking contribution, and all the more so because it follows, and marks a stark contrast to, Derrida’s speech: it is spare, measured, stark and direct, and it does not shy away from the central question, the ethical, responsible, vigilant and unflinching critical analysis of Nazism and Heidegger’s complicity with aspects of the ideology, not just in his complex philosophical works, which demand extended attention, to be sure, but in his writing and thinking more generally in that context (his letters, notebooks, lectures, and his opinions expressed to friends and colleagues, and so on and so forth): it is, he notes, “perhaps only today that we are capable of beginning an attempt at an analysis of Nazism, of the fascisms; because it is in effect the first time that, on the one hand, we are at bottom rid of the communist . . . obstacle, let’s call it”  (29).

He insists like Derrida on the importance of reading Heidegger thoughtfully and responsibly, but does not shy away from the context for such a reading, as many have noted, in particular Jaspers, Gadamer and Habermas, among many others, namely, the reality of Nazism in Heidegger’s thinking, even if one grants that Heidegger’s Nazism was not pure and unquestioning:

it is the reading of Heidegger that, I believe—provided that one carry it out in a certain way, of course—can give access to a certain reality of Nazism. An access that the univocal moral and political accusation—which of course I share; but in fact when one tries to carry out philosophical work one cannot after all limit oneself to that—has continued to mask (29).

He anchors his analysis not in aporetic complications, or extended problematizations, but in an attitude, which needless to say, attaches quite readily to the practical, namely, distrust of certain ideologies:

From the moment when one began to distrust the use of the word “fascist,” from the moment when there was a questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism, from that moment, perhaps, it is possible for real work to begin. And that is the reason why—this is one of my grievances against Farias’s book—the simplification that consists in presenting Heidegger as entirely Nazi seems to me extremely unfortunate in this story: because perhaps it will be necessary, for a certain time still, to fight about this presentation, in order to try to make it understood that, in Heidegger, one of the secrets of Nazism has remained unperceived up to now (29).

It is not self-evident, or demonstrative, it has to be said, that this moment, and only this moment, signals the possibility of the commencement of “real [philosophico-critical] work”. The moment, so to speak, when Heidegger’s commitment to the spirit, if not the letter, of Nazism becomes apparent, is an important moment in relation to the commencement of this critical project; those moments, so to speak, when there was an understanding, a dawning awareness, on which “questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism” could be based, also make it possible for real work to begin.

What follows however in the volume is a (valuable) series of questions to the speakers, with their answers, and questions from the audience, also with answers, along with an appendix by Gadamer. He notes the crucial differences between the reception of Farias’ book in France and in Germany. He expresses surprise over the “uproar” that Farias’ book has generated in France, since “almost all” of what Farias reveals “has long been known” in “German speaking countries” – and wonders, “could it be that so little is known there about the Third Reich? Heidegger’s followers, believing they were defending him, no doubt contributed to the affair by continually repeating the refrain of his ‘rupture’ with Nazism at the end of a year of disappointing experiences as the rector of Freiburg” (79).

He notes that in Germany, “no one is able to feign surprise in discovering that Heidegger did not leave the Nazi Party” (79); and he highlights the reaction of the younger generation in Germany, and their questioning: they find it “difficult to imagine the reality of that time: the conformism, the pressure, the ideological indoctrination, the sanctions. . . . Many of them ask, ‘Why did none of you cry out?’” (79). He answers, by affirming the underestimation of “the natural human inclination toward conformism, which is always ready to be taken in by any type of deception”, typified in particular, by the question, “Does the Führer know about this?” (79).

The historical context is critical, and Gadamer underscores it, in a way that, in a sense, seems intended to carry the reader well beyond aporetic questions and beyond astonishment or perplexity. He insists that the strategy of explaining (away) Heidegger’s political errors by claiming that they “have nothing to do with his philosophy” is insulting; for after fifty years of reflection on “the reasons that disturbed us and separated us from Heidegger for many years” “we” cannot be astonished to hear that Heidegger had “‘believed’ in Hitler” (80).

It is important to note the register here, to note that Gadamer chose to write like this, in the appendix, which is in an important sense the last word in the volume. It is quite breathtaking- there is no obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion:

Heidegger was not a mere opportunist. His political engagement clearly did not have much to do with political reality. The dream of a “people’s religion” encompassed, in fact, his profound disillusionment at the course of events. But he secretly safeguarded this dream. This is the dream he believed he was pursuing during the years 1933–34, convinced that he was rigorously fulfilling his philosophical mission by attempting to revolutionize the university. It was to this end that he did everything that outraged us. For him it was a question of breaking the political influence of the church and the inertia of the academic mandarins. He even gave Ernst Jünger’s vision of “The Worker” a place alongside his own ideas on overcoming the tradition of metaphysics on the basis of being. Later, as is well known, he went so far as to speak of the end of philosophy. That was his revolution (80-81).

He then tackles, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion, the question of Heidegger’s responsibility:

Did he then feel no responsibility for the terrible consequences of Hitler’s seizure of power, the new barbarism, the Nuremberg laws, the terror, the blood spilled—and, finally, the indelible shame of the extermination camps? [The answer is a rigorous “no.” For that was the perverted revolution and not the great renewal arising from the spiritual and moral [sittlich] strength of the people, which he dreamed of and longed for as the preparation of a new religion of humanity.] (81)

Such writing demands thinking and reflection, and deliberation, of course, but to put it bluntly, after some fairly long-winded exchanges in the volume, it is bold and striking, like his pronouncements on Farias’ book (“very superficial”, “grotesque” in some senses, “overflows with ignorance”, and so on):

What was considered the world over as a radical step forward in thought, his confrontation [Auseinandersetzung] with the Greeks, with Hegel, and finally with Nietzsche, had all this suddenly become false? Or have we long since finished with all that? Or perhaps what we are being asked to do is definitively to renounce thinking. Watching anxiously from afar as Heidegger thus strayed into the cultural politics of the Reich, we sometimes thought of what happened to Plato at Syracuse. One of his Freiburg friends, seeing him in the tram after his departure from the rectorship, asked him, “Back from Syracuse?” (81)

He ends with a reminder, like Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, perhaps intentionally, about the “requirements of thinking”, but in a different key:

The requirements of thinking are not so easily eluded. Even those who were disturbed at the time by Heidegger’s political adventure and distanced themselves from him for many years would never have dared to deny the philosophical impetus with which he had not ceased to inspire them from the beginning. [Just as Heidegger in the 1920s did not create blind followers for himself, likewise one must find one’s own paths of thought, now more than ever.]

[Whoever believes that today one need no longer be concerned with Martin Heidegger has not taken the measure of how difficult it will always be for us to debate with him, instead of making oneself ridiculous by looking down on him with an air of superiority.] (82)

So, he reminds us, pointedly, in the closing paragraphs in the volume, of the (above all, philosophical) importance of finding not so much an aporia, but a euporia (a way for thinking, which is not mere questioning – that is, a “path” of one’s own), “now more than ever”; he reminds us of the, above all, philosophical importance of engaging critically without evading responsibility (for example, for naming the thing by its true name, “the reality of Nazism” in Heidegger’s thinking, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation and/or evasion).

If Derrida presents hypotheses which remain unjustified, tenuous or questionable, if he (somewhat ironically, it has to be said!) spends a considerable amount of time given to him improvising on improvisation, as well as on the short amount of time given to them (though his speech is the longest, by far!) and on aporetic considerations and performative problematizations, which are not always convincing, and if Lacoue-Labarthe is not entirely convincing on the question of just which “moment”, if any, is entirely suitable for the genesis of “real work” on this problem, Gadamer closes with a sobering, largely lucid and startlingly concise meditation on conformism, ideological indoctrination and resistance, complicity and “rupture”, and the authentic and difficult, but always necessary task of thinking.

Adam Y. Wells (Ed.): Phenomenologies of Scripture

Phenomenologies of Scripture Book Cover Phenomenologies of Scripture
Wells, Adam Y., editor
Fordham University Press
2017
Paperback $32.00
210

Reviewed by: Douglas Giles (University of Essex)

To consider the phenomenology of scripture is a challenging task, not only because it wades into religion, a subject area preloaded with emotions and identities, but because it wades into the tension between theological readings and scientific/historical readings of scriptural texts. The essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, edited by Adam Y. Wells, seek to apply the unofficial model of phenomenology, “back to the things themselves,” to the study of scripture. Specifically, the application of phenomenology in this collection of essays aims “to shift the center of biblical studies from science to scripture itself.” (1) Wells states that “the phenomenology of scripture must begin with a radical openness to scripture, rigorously avoiding the temptation to declare at the outset what scripture can or must mean.” (7)

At first appearance, this sounds simple enough. Rather than prejudge what a scriptural passage means, we are open to the passage showing its meaning to us. However, a phenomenological openness to scripture is complicated—particularly the question of what we are bracketing off in our epoché. There are two challenges facing the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture. One, how can any text, especially religious scripture, be understood apart from its social-historical context. Two, how can scripture be read without preconceptions about the truth of the religion itself? On the first challenge, to consider the text itself outside of its social context is artificial and perhaps prejudicial. There is a temptation within religion to consider scripture as having arrived inspired, if not dictated, by a divine source rather than from a social-historical context. It would be hypocritical to bracket off the social-historical context without also bracketing off the assumption that the text is the “Word of God” and thus outside of any worldly context. Scripture, even if divinely inspired, is a set of particular words in particular languages written down at particular times and places. To make sense of the gospel and epistles requires that we not bracket off consideration of ancient Greek language and Hellenistic cultural understandings if we are to make sense of the frequent allegories and word usages.

On the second, more profound challenge, a phenomenology of scripture must be open to the text itself without preconceived notions about the truth claims of the religion to which it belongs. Phenomenology does mean going back to the text itself, but one’s worldview cannot help but inform interpretation of the text’s meaning. There is frequently a prejudgment either for or against religion in the reading of any scriptural passage. The authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture are justifiably cautious about a scientific/historical approach to scripture because that methodology has at times been accompanied by prejudgments that religious beliefs are false. Unfortunately, several of these authors fail to apply the epoché equally, and accompanying their approach to scripture is a prejudgment that religious belief is true. Whether one has the belief that a religion is true or the belief that it is false, either belief will restrict one’s interpretation of what a scriptural passage can mean. A phenomenology of scripture must first and foremost cast off any prejudgments in favor of or against religion. A good phenomenologist considering a religious text would read a passage without requisitioning it to serve a premeditated agenda. He or she would openly consider both the text of the passage and the religious claims that inform the passage and the religious claims that are informed by the passage. Plus, the phenomenologist would offer insights to the text that are not restricted to those who already believe or already disbelieve. It is self-evident that hostility toward religion prejudices one’s reading of scripture, but it seems at cross-purposes with a phenomenology of scripture to declare at the outset that the bible fits within the doctrine of the church. Despite this, several authors in this book do just that.

Several of the authors in Phenomenologies of Scripture interpret the book’s task differently than how I have and are carving out a distinctly Christian phenomenology. Several of them make a solid case for such a methodology. Robyn Horner says, “A phenomenological reading is an attempt to bring to light; it should only bring a light to bear on a text in order to show what is given there.” (115) What is given in scripture is a message to the Christian community, so she also says, “I read here, as one who listens to the text in the context of the Christian community.” (115) Whether or not one agrees with that combination, Horner is phenomenologically consistent within her prejudgment of Christian truth by bracketing off prejudgments about the text’s meaning after accepting its Christian context. In her analysis of the gospel story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, Horner talks about the experience of Jesus within herself during reading the passage. There is a connection between reading of scripture and religious experience, and Horner is correct that religious phenomena are not to be a priori excluded as a possibility. (119) Her position is that religious phenomena described in scripture ultimately are to be explained theologically but that this still requires discrimination and discernment. (119-120)

Horner’s essay raises the question of whether, if we are to get the meaning out of the text, the reading of scripture is necessarily a religious or devotional act. It is legitimate to ask whether a purely neutral and objective reading of a scriptural text possible or even desirable. Jean-Louis Chrétien thinks not. (140-141) He argues that we are touched by certain passages in a characteristic way when they are powerful enough to speak to us, explaining that “The failures of a weak man before miniscule difficulties of everyday life do not move me in the same way as the shipwrecks of a strong man in great trials.” (128) Chrétien likens Paul’s Epistle to the Romans as a drama of “the manifestation and the revelation of evil as evil by means of the interdict pronounced by the law.” (131) The law in question is the Jewish Torah, and its role in the emerging Christian faith is a thorny theological issue for Paul. Any reading of Paul’s words in Romans must acknowledge that Paul’s words are an expression of one side within a theological dispute. The drama of the dispute can touch us either as neutral onlookers or as people invested in the outcome of the dispute, but these are decidedly different dramas. Chrétien states that the passage he analyzes in Romans is heavy with stakes of great consequence for the comprehension of Christian existence and that this is why he believes a purely neutral and objective approach is insufficient. This is true if we are invested in the dispute, not simply as Christians, but as Christians who believe that Paul’s position on the issue of Jewish law is relevant to our Christian existence. This certainly describes Chrétien’s position, and it informs his reading of Paul.

Horner and Chrétien apply phenomenology within the sphere of Christian hermeneutics with the aim of deepening the understanding of the meaning of Christianity. There is nothing wrong with such legitimate applications of the phenomenological method as long as the parameters are made clear. Phenomenologies of Scripture could be clearer on this point—that the essays are Christian phenomenology of Christian scripture. No viewpoints of phenomenologies of, for example, Buddhist or Islamic scriptures are offered, and Jewish scriptures are discussed only in terms of their inclusion in and relevance to the Christian faith. Also, what the book and its essays do not adequately address is the difference between a phenomenology of text and a phenomenology of God. This problem is seen clearly in Emmanuel Housset’s essay on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (159-178) in which he focuses on the religious experience of God, and his phenomenological openness to the text is in service of that aim. He is completely honest about that, opening his essay with the following: “As a matter of methodological principle, an authentic phenomenology of religious experience should not place conditions on the manifestation of God, but should understand him only from his Word.” (159) One could take umbrage at these assumptions of God and scripture as violating phenomenology, but Housset correctly discerns that the common ground between phenomenology and scriptural study is humility: “phenomenology requires humble submission to the phenomena as they give themselves, endeavoring with the most possible rigor to avoid all theoretical or speculative bias.” (160) Like Chrétien, Housset stresses the importance of letting a passage affect you. For Housset, this affect is achieved through confrontation; but for Housset, the confrontation of one’s will is less with the text than it is with God. Housset’s position makes sense in that knowing someone, god or human, requires a confrontation that cannot be achieved through a detached viewpoint. This leads to the question of whether, in approaching any text, our confrontation is with the text or with its author. If one prejudges Christian scripture as being delivered by God, then it is easy to understand that ultimately the confrontation is with God and the aim is to be transfigured by the encounter. (161) Outside of this assumption and aim, it is less clear, and it remains an important question for the phenomenology of any text. Housset’s interesting mention of Heidegger’s idea of attunement to a text deserved a wider discussion.

That we are dealing with a specifically Christian phenomenology can be seen in Kevin Hart’s close analysis of the text Luke 15:11-32, which is commonly known as the story of the prodigal son. Hart’s phenomenological analysis of the parable is extensive and detailed but is largely a legal analysis of inheritance relations between the father and his sons. Hart is aware that the parable in Luke is not intended to be history—it is a story intended to teach a moral lesson—and the analysis of the parable needs to reflect that. Along that line of inquiry, Hart makes the good point that the narratives for both sons are unfinished because the story is a “parable of decision, one that offers eidetic possibilities that, structured according to a narrative, indicate that we should be more like the father than like either son.” (99) Hart has an agenda in his analysis, because he believes the parable shows that it has an agenda, which is to get readers to move from a worldly way of thinking to a divine one. He is honest about that agenda, acknowledging that Luke 15:11-32 has no revelatory claim on the nonbeliever, but for the believer, the Holy Spirit speaks through the text. (102) In this distinction, Hart confirms the concern I expressed earlier that a phenomenology of scripture offer insights into the text that are not restricted to those who already believe. For Hart, that means that the parable can be read strictly as a historical text by the nonbeliever, but although believers can learn a great deal from what the historians say about the text, historical reason is not sufficient in telling them what the text means. Hart argues that phenomenology makes no judgment about the rights and wrongs of belief or nonbelief and is neutral with respect to an individual’s choice to pass from nonbelief to belief in reading a scriptural text. (102-103) This seems an appropriate stance for phenomenology in general. Hart’s next step is to delineate what a Christian phenomenology could look like, using Jesus as an example. Jesus performs a phenomenological reduction in his telling of parables, Hart says, bracketing off everyday life and its worldly logic in order to lead the listener to a deeper place of divine logic. This “parable as the reduction from ‘world’ to ‘kingdom,’” strips the listener of worldly humanness and by means of this reduction tells us something of God who is pure love outside of all categories and rules. (103-105) This formula may not convince the nonbeliever, but, as Hart points out, phenomenology is neutral to each individual’s decision. I take this to be the boundary between a general phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology—that the latter can carve out this interpretive space with an additional reduction that brackets off the scientific/historical stance toward scripture. As Hart observes: “Where the historical-critical method forbids any passage from scripture to creed, phenomenology allows us to recognize that one vital element of the creed, the incarnation of God, is transcendentally supposed by Jesus’s relating of a parable of the kingdom.” (108)

Jeffrey Bloechel makes a similar distinction between a general scientific/historical phenomenology and a Christian phenomenology. His approach is to respond to Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou’s analysis of Paul’s epistles. Bloechel argues that neither Agamben nor Badiou addresses Paul as a theologian but instead as a source for conceptions of human freedom from containment within the political order. (144) Agamben and Badiou take into account only the structure, not the content, which leaves them with a reading devoid of everything Paul the author cares about and wants to communicate. In particular, Agamben and Badiou ignore Paul’s desire for there to be a community of faith united in the life of the spirit. (148) Because Agamben and Badiou conscript passages of Paul’s epistles in service of their own hermeneutical agenda, they miss the author Paul’s clear purpose in writing what he did. Bloechel argues that Paul’s central interest in his writings can emerge when we avoid the temptation to think of them first of all as political texts and attend instead to the imagery he uses of the community as a body, imagery that calls us to a conversion of our basic attitudes about and orientation to the world. (151) As nonbelievers, Bloechel says, Agamben and Badiou reduce the Christian message of Jesus to “only a single, momentous event, and not necessarily a unique one.” (156) What this shows, I think, is that regardless of whether Christianity is true, the Christian believer desevers the event of Jesus from the historical background and gives it significance in history, morality, and personal eschatology. Therefore, the meaning of Christian scripture has to be understood from within that mood of belief. Otherwise, our analysis discounts both the authors and the audience of scripture, without whom the enterprise of writing and reading have no meaning.

Jean-Yves Lacoste’s analysis of Matthew 5:38-48, the Sermon on the Mount, is a theological exegesis. Lacoste seeks to understand what Jesus’s words in the sermon show us about Jesus’s place in Judaism given his claims about Jewish law. (66) Lacoste applies the phenomenological method by bracketing off the assumption of Jesus as Messiah in reading the pericope. It is naively tempting, Lacoste says, to assume Jesus’s authoritative teaching on the Jewish law in the sermon is an assertion of messianic fulfillment, but Jesus never refers to himself as Messiah. (68) With this epoché, we can try better to understand Jesus’s commands to love our enemies and to be perfect as God is perfect. Lacoste’s Christian phenomenology informs his analysis of the “difficult logic” of the sermon. (86) His analysis comes full circle in leading him back to the conclusion that “the horizon opened by the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain are perceptible only by the one who sees those commandments fulfilled in the person of the man who comes from God— the Son— and probably in him.” (84)

The remaining two essays lacked critical force. Robert Sokolowski does not focus on a particular passage but on the general importance of words. Words spoken about something introduce the thing to us, he says; they bring it to mind. (22) Writing differs from speech in that the speaker can be absent. (24) But there is a tangible speaker of the scriptures, and that is the Church. The Church as the speaker of the scriptures means the scriptures are not detached and isolated but are epitomized in the Church. (26-27) This need to understand the Church’s place as speaker of scripture is why Sokolowski rejects purely historical approaches to scripture, which incline one “to think, first, that scripture trumps tradition and, second, that history trumps scripture.” (37) Sokolowski does not give us a phenomenology, even a Christian one, but a doctrinal lesson about the importance of scripture as God’s Word. The contribution by Jean-Luc Marion is a lecture that discusses the nature of the gift. This lecture is not as lucid and insightful as Marion’s other papers on the phenomenology of the gift and givenness, and I was disappointed given his other excellent work on this subject. His essay’s connection with the book’s theme is the discussion of the story of Abraham’s confirmation (Genesis 22). Marion’s interpretation of the story is strained in his attempt to fit it into his larger philosophical concerns and is not as compelling as Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story in Fear and Trembling.

Having discussed the essays in Phenomenologies of Scripture, I now turn to the two responses to those essays in the book. One is by Dale B. Martin, whose main issue with the essays is the authors’ lack of acknowledgment of interpretive agency. The reader is the interpreter of the text, and Martin takes Marion and Sokolowski to task for eclipsing the agency of the interpreter with their predetermined “this is the way things are” arguments. (191-192) I agree with Martin that most of the essays in this book hold that it is the words that do the work. This sounds good at first until you realize that it leaves out both the authors and the readers. It is a mistake if phenomenology assumes that “phenomena and words and texts simply have their meaning in themselves and just present that to us [and that] readers are passive receptors, not agents in meaning-making.” (192) Martin argues that just as objects are for us as they are interpreted by us and other human beings (emphasis his), texts cannot speak for themselves; they must be interpreted by us. Rather than putting the agency in scripture, Martin says, we need to put the agency where it belongs—with us human beings. (194) Martin praises Horner and Chrétien for giving appropriate attention to the agency of the reader as interpreter and maker of meaning and including in their phenomenology that the meaning of a text arrives only from the interpretive activities of the readers. (195-196) This is important, Martin says, because “we can have different meanings of the text, and many of them, all at the same time, interpreting differently for different ends and needs.” (196) Again, I heartily agree. If a text is designated as an object that tells us what it means, then it is not alive for readers and is more useful for the suppression of ideas than for generating and communicating them.

The other response is by Walter Brueggemann who proposes the approach to scripture of probing the thickness of the text to go beyond the obvious meaning. (180) In seeking to understand a text, he says, we are seeking to understand the culture that surrounded it and gave birth to it. To be open to this understanding, we must avoid what Brueggemann calls “totalism.” Brueggemann rebukes three types of totalism: church doctrine that occupied scripture to its own advantage and reduced biblical narrative to propositions that could become a test of membership; enlightenment rationality that has “largely explained away what is interesting, compelling, and embarrassing in the text”; and late capitalism’s reduction of narrative to medical prescriptions promising quick technical fixes to all human problems. (182) Brueggemann’s prescription to cure totalism is not to read scripture from the place of religious orthodoxy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of ecclesiastical certitude or from the place of the modernist academy that resists any readings that conflict with the interests of reducing religion to a human sociopsychological projection. (186) When we move beyond the thinness of the conventional expectations of totalism, we dwell in thickness—the deeply coded cultural articulations and performances that are understood only by insiders. The reader must take up residence in the text and wait there, listening beyond what is given in the letter of the text. In thickness we can consider and accept interpretations of text that are clearly not acceptable in the surface observations of totalisms. For example, Brueggemann mentions the current interest, by both church and modern interpreters, to explain away the violence in the Bible, but the violence clearly belongs in the narrative because it is part of the cultural understanding of the culture from which the Bible emerged. We need to follow the story, not explain it away. Another example is being able to recognize messianic time in texts, meaning that the reading of the text is not settled in the present tense that is authorized by totalism but is instead always open to new possibilities. Being open to the possibilities in thickness are, Brueggemann says, a courageous response to today’s hurried productive society that does not want to dwell in any way that requires waiting because all meanings are known ahead of time. (181)

Maybe not all phenomenologies are courageous countercultural acts, as Brueggemann implies, but Phenomenologies of Scripture is going against the grain. The essays in the book are of more value to scholars of biblical interpretation than to those outside that discipline, but both biblical scholars and phenomenologists will find valuable approaches and ideas in these essays.

Literature:

Wells, Adam Y., ed. 2017. Phenomenologies of Scripture. New York: Fordham University Press.

 

Silvia Benso: Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers

Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers Book Cover Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers
SUNY series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy
Silvia Benso
SUNY Press
2017
Paperback $25.95
318

Reviewed by: Flaminia Incecchi (St. Andrews University)

In recent years there has been a palpable growth of interest in Italian thought. Perhaps, one could claim that the popularity of thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Gianni Vattimo, and (more recently) Adriana Cavarero, has invited the Anglophone gaze towards the Italian intellectual panorama. The scholarship’s focus has been twofold: on the conceptual roots of the Italian philosophical tradition, as well as its contemporary trends. As far as the first segment is concerned, a number of works are worth mentioning: Giorgio Pinton’s translation of Eugenio Garin’s History of Italian Philosophy (2008) – a monumental guide which in two volumes covers Italian thinkers from Boethius to Emanuele Severino; Zakiya Hanafi’s translation of Roberto Esposito’s ‘The Return of Italian Philosophy’ (2009), a short piece that aims at tracing parallels between contemporary debates in continental philosophy – biopolitics among those – and the Italian philosophical tradition; Rocco Rubini’s The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger (2012), a lucid and erudite exploration of the reaction of Italian intellectuals to the Renaissance, analysing how and why Italian thinkers have historically experienced a sense of ‘Renaissance shame’; Brian and Rebecca Copenhaver’s From Kant to Croce: Modern Philosophy in Italy 1800-1950 (2012), in which the authors offer several translations of some thinkers who were previously unknown and unaccessible to Anglophone readers. The range covered by the book quite impressive, extending from severely understudied figures such as Pasquale Galluppi and Bertrando Spaventa, but also covering Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci.

The other front on which the scholarship is growing steadily was inaugurated by Giovanna Borradori, with Recoding Metaphysics: The New Italian Philosophy (1988), a collection of essays by high profile Italian thinkers, such as Umberto Eco, Gianni Vattimo, and Emanuele Severino. Today, the translation of Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (2012), as well as the forthcoming Journal of Italian Philosophy, make access to the Italian intellectual front easier than ever before. That said, the medium through which Anglophone readers can gain familiarity with contemporary Italian thought, is SUNY’s excellent book series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy (2007 – ) edited by Silvia Benso and Brian Schroeder, of which Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers is a part of. The series features several translations from the Italian. Among them, Luigi Payerson’s Truth and Interpretation (2013), Carlo Sini’s Ethics of Writing (2009), and Gianni Vattimo’s Weak Thought (2012), just to name a few. The first book in the series, Contemporary Italian Philosophy (2007) is a collection of essays written by leading Italian philosophers, which in Benso’s words “added some new Italian voices to the continental philosophical tradition as known in the English-speaking countries, that is, a tradition deeply focused on French and German contributions” (Benso: 2017:1).

The aim of Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers is in close conversation with, if not a continuation of, the project begun by Benso and Schroeder in 2007 with Contemporary Italian Philosophy. Similarly, Viva Voce presents readers a snapshot over the work of twenty-three contemporary Italian thinkers working within different fields of philosophy, both in the continental and the analytic tradition. Thus, Viva Voce furthers the scope of perspectives it wishes to introduce to the Anglophone world in bringing Italian analytic voices to the fore – an element that was absent in Contemporary Italian Philosophy, which was dealing with the continental tradition specifically. Benso writes:

“Despite the recent increase in attention and recognition paid to contemporary Italian philosophy, a volume that provides a contextualisation – that is, a tracing of the general interconnections, threads, and fabrics that nourish the emergence of contemporary Italian thinkers in their magnificent individualities and enable them to be the thresholds … is still missing from the Anglo-American philosophical landscape. Albeit in a minimalist format, the goal of the present volume is precisely to work toward filling of minimising such a lack” (Benso: 2016:9).

Viva Voce pledges no thematic allegiance. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the thinkers interviewed have different philosophical orientations, and work within different areas of the philosophical landscape. For navigation purposes, Benso has grouped thinkers along six thematic lines: (1) Ethics, Passions, Practices: Remo Bodei, Eugenio Lecaldano, Salvatore Natoli, Carlo Sini, Carmelo Vigna; (2) History, Justice, Communities: Adriana Cavarero, Giacomo Marramao, Fulvio Tessitore, Gianni Vattimo, Salvatore Vacca; (3) Imagination, Art, Technology: Mario Costa, Sergio Givone, Mario Perniola; (4) Rationality, Sciences, Experience: Evandro Agazzi, Giulio Giorello, Paolo Parrini; (5) Being, Nothing, Temporality, Place: Enrico Berti, Virgilio Melchiorre, Ugo Perone, Emanuele Severino, Vincenzo Vitiello; (6) Human Beings, Evil and Transcendence: Giovanni Ferretti, Giuseppe Riconda. Having excluded the thematic selection, the criteria informing the array of thinkers is marked by two principal factors: the “theoretical vigour that thinkers have displayed in terms of making meaningful and lasting contributions to the Italian philosophical landscape” (Benso: 2016:9), and that all were born before 1948. As the title suggests, the book format is highly innovative. Thinkers recount themselves in their own terms by answering a set of questions Benso posed over email. The motivation behind such stylistic choice is explained by Benso in the following way:

“the practices of historicism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction have taught us how all historical accounts bespeak the perspective of the narrator. In light of such considerations, it has been the more modest choice of this editor to let the story be told not by a grand narrative but by those who, through their scholarly writings as well as their academic lectures, public conferences, and performances of various kinds, have contributed to delineate such a history. Thus, the format of the interview as been chosen as the most appropriate mode of narration for the volume.” (Benso: 2016:7)

The questions are formulated adopting a “zoom-in/zoom-out technique” (Benso: 2016:8). The result is an interesting temporal movement: the first set of question asks the author about their intellectual past, in terms of their provenance, as well as the external influences and traditions they subscribed to; the second set is geared towards the present of the thinker as they envisage it, here they are asked to outline the basic tenets of their philosophical positions, the originality of their contributions, and the timelessness thereof; finally, thinkers are asked to voice their opinion about the future of philosophy given the current world, as well as offering some conclusive thoughts for philosophers and non-philosophers alike. As Benso puts it:

“The interviews follow a three-step cadence. First, they star with more general questions that address issues of provenance, external (domestic and foreign) influences, and lineages. Next, they move to a self-description offered by each interviewed philosopher and aimed at highlighting the main tenets, theoretical originality, and timeliness of each individual position. Finally, the interviews dare to glance toward the future by asking for possible ways, suggestions, and advice through which philosophy can contribute to the delineation of such a future” (Benso: 2016:8).

In the Introduction: ‘Italian Philosophy – Threshold between Cultures’, Benso raises the issue of consonance between nationality and philosophy as a potential problematic, she notes: “One question that lurks behind the denomination ‘Italian thinkers’ is, understandably, the appropriateness or even desirability of framing philosophy within national borders and identities” (Benso: 2016:2). Benso escapes the impasse by referring to the notion of geographical specificity which entails a particular “socio-politcal-economic-historic-cultural landscape” and in virtue of these factors, “Italian philosophy retains its own specificity and individuality – its own uniqueness and difference” (Benso: 2016:3). Although Benso raises a valid point by appealing to the notion of specificity, it is this reviewer’s belief that the Introduction would have acquired a greater depth had the author addressed the contested nature of Italian philosophy, from Italian philosopher’s own perspectives. The history of Italian philosophy is constellated by thinkers reflecting on the link between philosophy and national borders in two interconnected ways: the very validity of ascribing a national qualifier to philosophy, and the nature of Italian philosophy as such. Perhaps the most explicit debate in this direction was Luigi Palmieri and Bertrando Spaventa’s post-Risorgimento tête-à-tête, where the former insisted on the national character of philosophy, and the latter on its universal nature, which by definition excludes the question of nationality. Thus, integrating the question of national philosophy with the testament from Italy’s own past of contestation, would have given Anglophone readers an even deeper grasp of the Italian difference, and exorcised Benso’s veiled, but nonetheless present, fear of ‘nationalism’:

“There is an Italian language and thus an Italian literature, philosophy, and culture based on such a language much earlier than Italy becomes a sovereign state in the modern sense. In this sense, Italian philosophy as a cultural event based on language precedes the formation of all possibilities of an Italian nationalism based on geographical borders. Being Italian is a cultural event ahead of all belonging to a territory, a soil, a nation (or even a blood lineage).” (Benso: 2016:5-6).

On a related note, Benso underlines another significant aspect of Italian thought connected with its interaction with the ‘foreign’ philosophical world, namely, that of porosity. Ascribing to Dante the merit highlighting this characteristic of Italian philosophy, Benso notes: “a fundamental aspect of Italian philosophy has nevertheless to do with a peculiar penetrability, permeability, and fluidity with respect to the possibility of infiltration by foreign elements – in the specific, the influence of non-Italian philosophies and thinkers on the Italian philosophical landscape” (Benso: 2016:4). Further on Benso elaborates the notion of porosity, and describes the Italian philosophical model as “osmotic”, in the sense that it resembles:

“An alchemist’s or magician’s laboratory where experiments of fusions, amalgams, and transformations happen and new configurations are creates as a result. To be an Italian philosopher might precisely mean to be such an alchemic, magic, perhaps kaleidoscopic threshold – an opening and a door onto the outside through which inside and outside enter in contact, communicate, and open up to new visions rather than a gate that ultimately defensively closes on itself in a nationalistic move” (Benso: 2016:6-7).

Through the interviews, readers learn about the turbulent philosophical climate of post-war Italy. The demise of Fascism brought Idealism along with it, and most thinkers interviewed reflect on the opening frontiers of the philosophical horizon after decades of idealist ‘hegemony’. This is nicely put by Vattimo, as he reflects on his university experience begun in 1941: “those were the years just after the post-World War II reconstruction. They were also the years after Fascism. A common idea was the need to get out of the cultural isolation Fascism created. That meant no more focusing on Croce and Gentile, no more idealism […]” (Benso: 2016:108). The voluntary act of forgetting Idealism lead to an exponential interest in ‘imported ideas’, in engagement with outlooks that had been developed and circulated abroad while Italy was preoccupied with its own philosophy. From existentialism to analytic philosophy, new currents of thought started occupying the minds of young Italian intellectuals. An emblematic testimony of the scarce appeal of Idealism on the new generation of Italian intellectuals is that of the interviewed. Among them, only Enrico Berti (Benso: 2016:203) and Emanuele Severino (Benso: 2016:234) list Gentile among their influences. The case of the Italian post-War philosophical climate was that of a nascent pluriverse, a fertile soil where imported ideas mixed and grew following unpredictable way, much like what Benso describes as the ‘osmotic’ model of Italian thought. Of course Viva Voce cannot by definition be an all-encompassing collection, but it serves as a good indicator of the heterogeneity of philosophical orientations Italy opened up to, the variety of fields those interviewed are active in is remarkable: from feminism (Adriana Cavarero), to the aesthetics of communication and the technological sublime (Mario Costa), to Historismus (Fulvio Tessitore), the philosophy of logic, mathematics, and empirical sciences (Evandro Agazzi), just to name a few. The very diversity of schools of thought and areas of enquiry, makes it almost daunting to find a fil rouge binding the thinkers, which leads to a further difficulty: what constitutes the Italian difference? It is this reviewer’s modest opinion, that its essence is not so much rooted in content, but in methodology. What thinkers share is the approach to the discipline: the degree of philological attention and detail, which instead of suffocating their philosophical voice, makes it all the more alluring.

Overall, Benso’s Viva Voce makes an elegant contribution to the growing field of Italian thought in a number of ways. Firstly, it widens the horizon of the discipline by presenting new voices and perspectives previously unknown to the Anglophone world. Secondly, in doing so and by adopting the format it does, readers get a vivid picture of post-war philosophical climate in Italy, characterised by its reaction to Idealism as well as the profound cleavage between secular and Catholic thinkers. Thirdly, that Benso does not comment the interviews either at the beginning or at the end of the work, which amplifies the feeling of ‘encounter’ the reader experiences with the interviewed. That also leaves it at the discretion of the reader to form an opinion of the contested Italian difference, as well as identifying possible synergies between those interviewed and thinkers of the reader’s own tradition. Aside from contributing to the spread of Italian thought, Benso’s work also opens a wide array of possibilities for scholarship more generally. That those interviewed are relatively unknown in the Anglophone world, coupled with the dialogical structure of Benso’s book allows a self-presentation on the thinkers’s past that is a sort of mis a nu, quite befitting considering that the audience is not acquainted with them. This presentation style might be an interesting format for future works with a similar aim.

References:

Benso, Silvia. Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers. New York: State University of New York Press. 2017. Print.

Benso, Silvia, and Schroeder, Brian. Contemporary Italian Philosophy: Crossing the Borders of Ethics, Politics, and Religion. New York: State University of New York Press. 2007. Print.

Borradori, Giovanna. “Recoding Metaphysics.” Recoding Metaphysics: The New Italian Philosophy. Ed. Borradori, Giovanna. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988. 1 – 26. Print.

Copenhaver, Brian., and Rebecca. Copenhaver. From Kant to Croce: Modern Philosophy in Italy 1800-1950. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.

Esposito, Roberto. Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy. Pensiero vivente: Origine e attualità della filosofia italiana. Trans. Hanafi, Zakiya. Cultural Memory in the Present. Ed. Vries, Mieke Bal and Hent de. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012. Print.

—. “The Return of Italian Philosophy (translated by Zakiya Hanafi).” Diacritics 39.3 (2009): 55 – 61. Print.

Garin, Eugenio. History of Italian Philosophy. Trans. Pinton, Giorgio. Vol. II: From Enlightenment to Risorgimento. II vols. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. Print.
—. History of Italian Philosophy. Trans. Pinton, Giorgio. Vol. I. II vols. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. Print.

Rubini, Rocco. The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.

 

Mark Rowlands: Memory and the Self: Phenomenology, Science and Autobiography

Memory and the Self: Phenomenology, Science and Autobiography Book Cover Memory and the Self: Phenomenology, Science and Autobiography
Mark Rowlands
Oxford University Press
2016
Hardback £41.49
224

Reviewed by: Marina Trakas (Académie de Caen)

Memory and the Self (2017), authored by Mark Rowlands, is a fascinating book that has all the qualities of good philosophical writing. It deals with a topic, memory, that has not received too much attention in philosophy of mind. It inquires about specific issues of memory that have received no attention at all, and it makes use of ideas from different philosophical traditions. Additionally it appeals to a various range of arguments, including experimental and introspective evidence to justify his claims. What is more, this delicious “combo” for the mind comes in a lucid and elegant prose, extremely clear and fluid, even for non-professional philosophers—and also for non-native English speakers— which at times achieves a literary style characteristic of fiction authors; a style that nowadays has unfortunately become more and more rare in academic philosophical writing.

The main aim of Rowland’s book is to give a better account of the key role played by memories in the constitution of personal identity and the explanation of the unity of a person. Probably the reader is familiar with the psychological-continuity views of personal identity that privileges memory as the essential factor for personhood: as Locke (1690) explained, as long as an individual possesses memories, the one remembering and the one remembered are the same person. Nonetheless, this quite intuitive conceptualization of personal identity presents some problems widely known in philosophical literature, such as the problem of circularity: how can memory explain personal identity if it presupposes personal identity? Besides these more metaphysical questions that go beyond the scope of the book, there are other common sense considerations that cast doubt on the explanatory role of the memory criterion for accounting for personal identity. The anthropologist Jannelle Taylor, writing about his mother who developed dementia, considers that despite the massive loss of memories and “all the changes she has been through, my mother ‘still’ is in many ways the cheerful affectionate person I have always known her to be. Mom still enjoys gentle joking and teasing, as she always has. She still enjoys being around people, still beams radiantly at small children when she sees them, still enjoys the give and take of conversation.” (2008, p. 316). Rowlands is of the same opinion as Taylor: regardless of the Alzheimer of Patsy Hasset, his wife’s grandfather, he felt that Patsy was still there, not simply as a human being or a biological organism, but as a person, as a psychological entity with some defining personality traits. And in fact, this opinion seems to be shared by most of us: according to an empirical study done by Jesse Prinz and Shaun Nichols (2016), people in general consider that the loss of memories does not threaten the identity of a person, in comparison with a change of moral values that is considered to have a devastating impact on it.

So our ordinary understanding of the basis of the continuity and unity of our identity over time gives us two ideas that in principle are contradictory. On the one hand, we think that the loss of memories of past experiences does not undermine personal identity; but on the other hand, we also have the intuition that memories play a certain important role in making us who we are. In Memory and the Self, Rowlands provides a clever, original—and also poetic—response that makes these two ideas compatible: memory makes us who we are even if, like Patsy Hasset, we have lost our memories, because memories of past experiences can persist and continue to shape our personhood when these past experiences have been forgotten, that is, when the content of our memories has disappeared. Rowlands calls “Rilkean memories” these mutated memories that do not have content. The origin of the name is due to the inspiration drawn from a passage of the only novel written by Rainer Maria Rilke that makes reference to memories that have been forgotten and are thus “nameless” but return in a new form: “they have changed into our very blood into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 53). As we shall see later, Rilkean memories refer to behavioural and bodily dispositions, feelings, moods and sensations, which have arisen from episodic memories but which have lost their contents and have become pure mental acts.

The characterisation of Rilkean memories and the investigation of its role in the construction and continuity of personal identity over time led Rowlands to accomplish another important task: to reconfigure our understanding of the structure of memory. Whereas a traditional analytical philosopher understands a memory as a mental representation with a tripartite structure composed of an act, an object and a mode of presentation, Rowlands proposes a four-constituent model of memory, in which (a) the act of remembering is of fundamental importance to understand the structure of a memory experience; (b) the intentional object, that is, the episode remembered (that exists independently of the act of remembering), is different from the content of a memory; and (c) the act, the content and the mode of presentation are conceptually distinguishable but inseparable: the content of a memory exists when the act of remembering operates certain transformations on the episode remembered and presents it in a certain mode. The mineness is one essential mode in which the episode remembered is presented, and this is what explains the undeniable presence of the self in every memory of our past experiences.

Therefore, a novel explanation of the way that memories make us who we are as well as a novel explanation of the structure of memory are the two major accomplishments that Rowlands intends to achieve in Memory and the Self. It remains to be seen (and evaluated) how the author develops these explanations through his book and how both of them are linked together.

Phenomenology, and the autobiographical self

But first, a remark about Rowlands’ methodology. Rowlands’ writings have been widely influenced by the phenomenological tradition, and this book is not an exception.

On one hand, Rowlands remarks (chapter 1) that whereas analytical philosophy and cognitive science have always privileged the mental content over the mental act to account for cognitive states, the phenomenological tradition has done exactly the contrary: it has privileged the study of mental acts as acts without objectifying them, in order to understand the preconditions of our experiences. Mental content, appearences in phenomenological terms, are only studied to get to the act. And this phenomenological method is exactly what Rowlands adopts: he begins with general intuitive ideas of the type of “memories makes us who we are although their lost does not undermine personal identity”, and “there are some behaviours and moods that connect the person to his past and that are thus relevant to the continuity of identity through time”, ideas that could be understood as appearences, and then he works backwards from them in order to identify the features of the act of remembering in virtue of which memories, behaviours and moods, can appear this way. Rowlands considers essential the recovery and privileged role of the act of remembering in order to understand memory, develop a workable conception of memory content and make sense of the idea that memories make us who we are.

On the other hand, Rowlands makes another use of the phenomenological method to delineate his conceptualization of the notion of self. Whereas in philosophy most concerns about the self are part of a metaphysical project that tries to understand the nature of personhood, its essential properties, its persistence through time, etc., Rowlands proposes to bracket these metaphysical questions and examine the way the self presents itself to us. If someone asks us how we would define our own self, we would probably answer her by describing our beliefs about ourselves, our values, our attitudes, our desires, etc. This description would probably be different if we were asked the same question at a different time. The idea that there are multiple selves and that each of them refers to a particular configuration of our self-knowledge at a particular time is not new. In psychology, this is a common conception of a self. The psychologist Martin Conway, for example, considers that the self refers to conceptual self-structures that are not temporally specified, such as self-schemas, self-scripts, possible selves, self-images, self-with-other units, relational schemas, attitudes, values and other self-beliefs (2005, 2009). These configurations of abstract self-knowledge, that Conway calls “the conceptual self”, are formed and ultimately grounded in episodic memories of specific experiences, and can change through time. This conception of the self constitutes a good workable notion—and a good strategy—that allows any theorist to make use of a notion of self and at the same time to set aside all the metaphysical questions related to the self (that would require an entirely different kind of research). I used it myself for this purpose. I considered that the different selves (past selves, present self, future selves) are just many and different configurations of self-knowledge, different conceptual selves in Conway’s terminology, that constitute parts of the same human being who perdures through time (Trakas, 2014, pp. 131-132). Nonetheless, Rowlands goes beyond this idea and supposes that there is a self that transcends these empirical and multiple configurations of the self. He defines this self, called “autobiographical self”, as the principles of the network of these concrete episodes of self-understanding; their laws of appearance. I have trouble understanding how this notion of autobiographical self, which is in certain way a sort of Kantian self, and thus a transcendental self, can explain the unity of the self and its distinctness from other selves (Rowlands, 2017, p. 84) without being similar to the notion of metaphysical self. I think that the practical solution to avoid a metaphysical inquiry, would be to just state (as I did) that these episodes of self-understanding or configurations of self-knowledge constitute parts of the same human being, and that they are interconnected between them because the physical continuity of the human being assures some degree of psychological continuity. This strategy does not suggest, as Rowlands does, that the principle or structure from which all the different episodes of understanding emerge is itself a self. Rowlands should have said more about the autobiographical self to prevent their readers from thinking that he is actually engaged in a metaphysical explanation of the self (even if he explicitly denies it).

Maybe Rowlands introduced this unitary notion of self in order to account for the unfolding characteristic of memory between a self who remembers what a former self experienced. Rowlands mentions the two “selves” involved in memory while discussing the differences between the notions of autobiographical self and narrative self. According to Rowlands, the autobiographical self is not the same as the narrative self and entirely rescinds from the question of whether the self has a narrative structure (Rowlands, 2017, pp. 85-87). Nonetheless, the autobiographical self is compatible with narrative accounts of self-understanding that conceive that the self who remembers adopts the position of narrator with respect to the self that originally experienced. Rowlands calls them R-self and W-self respectively. Both of them are conceptually distinguishable but not ultimately separable, because both of them—the self that is written and the self who reads what is written—form the autobiographical self. But once again, we do not need to suppose a transcendental self to explain the essential unfolding of the self that characterizes memory. Neither do we need to understand this unfolding of the self in narrative terms. We can forget about narrative and about any transcendental conception of the self, and simply state that a present self, that is nothing more than a particular configuration of self-knowledge at a given time, can have access to previous selves and their experiences because they all belong to the same human being. The numerical continuity and the degree of psychological continuity implied in the fact of belonging to the same human being would guarantee the access (to some extent) to past configurations of self-knowledge and past experiences, and thus the unfolding of the self and the possibility of self-reflection through time that are characteristic of memory.

Rilkean memories (and episodic and autobiographical memories)

The disquisition about the nature of the self implied in the claim that “memories make us who we are” is not presented at the beginning of the book but in chapter 4. After a first chapter that constitutes a condensed summary of all the ideas developed in the book—which deserves a second reading after finishing the book, in order to get a better picture of the whole—, the next two chapters (2 and 3) are focused on the characterization of Rilkean memories.

Rowlands does not intend to directly prove the existence of Rilkean memories: “Rilkean memories are theoretical posits whose existential credentials will be established by the sort of explanatory work they do” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 55). But further on: “if they are to play an explanatory role of certain sort [explaining how memories make us who we are], they must have certain features”.  In a certain way, Rowlands forces the readers to accept the existence of Rilkean memories: how will the explanatory work they do establish their existence if their characterization is conceived in a way that they could successfully accomplish this explanatory work? In any case, this tricky argument is not so relevant; readers avid of understanding embodied and affective phenomena neglected in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, will become immediately sympathetic to the idea of Rilkean memories.

Furthermore, there are examples of Rilkean memories in literature and poetry, and it is also easy to think of everyday cases. Embodied Rilkean memories refer to patterns of behavioural as well as bodily dispositions inscribed in the body that originated in the past: a curvature of the spine and a consequent back pain that originated in successive episodes of bad posture while writing as a child, a tendency to talk in a very loud voice during a normal conversation originated in successive episodes of conversation with parents who speak too loudly, are (personal) examples of embodied Rilkean memories. Affective Rilkean memories make reference to sensations, feelings and moods strongly environmentally embedded, which have a very low probability of occurring without the requisite environment. The famous episode of la madeleine de Proust, the nostalgia that arises when walking around our hometown left a long time ago, are cases of Rilkean affective memories. These behaviours, bodily dispositions, moods, feelings and sensations can appear when the initial episodic memories have vanished, can coexist with them, or can exist shortly before the onset of them (like Proust’s madeleine).

Rilkean memories can exclusively arise from memories that are person specific in order to play a role in the constitution of the person and, as Rowlands argues, only episodic memories are sufficiently specific to their subject. The same procedural memories, semantic memories, even semantic autobiographical memories, could be in principle possessed by two different people. So Rilkean memories, Rowlands concludes, can only arise from episodic memories.

While reflecting on the characterization of Rilkean memories, Rowlands introduces a new and original conceptualization of episodic memory. Episodic memories are neither memories of episodes—this will render them indistinguishable from some semantic memories that are also memories of episodes—nor memories of experiences—this will entail the falseness of most of our memories due to the fact that memory’s visual, emotional and evaluative perspectives can and often change over time. Episodic memories cannot either be understood as an adverbial modification of the act of remembering: relocating the experiential qualities of episodic memory to the act of remembering threatens the distinction between episodic memory and semantic memory (I can remember a fact angrily) and cannot explain the contradictory experiential qualities that may exist between the act of remembering and what is remembered (I can remember with joy a sad episode). According to Rowlands, episodic memories are best defined as memories of an episode that is subsumed under a specific mode of presentation: beside the rich experiential-emotional complexes that are characteristic of episodic memories, what is essential to the mode of presentation of episodic memories is that the episode remembered is remembered as one that has formerly witnessed, orchestrated or otherwise encountered by the rememberer, and that this “as” is built into the content of the memory (and not on the act of remembering).

I am quite sympathetic to both ideas: that Rilkean memories arise from episodic memories and that the self-involvement or the presence of the self in the content of memories is what makes memories episodic. Nonetheless, I have some doubts about the effectiveness of Rowlands’ arguments. First of all, he dismisses semantic autobiographical memories as a starting point of Rilkean memories because even if unlikely, it is perfectly conceivable that two different people could possess the same semantic autobiographical memories and have forgotten the other ones that would distinguish one person from the other. So because this situation is possible, semantic autobiographical memories are not considered to be sufficiently specific to the subject. The problem with the use of this kind of hypothetical scenario is that we could easily conceive of a similar scenario about episodic memories and thus come to the conclusion that episodic memories are not sufficiently specific. We could think about identical twins—who in general have a significant amount of experiences in common—who exclusively remember the episodes experienced together. In this hypothetical case, episodic memories would not be sufficiently specific to distinguish the two identical twins. This scenario is as unlikely but as possible as the scenario concerning semantic autobiographical memories, especially when we take into consideration that a lot of semantic autobiographical memories are the result of a process of semantization of episodic memories over time (Piolino, & al., 2009). In the hypothetical episodic memory scenario, what would be sufficiently person specific and would allow us to distinguish the identical twins is not the fact that these episodes are remembered as formerly witnessed, orchestrated or encountered by the rememberer, but the fact that they are remembered as episodes that formerly affected the rememberer in terms of harms, benefits, morality or self-image, and that this affection of the event—which is person specific—is part of the content of the memory (see Trakas, 2014). There is less unlikely that identical twins could only remember the events that both have witnessed, orchestrated and encountered, than they could remember these same events under the same affective tone. And this remark leads me to the second point I wanted to make concerning Rowlands’ conceptualization of episodic memory. Episodic memory is a controversial notion, very much used in psychological research, but not very well defined. Endel Tulving, the “father” of the distinction between episodic and semantic memory systems, has defined episodic memory first in terms of its content, then in terms of its phenomenology (which arise out of its mode; see for example McCormack, 2001), but in certain way the debate has just started, with the growing interest that this notion has aroused in the philosophical community in recent years. The point that Rowlands makes about the specificity of episodic memory indubitably marks a novel way of thinking about the nature of episodic memory that is very promising. But it needs further development. Semantic autobiographical memories that are originated from a process of semantization of episodic memories (very characteristic of older adults), differ from episodic memories at least in the neural substrates and mechanisms and in their phenomenology, but they are also remembered as episodes formerly witnessed, orchestrated or encountered by the rememberer. I previously suggested that in an episodic memory we remember episodes (or people, or places, etc.) as episodes that affected me in a specific way (or that stills affect me), and it is through this affection that the self is present in the content of memory. This affection can explicitly be attended to as the intentional object of my memory, or we can be aware of it in a pre-attentive or pre-reflective way; it can take the form of interoceptive bodily sensations, action tendencies or language, and it can refer to a past affection or to a present and occurrent one. According to my view, it is this affection that makes of memories episodic memories—and that is at the origin of the metacognitive phenomenology that is characteristic of episodic memory—and it is this affection that makes of my episodic memories uniquely mine. More should be explored in this line, because it clearly seems that the presence of the self is an excellent alternative to the current views to characterize the specificity of episodic memory.

In chapter 8, Rowlands argues that the presence of the self is a necessary and sufficient condition for a memory to count as an episodic. I have tried to explain before, through the example of semantic autobiographical memories that are the product of a process of semantization of episodic memories, why the presence of the self characterized as a mode of presentation where the episode is remembered as one that the rememberer has formerly witnessed, orchestrated or otherwise encountered, does not seem sufficient for a memory to qualify as episodic. Nonetheless, the arguments that Rowlands presents to defend the necessity of the presence of the self in an episodic memory are very convincing. First, we could think that the presence of the self is not necessary because non-human animals have episodic memories but neither engage in self-reflective thought nor have a self-concept. Rowlands argues that none of them is necessary for the self to be present in a memory, and that a feeling of familiarity could perfectly account for it. In fact, the thesis that non-human animals have episodic memories is quite controversial, and Rowlands should have mentioned it to reinforce his point. It could have also been argued that the semantic / episodic distinction is also present in non-humans animals, but that its characterization is slightly different from one proper to human animals (and this makes sense considering the importance of the influence of human language in the phylogenetic development of our cognitive capabilities). Second, the case of a patient named RB (mentioned by Klein & Nichols, 2012), who seems to have episodic memories that do not present a sense of ownership, could also be used as a counterexample of the necessity of the presence of the self in episodic memories. But it is not the case: or this is an example of attenuation and not of loss of the sense of ownership, argues Rowlands, or else these memories are not episodic. As he correctly points out, in the absence of the presence of the self in episodic memory, there is nothing to distinguish episodic memories from semantic memories. Therefore, Rowlands gives compelling arguments to assert the necessity of the presence of the self in episodic memories, whereas his arguments for its sufficiency in a certain way fail, because his interpretation of the meaning of the presence of the self in episodic memories is not sufficient to distinguish them from semantic (autobiographical) memories.

Before coming back to the characterization of Rilkean memories, I would like to mention an interesting distinction that Rowlands draws concerning autobiographical memory, which should be considered while theorizing about this notion. Autobiographical memory is another notion very much used in psychological research, but again not very well defined. Broadly understood, it refers to a subsystem that includes some episodic memories and different facts about the self (including semantic memories). Rowlands proposes to distinguish three types of autobiographical memories according to their intentional objects: (a) strongly autobiographical memories: the memory contains the rememberer as the intentional object of the memory, and is thus about something that happened to the rememberer (I remember I travelled to Greece or I remember I was born the 15th February 1983), (b) weakly autobiographical memories: the rememberer is not the intentional object, but is implicated in the mode of presentation of the intentional object of the memory, and is thus about something that she witnessed or encountered (I remember the flight to Greece took off 5 hours later than scheduled); (c) minimally autobiographical memories: these memories, which have no intentional object, are autobiographical because they are the descendant of a memory that is at least weakly autobiographical. While episodic and semantic memories can be strongly autobiographical, only episodic memories can be weakly autobiographical—only episodic memories can include the self in their mode of presentation—and only Rilkean memories can be minimally autobiographical. The common characteristic between all these subtypes of autobiographical memory is that all of them ultimately refer to the rememberer, and it is in this sense that all of them receive the epithet “autobiographical”.

This distinction allows Rowlands to give a minimal definition of embodied and affective Rilkean memories: Rilkean memories are involuntary memories that have no intentional content and are minimally autobiographical because they derive from episodic memories, when their content has been forgotten and only the act of remembering persists. This definition is given in chapter 3, after a series of arguments that (convincingly) show why Rilkean memories cannot be conceived as Freudian memories, nor procedural memories, nor declarative memories, nor semantic memories, nor episodic memories, nor explicit memories, nor implicit memories.

More about episodic memories: their structure

In the next section, I will come back to Rilkean memories, and to their importance for the unity and identity of the self. In this section, I will focus on the characterisation of the structure of episodic memory developed by Rowlands in chapters 8 and 9.

In the introduction, I already anticipated that Rowlands reconfigures the traditional understanding of the structure of memory by proposing a four-constituent model of episodic memory: intentional object, content, mode of presentation and act. In his model, the intentional object is different from the content, and the mode of presentation and act of remembering are conceptually distinguishable but inseparable. These two ideas are the key theses defended by Rowlands in order to change the traditional conceptualization of episodic memory that is characterized by the standard tripartite model of intentionality and the two-model of meaning.

The two-model of meaning (which, according to Rowlands, would be at the origin of Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox) supposes that items are intrinsically semantically inert and only get meaning and reference by an act of interpretation. This model is useful to account for the semantics of photographs, and because we tend to consider episodic memories as “pictures” of past episodes, we think mistakenly that this model is also useful to understand the structure of episodic memories, when really it is not. Although I have some doubts about the intrinsically semantical inertia of photographs (a specific photograph is ambiguous but cannot “be about anything”), Rowlands makes a good point: photographs exist independently of any act of interpretation whereas episodic memories do not; and photographs need an act of interpretation at least to remove their intrinsic semantic ambiguity, whereas episodic memories do not. The list of differences could be developed (episodic memories can essentially change over time whereas photographs do not, etc.), and this would be an interesting project to finally abandon the photographic model of memories, but this is not Rowlands’ purpose in this book: he only wants to state that, unlike photographs, the contents of our episodic memories are never pure objects, unadulterated by the interpretative activities implicated in my awareness of them. The content of our episodic memories is always presented to us as something, under a mode of presentation, and this mode of presentation is not externally attached to the content, but is essentially built into it. When I remember the face of my father, I remember this face as the face of my father, and not as a visual image of a face whose appearance needs a subsequent act of interpretation to determine that it is a memory and that it is the face of my father. It may be the case that I cannot remember whose face it is, but if I have a memory experience I remember the face at least as a face that belongs to someone I previously saw. For Rowlands, in an episodic memory, meaning and reference are thus not added in a subsequent phase to the presentation of the content to the mind, but are an intrinsic part of it, entangled with it. The meaning and reference includes not only the meaning and reference that is specific to a particular memory content, but also the meaning and reference that is given in every episodic memory: the pastness and the presence of the self who remembers. The meaning and reference is given to the episode remembered, which is not inherently interpreted, when the act of remembering performs on it certain operations of transformation that present the episode remembered under different modes of presentation. These modes of presentation (which are characterized by Rowlands as complex combinations of perception, cognition, emotion and sensation) not only individuate the memory and, more importantly, render the presence of the self a necessary feature of it, but also give rise to memory content. The content of an episodic memory is thus created by the act of remembering.

And this leads us to Rowlands’ four-constituent model of episodic memory and his revision of the standard tripartite model of intentionality. Whereas the standard model considers that the intentional object of an episodic memory is equal to its content, and that this object / content is an episode—defined as a state-of-affairs—that is independent of the act of remembering and propositional in form, Rowlands not only denies the necessarily propositional nature of episodes, but also the identification between the object and the content of a memory. Whereas the intentional object of memory, that is, the episode remembered, is a state-of-affairs independent of the act of remembering, which only plays a passive causal role in the origin of our memories, the memory content is what is available to our consciousness. It is what one can discern and have access to when one remembers, and it is the product of a constructive and active process of remembering.

This later distinction is not new, but has a long tradition—recently recovered but neglected for many years— that goes back at least to the introduction of the notion of intentionality in contemporary philosophy made by Franz Brentano. The distinction between object and content was explicitly formulated by Kazimierz Twardowski (Brentano’s student) in his book On the Content and Object of Presentations (1894) and later endorsed and developed by Alexius Meinong (1899), another one of Brentano’s students. It was also more explicitly applied to the understanding of memory phenomena by Bertrand Russell (1921) and Charlie Broad (1925). All of them, in different ways and with different terminology, defended the existence of a difference between the object of a mental act and its content. I personally got back to this rich tradition and proposed a representationalist account of personal memories based on this distinction (Trakas 2014). I found it a bit disappointing that Rowlands did not mention the origin of this distinction in his book, although I understand that historical references sometimes may cut the argumentative fluidity. Nonetheless, a small footnote would not have done any harm, and it would have been a nice initiative to recognize the often forgotten rich ideas that precede us and still influence us in many ways.

Rowlands justifies the need of this distinction by means of three convincing arguments. If the memory content were identical with the episode remembered:

(a) the idea of mental content should be abandoned (there is nothing “mental” in a state-of-affairs; a state-of-affairs would be mental and non-mental at the same time), or the mentality should exclusively be placed on the act of remembering. The only way to assure the mentality of the content is to distinguish the state-of-affairs from the content and adopt the view that the content is brought into existence by a process of transformation operated by the mental act on the state-of-affairs;

(b) it would be impossible to explain why two states-of-affairs can be identical (such as Oedipus marring Jocasta and Oedipus marrying his mother) whereas the memories of them are not (Oedipus remembers marrying Jocasta but not his mother). States-of-affairs and memory content must be different because their standards of individuation are different: a mental act narrows the standard of individuation of mental content by subsuming one or more constituents of a state-of-affairs (object, property) under different modes of presentation;

(c) the presence of the self would not be essential to the memory, and thus the episode would not appear to the rememberer as one that she formerly experienced. The only way to render necessary the presence of the self and thus episodically remember an episode is to impose on that episode one or more modes of presentation. This process of transformation creates mental content, which is different from the episode.

I have also given some arguments in favour of the distinction between object and content (even if I used different terms), focused on the possible discrepancies between the content and the object of the same personal memory (Trakas, 2014, p. 32-35). The arguments that Rowlands gives are nonetheless persuasive and sufficient by themselves to convince the readers of the need for this conceptual distinction. What is more, his explanation along these two chapters shows the inseparability that is characteristic of the act of remembering, the memory content and the mode of presentation, as well as the key role played by the act of remembering in the construction of our episodic memories: it is finally the act of remembering which is responsible for the mentality, the individuation and the ownership of the remembered content.

Before coming back to Rilkean memories, I would like to make a comment about a remark made by Rowlands. According to our author, his conception of content must not be understood as something that stands between the subject and the episode, but simply as a way or mode of remembering an episode. Because the content is nothing more than the episode transformed in certain ways, Rowlands concludes that while remembering “content” we are in direct contact with the past. Like other authors, Rowlands couples a representationalist conceptualization of memory to a direct realism theory of memory. I profoundly believe not only in the incompatibility of these two conceptions of memory, but also in the impossibility of defending a direct realist view of memory. Direct realist accounts of memory cannot accommodate the existence of memory traces and fail to explain the fallibility and change that characterize our memory representations. They also fail to give a criterion to distinguish between immediate acquaintance in perception and immediate acquaintance in memory (Trakas, 2014, pp. 10-17). Memory researchers would do better to abandon the idea that memory allows us to be in direct and immediate contact with the past and to ask, instead, how a capacity that does not allow us to be in direct contact with the past can nevertheless produce reliable representations of the past.

Forgetting, endemic inaccuracy and a person’s unity and identity (for her and for the others)

In this last section I focus on chapters 5, 6, 7 and 10, chapters where Rowlands develops the role that Rilkean memories—these memories that have no content and are pure act—play in making us who we are.

As I already mentioned, episodic memories are in general considered to give an answer to the metaphysical problem of the self’s unity and identity through time (what makes a person at a time t2 a unified individual identical to a person at a time t1?). Nonetheless, the endemic inaccuracy and the forgetting of episodic memories compromise the identity of the person over time and thus threatens the role played by episodic memory in the explanation of the unity and identity of the metaphysical self. On the contrary, the endemic inaccuracy and the forgetting of memories is not a threat for the autobiographical self, neither from a first person point of view (that is, the self-experience of unity and identity) nor from a third person point of view (the recognition of the unity and identity of another self). Rowlands considers them as self-constructing opportunities that can play a positive role in the constitution of a person.

I will come back in a few lines to Rowlands’ idea of the positive role played by the inaccuracy and the forgetting of episodic memories in the constitution of the autobiographical self. I would now like to make a brief comment about Rowlands’ arguments to state the endemic unreliability of memory. Rowlands asserts the endemic unreliability of memory based on empirical studies on false memories (like studies on flashbulb memories) as well as on memory reconsolidation that, according to our author, would explain why most of our memories are unreliable: every time we access a memory trace, it returns to the unstable and labile state characteristic of short-term memory, and becomes thus sensitive to change. The idea that most of our memories are “false” is not new and has been advocated by psychologists like Elizabeth Loftus: “in essence, all memory is false to some degree” (Bernstein & Loftus, 2009, p. 373). Rowlands rightly recognizes that the notions of accuracy and inaccuracy (conceived as a spectrum) are better suited to characterize memories than the notion of truth and falsity, but he still holds that inaccuracy is endemic to memory. I believe first, that Rowlands misunderstands the notion of change during the process of reconsolidation: “change” does not necessarily mean “distortion” (a term that he explicitly uses), and several times, a change of a memory trace is necessary to render a memory more accurate (for example, when we acquire new information that allows us to better understand a past experience). Secondly, Rowlands—and Loftus—present radical and extremist conceptions of the notions of truth / falsity and accuracy / inaccuracy: all memory representations that are different (even slightly different) from a past representation would be false or inaccurate, and that is why inaccuracy (or falsity) is endemic to episodic memories. This is a surprising conceptualization for someone who proposed to conceive the epistemic values of memories in terms of a spectrum of accuracy versus inaccuracy. Third, I do believe that people who think that memory is endemically unreliable are wrong. Instead of looking at empirical studies on false memories, we would do better to look at our everyday functioning and the way it would be affected if a large number of our memories would be unreliable: not only could we not successfully navigate the physical and social world, but probably we could not even have evolved as we did. Most of our everyday actions are guided by semantic as well as episodic memories, and a human being with an unreliable memory system would be very different from what we are; maybe she will not even be human. Anthropological studies take time and are not often practiced to study psychological phenomena, but they would be of great help to provide empirical data on the reliability of the human memory system(s).

In any case, it remains to be seen how the endemic inaccuracy and the forgetting of memories can be self-constructive for the autobiographical self. Rowlands does not give an explanation of the positive role that endemic inaccuracy plays; he only states that “for an autobiographical project, false memories can be just as self-constructive as real memories” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 115). If confabulations can present some benefits for the confabulator (at least she has a story to tell to herself about who she is), it remains an open question as to whether confabulations are as self-constructive as real memories. The case of forgetting is analysed with more detail, in a specific and interesting chapter about this notion (chapter 5). Passive forgetting (memory decay over time) compromise the memory-based version of the metaphysical explanation of the self and also plays a negative role in the construction of the autobiographical self (by unbalancing the story of who we are, or making us repeat old mistakes). Nonetheless, active forgetting, that is, the conscious and unconscious engagement in a process of forgetting, plays a positive role in the construction of the autobiographical self: it allows us to forget the useless—in order to release cognitive resources—and to forget the pernicious. Furthermore, active projects of forgetting, which can include the explicit manipulation of the environment in order to facilitate or scaffold the process of forgetting (like destroying photographs), say a lot about the person you are. But there is a more pervasive and primitive process of forgetting than active forgetting, which does not require the existence of an autobiographical self who conducts the forgetting, but plays a significant role in the development and preservation of the autobiographical self. This primitive, passive but positive process of forgetting memory content refers to the process that originates in Rilkean memories. Rilkean memories play a positive role in holding the identity and the unity of the autobiographical self through time, in the face of the lost and inaccuracy of episodic memories, and more especially when the self is no longer capable of engaging in remembering (or forgetting), like the cases of Patsy Hasset or Taylor’s mother.

Rowlands compares Rilkean memories to literary style (to understand this analogy, it is worth mentioning that Rilkean memories are pure acts of remembering, without content). If we find a couple of disconnected pages of a book, the style of these pages combined with the remaining content can be sufficient to establish or at least suggest the identity of the author. The same applies to Rilkean memories. Embodied Rilkean memories, that is, the tendency to do things in certain ways in certain circumstances, and affective Rilkean memories, that is, the disposition to have certain moods and feelings in certain environmental circumstances, are part of a person’s existential style. Rilkean memories connect the person to her past and provides a form of continuity between the person who has the Rilkean memories and the person who had their episodic ancestor. Rilkean memories, as part of a person’s existential style, allow an outsider observer to distinguish and recognize individuals on their basis. That is why Rilkean memories play a key role in the recognition of the unity and identity of a person made by a third party. That is why Rowlands is still able to recognize his wife’s grandfather Patsy as the same person he used to be before developing Alzheimer’s disease and thus losing all his episodic memories. This is the right time to remember Taylor’s description of her mother quoted at the beginning of this review. For Taylor, her mother was the same person as before, because she could still recognize her existential style, that is, her particular way of being, acting and feeling: her mother was still a cheerful and affectionate person, who still enjoyed gentle joking and teasing, being around people and having a conversation, and who also still beamed radiantly at small children. Rilkean memories are finally what justify third person recognition judgements.

Rilkean memories solve then the puzzle of the unity and identity of a person from a third point of view, that is, the puzzle of the recognition of another person. But there is a still another puzzle: the problem of explaining the self-experience of unity and identity, that is, the way in which the present self (R-self) experiences a past self (W-self) as a unified individual, identical with herself. According to Rowlands, Rilkean memories are also the key to solve this puzzle, but they do not feature as what they are—Rilkean memories—but as what they were before becoming Rilkean memories: as episodic memories. The necessary presence of the self in episodic memories is the key to first-person recognition: “The person who remembers is, therefore, in her memories even when those memories are not about her. She is in her memories not simply because she has carved or shaped them from the block of the episode. Rather, it is because she had to do this in order to make them something that could be remembered. The content of memory is always infused with the person who remembered and where she is in her life. The content of memory is, in this sense, infused with style. It is infused with, and therefore shaped by, the act of remembering (…) Style and content may eventually go their separate ways—this is what happens when a Rilkean memory is formed. But before this happens, the two are entangled. The style of a person is always there, in the midst of content” (Rowlands, 2017, pp. 194-195). Therefore, because the autobiographical self is present in each and every one of the episodic memories that collectively form the record of her life, the self who remembers (R-self) experiences herself as a unified individual identical with any of her past selves (W-self). This means that Patsy and Taylor’s mother, as well as other people with dementia, could still experience their unity and identity through time if they have at least one episodic memory that remains accessible to their consciousness.

Final thoughts

Memory and the Self is an excellent book on memory, with a highly sophisticated dose of philosophical content and literary style. However, I must admit that at the end of the book I was slightly disappointed. The main purpose of the book is to introduce the notion of Rilkean memories and explain the key role they play in maintaining the unity and identity of the (autobiographical) self. Nonetheless, from the first-person recognition perspective, Rilkean memories finally do not play any role; episodic memories do all the work. Saying, as Rowlands does, that Rilkean memories play such an important role because they were episodic memories before becoming Rilkean memories, does not help to assign a real role to Rilkean memories in the self-experience of identity and unity. Although one derives from the other, Rilkean memories and episodic memories are very different. Furthermore, episodic memories do not necessarily become Rilkean memories. The truth is that Rilkean memories do not play any explanatory role in first-person recognition, and that episodic memories are the key to understand how we experience our autobiographical selves as a unified individual, identical to itself through time, despite Rowlands denying this in chapter 6: “these two facts [inaccuracy and forgetting] present a problem for the idea that our episodic memories play a major role in the construction of the autobiographical self” (Rowlands, 2017, p. 122). Moreover, in this section I would have expected more discussion with Stan Klein’s view—an author who is known and mentioned by Rowlands in this book—for whom the unity that we attribute ourselves as persons can be interpreted as a pre-reflective feeling of personal continuity that would permeate all our experiences (for evidence of an amnesic patient who maintains a sense of personal identity despite being unable to retrieve episodic and semantic personal memories, see Klein, 2014).

Rilkean memories do play a key role from the third-person recognition perspective. However, when analysing these cases, we realize that what allows us to recognize someone as the same unified individual identical through time is nothing more than different kinds of habits and character traits. Rilkean memories are finally nothing more than environmental embedded habits and character traits. Rowlands is aware that Rilkean memories may not be a new, non-standard form of memory, but just the product of a process of transformation of episodic memories (Rowlands, 2017, p. 54). This is nonetheless unimportant to him, and maybe it should also be unimportant to the reader in order to get Rowlands’ message: the recognition of these habits and character traits as states that carry in them a trace of the personal past and that allow the personal past to live in the subject in a different way than memories (understood in a familiar sense).

In spite of this small disappointment that other readers may share with me, Memory and the Self is a very pleasant book to read that truly deserves to be read, reread, and discussed by those interested in philosophy of mind and in memory.

 

Bibliography

Bernstein D. & Loftus E. (2009). How to tell if a particular memory is true or false. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(4), 370-374.

Broad, C. D. (1925). The mind and its place in nature. Londres, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Conway, M. (2005). Memory and the self. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 594-628.

Conway, M. (2009). Episodic memories. Neuropsychologia, 47, 2305-2313.

Conway M. A., & Loveday C. (2015). Remembering, Imagining, False Memories and Meaning. Consciousness and Cognition, 33, 574-581.

Klein, S. & Nichols, S. (2012). Memory and the sense of personal identity. Mind, 121, 677-702.

Klein, S. (2014). The two selves: Their metaphysical commitments and functional independence. New York, Oxford University Press.

Locke, J. (1690). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. [electronic version]. Retrieved from http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/locke1690book1.pdf

McCormack, T. (2001). Attributing episodic memory to animals and children. In T. McCormack & C. Hoerl (Ed.), Time and Memory. New York, Oxford University Press, 285-313.

Meinong, A. (1899). On Objects of Higher Order and their Relationship to Internal Perception. Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane, vol. XXI, 181-271.

Piolino, P., Desgranges, B, & Eustache F. (2009). Episodic autobiographical memories over the course of time: Cognitive, neuropsychological and neuroimagining findings. Neuropsychologia, 47, 2314-2329.

Prinz, J. J., & Nichols, S. (2017). Diachronic Identity and the Moral Self. In J. Kiverstein (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the Social Mind. New York, Routledge, 449-464.

Russell, B. (1921). The Analysis of mind [electronic version]. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2529/2529-h/2529-h.htm

Taylor, J. S. (2008). On Recognition, Caring, and Dementia. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 22(4), 313-335.

Trakas, M. (2014). Personal Memories. PhD thesis, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales & Macquarie University.

Twardowski, K. (1894). On the Content and Object of Presentations. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff (1977).

 

Alexandru Dragomir: The World We Live In

The World We Live In Book Cover The World We Live In
Phaenomenologica, 220
Alexandru Dragomir, Gabriel Liiceanu (Ed.) & Catalin Partenie (Ed.)
Springer International Publishing
2017
xiii + 167

Reviewed by: Corinna Lagemann (Freie Universität Berlin)

Bei dem Band The World We Live In, herausgegeben von Gabriel Liiceanu und Catalin Partenie, handelt es sich um eine posthum erschienene Sammlung von Aufsätzen, Vorlesungsmitschriften und Textrekonstruktionen des rumänischen Phänomenologen Alexandru Dragomir (1916 – 2002), dem Zeit seines Lebens aufgrund widriger Umstände die verdiente Aufmerksamkeit verwehrt blieb und der bis zu seinem Tod nicht einen einzigen Text veröffentlichte.

Vor diesem Hintergrund besticht der vorliegende Band bereits durch seine Methode und seinen Aufbau: einem recht ausführlichen biographischen Teil, der etwa ein Drittel des schmalen Buches ausmacht, folgt die in drei Sektionen gegliederte Sammlung von Aufsätzen, wobei die Aufsätze in sehr unterschiedlicher Form vorliegen. Jedem Text geht eine kurze Erläuterung seiner Herkunft und Bearbeitungsweise voraus, und so finden sich Rekonstruktionen aus Vorlesungsmitschriften, Transkripte von Tonbandaufnahmen und allerlei fragmentarisches Material, das nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen und sehr akribisch und präzise angefertigt wurde.

Die Herausgeber äußern sich zur Methode und zum Status des Werks wie folgt:

 „The present volume brings together all that has been preserved of these lectures and that could serve as raw material for subsequent working up. By working up, we mean that neither the existing notes, nor the audio recordings have been reproduced exactly“ (ix)

Vielmehr ist man um eine verständliche Darstellung bemüht, als um die ganz exakte Rekonstruktion des vorliegenden Materials.

Der ausführliche biographische Teil gibt Aufschluss darüber, wie es zu Dragomirs hohem Stellenwert in der phänomenologischen Theoriebildung und seiner regen Unterrichtstätigkeit gänzlich ohne Publikationen kam, und weshalb er trotzdem so wenig wahrgenommen wurde und bis heute wird.

Dragomir wird als brillanter Schüler Heideggers dargestellt, als Denker nach Heideggers Vorbild, der das Denken weit höher bewertet als das Schreiben, dem aber der zweite Weltkrieg und die enge Verbundenheit mit Martin Heidegger zum Verhängnis wird. Der zweite Weltkrieg wird hier als zentrales Ereignis beschrieben, welches Dragomirs Karriere beendete, bevor sie wirklich begonnen hatte.

So äußern sich denn auch die Herausgeber:

„As I write today for the first time about Alexandru Dragomir, I am inclined to explain him as the product of a microclimate of history, a cultural ab-erration, a ‘wandering’, a derivation from the mould in which culture takes shape in normal ages and worlds.“ (S.12)

Besondere Beachtung finden die Notizbücher Dragomirs, die 2002 gefunden wurden, aus denen ein Schwerpunkt seines Denkens hervorgeht: geprägt durch Heidegger beschäftigte sich Dragomir intensiv mit der Frage nach der Zeit; diesem Nachlass widmet sich bereits ein Band mit dem Titel Chronos. Bei aller Nähe zu Heidegger darf aber Dragomirs Kritik an seinem Lehrer nicht verschwiegen werden: Heidegger habe die Frage nach der Zeit nicht beantwortet; so fügt er der Zeit noch weitere Strukturmomente hinzu, die bei Heidegger unterbelichtet bleiben und die die Rede von der Zeit weiter ausdifferenzieren. Nicht nur präzisiert er den Begriff des ‘Jetzt’, er beschreibt auch die Struktur des Zukünftigen präziser als Heidegger es getan hat, indem er den Entwurfscharakter des Daseins als ein Zusammenspiel von tatsächlichen Möglichkeiten, Plänen sowie Träumen und Phantasien beschreibt, wie im Folgenden weiter ausgeführt wird. Die Abhandlung über die Zeit verdient es also sicherlich ebenfalls, neu entdeckt und rezipiert zu werden.

Der Aufsatzteil ist in zwei große Abschnitte gegliedert. Der erste widmet sich analytischen Fragen, immer mit großer Nähe zur griechischen Antike. So findet sich eine Abhandlung über Frage und Antwort, den sokratischen Dialog und die Frage, was eigentlich Wissen bedeutet, welches Wissen möglich ist, etc. In seiner Nähe zu Sokrates – „Ich weiß, dass ich nichts weiß“ – manifestiert sich erneut Dragomirs Auffassung, dass das reine Denken dem Schreiben überlegen sei. Dieser Standpunkt zieht sich durch alle Beiträge.

Der zweite Text, die Transkription eines Vortrags vom September 1987, beschäftigt sich mit Fragen der Selbsttäuschung und greift die wesentlichen Schwerpunkte Dragomirs’ Schaffen auf: es geht um Zeit; um die Selbsttäuschung aufgrund von Träumen, Erinnerungen, Vorstellungen von Zukünftigem, um Selbstbilder und darum, wie diese korrumpiert werden können. Die Grundlage seiner Überlegungen bildet Heideggers Begriff vom Seinkönnen, die Idee, dass wir uns selbst auf Basis von Projektionen, Wünschen, Vorstellungen, aber auch von bereits Erlebtem selbst entwerfen. Dragomirs entscheidende Pointe besteht in der Idee eines Spielraums, „a space that is not yet occupied by anything, a niche of the possible in which we can install ourselves and freely settle into one direction or another of our lives“ (S.45). In diesem Spielraum liegt die Möglichkeit, sich anders zu entscheiden, anders ‘abzubiegen’, als die Projektionen und Vorstellungen es vorgeben und gleichzeitig das große Potential der Selbsttäuschung. Hier liegt nämlich der Punkt, an dem Selbstbild und tatsächliches Selbst sich voneinander trennen. Indem dieser Text die wesentlichen Punkte aus Dragomirs Konzeption verbindet – das Wissen um das eigene Nicht-Wissen sowie großartige Einsichten ins Wesen der Zeit und in die Lücken in Heideggers Zeitanalyse – kann er als einer der zentralen Texte des Bandes angesehen werden.

Die darauf folgenden Beiträge behandeln Raum und Zeit in ihren unterschiedlichen Facetten. Nach den phänomenologischen Betrachtungen von Raum und Zeit im menschlichen Selbstverhältnis geht es um die Konstitution von Lebenswelt („Utter Metaphysical Banalities“), um geographische und politische Räume („Nations“) sowie um die Transzendenz und Selbstüberschätzung des Menschen, der das Maß für sich selbst verliert. Der Text behandelt den Menschen in seiner Sozialität sowie sein Verhältnis zum Göttlichen und zur Natur und die Möglichkeit, dass diese Bezüge sich als nicht haltbar erweisen und sich die Suche nach dem Sinn als aussichtslos erweist. Auch hier zeigt sich die große Nähe zu Heidegger.

Insgesamt zeigt dieser erste Abschnitt eine Bewegung vom Kleinen ins Große, vom individuellen Menschen in seinem Selbstverhältnis hin zum Weltverhältnis, zur Umgebung und darüber hinaus, immer mit deutlichem Bezug zu Heidegger und zur griechischen Antike, sowie zur Verbindung zwischen Sokrates und der phänomenologischen Theoriebildung des 20. Jahrhunderts. In dieser Verknüpfung und dem sinnvollen Aufbau liegt der besondere Verdienst nicht nur des unterrepräsentierten Denkers Dragomir, sondern auch der sorgfältigen Herausgeberschaft Liiceanus und Catalins.

Der zweite Teil des Aufsatzteils basiert auf einer Vorlesungsreihe zu Platons Apologie und beschäftigt sich dementsprechend schwerpunktmäßig mit der Person Sokrates und mit seiner Philosophie und seinen Methoden. Den Aufsätzen ist ein ausführlicher Teil zu den Quellen der Methode ihrer Aufbereitung vorangestellt.

Die Aufsätze selbst behandeln neben den historischen Betrachtungen die großen Fragen der Philosophie; die Nähe Dragomirs zu Heidegger scheint immer wieder durch. Diese wird beispielsweise dort offenkundig, wo er die Philosophie mit der Stadt kontrastiert, wobei die Stadt als Ort der öffentlichen Meinung und damit in direkter Nähe zu Heideggers Man verstanden wird. Außerdem werden die Themen des guten Lebens, des Wissens sowie einige logische Betrachtungen und die sokratische Methode erörtert.

Der letzte Abschnitt dieses zweiten Teils ist der titelgebende Text „The World We Live In“, der auf einer Vortragsreihe gründet, die Dragomir im Zeitraum von September 1986 bis Mai 1988 gab. Inhaltlicher Schwerpunkt dieses Textes ist eine Technik- und Wissenschaftskritik, die stark an Heidegger anschließt. Ausgangspunkt der Überlegungen bildet ein Nietzsche-Zitat, in dem es um die Entfremdung des Menschen von seinen Grundinstinkten geht, welche die Lebenswelt und die Gesellschaft seiner Zeit charakterisiere. Ein Problem der Menschen sei, dass sie sich im Zuge der fortschreitenden Abstraktion zu sehr von sich selbst und ihren Bedürfnissen entfernen und sich die Welt dementsprechend einrichten. Ausgehend von dieser Bestandsaufnahme untersucht Dragomir die Begriffe des Denkens, Wissens und der Wissenschaft nach Aristoteles; auch hier wird wieder ein starker Schwerpunkt auf das Denken im Unterschied zu Wissen und Technologie gelegt. Nur der denkende Mensch könne frei und autonom sein, so betont Dragomir, und begründet damit seine Kritik an der gegenwärtigen hoch technisierten Kultur, die den Menschen von seinem Menschsein und seinen Möglichkeiten entfremde.

Insgesamt gelingt mit The World We Live In ein sehr konziser und informativer Einblick in das Schaffen eines zu Unrecht vernachlässigten Philosophen der jüngeren Geschichte. Neben wertvollen historischen Einsichten vermittelt der Band spannende philosophische Gedankengänge, die gleichzeitig zentrale phänomenologische Begriffe des 20. Jahrhunderts weiterdenken, die Verbindung zu anderen Positionen vermitteln und ein interessantes Licht insbesondere auf Martin Heideggers Schaffen werfen.

Den Herausgebern gelingt ein sehr empfehlenswertes Buch, das sowohl für den interessierten Laien geeignet ist als auch neue Einsichten für Kenner der aktuellen Forschungslage bereithält.

 

Simone Aurora: Filosofia e scienze nel primo Husserl: Per una interpretazione strutturalista delle Ricerche logiche

Filosofia e science nel primo Husserl: Per una interpretazione strutturalista delle Ricerche ogiche Book Cover Filosofia e science nel primo Husserl: Per una interpretazione strutturalista delle Ricerche ogiche
La filosofia e il suo passato 62
Simone Aurora
CLEUP
2017
376

Reviewed by: Nicola Spinelli (Faculty of Mathematics, Hertswood Academy / Research Associate, King's College London)

This is a good book – and, on the Italian market, a much-needed one. Simone Aurora’s declared aim is to show that Husserl’s Logical Investigations belong to the history and conceptual horizon of structuralism, and in a prominent position at that. The whole book builds up to a defense of the view in the last chapter. Aurora’s case is set up well from the beginning and thoroughly argued at the end. That is why the book is good. The reason why the book is much needed on the Italian market is that it is also an introduction to Husserl’s early philosophy – from On the Concept of Number (1886) to the Investigations (1900-1901) – as it should be written: starting from 19th-century developments in psychology and, importantly, mathematics. To my knowledge, there are no published works in Italian that do so, or do so extensively. Aurora satisfactorily fills the gap.

Chapter 1 is about Husserl’s beginnings – a story Aurora does a good job of telling. A mathematics, physics, and astronomy student in Leipzig in 1876, Husserl would end up, in 1883, writing a doctoral thesis on the calculus of variations with Leo Königsberger in Vienna. He was then briefly Weierstrass’s assistant in Berlin. In 1884 Husserl came across Brentano’s work and lectures; as a result, he steered towards philosophy. By 1887, Husserl’s first philosophical work – his Habilitationsschrift under the supervision of Carl Stumpf in Halle – was complete. Crucial to On the Concept of Number are both the mathematical and the philosophical strands of Husserl’s academic life. The eponymous problem is inherited from Weierstrass, Kronecker, and in general, the whole debate on the foundations of mathematics, which at the time was soaring in Europe. The method with which Husserl tackled it – and this is where the originality of the work lies – was Brentano’s descriptive psychology. Both these backgrounds, their developments and Husserl’s own take on them are well expounded by Aurora.

Chapter 2 is about 1891’s Philosophy of Arithmetic (PA). Overall, Aurora’s presentation is clear and, I believe, effective. The relations with the earlier work are explained and the architecture of the book is clearly laid out. Overall, the main notions (‘collective connection’, ‘something in general’, and so forth) and arguments are satisfactorily presented. Let me mention a couple of worries.

One problem is that Aurora highlights relatively few connections between points discussed in PA on the one hand, and the larger debates and their recent developments on the other. For example, at that stage Husserl, like e.g. Cantor, held a version of the abstraction theory of numbers. That, for example, is where the notion of ‘something in general’ (Etwas überhaupt) comes in. The theory had already been severely criticised by Frege in The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884), a criticism, importantly, that fed into Husserl’s work (as well as into Cantor’s). See ortiz Hill 1997. This might have deserved a few lines. Also, although for most of the twentieth century the abstraction theory was forsaken if not forgotten, in the late 1990s Kit Fine attempted a rescue, sparking some debate (Fine 1998). Again, a quick pointer might have been helpful.

Here is a second worry. Some scholars (A. Altobrando and G. Rang are Aurora’s references) believe they can discern the first traces of the development of Husserl’s notions of eidetic intuition and phenomenological epoché in PA. Aurora is among them, and in particular he reckons abstraction is the place to look: for, according to Husserl, in abstraction one disregards all qualitative (and to some extent relational) aspects of the relevant objects, and is only interested in the latter as empty ‘something in general’. The view is put forward at p. 71. Now, there is no denying that both eidetic intuition and the phenomenological epoché involve some sort of heavy disregarding or bracketing. But surely the philosophical literature is crammed with similar methods and theories – not least the British empiricists’ accounts of abstraction, which is as far as it gets from Husserl’s Ideation or Wesensanschauung. Prima facie similarities, then, are in fact rather thin. Terminology as well as theoretical contexts and functions, Aurora admits, are also very different. We may wonder, at this point, what is left for the interpretation to be based on. I suspect very little if anything.

Chapter 3 is about the transition, in the 1890s, from PA to the Investigations. Two conceptual pairs begin to emerge in this period that will end up being paramount in the later work. The first pair, abstract/concrete, is the subject (or one of the subjects) of the third Investigation; the second, intuition/representation, is one of the main characters of the sixth. Aurora describes well their first appearance in an 1894 essay entitled Psychologischen Studien zur elementaren Logik. Developments in Husserl’s view of intentional objects are also discussed in some detail. The main references in this case are manuscript K I 56 and Husserl’s review of Twardowski’s Zur Lehre vom Inhalt und Gegenstand der Vorstellung, both from 1894.

Chapter 4 is about the Prolegomena to Pure Logic, the first part of the Logical Investigations. Aurora does a good job of expounding both Husserl’s arguments against psychologism and his concept of a pure logic and theory of science – the two main themes of the work. As it can and should be expected of an introductory exposition, a few details are at some points glossed over. Yet the main idea, i.e., that there is a basic dimension to science which is called ‘pure logic’ and which is ideal (or, as people tend to say these days, ‘abstract’), objective, and to all appearances, independent of human thought or language, comes across very clearly. There is, however, one distinction that, it seems to me, Aurora fails to recognise (or to report). It is not a major issue for what, after all, is an introductory chapter – but nonetheless a point worth raising. It is the distinction between deduction and grounding.

Between the Prolegomena and the Investigations Husserl defines (or uses) two to four related concepts: on the one hand, deduction or inference (Schluß, or sometimes an unqualified Begründung, in Husserl’s German) and explanatory grounding (the relation between an erklärender Grund and what it is the ground of), both operative in the Prolegomena; on the other hand, foundation (Fundierung), introduced in the third Investigation and operative in the subsequent ones. Now, foundation may (Nenon 1997) or may not have two models, one ontological and one epistemological; and one of these two models, the ontological, may or may not be identical to the explanatory grounding of the Prolegomena – a view for which, I believe, there is something to be said. Your count here will depend on your views on foundation. But whatever these are, there is no doubt at least that deduction and explanatory grounding are distinct in the Prolegomena. That is what does not come across in the book.

Indeed, as far as I can see, in Aurora’s presentation the two concepts from the Prolegomena collapse into one. While explaining what, for Husserl, constitutes the ‘unity of science’, Aurora introduces the concept of Begründung and says that it ‘substantially refers to the notion of inference or logical deduction’ (p. 134). Yet this is something that Husserl explicitly denies. To see this, look at Prolegomena, §63. Here, a distinction is made between explanatory and non-explanatory Begründung, and the former, not the latter, is deemed essential to (the unity of) science. Indeed for Husserl, as for Bolzano (from whom he inherits the notion), what secures the unity of science is an explanatory relation (erklärende Zusammenhang) between true propositions. And while ‘all grounds are premises’ – so that if proposition A grounds proposition B then there is an inference from A to B – ‘not all premises are grounds’. It is not the case, that is, that if there is an inference from A to B then A grounds B. In other words, ‘every explanatory relation is deductive (deduktive), but not every deductive relation is explanatory’.

While Husserl is very explicit in drawing the distinction, he is not so helpful in justifying it. He devotes a few remarks to the task, right after the passage I quoted; but they do not make an argument. Here is how one may be extracted. (Bolzano’s arguments are also available from the Wissenschaftslehre, around §200.)

Let us stipulate deducibility as the modern notion of (classical) logical consequence. If grounding were just logical consequence, the latter would be an explanatory relation (because the former is). But it isn’t: there are cases of valid and sound arguments in which the premises fail to explain the conclusion. For example, p p, or p & q ╞ p. Indeed, it is hard to see how a proposition, even though it can be inferred from itself, can also ground (explain) itself: it is raining, therefore it is raining – but is it raining because it is raining? Things are even worse with the second case: does the truth of a conjunction ground the truth of one of its conjuncts? It is probably the other way round. To derive a conclusion from a set of premises is not, in and of itself, to explain the former in terms of the latter. But then grounding and deducibility must be distinct.

(I should mention that in an extended footnote at p. 133 Aurora does discuss Husserl’s notion of Begründung vis-à-vis Bolzano’s. So he is definitely aware of the theoretical background, the significance and the facets of the concept. So much so, that the footnote seems to contradict, rather than explain, the main text.)

Chapter 5 is possibly the most felicitous of the whole book, partly because, due to the topic, Aurora’s background in linguistics shines through. We are now past the Prolegomena and into the Investigations proper. Having established in the former that logical and mathematical objects do not, by all appearances, belong to the spatio-temporal world, Husserl is left with the question as to how we can know anything about them – in fact, relate to them at all. Short of an answer, Husserl thinks, the existence of logic and therefore of science in general, as human enterprises, must remain a mystery. And for Husserl the starting point is language, because it is primarily in language – in the meanings of words and sentences – that logical objects make their spatio-temporal appearance. The main result of the first two Investigations are the following: meanings are ideal (non-spatio-temporal) and akin to universals; and universals are genuine objects, irreducible to their instances, to thought, or to language. (It is a substantive question whether this amounts to full-blown Platonism; Aurora believes it doesn’t, and some remarks of Husserl’s certainly point that way.)

The first two sections of the chapter, on the first Investigation, are nearly flawless. The remaining sections, on the second Investigation, are also effective but, I believe, raise at least one worry. Aurora thinks that, for Husserl, meanings are ‘ideal classes of objects’ (203). Now, he may well not be using ‘class’ in its fully technical sense. But the fact remains that classes, among other things, are (like sets, their close relatives) extensional mathematical constructs. However, in the 1890s, when most of the Investigations were thought out, Husserl was an adamant intensionalist. See for example his review of Schröder’s Vorlesungen as well as The Deductive Calculus and the Logic of Contents, both from 1891. For evidence that Husserl did not change his mind afterwards, see the 1903 review of Palágy’s Der Streit der Psychologisten und Formalisten in der modernen Logik. Aurora’s reading, therefore, if taken literally, is probably incorrect. If we take it charitably, it is misleading.

Despite this, Aurora is completely right in pointing out (204) the indispensability of ideal objects, particularly species (universals), for Husserl’s phenomenological project in the Investigations: if the former go, the latter goes with them.

Chapter 6 is about the third and fourth Investigations. The latter deals with matters of ‘pure grammar’, as Husserl calls it, and here Aurora’s linguistic background is once again both tangible and helpful. Yet it is the first sections, on the third Investigation, that are particularly important. In fact, they are the crux of the whole book. The reason is that the third Investigation is about parts, wholes and the relations between them – and (without going into detail, I will return to it later) the very concept of structure, central to the book for obvious reasons, is defined, in the last chapter, in mereological terms.

To say something of significance on Aurora’s interpretation of the third Investigation I would have to write more than my allowance permits. I will therefore only mention what is at least a presentational flaw. Despite insisting throughout the book and in the chapter on the relevance of the formal sciences in the development of Husserl’s philosophy, Aurora never engages with the several formalizations of the Husserlian theory of parts and wholes. He does mention the first of such contributions, Simons 1982 (334). But we also have Simons 1987, Fine 1995, Casari 2000, and Correia 2004 – which, moreover, all extend Husserl’s theory in many different ways. This, to me, is the only genuinely disappointing feature of, or absence from, the book. All the more so, because the capacity to be mathematized or formalized is one of the definitional traits of structures as set out in the final discussion (310).

Chapter 7 outlines the properly phenomenological parts of the Investigations, namely, the fifth and sixth Investigations. This is where Husserl puts to work all the notions he previously set up and sketches a phenomenological theory of consciousness (especially of intentional consciousness) and knowledge. Aurora’s exposition is careful and effective, with more than one passage I found particularly felicitous.

Chapter 8 is where Aurora lays out and defends his view. These are the main claims:

  1. Husserl’s philosophy in the Logical Investigations is a structuralist philosophy;
  1. Some of the aspects of Husserl’s philosophy that make it structuralist are ideally suited to characterise structuralism as such;
  1. Husserl’s subsequent, transcendental work deals with one of the central problems of structuralism: the origin of structures.

Section 1 is about structuralism in general. The first thing to sort out is, obviously, what a structure is. Borrowing from a number of authors, Aurora characterises structure in terms of two things: part-whole relations, and mathematizability. A structure is ‘a particular type of multiplicity’ whose elements obey laws ‘that confer properties to the whole as such which are distinct from those of the elements’ (309, half-quoting J. Piaget). Moreover, a structure ‘must always be formalizable’ (310). On the basis of this, Aurora characterises structuralism as follows:

Structuralism aims at studying the latent structures within classes of objects…by creating models, i.e. formal descriptions that make the immanent relations between objects of the relevant class predictable and intelligible (311).

It is worth noting that the given definition of structure does not necessitate that of structuralism. It is even more worth noting that this is a good thing. The reason is that, while Aurora wants to argue that the philosophy of the Investigations is structuralist, it is dubious that Husserl’s project in 1900-1901 involved the idea that the phenomenology of the fifth and sixth Investigations should be formalized. True, Husserl did have in mind a formalization of his theory of wholes and parts, and that theory is operative in the phenomenology. But that doesn’t entail that Husserl’s early phenomenology was ever meant to be entirely formalizable – much less that its aim was to ‘make predictions’ about consciousness and knowledge possible. The upshot is that Aurora’s definitions allow for a Husserl who deals in structures but not, strictly speaking, for a structuralist Husserl. This is too underwhelming a conclusion for what is otherwise, as I said at the outset, a well-constructed case. A looser definition of structuralism might perhaps have been suitable.

Another (minor) unclarity is Aurora’s appeal to mereology throughout the book. In and of itself, this appeal is perfectly fine. Yet not all mereologies admit of the sort of relations between parts that structuralists require. For example, and in stark contrast with the structuralist’s mantra, in classical mereology there is a sense in which the whole is just the sum (fusion) of its parts! Yet Aurora never engages with the distinction between classical and non-classical mereologies in any significant way. Moreover, it is unclear why formalizations of structures should be mereological rather than, say, algebraic (like most of Aurora’s examples of formal structures) or order-theoretic.

Be that as it may, Aurora is entirely correct when he points out that, if part-whole discourse is crucial to structuralism, then Husserl’s theory is ideally suited to form the core of any structuralist system: it is (or can be made) robust, it is philosophically profound, and, importantly, being a non-classical mereology, it is strong enough to describe the right sort of relations the structuralist needs.

At the very end, Aurora points out that one of the distinctive features of Husserl’s structuralism is its engagement with the problem of the origin of structures. In particular, Husserl is interested in understanding the relations between the subjects who come to be aware of structures and the structures themselves. This is indeed what the Investigations are all about. It is also one of the threads of Husserl’s whole philosophical career. As Aurora puts it (effectively, I believe), ‘this attempt at conciliating genesis and structure, first carried out in the Logical Investigations, is peculiar to Husserlian structuralism, and it is the question that Husserl will try to answer – through an ever more complex philosophical elaboration – in all his subsequent works.’

References

Casari, E. 2000. “On Husserl’s Theory of Wholes and Parts.” History and Philosophy of Logic 21 (1): 1-43.

Correia, F. 2004. “Husserl on Foundation.” Dialectica 58 (3): 349-367.

Fine, K. 1995. “Part-whole”. In Smith, B. and Woodruff Smith, D. (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to Husserl (Cambridge: CUP), pp. 463-486.

Fine, K. 1998. “Cantorian Abstraction: A Reconstruction and Defense.” Journal of Philosophy 95 (12): 599-634.

Nenon, T. 1997. “Two Models of Foundation in the Logical Investigations.” In Hopkins, B. (ed). Husserl in the Contemporary Context: Prospects and Projects for Transcendental Phenomenology (Dodrecht: Kluwer), pp. 159-177.

Ortiz Hill, C. 1997. “Did Georg Cantor Influence Edmund Husserl?” Synthese 113 (1): 145-170.

Simons, P. 1982. “Three Essays in Formal Ontology.” In B. Smith (ed.). Parts and Moments. Studies in Logic and Formal Ontology (Philosophia Verlag: München-Wien), pp. 111-260.

Simons, P. 1987. Parts. A Study in Ontology (Oxford: OUP).

 

 

Emmanuel Alloa: Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty

Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Resistance of the Sensible World: An Introduction to Merleau-Ponty
Emmanuel Alloa, Translated by Jane Marie Todd, Foreword by Renaud Barbaras
Fordham University Press
2017
Paperback $28.00
152

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

This book is the first English-language translation of Alloa’s 2008 text, which originally appeared in French under the title La résistance du sensible: Merleau-Ponty critique de la transparence. Emmanuel Alloa is a student of the prominent Merleau-Ponty scholar Renaud Barbaras, and an occasional editor of Chiasmi, the leading journal for Merleau-Ponty studies.  Although the length of its body chapters comes in under 100 pages, this book is less of a standard introduction to Merleau-Ponty than a dense thematic, historical study of key issues figuring into the philosopher’s development from the early works up the unfinished texts in progress at the time of his death. The three principal chapters analyze the transformation and interior narrative of Merleau-Ponty’s thought across the three subjects that figure foremost in his legacy.  Chapter One examines the notion of perception in the context of the early texts The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception. The second chapter takes up Merleau-Ponty’s conception of language, with particular attention to the essays in the middle-period Signs and the abandoned work The Prose of the World. The third chapter, entitled “Ontology of the Visible,” studies Merleau-Ponty’s late attempts to formulate a phenomenological ontology centered in the visible and sensible. The book does not cover any aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s political or social philosophy. Throughout, Alloa discusses in depth the philosopher’s engagement with numerous influences and contemporaries including Husserl, Sartre, Fink, and Saussure. Methodological emphasis is likewise placed on the genesis behind Merleau-Ponty’s shaping of central concepts and terms.

Alloa’s statements in the Introduction of the book provide an overview of how he understands the core idea of Merleau-Ponty’s thought: while perception is ultimately the philosophical concept that overtly engaged Merleau-Ponty, it is the resistance of the sensible that the philosopher actually grappled with. By this notion of resistance, Alloa indicates that the sensible is what is obvious to perception, yet which cannot be penetrated by analysis (5-7). In highlighting the concept of the “obvious,” (or ob-vious) Alloa refers to what is in front of one and standing against one. For the sensible characterizes not merely what perception encounters, but also the experiential world as a whole (7). In Alloa’s view, this is decisive for Merleau-Ponty’s work because it provides a more focused approach than Husserl’s epistemological project of uncovering the conditions of knowledge. As Alloa sees it, Merleau-Ponty’s fundamental insight in this regard is recognizing that what is sensible, what is in front of one, resists; it is not transparent and never will be so. (In making this observation, Alloa is cueing upon the important difference Merleau-Ponty demonstrated from Husserl early in his career: the view, contra Husserl, that a complete reduction is never possible.) As Alloa observes on this score, treating the sensible as the entry point for philosophy is a more tangible and direct method than Husserl’s approach of beginning phenomenological description with the structures of consciousness. Moreover, Alloa suggests that for Merleau-Ponty, the perspectival limit of perception characterizes the essence of philosophizing as well, viz., to philosophize means to grapple with what resists and refuses transparency. This consequence results because thought is by nature also conditioned by the sensible; thinking is permeated by vision, and vice versa.  Therefore, to return to the things themselves, as is phenomenology’s mantra, entails thought becoming sensible (9, 11).

In the book’s first chapter, Alloa sets up the premises of Merleau-Ponty’s early studies on perception. He suggests that the first two major works, The Structure of Behavior and Phenomenology of Perception, are of a piece insofar as the former attempts to show why a phenomenological account of experience cannot be reduced to a behavioral psychology, while the latter describes the phenomenology of sense experience in a positive fashion (16-17).  Structure describes human perception critically, from the outside looking in, whereas the Phenomenology is written with an emphasis on the first-person perspective of sense experience.  Alloa sees here not so much a tension in approaches as much as Merleau-Ponty’s developing recognition of a conflict between body and soul; the concept of behavior comprises the locus for Merleau-Ponty’s insight that sense experience is contingent on the milieu of the living being, which Alloa later identifies as the body (24). The phenomenon of behavior reveals an unnoticed synthesis of inner and outer, mind and body, such that this concept is seen as operative prior to any sort of dualism, yet not transparent to perception either. To parse Alloa’s claim here just a bit, the notion is perhaps not unlike Heidegger’s observation in Being and Time that to be a Dasein entails already existing in a world of immediate surroundings where things have their essence in their use; Dasein is neither an inner nor outer, but instead projective being-in-the-world.  Alloa sees a link between Structure and the Phenomenology in Merleau-Ponty’s implicit emphasis on the opacification of perception, or the notion that perception is underwritten by a lack of transparency.

Alloa similarly regards Merleau-Ponty’s career-long dialogue with Gestalt psychology as having its seeds in these early works.  For Merleau-Ponty, the concept of Gestalt is decisive for highlighting the world’s very appearing as structured (20), where perceptual consciousness is the “site” of this emergence.  The forms of the ready-made world of experience are not merely in the world, but emerge with the world.  For similar reasons, the mind-body relationship is not an instrumental one.  This observation brings to the fore the concept of “milieu”, which Alloa regards as a cornerstone of Merleau-Ponty’s early development.  The mind-body relation is founded on embeddedness in a milieu, where phenomenology entails describing an inventory of that milieu (20).  Yet Alloa highlights that Gestalt psychology in its traditional guise is insufficient for Merleau-Ponty because it fails to adopt a way of thinking about life; Gestalt psychology overlooks the dialectic between the living thing and its milieu, failing to recognize the dynamic identity of the physical and mental structures of experience (22-23).  The milieu comprised by embodiment functions as Merleau-Ponty’s corrective to the shortcomings of Gestalt psychology and scientific mechanism, for embodiment comprises the union of life and environment.

The topic of transcendence takes Alloa into Chapter Two.  Alloa suggests that Merleau-Ponty’s engagement with language during and after the early works epitomizes his effort to describe the unity of bodily movement and creative freedom (38).  “When the subject is collapsed to its corporeal condition alone, there is no longer any possibility of explaining how one moves beyond oneself” (33).  Transcendence, Alloa writes, is for Merleau-Ponty less important in the manner of establishing a new notion of epistemological or metaphysical foundation; more important in Merleau-Ponty’s view is the very act of transcending.  The act of transcending is coextensive with the opacity of the world (33).  Citing the Phenomenology, Alloa observes that an a priori ecstasy of the human subject orients one fundamentally toward this opacity, toward what one is not (33).  The first section of Chapter Two, entitled “Expression,” suggests that human expression for Merleau-Ponty comprises the extension of idealization or intellect into the embodied state.  Human movement is not merely a bodily activity but includes gesture (35).  In this light, following the Phenomenology, the body is the actuality of expression and represents the movement of expression (35).  As a result, language for Merleau-Ponty is forever to be subordinated to the phenomenon of expression as bodily act (39), which is to say, Merleau-Ponty does not endorse a pure grammar or universal linguistics.  Whereas, these are notions that for instance would be familiar to readers of Husserl’s Logical Investigations.  Moreover, Alloa highlights that the diacritical character of language, which Merleau-Ponty adopts from Saussure, further justifies the claim that language can never be made pure or universal.  Citing the abandoned text The Prose of the World, Alloa highlights that this character of language means signs, morphemes, and words only convey meaning in their assembly; language constitutes the practice of discriminating signs from one another.  And given language’s origin in the embodied state, these features have a coextension with the sensible.  Language’s diacritical character “will acquire the value of a perceptible interval forming a pattern on the sensible fabric itself” (45).  Yet, the transparency of language in human experience also reveals its resistance, echoing Alloa’s leading claim at the book’s start.  Namely, like the sensible, language’s character is to efface itself through its very transparency (51).

Alloa finishes this chapter by taking up the lines of questioning that permeate Merleau-Ponty’s middle works, especially Signs, Prose of the World, and the Nature lectures, on the issue of exactly where language resides.  Language does not reside in mere signs, symbols, or words, nor does it reside in meaning.  Where does language have its being?  Alloa sketches Merleau-Ponty’s position this way: “We must place ourselves at the very site of language in the process of making itself – between the given and what makes possible the act of giving – without conceiving of Saying on the basis of the already Said but also without relegating language to a sphere of pure potentiality, without isolating an abstract linguistic structure of yielding entirely to a completed embodiment in a concrete signifying formula” (53).  In brief, as Alloa describes it, the meeting of embodiment and linguistic signs requires one to describe the immaterial but not simply ideal birth of sense-making (53).  Alloa finds that painting for Merleau-Ponty provides one such avenue, to the extent that it comprises a “silent” form of expression, originative in the bodily gesture of the hand, yet also indicative of a verbal lack of mastery of the world and the world’s means of expression.  As such, painting exemplifies the birth of sense-making.  “The painter’s canvas becomes the site of an experience of relinquishment, an exposure to an outside where the protective envelope of everyday language disintegrates” (55-56).

The third and final chapter offers a focused account of the genesis leading to Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy, particularly his interest in developing an “ontology of the visible.”  Texts of especial importance are the philosopher’s final published work “Eye and Mind” and the posthumously edited Visible and Invisible.  In Alloa’s description, this late period of the philosopher engages the question of how something can be given to one as visible, and of how words can function to describe this occurrence (60).  Merleau-Ponty’s task during this period is to uncover the roots of the visible. Again, painting is decisive because the thought-process shown in work of masters such as Cezanne reveals the visible as resistance to transparency.  Alloa characterizes the philosopher’s stance this way: “Thinking as a painter means submitting to the laws of resistance and experiencing feelings within the limits of the sensible” (61).  The ontology of painting consequently affords Merleau-Ponty an entry point into the ontology of the visible not by way of what is seen, but by way of what is becoming-seen, becoming-visible (64).  This last brings Alloa to the crux of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of “flesh.”  Because art has its essence not in works but rather in realizing the sensible bonds of experience and world, art helps to instantiate the “flesh” binding the world and human being (65).  Given that “flesh” is an obscure concept in Merleau-Ponty, difficult to pin down precisely, Alloa devotes significant discussion to it.  Flesh is not a physical or atomistic substantial presence (which may be implied in Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of it in Visible as an element) but it is materially immanent in the sensible (65).  Yet flesh is not to be understood as a Leibnizian monad, transposing the principles of life onto nonliving materiality.  Alloa cites an unpublished note written by the philosopher in 1960 to the effect that the flesh of the world is not derivative from an understanding of the flesh of the body (67).  Rather, the human body we know is made of this very flesh of the world.  But again, one can ask, what is flesh and where does it come from?  Alloa concedes that Merleau-Ponty’s position on this issue could be ambivalent at best, given that the philosopher was still exploring this question at the time of his death.  One compromise, Alloa suggests, is to follow a clue from the Nature lectures, namely Merleau-Ponty’s remark that the sensible is the flesh of the world.  In other words, the sensible is the bond uniting experience and world, inner and outer, just insofar as it emerges in the interstices of the subjective and objective, not lying in just one or the other.  On the other hand, Alloa also suggests that the more ambiguous “flesh” perhaps better expresses what is neither subjective nor objective, but beyond these, that through which something sensible is sensed (68).  Alloa’s meaning seems to be something like the following: the sensation I experience through touching an object such as a pine cone is not merely fostered through my hand’s affectivity nor through the pine cone’s sensible characteristics (e.g. prickly, resinous, woody).  Rather, this experience have of the sensible is fostered by a “between” that allows sensible and sensing to meet.  I find Alloa’s discussion of flesh to be especially helpful and an illuminating part of the book.

Alloa rounds out the final chapter with some reflections on the underlying commitments of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible.  Alloa writes that Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception must become an ontology of the sensible because this is the only way to obviate dualism.  And conversely, the sensible must be the seat of ontology because the sensible is the ultimate ground of experience, the medium in which being inheres without needing to be posited (80).  Here, Alloa’s characterization of the sensible is not unlike Heidegger’s observations that being in its guise of ereignis comprises the groundless ground.  For Merleau-Ponty, the sensible is the ultimate, yet ungrounded given.

In summary, this short but dense book by Emmanuel Alloa is a challenging read. It is also a rewarding one for those willing to do the work to digest carefully his many insightful observations on Merleau-Ponty’s thought and development. Alloa makes a very good case for the notion that despite Merleau-Ponty’s stops and starts with various issues, there is nonetheless a guiding thread to his thought’s development.  To be truthful, however, there is an aspect in which this book is frustrating to use as an “introduction” to the philosopher, just because it is written at an astute historiographical level, not one for beginners.  One might wonder why the book’s title was altered for this English-language edition.  Alloa does not provide extensive exegetical readings of any specific books of Merleau-Ponty, opting instead for frequent citations of one or two lines of text, whose meaning Alloa typically takes as self-evident.  There is a measure in which these frequent citations seem taken out of context or otherwise lacking in justification for the lay reader. There is also a noticeable dearth of examples that might help to illustrate for a novice what is at stake in crucial distinctions. This is a book that will much better serve those who are already decently versed in Merleau-Ponty and who possess a workable understanding of at least some of Merleau-Ponty’s key themes. To that end, Alloa’s book will offer potential as a guide for connecting the various topics in Merleau-Ponty’s works and establishing a beginning-to-end narrative.

 

J. G. Fichte: Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)

Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Book Cover Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin D. Crowe
SUNY Press
2016
216

Reviewed by: Robert Seymour (University of Essex)

 

Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.

Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.

By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).

Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.

Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.

However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.

An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.

Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.

A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.

The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.

The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.

It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]

Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.

One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.

In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]

While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.

One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.

The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.

Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).

Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.

Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.


[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).

[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.

[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] Ibid., 51.

[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.

[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.

[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.