Thomas Fuchs: In Defense of The Human-Being

In Defence of the Human Being: Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology Book Cover In Defence of the Human Being: Foundational Questions of an Embodied Anthropology
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press
Hardback $45.00

Reviewed by: Elodie Boublil (University Paris Est Créteil; UPEC, France)

‘Persons are living beings, not programs’

Fuchs’ phenomenological theory of embodied anthropology

Thomas Fuchs is Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophical Foundations at the Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Heidelberg. He chairs the research section “Phenomenological Psychopathology and Psychotherapy” at the Psychiatric University Hospital Heidelberg.

His latest book, In Defense of the Human Being, meticulously demonstrates how corporeality, vitality, and embodied freedom are intertwined and defeat any attempt to reify human beings, either through identifying them with machines or through digitalizing their existence thanks to algorithms and the digitalization of the lifeworld.

Indeed, the book argues that the standard humanistic paradigm displayed by Western societies, especially since the Renaissance, is superseded by a technological and transhumanist view that aims to develop an even more predictable and controllable version of the human being. Fuchs explains: “It is not my concern to defend humanity against an accusation but against a questioning. Because today, in question is what one could call—with unavoidable imprecision—the humanistic image of man. At the center of this image is the human person as a physical or embodied being, as a free, self-determining being, and ultimately as an essentially social being connected with others.”

Challenging and questioning our image of humanity entails another questioning that targets the philosophical and anthropological validity of our moral and ethical claims (dignity, personhood, responsibility, etc.). In other words, defending humanity responds to the urgent need for grounding our anthropological image of the human being based on the findings of contemporary science. Far from debunking the humanistic paradigm, Fuchs argues that recent findings concerning embodied freedom, relationality, the plasticity of the brain, etc., prove authentic our relational and embodied experience as human beings, and defeat the mechanical view of the body as well as the chimera of artificial intelligence and other transhumanist projects. In so doing, Fuchs admirably shows that endorsing the latter will alienate rather than emancipate human beings and may lead to new psychological conditions if technology is not used appropriately. As such, Fuchs’s book deserves to be known and read as it successfully defeats the diagnosis and predictions of Yuval Noah Harari’s book: Homo Deus (2017), according to which “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm” (Harari, 2017, p. 381; Fuchs 2021: 3). To do so, Fuchs deconstructs three assumptions that lie behind this “scientistic view of humans”: reductionist naturalism, the elimination of the living, and functionalism according to which “phenomena of consciousness are attributed to processes of neuronal information processing. “The author puts forward a philosophical anthropology that insists on “embodiment and aliveness” to characterize the person:

“No abstract inwardness, disembodied consciousness or pure spirit are the guiding ideas of a humanistic view of the person, but the person’s concrete physical existence. Only when it can be shown that the person is present in her body itself, that the person feels, perceives, expresses, and acts with her whole body, do we escape confinement in a hidden inner space of consciousness, an inaccessible citadel from which only signals penetrate to the outside world, signals which can no longer be distinguished from the those of artificial intelligence. Furthermore, only when persons have an embodied freedom, i.e., determine themselves as organisms in decisions and actions, does subjectivity become more than an epiphenomenon, i.e., really effective in the world”.

The book is divided into three parts: 1/ Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism, and Virtuality; 2/Brain, Person, and Reality; 3/Psychiatry and Society. The first two parts delve into the anthropological and existential implications of the brain paradigm already explored in the Ecology of the Brain (2017) to show their impact on the way individuals relate to themselves and each other. Fuchs demonstrates the philosophical inconsistencies of the assimilation of the brain to machines and algorithms, the self-reification at stake, and its psychological consequences for the subject. Part three illustrates the necessity to provide society with an adequate anthropological foundation to address pressing issues such as aging, dementia, or psychological conditions.


The first chapter clarifies the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. Debunking the dream of replacing humans with robots thanks to algorithms, Fuchs explains the epistemological and ethical implications of dematerialization and the disincarnating process at stake. His critical analysis of “information” plays a key role as Fuchs rightly explains that “information only exists where someone understands something—that is, news as news signs as signs. Information exists only for conscious living beings or for persons.” In other words, a computer does not “understand” messages; it “computes” them. This clarification brings to light how human beings project their abilities, states of mind, and emotions into machines. In other words, we should be aware that “we are only dealing here with metaphors.” Subsequently, this chapter retraces the history of the digital revolution to underline the categorical differences between human intelligence and AI. Fuchs claims that “there can be no real intelligence without life and consciousness” and that, therefore, the idea of “artificial intelligence” or “artificial life” is self-contradictory. Opposing Harari’s claim that “organisms are algorithms,” Fuchs claims that “programs” are not persons and persons are not programs. Technological artifacts rely on simulation, yet they lack qualitative and differentiated experience. It also applies to the brain’s functioning: “The brain is not a control center, but an organ of resonance and relations (Fuchs, 2018). Only living beings are conscious, feel, sense, or think—not brains and not computers. Persons are living beings, not programs.” Consequently, this chapter appraises the challenge addressed to medicine and scientific research by artificial intelligence as it unconsciously challenges the image we have of human beings, their finitude, and their capabilities. Ultimately, artificial intelligence addresses not only epistemological and ontological questions but ethical dilemmas as it pretends to become a new compass to consider our existence against its performance.

Chapter two expands on this idea by assessing the worldview and ideology developed by transhumanism. Transhumanism seems to do away with what is the most salient feature of humanity: namely, embodiment. Indeed, by considering human beings either as purely “biological machines” or “pure minds” to be programmed, transhumanism denies the very “foundation of our existence” and the irremissible power of “cultural shaping” in the way we conceive of our physical nature. In other words, instead of fully acknowledging life’s dynamism and the realization of freedom through the “embodied enactment of life,” transhumanism reveals a process of self-reification that relies on a “false concept of consciousness.” Moreover, the utopia of the “new man” liberated from finitude and mortality eradicates the very idea of freedom and accomplishment, as limitations and resistance precisely confer its value to any endeavors: “transhumanist utopias thus counteract the very efforts that have so far supported the idea of improving the human world – the efforts to achieve social, cultural, and moral progress based on individual and collective efforts, progress that cannot be achieved by technical reconstruction of the human being but only by self-education, self-development, and the common shaping of the lifeworld.” The chapter ends with a consistent criticism of neuro-reductionism and the fantasy of “mind uploading” that relies on an epistemological and philosophical fallacy. The epistemological mistake consists in identifying the brain and the person; the philosophical dead-end annihilates freedom at the very moment it seeks to expand it: indeed, contrary to what transhumanism argues, “this embodied and thus, of course, mortal individuation is the price we have to pay in order to experience the freedom and wonder of earthly existence.” Transhumanism is ultimately a form of neo-Gnosticism that carries significant ethical consequences.

Chapter three focuses on the impact of neuro-constructivist paradigms on our intersubjective relations through the example of virtuality. Does the virtual world help us develop and improve empathy, or does it compromise its flourishing? “What consequences may ensue for intersubjectivity and relationships in our society because of increasing virtualization of perception and communication? How is empathy transformed when it is increasingly directed to a virtual other?” According to Fuchs, empathy relies first and foremost on our corporeality and the embodied dynamics of inter-affectivity. Recalling Scheler’s conception of empathy, Fuchs explains that “we experience the other person primarily as a psycho-physical unity of expression.” What we generally understand as perspective-taking or imaginative transposition (putting oneself in the other’s shoes) reflected a different level of empathy that the author describes as “explicit empathy”: “it seems necessary to differentiate between a primary, implicit, or bodily empathy and an expanded, explicit, or imaginative empathy. The latter already involves an element of “as-if” and thus of virtuality.” The question thus arises whether we could disconnect primary bodily empathy and imaginative empathy, as it happens in “virtual empathy.” According to Fuchs, “the culture of growing virtuality and simulation is connected with disembodiment, a retreat from bodily and intercorporeal experience. Simultaneously, empathy tends to separate itself from these experiences and to shift into virtuality – into a space where we are confronted by hybrid forms of the other as a mixture of appearance, simulation, and illusion, and where the medium and the mediated reality intercorporeal pole toward the virtual and projective pole of the spectrum.” Consequently, the “media-based idealism” that inspires our digital age may well give us the impression that we are all easily interconnected, yet it considerably undermines the reality of the qualitative experience we undergo while facing – for real – the presence of the other. Indeed, virtual communication lacks non-verbal synaesthetic interaction. It modifies and structure our attention and often reinforces individual projections and ego-centeredness rather than achieving genuine empathy. Fuchs then concludes with an epistemological and ethical claim: “only when others become real for us in this manner can we become real for ourselves. Today, our relationships come increasingly to be mediated, even produced, by images. But no one encounters us through a smartphone. The virtual presence of the other cannot replace inter-corporeality. “

The second part of the volume provides a critique of cerebrocentrism and the way the brain paradigm shapes our conception of reality and self-identity.

Chapter four analyzes the abusive identification between person and brain and the way such an approach to personal identity lays further the ground for a simplistic approach of reality and subjectivity: “for neurobiology, the brain becomes the new subject, the thinker of our thoughts and doer of our actions; subjectivity itself is only a useful illusion.” This neurobiological conception disqualifies our ordinary conception of freedom and decision-making. It entails a deterministic conception of the human world as if thoughts and actions were governed by predictable movements and neuronal connections. According to this worldview: “persons are cerebral subjects, and images of the brain are the modern icons of the person.” On the contrary, Fuchs aims to show that “the brain is only an organ of the person, not the seat of the person. In other words: personhood means embodied subjectivity.” This chapter thus reinvests the previous critique of neuro-constructivism to show that the latter reinforces the Cartesian paradigm of exteriority that does not match the reality of our embodied interactions with ourselves and the world. Drawing on the analysis developed in The Ecology of the Brain, Fuchs shows that the person is not reducible to her brain, even if this organ – as a mediating organ – is key to her understanding of the world. Persons are “embodied subjects” and “living beings.” Neurosciences are thus wrong to undermine the role played by the body – as a lived body – in our understanding of the world as the brain cannot be dissociated from the living organism it draws upon: “this ‘cerebrocentrism’ neglects the interrelationships and circuits in which the brain is situated – as if one were to examine the heart without the circulation or examine the lungs without the respiratory cycle. The reason for this is that the neurosciences have no concept of a living organism. They are still trapped in the computer metaphor of the mind.” To Fuchs instead: “Conscious experience therefore only arises in the overarching system of organism and environment, through the interplay of many components to which the brain and the entire body with its organs, senses, and limbs belong, just as much as the appropriate objects of the environment. The brain is the organ that mediates these interactions; in short: an organ of mediation and relation. But, in the brain itself there is no experiencing, no consciousness, no thoughts. (…) the brain is therefore a crucial condition of the possibility of personal existence in the world. However, the person is not a part of the body, but the body-mind unity, the living human being. Persons have brains, they are not their brains.”

Chapter 5 concludes this critique of cerebrocentrism and argues for a libertarian conception of embodied freedom. Even if freedom may be philosophically challenged by determinism, we all have decisions to make in the experience of our day-to-day lives. Thus, our lived experience of freedom is irreducible and must be accounted for. Consequently, Fuchs develops a concept of embodied freedom that reflects the person’s life and does not limit its course to unfolding brain activities or the weight of individual determinations and constraints. According to the author: “If one wants to find the cause of a person’s actions, one must not look for them in an “I” or in the brain but only in the person with all their mental and physical states, or in other words, in the person as an embodied subjectivity.” The person as an embodied subjectivity is thus the source of all decisions. This conception defeats linear causality and psycho-physical determinism to claim back our human sense of responsibility and freedom. To Fuchs, the critical element lies in the person’s self-relation. Drawing on the notion of “circular causality” analyzed in depth in his previous book, The Ecology of the Brain, the author does not oppose the mind and the organism but instead merges the two poles into an “overarching structure” that interrelates the level of life and the level of existence. This view is not only philosophical. Fuchs demonstrates that it corresponds to a true scientific conception of the human being as a person that is more realistic than the scientist accounts based on cerebrocentrism. He further argues that “we do not find any empirical findings in the scientific world that are insurmountably opposed to our experience of freedom of choice” and that it is the human being’s responsibility not to get trapped in a worldview that might lock herself “in the cage of determinism.”

Chapter 6 questions the worldview elaborated by neuro-constructivism and how it has disrupted our sense of the lifeworld to replace it with the “brain world.” According to this worldview, reality is a construction and simulation of the brain, and our world of senses is “a world of illusion.” Fuchs shows that such a conception is not new and relies on a hidden Cartesian dualism that divides the world into artificial “inner” and “outer” dimensions. “Representationalism” objectifies human reality and amounts to a process of “de-anthropomorphizing” that divests the human being from its same characteristics as an embodied living being. Contrary to this perspective, Fuchs recalls his account of perception based on sensorimotor interaction. According to the enactive conception, “embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other.” Mutual perception and recognition frame our perception of reality and prevent us from reducing our first-personal lived experience to brain mechanisms.

Chapter 7, titled “Perception and Reality: Sketch of an interactive realism,” goes a step further by elaborating on the enactive approach to perception and embodiment to promote a “lifeworld realism.” It argues that “the fundamental reality is not the world of measurable quantities and particles abstracted by the special sciences, in particular physics, but the common reality of the lifeworld constituted by implicit intersubjectivity.” In other words, the brain should be conceived as a “mediating or relational organ, not as an internal producer of perception.” Neuroconstructivist approaches seem to reproduce the type of disconnected sense of reality one founds in schizophrenia. According to Fuchs, “The “ego tunnel” in which one lives according to the neuroconstructivist conception, the movie-in-the-head that is supposedly presented to us by our brain, is only a pathological state that patients experience in psychosis (Fuchs, 2020). In everyday experience, on the other hand, we find ourselves in the shared world, constituted by the implicit intersubjectivity of perception”.

The third and last part of the book focuses more directly on the role and status of psychiatry in contemporary society and the scientific landscape.

Chapter 8, “Psychiatry: between psyche and the brain,” investigates psychiatry’s relation to the spirit and analyzes its various discourses’ epistemological and historical roots. Fuchs recalls the specific status of psychiatry and its historical relation to natural and human sciences. Contemporary reductionism makes psychiatry contingent upon a kind of neurobiological monism: “Mental disorders are brain disorders” is the guiding principle of biological psychiatry today,”  Fuchs explains. Following his previous critique of neuro-constructivism, the author offers an alternative account of psychiatry as “a comprehensive relational medicine” – a practice that reconnects with the interpersonal aspect of reality’s experience. According to this view, the impact of environmental and social factors on the individual is as much significant as the genetic and biological factors involved in mental illnesses. Following the tradition of phenomenological psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus), Fuchs defends a global approach of the person in this chapter. Indeed, psychiatry’s “primary object is not the brain, but the person living in relationships.”

Chapter 9 explores the relationship between embodiment and personal identity and how it may be disrupted in dementia. Personal identity is a “basal self-experience” coextensive to embodied experience. It refers to a non-predicative sense of self that yet unifies our stream of consciousness. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s description in The Phenomenology of Perception, this phenomenological account of personal identity does not require narrative skills or reflective processes to characterize one’s sense of self. Instead, it argues that the ecological and enactive approach of the subject includes the constitution of personal history at the level of the habitual body.

From this perspective, Fuchs analyzes contemporary approaches to dementia, primarily based on externalist or discursive accounts that miss the crucial role of embodiment in preserving the subject’s first-person perspective. According to Fuchs: “the concept of embodied personhood and history is able to change our image of dementia. In place of a brain and cognition-centered perspective, we may adopt the view of the patients in their own individual embodiment, which, for its part, is embedded in social and environmental contexts. (…) A concept of person grounded solely in rationality and reflection inevitably stigmatizes people with severe cognitive deficits. By contrast, bringing in a concept of person orientated towards embodiment and inter-corporeality, the response and relational capabilities of patients become a significant foundation of their personhood—such as the ability to give expression to joy, gratefulness, sorrow, or fear that is still preserved”.

Finally, the last chapter – chapter 10 – compares and contrasts the cyclical time of the body with the linear time of modernity. Expanding on the concept of physical memory, Fuchs analyzes the alterations of the experience of time in various mental illnesses and how they conflict with the demands of modernity. Modernity and, in particular, Western economies rely on a linear time that is always prone to be accelerated. The cyclical time of the organic body also matches the cyclical time of the unconscious brought to light by Freud in “repetition compulsion” – a sense of time that is also profoundly disrupted in other mental illnesses. Fuchs gives the example of the manic patient and the one suffering from depression. Both conditions reveal a specific way to relate to the modern lifeworld or to be cut off from it. As the author explains: “precisely as a fundamental disorder of temporality, depression, like no other mental illness, reflects the conflict between the primary, cyclical structure of life processes and the rule of linear time, which has been established in Western culture since modern times. Desynchronization, falling out of linear world time, becomes a latent threat in our competitive and accelerated society, which has to be fought against continuously. In depression, these efforts fail, the individual lags hopelessly behind, and decoupling from the common time becomes a reality.” Implementing back a rhythmization of one’s life, based on the cyclical time of the body, could help restore a connection to oneself and others.


In line with his previous book (The Ecology of the Brain), Thomas Fuchs continues his critical, epistemological and phenomenological work by offering us a book resolutely turned towards pressing contemporary issues: the virtual world, aging, the status of care for the most vulnerable in our Western societies. Far from the gnostic fantasies of transhumanism, Fuchs offers us a phenomenology of the life of the mind that is both resolutely human and existentially fruitful.

The legacy of Jaspers and existential psychiatry (Binswanger, Straus, Minkowski) is evident here. Any scientific project is the consequence of a specific anthropological vision of the human being. What we could call the de-anthropologization of the world in favor of a technocentric approach must also be considered a contemporary worldview. We are then facing the following alternative as a limit situation: either the headlong rush into the ideological consolidation of this worldview and the deadly reification of the human and the living as a whole or an existential leap that allows us to reconcile a scientific approach to the world and a critical phenomenology of our relationship to it. By offering us a salutary deconstruction of contemporary scientism, which claims to master and go beyond the limits of the body and consciousness through technology, Fuchs offers an approach as accurate as adjusted to science, denouncing the myths of its metaphors (information, dematerialization, etc.). The author admirably demonstrates that this worldview is based on a normative conception of normality and dictated by a representation of the human being designed to match our contemporary pleonexia.

The book is vibrant, and we would like to highlight three aspects of it: 1/ the phenomenological deconstruction of contemporary psychiatry and the highlighting of an expanded concept of consciousness that reintegrates its ethical dimension and its embodied anchorage; 2/ the defense of a humanism that is less the classical humanism of the spirit than a humanism of the living, embodied spirit. In other words, the philosophical critique of Cartesian ontology calls for its overcoming in a renewed humanism anchored in phenomenological realism. 3/ The crucial role of the concept of the lifeworld and the relational and interpersonal dimension of any properly human existence.

Fuchs would undoubtedly acknowledge the words of Erwin Straus, who already stated in his writings that: “The object of psychiatric action is not primarily the brain, the body, or the organism; it should be the integral man in the uniqueness of his individual existence as this discloses itself – independently of the distinction between healthy and sick – in existential communication” (Philosophy and Psychiatry); or the words of Binswanger for whom psychiatry is a “science of man, of human existence.” It is not a question of denying some illnesses’ biological and organic dimensions. Instead, it is necessary to articulate this level of analysis and understanding with the existential and relational possibilities that give it meaning and inscribe the latter in the biography of a person. The richness of Fuchs’ analysis shows that this is not a theoretical bias. Recent scientific findings make the phenomenology of embodied cognition and enaction more credible and inescapable. In other words, contrary to the contemporary ideology developed by novelists like Harari, freedom is not the founding myth of our humanity but its real and embodied fulfillment. Fuchs insists on this crucial point: “Humanism in the ethical sense, therefore, means resistance to the rule and constraints of technocratic systems as well as to the self-reification and mechanization of humans” “The defense of man is, in this respect, not only a theoretical task but also an ethical duty. ” (Fuchs).

The high prevalence of mental illnesses in our contemporary times is explicitly correlated with a weakening of the social bond and atomization of the existence of individuals that can only increase in the schizoid world of the “technological mind.” Conversely, the examples of care, and in particular the care of older people with dementia, show the importance of interpersonal relationships and real socialization to guarantee the well-being and dignity, and self-esteem of one’s person. The ecology of the embodied self, therefore, requires us to question our modern systems based on the performance of individuals and self-sufficiency in order to consider the resources of our vulnerability and finitude, especially at the ethical and relational levels: ” As the other becomes real for us in his body, we also become real for ourselves, as bodily beings appearing in their bodies. Embodiment, lifeworld, and reality mutually ground each other” (Fuchs, 155). Isolating someone is undoubtedly the best attempt to destroy her humanity. The valorization of the disembodied spirit in our contemporary societies through digitalization – an ideological perversion of Cartesian ontology – alienates us at the very moment it thinks it can liberate us.

Fuchs’ phenomenological realism insists on embodied cognition and its constitution in the lifeworld (Lebenswelt). It is constitutive of our free relationship with others and the world in that our choices and environments determine each other. Interactive realism goes beyond materialist monism and Cartesian dualism in favor of a relational ontology whose primary constituent is interdependency:  “Because perception, according to my first thesis, is neither an activity of the brain nor a process in an inner mental world, but rather an active engagement of living beings with their environment, or in short: perception means sensorimotor interaction. (Fuchs, 158).

The aesthesiological and cosmological dimension of perception promoted by interactive realism allows us to overcome the explanatory gap. Indeed, “only humans can grasp objects and situations as such, i.e., independently of a purely subjective perspective” (Ibid.) From this perception arises a form of responsibility towards other human and non-human forms of life. In other words, any epistemological perspective on the human being also implies an ethical perspective on freedom, truth, and reality. Such a perspective opens new philosophical ways to existential psychiatry, in the tradition of Straus, as we have said, but also of Minkowski.

We can only rejoice at this demonstration which brilliantly defeats the worldview of neuro-constructivism and the fallacy of the technological mind who pretends “to encounter us through a smartphone.” Fuchs’ book keeps all its promises and offers an essential analysis that holds the human being and the world together. This phenomenological approach departs us from the paradigm of power and mastery that foments some posthuman conceptions in favor of a paradigm that resynchronizes life and embodiment to make us responsible for our ways of being and living together within the common world, here and now. As such, by defending the human being, Fuchs defends all forms of life against the reductionisms or relativisms alienating them.

Emiliano Trizio: Philosophy’s Nature: Husserl’s Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics

Philosophy's Nature: Husserl's Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics Book Cover Philosophy's Nature: Husserl's Phenomenology, Natural Science, and Metaphysics
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Emiliano Trizio
Paperback £28.80

Reviewed by: Gregor Bös (King's College London)

1           Introduction

The Crisis might be Husserl’s most widely read work, and within the Crisis, §9 on Galileo’s invention of modern science has captivated generations of readers. It raises a host of questions:

What does it mean that mathematized science offers only a method, not the true being of nature? How can science both be founded and contained in the pre-scientific lifeworld? How does Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology offer an alternative to Galileo’s conception of nature?

This critique of Galilean science comes from a mathematician-turned-philosopher, who staunchly defended the possibility of objective knowledge in the Prolegomena and sought to turn philosophy into a rigorous science. Husserl’s last work is as puzzling as fascinating, and it is easy to see why it remains one of the most popular entry points into Husserlian phenomenology and interpreters keep coming back to it.

Emiliano Trizio’s new monograph Philosophy’s Nature is a case in point, culminating in an extensive commentary on §9, where different threads of the book find together. The discussion of Galileo is embedded in, as the book’s subtitle announces, Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, natural science, and metaphysics. Trizio establishes this context not only by drawing on Husserl’s earliest writings from 1890s, but also the 19th century ignorabimus debate about the limits of scientific knowledge. Husserl is cast as offering an alternative to Mach’s phenomenalism and Helmholtz’ critical realism, which is a refreshing alternative to framing Husserl’s account in terms of the later scientific realism debate. When addressing classical questions about the relationship of lifeworld and natural science, Trizio emphasizes the role of teleology, and offers a carefully argued extrapolation from the Crisis fragment.

After presenting the book, I raise some questions: about mathematization and the sensible plena, Trizio’s distinction between causal and categorial inference in science, implications for empirical psychology, the aprioristic account of phenomenology, and the metaphysical status of correlationism.

2          Summary

2.1         The 19th Century Background

The first chapter sketches a background debate. Rather than beginning from contemporary standard debates about scientific realism, Trizio reaches back to the 19th century, when debates about the limits of physical knowledge were already in full swing. The mechanistic world picture led to the well-known thought experiment of the Laplacian demon. The original question was whether astronomers’ successful predictions could be expanded to the entire world, given enough knowledge and intellectual resources. DuBois-Reymond turned this into an argument about the limits of scientific knowledge: If the intrinsic nature of physical objects, or the origin of conscious experience from physiology were forever hidden from the Laplacian demon, must also remain hidden from human scientists. Thus, there must be an ignorabimus, a domain that “we will never know”.

Mach argues that DuBois-Reymond relies on metaphysical assumptions of the mechanistic world picture. That picture came under more and more pressure from electromagnetism and thermodynamics (before quantum mechanics and relativity theory upended classical physics altogether). Mach’s phenomenalism is an anti-metaphysical programme that requires a reinterpretation of what physical theories are about–rejecting things beyond their presentations in experience.

The critical realists need no such “dissolution” of the object of physics into series of experiences. Trizio focuses on Helmholtz and Planck, who take the thing of perception to be a “sign” that is distinct from, but lawfully related to the real, physical thing. This view is realist about the existence of the external world and our possibility of knowing about it. But it is critical rather than naïve for separating the thing of perception from the thing of physics.

This is the background for discussing how Husserl relates the external world, the world of physics, and world of sensory perception. But we have already seen that an important difference in the critical realist and phenomenalist responses to the ignorabimus is their different tolerance for metaphysics. The next chapter therefore discusses the disputed relation between metaphysics and epistemology in Husserl’s work.

2.2             Epistemology and Metaphysics

The role of metaphysics in phenomenology has long been disputed. Especially Husserl’s late work seems to discuss overtly metaphysical questions, such as whether the world could exist without an actual consciousness. But especially in the Logical Investigations, Husserl declares the metaphysical neutrality of his considerations. The reduction is also described as a way to shed the metaphysical prejudice of the natural attitude.

An easy way out would be to say that Husserl’s commitments change, but Trizio resists the narrative of separate periods and “turns” (this alone is an impressive achievement). He begins with a text about the nature of space from the 1890s where Husserl distinguishes between the Theory of Knowledge—asking “how is knowledge of the objective world is possible?”—and metaphysics—asking what the actual world is ultimately like. Depending on how we understand the possibility of knowledge, we end up with a different metaphysical picture of the world, e.g. a phenomenalist, rather than a critical realist account.

Trizio presents Husserl’s later metaphysics as a consistent expansion from this idea. The metaphysical commitments are a consequence of the adopted theory of knowledge. He grants that there is a shift of emphasis from the question “how knowledge is possible” to the question of the “sense of being” which is clarified in transcendental phenomenology. But while seeking the “sense of being” sounds like a metaphysical task, it can also be understood as: “what must be the sense of being, for knowledge of it to be possible?”, so the primacy of epistemology can be maintained (cf. 59f.).

With this clarified relationship between epistemology and metaphysics, we can now reconsider natural science. The natural sciences operate with the well-known presupposition of the natural attitude. The metaphysical clarification from phenomenology addresses not immediately whether particular theoretical terms like “electron” refer to unobservable objects, but investigates the sense of “natural world” that the empirical sciences presuppose. Via the phenomenological clarification, the natural sciences become a metaphysics of nature. Transcendental phenomenology provides the “a priori framework underlying all possible factual realities” (86), which provides the “ontological closure of the sciences”. This closure amounts to the rejection of any ignorabimus, or hyperphysical reality, that would lie beyond these sciences. Slightly later, Trizio summarizes this metaphysical picture as “the world is a unit of sense constituted in transcendental intersubjectivity and nothing beyond that”. (107) Once the ontological closure of the empirical sciences has been achieved, the room for metaphysics is exhausted.

2.3             Transcendental Phenomenology

What separates the empirical sciences from ultimate metaphysics is “a clarification of the sense of their fundamental assumptions, […] most important among them, the positing of the world.” (99) Chapter three therefore turns to the phänomenologische Fundamentalbetrachtung (consideration fundamental to phenomenology, §§27-62) of the Ideas I. Husserl here argues that consciousness is an absolute region of being, independent of the posit of the world.

The book remains focused on the relation between perception and the thing of physics. According to the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, only the primary qualities carry over from perceptual appearance to the thing of physics, whereas secondary qualities originate in the subject. But Husserl distinguishes between the intuitive space of perception and the ideal space of geometry. A drawn triangle exists in an intuitive space, but it only serves as a sign for an ideal triangle in the space of geometry. What mathematized science discloses are such idealized properties; therefore, they are not a subset of the perceivable properties. Applied to the relation between perceptual and physical thing, this means that even the intuition of spatial properties does not remain without a contribution from the subject (103f.). Neither Husserl nor Trizio put it this bluntly, but it seems like all perceptual qualities turn out to be secondary.

Without overlap between the properties of physics and perception, one might expect a form of critical realism, where the perceptual object is only a sign for the physical thing. But one of the most poignant passages in the Ideas I reads: “The physical thing which [the scientist] observes, with which he experiments, which [he puts] in the melting furnace: that physical thing, and no other, becomes the subject of the predicates ascribed in physics.” (Husserl [1913] 1982, §52, 120) Trizio takes this identification of physical and perceptual seriously and argues that it shows a rejection of critical realism; the perceptual thing is rather a “sign for itself” (114). The key is Husserl’s notion of the “empty X as the bearer of all objective properties, whether they are disclosed in perception or in empirical science. The critical realist distinguishes an object X that bears the perceptual properties, and an object Y, which is determined by scientific theory. Husserl however argues that such a “hidden” cause leads to a regress. If we can know an object Y only inferentially, then a more competent observer could know Y on the basis of perception–but then for this observer, the appearances of Y would indicate an object Z, and so forth. (cf. 112)

This argument relies on the essential perceivability of all physical things which has led to an association between Husserl and anti-realist philosophers of science. A main feature of Trizio’s book is that it here steers a more realist line, according to which also scientific theories about unobservable entities can achieve a true, metaphysical insight into nature. The key is Trizio’s distinction between the causal inference that leads to the posit of observable things—say, a planet—and the inferences that lead to explanations in unobservable terms, like atoms (111). To treat the latter as causal inference to an unobservable world creates the “causal depth” of the critical realist picture, and the mentioned regress. The theoretical inferences of microphysics instead provide a categorial determination of the world of perception. The sense in which nature transcends our subjective experience has already been established at the level of perception, and scientific theories do not force us “to accept a different account of the ‘externality’ of the world” (115).

Once more emphasizing continuity through Husserl’s work, Trizio here relies on an account of categorial determination from the Sixh Logical Investigation. Pre-scientific judgements already contain meanings that do not allow for fulfilment in sensory intuition. “Just as the ‘and’, the ‘or’, and the ‘is’ cannot be painted, the physico-mathematical concepts cannot be ‘turned’ or ‘translated’ into sensuous determinations of whatever kind.” (122) Instead, the sense in which a microphysical theory is true has to be understood according to the truth of categorial determinations. These have nothing to do with our perceptual capacities and neither has the goal of scientific theory. “Accordingly, God’s physics would amount to the same true, complete mathematical physics that we human subjects strive to achieve, the one that describes matter as it is in itself, in its real, intrinsic nature, by means of categorial unities of thought”. This account of microphysical being is exegetically convincing, interesting, and sets Trizio’s account apart from other interpreters—I will comment on it below.

The rest of the chapter develops more critical responses to recent secondary literature, especially Harvey, Wiltsche and Hardy. Whereas the first two err on the side of instrumentalism, Hardy’s proposal aims to make transcendental idealism and metaphysical realism compatible, which for Trizio is a non-starter. The common error, so Trizio appears to say, is the imposition of “ready-made ‘philosophical problems’ as hermeneutical frameworks to interpret Husserl’s thought.” (138) Doing so “wreak[s] havoc on the internal articulation of a philosophy meant to generate its own task and method” (ibid.). The reader might want to consider for themselves: Can we approach Husserl with a philosophical topic or question, or must we let Husserl define the goal of philosophy? It is hard to see how an interpretation as comprehensive as Trizio’s could be achieved without granting Husserl to define the goals, and the complaint about ready-made philosophical problems is understandable. But one might equally worry that Trizio’s alternative stays confined by a philosophical edifice and its internal questions. Zahavi (2017, 184f.) for example appears less restrictive, and can point out interesting parallels, such as between Husserl’s correlationism and Putnam’s internal realism.

2.4             Ideas II

The fourth chapter focuses on the Ideas II, and the constitutional role of the lived body (Leib), intersubjectivity, and the relation between the natural, naturalistic, and personalistic attitude. Trizio here also refines the previous discussion of space, distinguishing between the subjective sensuous space, the objective perceptual space, and an idealized objective space. “The objective but not yet idealized space is the link between what is given to us in perception and the idealized language of physics” (161) Whereas the sensuous space is oriented around a perceiver’s body, the objective perceptual space has no such orientation. Intuition of objective perceptual space is only possible through founded acts: movements, rotations, and acts of empathy (ibid.). This is not an idealization, rather the objective perceptual space is constituted as “every-body’s space” (ibid.).

The chapter also discusses Rang and Ingarden, and thereby offers more detail about the interpretation of microphysics. While “it is true that concepts such as ‘atoms’ and ‘ions’ do not refer to ‘Dinglichkeiten an sich’, this is not because atoms and ions do not exist, but because they exist qua endpoints of the constitution of material nature in transcendental consciousness.” (170) Such endpoints are categorial determinations of the sensible world that also a divine physics would be compelled to. This is only one of several places where teleology features centrally.

Trizio now briefly returns to the challenge from DuBois-Reymond. That atoms cannot be the objects of experience does not mean that they comprise an ignorabimus: imperceivable atoms are still knowable as the ideal limit of categorially determining the perceivable world. The account of idealizations is what undermines DuBois-Reymond’s connection between the imperceivable and the unknowable (187f.).

Then, within five pages, Trizio discusses challenges from quantum mechanics and relativity theory. The discussion of quantum mechanics relies on a short appendix to the Crisis, one of very few places where Husserl ever talks about non-classical physics. Trizio argues that Husserl’s sees no conflict between quantum mechanics and the scientific goal of an objective description of nature. What quantum mechanics reveals is rather that some objects can only be studied as ensembles, not individually. This means that some idealizations stay tied to typical environments, and therefore particular scales. In turn, the relevant idealizations for our scientific descriptions can be scale-dependent (191f.), and there is no guarantee that we have a reductive basis for the idealizations of higher-level theories (such as physiology and biophysics). This is an interesting discussion, but stays at a very high level of generality.

The challenge from relativity theory is more obviously problematic. It undermines the idea that the “essence of space” could be studied a priori, independently of empirical theory. Trizio admits here that Husserl’s silence on the issue—despite the work of Weyl and Becker—is disappointing. In conclusion, Trizio thinks that relativity theory shows that intuitive and objective space are farther apart than we thought, but that this affects neither the rejection of critical realism nor the identity of perceptual and physical thing. I discuss below how relativity theory might require to rethink the relation between phenomenology and empirical science.

2.5             Life-World and Natural Science

The fifth chapter is by far the longest, running to almost a hundred pages. We now turn to the Crisis of European Sciences, and the discussion of Galileo in §9. Trizio further emphasizes the role of teleology, as in the account of categorial determination and in some earlier work (Trizio 2016). The crisis of the European sciences is explained as an “uncertainty and disorientation with respect to the essence inhabiting such a cultural formation [as empirical science] as its telos” (204) That the natural sciences have suffered a “loss of meaning” is a consequence of their separation from philosophy: as part of philosophy, empirical investigation had a context in which it was meaningful for life (206).

The chapter is comprehensive because part of its ambition is to discuss parts of the Crisis that remained a sketch: how spirit relates to nature, and the relationship between the objective spirit investigated in the human sciences, and the absolute spirit described in phenomenology (214f.) Trizio distinguishes three scientific endeavours: the natural sciences (naturalistic attitude), the positive sciences of objective spirit (personalistic attitude), and the phenomenological science of absolute spirit (transcendental attitude, 215). Natural and spiritual world have their own principles of unity, causal relations in the former, motivational relations in the latter case. (210)  Natural and spiritual world are different aspects of the lifeworld, but since the entire lifeworld has been replaced by mathematized nature, the world of spirit has been forgotten (247, 250). This misinterpretation is spelled out in the central §9, which is honoured with 36 pages of reconstruction and discussion. For anyone interested in Husserl’s account of Galileo, this commentary alone is a good reason to consult this book.

After recovering the world of spirit, Trizio finds a priority of human sciences over natural sciences: “the naturalistic attitude is subordinate to the personalistic attitude because it is the personal Ego that performs the operations necessary to render nature thematic as the sphere of mere natural objectivities” (258). This relation between these theoretical endeavours also leads to an ontological relation between their domains. “If nature is an abstract stratum of the life-world, it cannot be ontologically prior to it. It is an abstract layer of what for us has meaning in terms of our aims, among which its scientific explication also finds a place.” (260f.) It seems easy to vacillate here between nature as a “Zweckgebilde” of natural science, and nature as the domain of empty Xs that bear perceptual and scientific determinations: a domain that is factually indeterminate, but already determinable (this seems to require at least that the “Zweckgebilde” of natural science does not change with scientific theories or political environments).

Trizio then addresses the classic question how a scientifically true world could both be grounded on and encompassed by the lifeworld. The offered solution again relies on teleology: “the mode of being of scientific nature is that of an end of a specific human praxis” (270). The lifeworld itself however is independent of any specific aims (268); it is in this sense prior to any scientifically disclosed worlds, because the motivation to begin a scientific endeavour begins from the lifeworld. However, the lifeworld has no “outside”: whatever turns out to exist has to exist as part of the very same world that we were already determining by the means of perception.

Trizio here disagrees with interpreters who distinguish the transcendental reduction from a preliminary “reduction to the lifeworld” which brackets scientific theory and practice but leaves the natural attitude intact (e.g. Bitbol 2020). What makes the lifeworld pre-scientific in Trizio’s account is not the absence of scientific culture, but the lack of a telos. Whereas the objective determination of nature is the telos that for the scientific world, the lifeworld has no such practical goal. But even though this allows to distinguish different worlds, the world of science still is an objectivation of the lifeworld, not an independently constructed scientific image. When we are bracketing scientific culture, this focuses our attention on a pure layer of the lifeworld, rather than revealing the lifeworld in its entirety (269).

En passant, Trizio again discusses competing anti-realist interpretations, leading to a clearer picture of his own account. Antirealism here is glossed as the claim that science can only arrive at correct prediction of appearances, but not at knowledge about true nature as it is in itself. If Husserl were an antirealist about scientific knowledge, no account of nature would be compatible with transcendental phenomenology. a) Husserl cannot be claim that the objective world does not exist (only that it is not a mathematical manifold) b) nature cannot be in principle unknowable, because that is incompatible with the principle of correlation, c) natural science is also not to be replaced by a new science of nature, d) agnosticism is like skepticism a “deadly enem[y] of philosophy”. (256f.) Since Husserl is not a metaphysical realist, this rejection of anti-realism is not a commitment to scientific realism in the standard contemporary sense. The condensed discussion again reveals importance of the principle of correlation: unknowable aspects of nature are excluded from the start.

In the last paragraphs, entitled “Nature as the correlate of Absolute Spirit”, Trizio edges towards some further metaphysical conclusions. The premise is that nature can only be constituted as an abstract core of the life-world, which is personal in character. (275) Therefore, nature can only appear through intentional acts that are abstract components of the concrete unity of constituting life. It is not possible to think of a constitution of nature that was not embedded in a constituting life, and such constituting life must know a personal attitude. Unfortunately, Trizio does not make explicit whether this means that he concurs with Husserl’s proof of idealism: that a world which never develops constituting forms of life is metaphysically impossible. (Husserl 2003)

3          Commentary

It is clear that this is a work of serious scholarship. Trizio draws on an impressive range of sources, from before the Logical Investigations to the Crisis. Well known parts of Husserl’s work are central, such as the consideration fundamental to phenomenology, or §9 of the Crisis. But also the Ideas II and the less known 1917 treatise Phenomenology and Theory of Knowledge (Husserl et al. 1987, 125–205) are central points of reference. Framing Husserl in the ignorabimus debate is well done and sets up an interesting angle for the discussion.

The production quality of the digital edition is good. References and endnotes are listed per chapter, endnotes are conveniently two-way linked to the main text. There are a number of avoidable editorial oversights and Typos, especially in German quotations (e.g. 76, 258) and names (e.g. 122, 148), but the overall typesetting is pleasant. With these descriptive points out of the way, I can now turn to the content.

3.1              The Mathematization of Plena

One of Husserl’s main claims in §9 of the Crisis is that the “sensible plena” (sinnliche Füllen) cannot be directly mathematized, unlike the shapes of objects. Hence, Galileo has to make the hypothesis that all determinations of the plena will be implied by a completed account of the shapes—the plena will be indirectly mathematized. When Trizio reconstructs why the plena do not allow for mathematization, he connects this with the impossibility of finding a compositional basis to construct the plena. “There can be no analogue of the ruler in the case of a color, or of a warmth-property, no smaller standard that, via a certain method of composition, could “build” the original quality out of smaller parts, not even approximately, ‘with a rest’.” (232)

There is, however, no discussion of established practices for precise communication of colours. When colours are communicated as RGB or CMYK codes, they are specified exactly in terms of the combination of red, green and blue light (or the densities of standardized inks). Why does this not count as the construction of a colour-space from basic elements? It seems to me that the difference between shapes and plena is not so much in compositionality, but in the convergence to an ideal limit. Shapes can be put in line to approach a flat surface or a straight line or a sphere. This ideal reference point is never reached. A series of colour patches, however, does not approach an unintuitable “ideal red”: an orange patch can be more or less close to a red patch, but the limit remains intuitable. Colour similarity only compares to an intuitable limit that retains some indeterminacy. This is not the kind of convergence that we have in the case of geometry, where intuitive shapes can approach a precise, unintuitable ideal.

3.2             Causal inference and inference to categorial determinations

Trizio’s realism about scientific knowledge depends crucially on the distinction between two kinds of scientific inference. To reiterate, scientists sometimes make “causal” inferences, such as “there is a planet Neptune” which introduce new, in-principle observable entities. In the case of microphysics, however, their inference is a categorial determination of nature, and does not introduce new entities. I am not sure what the principled grounds are to declare scientific inferences to be one kind or another. It seems clear that we can sometimes infer that there are things we cannot perceive ourselves, for example after losing a sensory modality, or observing reactions of animals. Now, when we explain a disease through a virus, is this a causal inference, or a categorial determination? It is implausible that the limit of causal inference coincides with a contingent limit of human perception, and I would therefore expect that viruses would still be something where we can make causal inferences. But where does it stop? Trizio would presumably have to give an answer in terms of essential imperceivability—but it would be good to know what it is exactly.

3.3             Foundations of Psychology

It remains somewhat unclear whether Trizio advocates a revisionist programme for empirical sciences. He is explicit that he has no such intention for physics, but what about psychology? Is a main cost of forgetting the lifeworld a psychology that dehumanizes its subjects, because it starts from the naturalistic attitude? I take this to be Husserl’s ambition, but of course in view of the psychology of his time. If Trizio here departs from Husserl, this is not made explicit.

3.4             A priori knowledge of space and general relativity

Much of the book appears to work towards marrying two claims:

  1. Transcendental Phenomenology is the founding, universal science that is before all empirical science.
  2. Empirical sciences are capable of generating metaphysical knowledge.

What Trizio promises is nothing less than a First Philosophy that can do without instrumentalism about the empirical sciences. As Trizio admits, this comes to limits with the theory of relativity, where Husserl’s silence “is embarrassing” (193). Already in special relativity, temporal and spatial distances lose their independence. The death of two stars might appear simultaneous when observed from the earth, but their temporal order changes with the location of the observer. This is not just another fact that tells us more about which of the a priori possible worlds we inhabit, but it redefines the interaction between phenomenology and empirical theory. Throughout the book, Trizio gives phenomenology an authority over the commitments of empirical sciences: phenomenologists can point out when scientists “naïvely” rely on assumptions of the natural attitude. But in the case of relativity theory, physicists could retort that the phenomenologist is not so independent from theory after all. The assumption that space and time are independent might be one such assumption. It looks like a theory of physics can serve as a valid criticism of a distinction of transcendental phenomenology. But on what grounds could transcendental phenomenology then still be considered to be “before” empirical science?

Trizio points in a similar direction when he concedes that “the only way out is to use the theory of relativity as an indication that the phenomenological account of idealization must be revised” (193). But conceding such limits to first philosophy should also affect the relation to contemporary philosophy of science. Trizio is certainly right when he argues that Husserl’s account cannot simply be “placed” within an existing body of literature about scientific realism, because this debate takes the dominance of logical empiricism as its starting point.

Given Trizio’s emphasis on historical contextualization, one might have expected more optimism about this historical situation. The nascent logical empiricism and Husserlian phenomenology touched in the 1920s, when Carnap studied with Husserl, and Felix Kaufmann was part of both movements. By contrast, Husserl never actually writes about an ignorabimus. The historical arc to philosophy of science seems neither more ambitious nor less promising than the 19th century context which Trizio sets up. It would be too much to attempt both in the same book, and the 19th century context is a welcome addition, but why should an explication of Husserl’s account not be commensurable to debates in the philosophy of science?

One might of course worry that philosophers of science are too busy discussing the content of particular scientific theories, rather than less easily formalizable questions about the structure of thing-consciousness. But what is gained from playing out those philosophers who want to attend to the perceptual phenomena against those who emphasize scientific theory? Trizio’s take here is more negative than most recent literature in the general area (see especially Hardy 2013; Zahavi 2017; and essays in Wiltsche and Berghofer 2020) and from those who work closely with cognitive scientists. All these authors seem more open to two-way interaction between empirical theory and phenomenological clarification, or at least between phenomenology and philosophy of science.

3.5             Correlationism

A final point concerns the explication of metaphysical commitments. While the book contains much discussion of what metaphysics means for Husserl, and in what sense phenomenology is not deciding but undermining the metaphysical debates, it is not always clear what Trizio endorses. I already mentioned the question whether a world without a factually constituting consciousness is possible.

Husserl’s correlationism on the other hand is a commitment on which Trizio relies much more openly. The rejection of Husserl’s correlationism by speculative realists is now well known. (Meillassoux [2006] 2008) But also metaphysics in the tradition of analytic philosophy raises difficult questions. Husserl’s correlationism commits him to the knowability of all true propositions. But such a knowability is surprisingly difficult to spell out, as the debates around the Church-Fitch paradox and metaphysical anti-realism show. (Fitch 1963; Salerno 2009; Kinkaid 2020) Philosophy’s Nature focuses more on defending the account presented as the correct interpretation of Husserl than it does to raise and address general questions from semantics or metaphysics.

3.6             Conclusion

Trizio’s book is nothing short of impressive for the clarity and depth in which it discusses Husserl’s works from the 1890s to the 1936 Crisis and the 19th century context. The rejection of anti-realist readings of Husserl’s philosophy of science is forceful and a very welcome addition to the current debate.

Because of its dismissal of contemporary philosophy of science, however, it can occasionally seem like a book on Husserl for Husserlians. Given the complexity and range of literature discussed, this is not surprising, but there are places where a greater departure from internal questions would have been natural: most clearly, through a more extensive discussion of the lessons from relativistic physics, and by anticipating some questions about the distinction between causal and categorial inference. Husserl’s account is complex and disputed enough to warrant treatment through a book, and Trizio fills an important gap. Those who wish for a connection to contemporary philosophy of science, however, will see room for another.


Bitbol, Michel. 2020. ‘Is the Life-World Reduction Sufficient in Quantum Physics?’ Continental Philosophy Review, October.

Fitch, Frederic B. 1963. ‘A Logical Analysis of Some Value Concepts’. The Journal of Symbolic Logic 28 (2): 135–42.

Hardy, Lee. 2013. Nature’s Suit: Husserl’s Phenomenological Philosophy of the Physical Sciences. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. (1913) 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book. General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Translated by Fred Kersten. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

———. 2003. Transzendentaler Idealismus: Texte Aus Dem Nachlass (1908-1921). Edited by R. D. Rollinger and Rochus Sowa. Husserliana 36. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Husserl, Edmund, Thomas Nenon, Hans Rainer Sepp, and Edmund Husserl. 1987. Aufsätze Und Vorträge: 1911-1921. Husserliana 25. Dordrecht ; Boston: M. Nijhoff.

Kinkaid, James. 2020. ‘Husserl, Ideal Verificationism, and the Knowability Paradox’. presented at the Boston Phenomenology Circle Workshop, Boston, MA, November 21.

Meillassoux, Quentin. (2006) 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Raymond Brassier. London: Continuum.

Salerno, Joe, ed. 2009. New Essays on the Knowability Paradox. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Trizio, Emiliano. 2016. ‘What Is the Crisis of Western Sciences?’ Husserl Studies 32 (3): 191–211.

Wiltsche, Harald A, and Philipp Berghofer, eds. 2020. Phenomenological Approaches to Physics. Cham: Springer.

Zahavi, Dan. 2017. Husserl’s Legacy: Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Adam J. Graves: The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur

The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricoeur Book Cover The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricoeur
Studies in the Thought of Paul Ricoeur
Adam J. Graves
Lexington Books
Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Of truth, it was Schopenhauer who said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Thirty years after the publication of Dominique Janicaud’s “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology,” arguing that the work of Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, and Paul Ricœur was a collective betrayal of classical phenomenology, are we nearing truth’s inevitable third stage? The appearance of Adam J. Graves’s The Phenomenology of Revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur indicates such is the case.1 For, although some dismiss the theological turn, continuing to pass over it in silence, as if it were unworthy of their attention or response, there is no longer any pretending that a theological turn in phenomenology has not occurred. Far from it constituting a deviation from phenomenology’s true method, attention to the phenomenon of revelation has always been foundational to phenomenological philosophy’s stand against the prevailing naturalistic, empiricist, and scientistic understanding of the modern, disenchanted, technological world. The task, then, is not one of determining whether revelation is a viability for phenomenology, but of assessing its contribution to phenomenology’s promise as an ongoing movement. In response to this task, Graves has given us a work tracing the trajectory of the phenomenon of revelation in Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur. “Phenomenology’s turn toward the theological,” as Graves says at one point, “did not begin in the nineteen eighties. It was already well underway by the time Heidegger delivered his lecture on ‘Phenomenology and Theology’ in 1928” (23). Not only then does he illustrate why it is justified today to speak openly of a theological turn in phenomenology, or even of a return. This result would be useful enough! More still, Graves offers us a groundbreaking account of revelation itself contributing to the very theological (re)turn it so admirably examines.

To see why Graves views the turn this way, a mindfulness of the philosophical history shaping phenomenology’s concern with the phenomenon of revelation is necessary. “No single theological concept poses a greater challenge to philosophy than that of revelation,” he observes at the beginning of the introduction (xxi). For just as “revelation implies a claim to disclose truth” thereby “allegedly confronting philosophy on its own turf” (xxi), so then it might be viewed as “an affront to reason, an anathema to philosophy” (xxi). One indeed might simply conclude that revelation and reason are opposed to one another, the two “destined from birth to face off as mortal enemies, caught in an endless, take-no-prisoners battle wherein each seeks to reduce the other to itself, to monopolize truth by capturing and colonizing the other’s terrain” (xxi). Such a characterization, however, overexaggerates the antagonism between them, Graves says. As he points out, philosophy has a history of “negotiating a lasting peace” with revelation, even if such a “precarious ceasefire” has separated reason and revelation into two autonomous zones (xxi). This effort to separate revelation and reason is evident at least as early as in Aquinas, who demarcates “rational truths” (the domain of theologia philosophiae) from the so-called “revealed truths” that are inaccessible to the natural light of reason (the domain of theologia sacrae doctinae) (xxii). A “philosophical theory of two truths” (xxii), Aquinas believed, would allow for philosophical reason and theological revelation to complement one another. However, by the end of the modern period, the arrangement had come to undermine revelation’s own understanding of itself as the dispenser of absolute truth. Modern philosophical reason, imbued with the right to question everything, including the authority of tradition, church, and the Bible, considered revelation an “historical relic.” Consequently, the truths of revelation were subordinated to the eternal truths of reason (xxii). Further complicating matters was the fact that this very distinction between the eternal truths of reason and the historical truths of revelation was unstable, itself becoming a matter of contention. The Enlightenment’s conception of reason’s authority and sovereignty proved not to be above criticism. As Graves remarks, “The kind of autonomy and transparency which philosophy had claimed for itself, could only be defined and maintained when juxtaposed against the backdrop of its proper epistemic ‘other,’ as though the eternal truths of reason could only ever shine against the supposedly opaque and impenetrable surface of revelation and its contingent truths” (xxv). The Enlightenment conception of rational truth defining itself in opposition to revelation “could not do away with its other without doing away with itself” (xxv). This story of modern reason’s evolution, and its relation to revelation, is a fascinating issue in its own right.2 Lest, however, it be concluded that it is only a piece of intellectual history, Graves illustrates how modern philosophy’s question of the extent to which the content of revelation might be reducible to reason is at issue again today in the theological turn of phenomenology. “One of the philosophical frontlines in this centuries-old battle between reason and revelation,” as he says, “is located within the field of phenomenology” (xxv). With this historical backdrop in view, a key claim of Graves’s concerning the relation between reason and revelation here emerges: Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur in their own ways “undermine the enlightenment’s claim that reason is autonomous and wholly transparent” (xxvi). If Enlightenment efforts of self-grounding reason fail, one might conclude philosophy ends in skepticism or nihilism.2 Or, one might instead attempt to rehabilitate philosophy by resuscitating revelation. As Graves will show, this is what Marion, Heidegger, and Ricœur each aims to do, by refiguring revelation phenomenologically. Just as the concept of reason underwent a transformation in the hands of modern philosophy, so now the concept of revelation has in phenomenology.

In what does this transformation of revelation consist? To begin with, it is a broadening of the concept. Revelation no longer is confined to propositional truths only, as was the case for the Scholastics. In the Middle Ages, as Graves himself explains, “the content of the so-called revealed was comprised of a set of the propositional statements, i.e., doctrines that could not be obtained through human reason, but depended upon God’s active revelation” (12). When, however, revelation became “more closely associated with a particular quality of experience, or a particular kind of phenomenon, rather than a mere collection of dogmatic propositions, the stage was set for its philosophical reevaluation” (xxvi). Part of that legacy is alive today in phenomenology, for which revelation is a matter of experiential truth, of what is encountered. But revelation is not simply said to be a particular mode or content of experience. It is the essence of experience. Quoting Marion, Graves notes, “‘Revelation, by virtue of the givenness that it alone performs perfectly, would accomplish the essence of phenomenality’” (5). Not only, then, does phenomenology seek to undermine and escape the constraints once imposed by modern philosophical reason. Moreover, its interest in revelation “stems from its own root concerns and core problems” (5). As the “other” of Enlightenment reason,3 revelation would lie at the heart of phenomenology’s philosophical project to uncover and describe that which appears, and how it appears. So understood, revelation would designate the form of phenomenality as such:

[Phenomenology’s concern with revelation is] not adopting a theological question that would be foreign or even peripheral to its core concerns. On the contrary, it is actually tackling a question about phenomenology itself, about its ability to live up to its own promise of enabling phenomena to appear as they give themselves out to be, as they are given beyond the limits of enlightenment reason—and that means independently of scientific or naturalistic presuppositions, the narrow constraints of the principle of sufficient reason, and the conditions of possibility imposed upon them by the modern subject (5).

None of this should be considered particularly controversial yet. The phenomenological formulation of revelation as a problem, one will note, involves doing philosophy in light of Husserl’s epoché, insofar as it entails “the fulfillment of Husserl’s original aim, namely, a pure description of the full range of phenomena” (xxvii). Husserl’s “principle of principles” frees the phenomena, notes Graves, such that “everything that appears to consciousness—including religious phenomena—could, at least in principle, become a legitimate object of phenomenological description and thus philosophical investigation” (3). Revelation, then, would appear to be fair game.

However, things are not quite so straightforward, owing to a tension within Husserl himself that the rest of phenomenology inherits. Does not Husserl call for a suspension of theological presuppositions? The same Husserlian method that might be claimed to allow God to appear could also be said to foreclose the appearing of God. “One might wonder,” as Graves observes, how Husserl’s epoché and reductions “could possibly serve as the best method for developing a philosophical account of revelation” (xxvii). Others for this reason have viewed with suspicion the attempt to formulate revelation as a phenomenological problem, calling into question its methodological moves and underlying motives (xxvii). One here again calls to mind Janicaud’s original contention, according to which the theological turn had abandoned an “interrogation of the visible in favor of a blind and imprudent affirmation of radical transcendence” (xxviii). As Graves himself notes, “One may ask whether the turn’s new and peculiar reinterpretation of key phenomenological principles—such as horizon, reduction, intentionality, world, etc.—signals the culmination of the phenomenological enterprise or whether it signals a departure from and deterioration of phenomenology as such” (xxix). “What cannot be disputed,” he says, “is the significance of this ‘turn’ as a purely historical event” (xxix). It here becomes apparent why Graves has elected to open his study of revelation by placing things in historical context. He says,

If some have claimed phenomenology has remained the most powerful and enduring force on the Parisian philosophical scene since its initial reception in the middle of the last century, then the phenomenological appropriation of the category of revelation may be said to represent—for better or worse—the single most significant even in recent French philosophy. How did this event come to pass? What concrete challenge has it raised, and what paths have phenomenologists taken in order to meet those challenges? How has this event altered the phenomenological enterprise itself—its methods, its objectives, and its own self-understanding? How has it altered or informed our understanding of the nature of revelation, or perhaps even of the nature of philosophical reason? (xxx).

Sensitive to the fact that many might find this claim of French phenomenological philosophy’s importance hyperbolic, Graves points out that the problem of revelation, and the corresponding question concerning the methodological relation between phenomenology and theology, is not an issue parochial to French phenomenology. For one thing, theology and the religious life were fundamental concerns of Heidegger’s during the lead-up to Being and Time. Heidegger’s thought (particularly his departing 1928 Marburg lecture), Graves will claim, “is the single most important source for understanding the nature and diversity of the most recent interest in the phenomenology of revelation among French philosophers” (3). How did the Parisian concern with revelation originate in Marburg and Freiburg? As Graves recounts,

On February 14, 1928, Heidegger stood before his colleagues at the University of Marburg to deliver what would be his final lecture before returning—triumphantly, as it were—to Freiburg, where he was to take over as the successor to his former mentor, Edmund Husserl. The topic Heidegger chose for his parting address was “Phenomenology and Theology” (1).

The lecture’s significance can only be understood when appreciated in terms of its place within the overall philosophical project Heidegger was engaged in at the time. In courses on the religious life from earlier that decade, Heidegger had claimed “primal Christian experience becomes concealed through Greek conceptuality,” a thesis prefiguring his “later description of the history of the forgetfulness of Being—the all-important Seinsvergessenheit” (2). For Heidegger, overcoming the history of philosophy’s forgetfulness of being would require a deconstruction of Christianity’s own self-understanding. Here, Graves notes that Heidegger’s approach to revelation highlights two contrasting attitudes toward the role of language in revelation that will structure phenomenology’s subsequent handling of the problem: “the ‘radical’ and the ‘hermeneutical’ attitudes” (6). The radical attitude, he says, “begins to take shape in the works of early Heidegger, whose Destruktion of the metaphysical tradition involved a return to ‘the beginning, the primal, the originary,’ and thus moves in the direction of what might be called the pre-linguistic” (6). As Graves continues, “this partly explains why Heidegger’s destructive (destruktiv) project was leveled against ordinary language—everyday chatter or idle talk (Gerede)—as much as it was against the distinctively philosophical language of modernity” (7). That is to say, Heidegger’s quest for the meaning of being necessitates a return to a primordial experience which “precedes (or cuts beneath)” certain forms of linguistic articulation and sedimentation (7). Now, contrast this radical attitude with the other, the hermeneutic attitude.

Whereas radical phenomenology seeks to overcome metaphysics by sidestepping language in its ceaseless quest for the primordial givenness, hermeneutical phenomenology challenges enlightenment paradigms through language itself, or by insisting upon a richer conception of linguisticality and the inexorable connection between language and being (9).

Thus emerges a further key claim of Graves’s study. Strictly speaking, he will claim, there is “no such thing as the phenomenology of revelation” (9). Rather, we must address “two essentially dichotomous phenomenological views of revelation as they emerge in the works of Heidegger, Marion, and Ricœur” (10). Another central claim of Graves’s work follows. For as he clarifies, the purpose of the study “is not merely to present an account of these opposed approaches from the disinterested standpoint of a spectator or intellectual historian” (10). His aim, rather, is to show that the radical approach (typified by both Heidegger and Marion) divests revelation of its meaning and content, leaving a merely formal concept of revelation—“a revelation without Revelation,” unless it is supplemented with a hermeneutic approach (10). What does Graves mean—what is the problem? Typically, the worry concerning phenomenology turning to the problem of revelation is that it by doing so comprises its philosophical rigor and neutrality—this is the so-called “contamination” problem, as Graves terms it. Phenomenology importing theological content can be a problem, Graves is happy to admit. But he has a different concern in view, what he terms the problem of “counter-contamination.” Fearful of illicitly importing theological content into one’s phenomenological method, one formalizes the phenomenon of revelation to the point whereby it is attenuated completely, bereft of any meaningful content. When this happens, says Graves, an analysis of revelation finds itself having “lost sight” of “the material content of revelation itself” (15), such that whatever remains is “characterized by formalism itself, by a certain lack of determinate content” (15). This process of “attenuation-formalization” (16) leads phenomenological analysis astray in the case of revelation. As Graves asks, how will it be possible for phenomenology to account for the structure of revelation without having to draw from the well of theological discourse? (16). Is not phenomenology “inevitably dependent upon its engagement with religions language?” (16). It may be that phenomenological accounts of revelation are inescapably “contaminated” by a certain theological orientation or bias (16). But this, argues Graves, is in a way inevitable—for the idea of a philosophy somehow starting without presuppositions is a fantasy. In a qualified sense, then, such presuppositions can be a good thing. After all, were phenomenology unable to draw upon theological content when addressing the phenomenon of revelation, what would be left for the phenomenologist to investigate?4 As Graves says,

What would the phenomenological meaning of revelation mean in the absence of any reference to concrete religious experience? Would it represent an empty figure, a mere shadow? Or, would it mark the ultimate essence of revelation as such, beyond any of its particular historical, linguistic, or textual instantiations? (16).

The polar threats of “contamination” and “de-contamination” are related to the twofold sense of revelation itself. On the one hand, revelation can designate “the means or the process by which God is revealed to human beings” (13). On the other hand, it can denote “the nature of the content that is revealed” (13). According to Graves, the problems of ontic contamination and counter-contamination are both apparent in Heidegger’s 1928 lecture. This is largely explainable due to Heidegger’s commitment to what he at the time took to be the scientificity of philosophy. Philosophy and theology, Heidegger claims, are “two sciences rather than two competing worldviews” (25). There are two general types of science—ontic science and ontological science, a distinction grafted onto the ontological difference, the difference between beings (entities) and being (the being of entities). Science for Heidegger, taken in its most general sense, is defined by “‘the founding disclosure, for the sake of disclosure, of a self-contained region of beings, or of Being as such’” (27). The division between ontic and ontological sciences accordingly “derives from these two radically different manners of disclosure—ontic sciences are founded upon a disclosure of a being or a region of beings, whereas ontology involves the disclosure of Being as such” (27). Said another way, ontic sciences never engage the question of being as such. What they do instead, says Heidegger, is conceptualize, objectify, or thematize a set of beings that have already been disclosed in a prescientific manner (28). As Graves explains, “ontic-positive sciences are thereby engaged in second-order operations—experiments, data collection, etc.—that are propped up upon and sustained by the ‘rough’ and ‘naïve’ interpretations of their respective fields—interpretations which they inadvertently inherit from ordinary, pre-scientific experience without ever radically calling them into question” (28). Philosophy is not an ontic science. It is an ontological science—philosophy asks the question of the meaning of being as such. Phenomenology is thus the Urwissenschaft—as fundamental ontology, it is a questioning and clarifying of the meaning of being (29).

How does this concern the problem of revelation? As Graves observes, Heidegger’s distinction between ontical sciences and the ontological science corresponds to a distinction between revelation (Offenbarung) and revealability (Offenbarkeit) (23). Revealability is a formalization of revelation, one that Graves argues threatens to distort the concrete character of revelation itself (24). According to him, Heidegger attempts to illegitimately superimpose the formal character of revealability back upon revelation itself, so that the latter is purged of any ontic content that might threaten to contaminate the ontological character of the analytic of Dasein that is built upon it (24-25). But has not Heidegger thereby hollowed out revelation itself? Graves thinks Heidegger has. Heidegger, he says, “simply folds the ‘purity’ or ‘formality’ constitutive of revealability over into the ontic-positive domain of revelation” (50), such that revelation gets recast as a “pure, formal structure,” while revealability becomes “the structure of a structure” (50). Consequently, Heidegger’s formalization of revelation renders it “merely an empty shell, a mere abstraction” (50-51) That is to say, Heidegger commits the phenomenological sin of counter-contamination: “revealability (Offenbarkeit) intrudes upon and violates revelation (Offenbarung)” (50-51).

Why does Heidegger do this? Graves attributes Heidegger’s error to what Jacques Derrida calls the “logic of presupposition” (30). Heidegger’s prioritization of fundamental ontology over ontic inquiry claims to “reveal deeper structures of experience, which are more primordial than the modes of experience unearthed by ontic-positive analysis” (32). These primordial structures purportedly lie beneath the domains of language, culture, and religion in general (33). According to Graves, however, Heidegger’s ambition of uncovering fundamental or “originary” structures ultimately renders the resulting phenomenon of revelation devoid of any determinate content.

Even if one were to dispute Graves’s claim that revelation in Heidegger is attenuated and formalized to the point of no longer being anything but the structure of a structure, there is another problem which Graves mentions as well. The ontological science—the science of being—like any inquiry is said by Heidegger to be oriented toward particular entities. But if all inquiry implies that ontology’s quest for being must itself begin with some entity, then phenomenology would no longer appear to be a non-oriented, ontological science. Heidegger’s famous solution, as Graves notes, is to emphasize that phenomenology’s difference from the positive ontic sciences is that the kind of being through which a genuine science of being passes is a being with an understanding of being. As Graves says, “On account of the peculiar character of Dasein, Heidegger suggests, his analysis can be delimited and directed toward a particular being (namely, Dasein) without fear of losing sight of the ontological question (namely, of the meaning of Being as such)” (38). The existential analytic, thus, aims to function as a preliminary point of departure for fundamental ontology.

What, though, of the analytic of Dasein’s relationship to theology? Many of the key features of Heidegger’s existential analytic in Being and Time—historicity, facticity, care, fundamental temporality, anxiety—were prefigured by his early lecture courses on religion (45). Thus, there is the potential problem of theological contamination. In an attempt to avoid it, Heidegger will claim that phenomenology resembles theology only because the object of theology (faith, revelation, Christlichkeit) conceals within itself a kind of abstract, formal character which falls to phenomenology to uncover. Heidegger contends that Christlichkeit is derivative—it is founded upon a deeper, more primordial pre-Christian structure (65). Finitude, sin, anxiety, conscience—such phenomena are to be purified of their traditional theological garb, revealing their true ontological significance. The concept of sin, for example, can only be explained in terms of a more fundamental ontological concept of guilt (66). As Graves notes, “none of the determinate content of the way of being of faith remains—it has already been removed as part of the excavation process that served to expose its more radical foundations in the ontology of Dasein” (66). Although Heidegger’s development of his philosophy of being was inextricably tied to his theological interests (41), including Luther’s theology of the cross and Pauline eschatology, the analytic of Dasein “has already been subject to a counter-contamination” (62).

Having examined the problems of contamination and counter-contamination, the logic of presupposition, and the distinction between ontic sciences and ontological science, Graves poses a question meant to highlight a tension in Heidegger’s attempt to purge revelation of any traditional theological content in the name of uncovering “originary” or fundamental ontological structures:

Is Heidegger’s interpretation of primal Christianity (Urchristentum) meant merely to serve as one concrete, historical example that helps illuminate the fundamental existential structures—that is, as one example among other possible examples? If so, he would have to explain why Christian experience appears to supply the example par excellence for his fundamental existentials (an explanation which he never provides). Or, on the contrary, does the primal Christian experience constitute a privileged event (a particular “revelation,” as it were), one that would prove indispensable for Heidegger’s later fundamental ontology—that is, an event in the absence of which the fundamental structures of Being and Time could not have been thought? (45).

Despite the internal vacillation apparent in Heidegger’s text, the ultimate goal of an existential analytic of religious life is to render explicit the general structure of revealability. The traditional theological content serves as mere “formal indications (formale Anzeige)” (42)—signposts on the way to uncovering “the unique temporal modality implicit within the primal Christian eschatological experience” (43). By insisting on the priority of revealability over and above revelation (48), Heidegger tries to “secure a method capable of grasping this experience” (42). To do so, it is necessary to chart a middle course, neither committing an “ontic contamination” of the ontological nor a premature formalization of the ontical. The problem of contamination threatens the philosophical status of phenomenology, the problem of counter-contamination the phenomenology of revelation qua revelation (55). Eager to preempt any accusation that his ontology is contaminated by Christian revelation, Heidegger tries to avoid the first problem by preserving the autonomy and priority of fundamental ontology. He attempts to do this, by hollowing out Christian eschatological experience to such an extent that theology begins to resemble phenomenology and the positum of theology begins to resemble factical life experience itself (55-56). The formalization of the ontical content of revelation enables Heidegger to maintain the priority of phenomenological ontology (the science of being) over theological science (the science of revelation) (56). Consequently, as Graves summarizes,

Heidegger’s obsession with ontological concerns and his constant quest for increasingly radical foundations or conditions of possibility eventually led him to view faith, Christlichkeit, and revelation (Offenbarung) as merely derivative phenomena. But this conclusion came only after a long period of philosophical labor in which the religious concepts underwent (or were subjected to) a series of progressive formalizations and radicalazations, which effectively purged them of their determinate contents (67).

Although Graves does not say it here explicitly, one clearly is meant to conclude that the desirability of what Heidegger’s process of formalization leaves us is dubious.

Does Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology of revelation qua revelation fare better? This is the question of Graves’s next chapter. Having first examined Heidegger, here he turns to Husserl. Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, particularly the formulation of the saturated phenomenon, relies on a reworking of the phenomenological reduction in both Husserl and Heidegger. For Heidegger, phenomenology as fundamental ontology is an attempt to deconstruct the history of philosophy, by properly thematizing the question of the meaning of being. It is thus a critique of metaphysics, as metaphysics (on Heidegger’s understanding of the term) fails to understand the being of Dasein and formulate the question of the meaning of being in general. For Marion also, phenomenology is a critique of metaphysics, but here it will be necessary to move beyond even Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and formulation of the ontological difference. In reformulating the phenomenological critique of metaphysics, Marion will argue it is imperative to surpass Husserl and Heidegger, by exploiting a breakthrough in Husserl’s phenomenology that Husserl himself never properly developed. Marion’s goal is to free givenness from all prior constraints. As Marion says, “‘In a metaphysical system, the possibility of appearing never belongs to what appears, nor phenomenality to the phenomenon” (80). As Graves himself explains, “Marion marks a crucial development in Husserl’s thought—namely the widening of the notion of intuition” (81) While Husserlian phenomenology marks an important break with the metaphysical tradition in this respect, Marion claims that the standard interpretation of Husserl misses what is most essential, by focusing solely on Husserl’s extension of intuition (82). Marion has in view two competing ways of interpreting Husserl’s broadening of the concept of intuition, the Derridian and the Heideggerian. On the Heideggerian interpretation, Husserl’s elevation of intuition marks a promising break with metaphysics and supplies a new ground for the question of being (Heidegger is fond of Husserl’s sixth logical investigation on categorial intuition). On the Derridian interpretation, this promotion of intuition marks the fatal step which leads Husserl back into a metaphysics of presence. Marion’s potential innovation, as Graves explains, is to suggest that these two competing perspectives on Husserl can be reconciled within a single interpretation, which would be informed and supported by both (83). “On Marion’s reading,” says Graves, “Husserl felt a need to broaden the field of signification beyond the already extended field of intuition” (83). Husserl’s desire to extend signification beyond intuition, Marion claims, is driven by a vague (and ultimately suppressed) recognition of a givenness which precedes both intuition and signification. Hence, Marion sees the true breakthrough of Husserl’s Logical Investigations not as the broadening of the field of intuition or signification, but as the implicit uncovering of the “unconditional primacy” of givenness itself (84). As Graves summarizes,

If Marion regards Husserl’s breakthrough as the discovery of the unconditional primacy of givenness, he nevertheless admits that this discovery was only partial—the instant givenness is unearthed by Husserl, it is immediately covered over by a classical (i.e., “metaphysical”) theory of intuition (84).

By reducing all givenness to what can be given “objectively,” or according to the horizon of the object (86), Husserl fails to thematize givenness radically. It is here that Marion’s own reduction—the “third” reduction, the reduction to givenness—is deployed. This reformulation of the reduction situates Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon. Here again, the introduction of the saturated phenomenon is understood by Marion as a break from metaphysics. “Marion’s quasi-teleological interpretive framework,” says Graves, “according to which the development of phenomenology consists of a series of radicalizations culminating in his theory of givenness, seems to hinge upon Husserl’s original break with metaphysics” (79). Not only is it a matter of freeing the phenomenon from Husserlian objectivity. More fundamentally, it is a question of breaking free from Kant’s account of the conditions of possibility for the experience of objects. “The Kantian conditions of possible experience,” as Graves notes, “are not given by phenomena themselves but are rather imposed upon phenomena by the subjective faculties of sensibility and understanding” (79-80). In addition to Kant and Husserl, Marion’s reduction in part break with Heidegger too. Although Heidegger had himself radicalized Husserl’s approach with an existential reduction to being as such (88), he remains beholden to the ontological difference. “The saturated phenomenon,” observes Graves, “is characterized by an excess of intuition […] It cannot be controlled or neutralized by a conscious subject, and it cannot be reduced to or proceeded by any horizon—not even by the horizon of Being (Heidegger), let alone that of objectivity (Husserl)” (108). This is not to say, however, that there are not important overlaps between Heidegger and Marion. Like Heidegger before him, Marion also appears interested in retrieving “originary” and fundamental structures of experience. As Graves says, “Marion’s central idea of the saturated phenomena is based on a recognition that the given often outstrips the conceptual and linguistic categories used to understand or interpret it” (7). Like Heidegger, Marion’s phenomenology of revelation is a radical one.

And like Heidegger also, Marion takes great pains to insist that his phenomenological method is rigorous, strictly philosophical, and not contaminated by theology. In order to distinguish the phenomenology of givenness from theology, Marion employs “a distinction between revelation as possibility, and Revelation as actuality” (79).

According to Marion, [phenomenology] is properly concerned only with possibilities, not actualities. With respect to the phenomenon of revelation, the sole task of the phenomenologist would be to account for the mere possibility of such an experience, without having to presuppose or posit its actuality (108).

Yet Marion’s radical phenomenology, which seeks philosophical purity and rigor, “ultimately [leads] him to recapitulate the Heideggerian strategy,” namely “the protective strategy” of counter-contamination (78-79). Marion’s phenomenological figure of revelation (as possibility) “winds up imposing its own indeterminate status upon Revelation itself” (79). “Revelation,” as Graves says, “is described as a purely formal givenness” (79). In Reduction and Givenness, for example, Marion maintains that the “pure form of the call” is anonymous, “one that defies all names” (7). Such a call is said to be given “before any act of determination or nomination, before any Name can be ‘imposed upon it’” (79). Hence, the call of revelation remains indeterminate. As Graves notes, Marion’s radical attitude entails that revelation be defined in terms of a conceptual indeterminateness and resistance to linguistic determination, predication, or nomination (7). Understandably, part of Marion’s motivation for insisting upon a distinction between revelation as possibility and Revelation as actual is to forestall theological contamination, and the accusation that he is guilty of crypto-theology. But part of it is also an attempt to avoid conceptual idolatry, to avoid a philosophical discourse that would idolatrize God. This is something Marion addressed in God without Being, and Graves offers a fantastic account of that work’s account of the idol and the icon. Of relevance here is the fact that Marion’s phenomenology of givenness is said to overcome metaphysics (and nihilism’s so-called “death of God”), by liberating God from an idolatrous discourse. For Marion, as Graves says,

The problem of God for modernity has less to do with God’s negation, with atheism, than with the reemergence of idolatry at the level of the concept—we are, above all, prevented from respecting God not because God is rejected but because the conceptual idol blinds us to God (138).

The type of idolatry Marion is interested in resisting, hence, is conceptual. According to Marion, every conceptual discourse on God “involves a certain degree of idolatry” (95). How, we might ask, could one formulate a non-idolatrous conceptual discourse on God? (95). As Graves explains, here Marion finds it necessary to go further than Heidegger. In Heidegger, metaphysical thinking’s conceptual idolatry of God is named onto-theology. In onto-theology, God is given the definition of causa sui. Heidegger admonishes onto-theology for its forgetfulness of being and the ontological difference (96). Recalling Graves’s earlier discussion of Heidegger’s 1928 lecture is important here. Graves had shown that in an attempt to preserve the methodological rigor of phenomenology as fundamental ontology, Heidegger fell prey to the problem of “counter-contamination.” Here, Graves notes that Marion, who agrees with Heidegger that onto-theology leads to conceptual idolatry, claims Heidegger ignores a further form of idolatry. As Graves explains,

God’s revelation is contained or conditioned by “the dimension of Being,” by “revealability,” by the existential structures of Dasein. God may be above and beyond all matters of Being and ontology, but if God is to be revealed to Dasein, this revelation (Offenbarung) must conform to the ontological conditions of experience, that is, to revealability (Offenbarkeit) (99).

Consigning God to the ontological difference, and thereby confining revelation to the horizon of being, Marion believes that the Heideggerian divorce between being and God comes at too high a price. As a result of it, any talk of God as such is excluded from philosophical discourse (100). As Graves says, for Heidegger, “since the ontological difference is determinative of philosophical discourse, this implies that we must forever keep silent before God” (101). Or again, “By casting God as such outside ontological discourse, Heidegger essentially abandons theo-logical discourse (discourse about God as such) to the dogs, so to speak” (101). In Marion’s estimation, this silence of Heidegger’s on God avoids the onto-theological concept of “God” as causa sui or supreme being. Such silence, as Graves himself notes, embodies a certain reverence toward God. But the second silence, the silence insisting that nothing at all further can be said of God, “bars reverential silence from becoming the object of thought” (101).

In turn, Graves goes on to show how Marion attempts to open a discourse on God precisely where Heidegger had not. For although the ontological difference marks the borderline beyond which a non-idolatrous thought of God might finally become articulable (103), Heidegger himself does not attempt to think it. Instead, he remains completely silent. Marion suggests that, to think God reverentially, an escape from ontological difference is necessary (103). A phenomenological critique of metaphysics “must remain essentially indifferent to the ontological difference itself” (104), if God is to be discussed non-idolatrously, rather than simply passed over in total silence. To begin sketching how this might be possible, Marion highlights three biblical texts (Romans 4:17 is the text upon which Graves focuses) that he argues enable phenomenology to formulate an anterior instance to the ontological difference (104). In the passage in question from Romans, God is referred to as the one “who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as the beings” (104), indicating God is prior to the ontological difference between being and entities. As Marion puts it, “‘The gift delivers Being/being’” (105). The problem, however, is that this dimension of givenness (or revelation) prior to the ontological difference is an attenuated, formalized structure. Consequently, Graves sees Marion’s attempt to move beyond Heidegger’s ontological difference as something ultimately still beholden to it, insofar as Marion falls prey to the same problem of counter-contamination:

Our thesis regarding Marion remains structurally analogous to the one we advanced in the preceding chapter: Like Heidegger, Marion’s effort to overcome charges of theological contamination leads him to adopt a strategy whereby revelation is divested of its material content. The process of “hollowing out” revelation leads to a merely formal conception of revelation—one that is essentially devoid of any reference to the historical, linguistic, and textual richness of revelation in its religious or theological acceptations. Rather than describing this procedure in terms of a divestment or “hollowing out,” Marion portrays it in terms of a purification of revelation—that is, in terms of a reduction to the “pure” call or the call as such (i.e., revelation) (107).

To be sure, Marion’s claim that “revelation (as gift) proceeds, founds, delivers, brings into play both beings and being itself” (105) invites the objection that this apparent recourse to revealed theology violates the neutrality of phenomenological method. However, Graves is interested in a different objection that others have not made. As he notes, what Marion terms the gift (or the call) is “materially indeterminate” (198). The indeterminateness arises, says Graves, due to the phenomenological method Marion develops in the course of sketching the saturated phenomenon. “Marion insists it is possible,” says Graves, “to provide a strictly phenomenological articulation of it, under the rubric of the saturated phenomenon par excellence—revelation” (108). But this phenomenon—the call, the gift, or revelation, must remain essentially indeterminate and anonymous, claims Marion. This means that those who allege Marion’s phenomenology is crypto-theology have missed the crucial point. This common criticism, which accuses Marion of identifying God as the caller, is in fact prohibited by Marion’s own philosophical analysis in works such as Reduction and Givenness. As Graves reminds us, the call in Marion “is ‘pure’ insofar as the caller remains undetermined; but this lack of determination is a highly ambiguous one” (116). The real objection against Marion, then, says Graves, is not that Marion defines the call theologically (for Marion does not), but that he renders it indeterminate. But if Marion’s account of revelation renders Revelation itself indeterminate, then as with Heidegger, we have another instance of counter-contamination.

It is unsurprising that counter-contamination should occur here, since it is generally committed in the course of defending oneself against the charge of theological contamination or of holding theological biases (115). Heidegger had done so in the 1920s when developing his existential analytic, and here Marion has as well. As Graves summarizes, “While Marion had previously characterized the task of phenomenology as offering a mere description of revelation as possibility, toward the end of Being Given it begins to sound as if Revelation (as event) is only ever given in actuality to the phenomenologist, to the one who rigorously avoids naming it, the one who is willing to live with the indecision of the gift” (117). Part of the indeterminacy Graves highlights is traceable to Marion’s radical approach to language. Marion clears the path for a pure form of a call which remains “entirely anonymous and indeterminate, since the call reaches the subject before the subject can wield any concept, horizon, or names that might serve to delimit the call, or give it a particular determination” (114). The fundamental problem facing Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, thus, is not the potential intrusion of theological presuppositions or contents, but rather a philosophical bias, which in the name of maintaining rigor and neutrality, distorts the actual givenness of Revelation. As Graves says, what results is an “attenuated conception of Revelation” (115). In an effort to defend the methodological rigor of his analysis, Marion misconstrues the religious phenomenon itself (115). Such is Graves’s claim.

It is worth revisiting Marion’s distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual). For Marion, Revelation is thought in terms of its form rather than its content—as Graves says, it is “construed formally precisely because it refuses any determinant content” (118). But the status of this indeterminateness is ambiguous. Revelation might be said to be so, because it remains at the level of a sheer possibility, a formal possibility (122). In this respect, it is indeterminate insofar as the phenomenologist makes no decision about whether the phenomenon has actually taken place. Marion defends the philosophical legitimacy of his analysis of revelation on the grounds that it holds such determination, designation, or denomination in suspense (122). The philosophical rigor of the analysis is said to be safeguarded by bracketing the question about the actuality of revelation (122). However, Graves notes a further potential kind of indeterminacy. In addition to the formal (or methodological) indeterminacy just noted is another type, “material” indeterminacy:

Marion’s work suggests another kind of indeterminacy, one that belongs to the content or material of the phenomenon itself. Here, the actual content remains indeterminate precisely because this content exceeds or overwhelms all signification and concepts—in short, all efforts to comprehend it, to say it, or to give it a linguistic articulation. We might call this material-indeterminacy since it refers to that which is materially (i.e., actually) given, but given in a way that eludes our (linguistic) understanding of it. That which is given remains indeterminate not because it is non-actual or not-yet-give—as in the case of the formal-indeterminacy—but because this actuality frustrates and exceeds every attempt to pin it down, to make determinations, and to describe its contents. Whereas formal-indeterminacy clearly pertains to revelation (as possibility), material-indeterminacy belongs to Revelation (as actually given)—and thus, it would make no sense to speak of the formal-indeterminacy of Revelation or the material-indeterminacy of revelation (123).

When Marion speaks of a pure givenness or a pure call, which type of indeterminacy does he mean—formal or material? To determine or name the call would involve a theological interpretation which would violate Marion’s own phenomenological description. Under pressure to justify his phenomenological approach on strictly philosophical grounds, Marion has subjected the phenomenon of Revelation to a process of counter-contamination in his work (125). The resulting material indeterminacy of Revelation is related to Marion’s related handling of language and hermeneutics, Graves claims. For has not Marion in effect extricated Revelation from its proper textual-linguistic milieu? (125). In Graves’s estimation, the saturated phenomenon renders any hermeneutic interpretation of it an afterthought, as an activity that works upon an already given phenomenon (126). This is because Marion operates on the assumption that the success of his phenomenology of givenness depends upon a radical suspension of the subject’s capacity to constitute, conceptualize, or name the given (127). In the name of liberating the phenomenon from metaphysics (and hence the conditions of possibility of the transcendental subject), Revelation is left lacking any determinate material content. For although it is true that Marion will insist the saturated phenomenon necessitates an “endless hermeneutic” on the part of the recipient, this is ultimately because no set of finite concepts will ever prove sufficient or adequate to it. In the last analysis, Graves concludes that Marion’s phenomenology of revelation fails to describe Revelation. The decision to formulate the merely formal possibility of revelation, without presupposing an actual event of determinate Revelation, entails that the actual event of Revelation itself is left indeterminate (143). On the one hand, Marion seems to want to insist that linguistic determinations always originate on the side of the finite subject (in his or her effort to interpret the indeterminate given).  On the other hand, he wants to say that the finite subject is constituted by (or receives itself from) the given itself.  In Graves’s view, this presents a problem concerning how to account for determinacy in the first place.

At last, we come to Ricœur, whose approach to revelation is the one Graves most prefers. For it is Ricœur who is said to provide a way forward, by having taken a path that the radical approaches of both Heidegger and Marion did not. It all has to do with language. Contrary to the radical attitude toward linguistic mediation which maintains that any given phenomenon will require interpretation (and hence an imposition on what is fundamentally in itself indeterminate), Ricœur’s hermeneutic approach stresses that all phenomena are always already interpreted. Language is no longer regarded as an inert medium which simply mediates what has already been given by superimposing its determinateness upon it, but rather as a genuine source of revelation in its own right (133). Rather than language obstructing or occluding revelation, revelation takes place in language. For, according to Graves, it is Ricœur who rightly acknowledges that the given is always already linguistically determined (not pure).

This promise of language to resolve the problems of formalization/attenuation, ontic contamination, and counter-contamination besetting the radical approach has gone unnoticed, says Graves, because until recently, Ricœur’s work had been largely overlooked within the secondary literature on the theological turn. For whereas Marion under the threat of ontic contamination—like Heidegger before him—wound up advancing a purely formal figure of Revelation, one that is said to precede any possible description, designation, or act of naming, and one that is therefore anterior to linguistic expression and textual mediation (146), Ricœur instead treats language as the originary site of revelation. For him, revelation involves a transformation of the self during the course of reading or interpreting concrete texts—specifically texts that are deemed sacred (147). To the extent there is an indeterminacy at work in revelation, it has less to do with a prior, pre-linguistic givenness than with an over-determinacy rooted in the domain of language itself (147). The saturation does not reside in an “originary” domain beyond the ken of language and the concept, but in the superabundance of meaning within the text itself.

Ricœur’s discussion of the relationship between phenomenology and hermeneutics does not begin with Heidegger, nor even with Husserl, but rather with a consideration of the epistemological problems that plagued nineteenth-century hermeneutic theory and, specifically, those relation to issues within the Geisteswissenschaft (150). Dilthey, for instance, believed that the primary challenge was to show hermeneutics possessed a methodology that could compete with the natural sciences—a methodology “which could be held together on the basis of a coherent theory of understanding” (150). This required that the diverse procedures of classical hermeneutics such as classical philology and biblical exegesis be subordinated to a more general, unified theory of historical knowledge (150). Ricœur contends that Dilthey’s attempt to describe this process left his hermeneutic theory “forever oscillating between a desire for a general theory of historical knowledge, on the one hand, and a Lebensphilosophie rooted in a regional psychological paradigm, on the other” (151-52). Ricœur notes that if hermeneutics should not be understood in terms of the search for the psychological intentions of the author concealed behind the text, and if it not to be reduced to interpretation designed to the dismantling of the text’s structures, then what remains to be interpreted? (155-56). As Graves says, Ricœur’s answer is the “world of the text”—no textual discourse is so fictional that it does not connect up with reality (157). The world of the text is irreducible to the mental life of its author or to the immanent structure of the work itself (156). The text, hence, opens the pathway to revelation. After all, if revelation is an encounter with the divine which somehow “transcends, shatters, or pierces through the humdrum of everyday reality,” then the text is the most appropriate site for such an encounter (158). For Marion, language and concepts are viewed as a kind of filament imposed upon the given. But for Ricœur, the given is always already linguistic in character (179). The latter’s notion of revelation as the revelation of the world of the text consequently weaves together a hermeneutic theory of textual mediation and a phenomenological theory of being-in-the-world. This avoids the problem of counter-contamination. But in doing so, there is another potential problem.

In characterizing the world of the text as he does, has not Ricœur destroyed any basis for distinguishing sacred texts from secular texts? If every literary or poetic text possesses the power to carry one beyond the everyday world of manipulable objects, what is unique about the Bible? (159). The standard answer is to appeal to inspiration. In the case of a revealed text, there is said to be a double authorship, insofar as God is behind the voice of its human author. However, because Ricœur strongly rejects this conception of revelation as inspiration (166), the problem of distinguishing a sacred from secular text remains. While Ricœur’s hermeneutic theory of revelation represents a gain, insofar as it avoids the pitfalls of psychologism or subjectivism, how is one to know it is God speaking in the text? (170) Here, the temptation would be to appeal to some originary or fundamental phenomenon said to lie behind or beyond the text, yet Ricœur has expressly ruled out that option.

This all comes to a head in Ricœur’s own example of the phenomenon of conscience. As Graves explains, Ricœur’s “long route” differs from Heidegger. Whereas Heidegger’s ontological project entailed a logic of presupposition in which phenomenology would be autonomous from the positive sciences, Ricœur insists on maintaining a creative tension between ontology and the so-called ontico-positive sciences (177). In principle, this would seem to allow Ricœur to avail himself of theology in ways that Heidegger cannot. This would be important, because no matter how long the route one takes, any phenomenological account must eventually face the question of how it is to name the phenomenon that has encountered it. In the case of conscience, Ricœur notes the peculiar modality of otherness belonging to it: its “voice” seems to be coming from another. This is the phenomenon’s enigma: its call issues both from within me and beyond and above me (182). Contrary, however, to what one might expect, here Ricœur, like Heidegger, claims what or who exactly the other is cannot be determined (182), and thus he bars any straightforward identification between God and the call of conscience even at the level of a theology (183). For even Ricœur, the problem of revelation (at least insofar as it concerns the phenomenon of conscience) ends in indeterminacy. As Graves notes, however, setting the particularity of conscience aside, the hermeneutic approach to revelation generally maintains the possibility that the call is already named, that revelation is already determined by the historical, cultural, and textual conditions through which one encounters it.

This has been a very long review. However, in digging into the details to the extent I have, I have still only scratched the surface of what Graves’s book contains. Let me conclude with some final comments regarding the questions that remain to be answered in light of the new ground broken by Graves in his excellent study. As someone sympathetic to radical phenomenology myself, I can say that Graves has developed a number of very important, and compelling, challenges to Heidegger and Marion. In response, I wonder whether turning to Michel Henry might go some way to addressing those problems. This is certainly an odd suggestion, I recognize, as one might think that whatever problems beset Marion’s radical phenomenology are likely to even more so plague Henry’s own. This is because Henry is far more dismissive than Marion of the need of hermeneutical interpretation and textual mediation for revelation. For Henry, there is no call or response structure said to be at work—the revelation of Christ is immediate, ineffable, and unavoidable within the interiority of life. In Marion’s case, Graves correctly emphasizes that the distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual) leads to the problems of counter-contamination and material indeterminacy. Graves attributes both of these to Marion’s conception of the relation between language and revelation, a view which implies that language does little more than impose meaning on a phenomenon which forever defies any such imposition. In short, the claim is that Marion’s attempt to accommodate the need for hermeneutic interpretation of the saturated phenomenon ultimately fails, because the given itself is always inherently indeterminate, and indeterminate because it is thought to be non-linguistic. In his most recent work, however, Marion has arguably taken a different approach. In D’Ailleurs, la révélation, he assigns a central role to the parable—according to Marion, the revelation that takes place through the words of Christ in the form of parables is a distinctly linguistic phenomenon. The parabolic discourses first disclose a mystery, which is in turn resolved by those who have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see.” It would be interesting to hear from Graves about the extent to which, if at all, he thinks Marion’s analysis of the parable (and in turn the Trinity) addresses the previous problem of Revelation’s material indeterminacy.5 For with the parable, initially Revelation proves mysterious, yet ultimately determinate—Christ reveals himself to be the Son of God.

Of course, Marion’s employment of the parables will elicit the familiar objection that he is guilty after all of doing theology rather than phenomenology, but this is fine, if one thinks, as Graves does, that the ideal of philosophical rigor guiding such an objection, one that had previously led Marion to insist upon the distinction between revelation (as possibility) and Revelation (as actual), is not worth preserving. The question Marion asks in light of the mystery put forth by the parable is a good one: why do some of those who encounter these words of Christ recognize him to be the Son of God, while others do not? Notice that the problem of revelation here is not only linguistic—the problem is not whether one knows (or how one knows that one knows) that the Bible is indeed the word of God. The problem, therefore, is not limited simply to those who encounter the parables in the context of what Ricœur says is considered to be a sacred text by believers. For the problem was already salient for those said to have been directly contemporaneous to Christ. While the problem of revelation is perhaps further complicated by textual mediation, this later complication is only derivative of the more primary problem, one which confronted those who encountered Christ face to face just as much as it does anyone today. If Graves opens his study by recounting the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critiques of revelation, here it is fitting to mention two figures who sought to defend it: Hamann and Kierkegaard. For Hamann and Kierkegaard, when read in the spirit of Christ, Scripture will address one as the word of God, and the inspired status of its meaning, which is otherwise veiled, becomes accessible. If one fails to do so, no revelation takes place. How, then, does one know it is God speaking in and through the text? Ultimately, it is not possible to demonstrate this to others, nor to deduce it by discursive reason, historical evidence, or any other such public criterion. This is because, even in the case of a revelation that would appear to be mediated linguistically, it is the Word who speaks. This was Henry’s point, and I think it is an unavoidable one, no matter how long a hermeneutic route Ricœur or others first travel in order to finally work up to it. Although it causes philosophical offense, radical phenomenology, I think, is right to insist that revelation always requires a salto mortale.6   

1 One should also mention the recent publication of another text in this same vein, Joseph Rivera’s Phenomenology and the Horizon of Experience: Spiritual Themes in Henry, Marion, and Lacoste (London: Routledge, 2022).

2 Such was the conclusion F. H. Jacobi drew amid the pantheism controversy. It was he who introduced the term “nihilism” into the philosophical lexicon.

3 To speak of a single Enlightenment, as if it were one unified intellectual and geographical movement, would be an oversimplification. There were French, German, Scottish, and English Enlightenments. And although today we tend to treat Enlightenment and deliberate secularization as synonymous, in the case of the seventeenth-century English Enlightenment, at least, disputes regarding the relationship between reason and faith originated within a religious milieu seeking to clarify the so-called “rule of faith”: whether it was the church, Scripture, or inspiration possessing the last word on what constituted religious truth. There was hope reason might adjudicate the issue. That the elevation of reason for this specific purpose would precipitate the broader atheistic and secularist developments it later did was something the Great Tewmen or Cambridge Platonists did not foresee or intend. See Frederick C. Beiser, The Sovereignty of Reason: The Defense of Rationality in the Early English Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

4 For an excellent examination of the way in which Heidegger attempts to formulate a phenomenological method successfully navigating the danger of theological “contamination,” see Ryan Coyne’s Heidegger’s Confessions: The Remains of Saint Augustine in Being and Time and Beyond (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Tarek R. Dika has argued that this attempt of Heidegger’s ultimately fails; the theological content of the existential analytic’s fundamental categories is ineliminable, Dika argues. See “Finitude, Phenomenology, and Theology in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit.” Harvard Theological Review 110 (4) 2017: 476–494.

5 Although some of the material in question was already available in other sources, such as his 2014 “Givenness and Revelation” Gifford Lectures, D’Ailleurs, la révélation itself only appeared in print after Graves had completed his own study. For a discussion of the way in which the parable is said to accomplish Revelation, see Marion, D’Ailleurs, la révélation (Paris: Grasset, 2020), 336-51. An English translation of D’Ailleurs is currently in preparation by Stephanie Rumpza and Stephen E. Lewis.

6 I would like to thank Adam Graves for extending me the invitation to write this review.

Robert Sokolowski: Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology

Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology Book Cover Pictures, Quotations, Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology
Robert Sokolowski
Catholic University of America Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by:  Chad Engelland (The University of Dallas)

The fourteen essays in this volume are exercises in what the author terms “applied phenomenology” (ix) in contrast to the formal analyses found in his Presence and Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being. The aim of both volumes is to recover the question of being by reclaiming the truth of appearances.

The essays in this book are attempts to describe various ways in which things can appear: as pictured, quoted, measured, distinguished, explained, meant, and referred to, and also as coming to light in moral conduct. The description of each of these forms is made more vivid and exact by being placed alongside the descriptions of the others. And because appearance always involves that which appears and the one to whom it appears, my essays are meant to be not only an analysis of appearance but also a venture into the question of being and a clarification of what we are. (xiii)

The fourteen essays, arranged in six parts, cover central topics of interest to students and specialists in phenomenology, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and ethics. Sokolowski exercises a sovereign philosophical voice that plainly and without fuss lays bare the being of things—and in doing so infectiously invites us to do the same.

In the first part on representations in image and in speech, Sokolowski explores ways of referring to absent things as well as to beliefs other than our own. Picturing requires a unique intentional relation that makes present something that is absent. Naming, by contrast, targets something whether present or absent without making it present in any way. Quoting allows us to target things as intended by others so that we can toggle between our own present articulation of things and those of others without, however, necessarily adopting others’ views as our own.

In the second part on coping with intelligibility, Sokolowski reflects on the explanatory power of strategically distinguishing one thing from another: making sense is not principally a matter of argument or dialectic; it is principally a matter of elucidation by identification with the appropriate kind. For example, pictures are other than quotations and sense is other than reference.

In the third part, Sokolowski details the part-whole structure of time and space and considers themes that arise in the ambit of science concerning the intentionality of timing and of measurement. He also includes a rewarding essay on the relation between the complex world in which we live and the exact one arrived at through the idealizations of science.

In the fourth part, Sokolowski turns explicitly to the philosophy of language and develops, in a phenomenological voice, the difference between sense and reference. He argues that we should “exorcise concepts” as nothing more than a baleful prejudice that, while explaining nothing, generates a host of intractable pseudo-problems. Philosophy’s habitual appeal to concepts comes from a continual failure of nerve, a continual failure to realize that we can and do refer to absent things without the mediation of some sort of present mental entity; in fact, the positing of such an entity is a matter of falling prey to what Sokolowski calls a “transcendental mirage,” a matter of thinking something is there when it is not. Instead, we can handle everything about the phenomenon of language by positing a speaker, speaking about something, to someone. The speaker presents something to someone by means of a “slant” on things. Positing concepts undermines the intentional relation to things; slant-talk reestablishes the fact that speaking is at bottom an issue of the presentation of something to someone. Sokolowski’s analysis of referring nicely displays the advantages of the phenomenological method for exploring the intentionality of naming; it defends both the integrity of ordinary ways of reference and the value of philosophical idealizations of the sort operative in mathematical logic.

In the fifth part, Sokolowski attends to the part-whole structure of sentences and images. Grammar signals not only the thoughtful activity of the speaker but also the need for the listener to undertake the same activity to achieve understanding. Despite a surface similarity between words and pictures, they present things with different conditions of satisfaction.

In the sixth and final part, Sokolowski presents a phenomenology of ethical performance, which develops themes from his Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study. Abstraction stands in the way of moral understanding, which is by nature embodied in the very behavior of morally good agents: “To be able to respond to the natural law—indeed to let it become actual as law, to show by one’s actions what can be done, and thus to make others see what should be done—is to be a certain kind of person: not one who simply conforms to things set down, but one who lets the good appear, to himself and to others, in what he does” (291).

With Sokolowski, the practice of philosophy may be fruitfully understood as a matter of explaining or exhibiting intelligibility by means of carefully distinguishing one thing from another, and of doing so for ourselves and each other together. Hypothesized mental entities only gum up our understanding of language and being; exorcising them allows language to spring again to life so that the wonder-inducing operation of presentation and articulation can once again be registered and appreciated. Those who wish to follow concrete paths into the heart of being could not do better than to pick up this illuminating collection. Highly recommended. 

Jerry Z. Muller: Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes Book Cover Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes
Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press
Hardback $39.95 / £30.00

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Woody Allen’s 1983 movie Zelig portrays an individual with an uncanny ability to adapt to his environment to the point that, like a chameleon, he transforms and becomes one with his surroundings. Examined by a psychiatrist, he declares himself a psychiatrist and starts using psychoanalytic terms. In the company of Irish customers in a bar during St. Patrick’s Day, his physiognomy changes, and he becomes Irish. But he is neither a psychiatrist nor Irish.

To some extent, this biography of Jacob Taubes (1923-1987), rabbi, philosopher of Judaism, and sociologist of religion who wandered from Vienna to Zurich, from Zurich to New York, Jerusalem, and Berlin, who cultivated close links with scholars both from the left and from the right, reads like the history of the Zelig character, never totally to ease with his milieu.

To disclose the secret of this enigmatic character and to paint a rich picture of his times is the aim of this book, six hundred pages strong, which documents Taubes’ life and works in exquisite detail. Muller worked on published books —including Taubes’ first wife’s penned Divorcing— archival materials and dozens of interviews with Taubes’ friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Muller mentions that he spent over ten years researching Taubes, trying to unveil the secret of his Zelig. This undertaking may raise some eyebrows, as Taubes’ contribution to scholarship is scarce, and some, including Muller, consider it derivative. When he died in 1987, Taubes left behind one book, published forty years earlier, and papers, book chapters, and reviews from the later fifties and early sixties of the last century. It fell to Muller to balance Taubes’ many personal failings, both as an individual and as a scholar, with his contributions to the study of apocalyptic religion as a form of social criticism. To some extent, Muller performs this balancing act by invoking Taubes’ less than stellar mental health, which in his late years exploded into full-blown clinical depression. It begs the question of why Muller, skeptical of the contents of Taubes’ ideas, invested ten years in writing Taubes’ intellectual biography. At least part of the answer can be found in the credits and acknowledgment section at the book’s end. Muller mentions there having met Taubes in Jerusalem. Muller was at that time looking for a subject to write his Ph.D. thesis. He was interested in processes of radicalization and de-radicalization of intellectuals, particularly of a group of New York intellectuals who had espoused leftist views but eventually became hard-core members of the neoconservative movement. Muller finally dropped the subject, writing a thesis on the case of sociologist Hans Freyer and his transition from Nazi sympathizer to liberal democrat. His approach, in this case, seems similar.

Muller’s account is thorough and starts with a portrait of Taubes’ family, which traced their roots to Talmudic scholars and Hassidic rabbis on both sides of the family. Taubes’ father, Zwi Taubes, was an orthodox rabbi, but his education also included secular studies. Taubes’ mother trained as a teacher of Judaic subjects. Muller takes time to explain the differences and nuances between traditional and the different streams of modern Jewish orthodox education. Finally, he refers to Zwi Taube’s main teachers and hints at some continuity between their teachings and Jacob Taubes’ lifelong fascination with early Christianity.

Jacob Taubes started his Jewish education early at home and later at a school that integrated secular and Jewish subjects. With his family, he left Vienna months before the Anschluss for Zurich, where his father took over the spiritual direction of a synagogue. There Taubes attended university while pursuing studies of Talmud and Jewish law at home and with private tutors. He also spends a period at Montreux’s yeshiva. He qualified, eventually, as a rabbi and teacher. In 1947 he also completed the requirements for a doctorate under the direction of sociologist René König. His thesis became the first and only book he published in his life, Occidental Eschatology. Occidental Eschatology grew from an interest in Marxism and religion; it “created a usable past for contemporary radicals, for religious folks inclined towards radicalism” (71). Muller traces the origins of Occidental Eschatology to a paper that Taubes wrote for René König’s seminar on “Karl Marx’s Justification of Socialism”.  Taubes claimed that the appeal of Marx’s doctrine was not its professed scientific claims but irrational longings. Unless we postulate a divine plan for the world leading to harmony, the mere development of the productive forces does not justify the triumph of harmony rather than meaninglessness or anarchy. The pathos of Marxism rests upon a theory of human salvation and the messianic vocation of the proletariat (72).

Occidental Eschatology takes these ideas and develops them further. Taubes’ work shows the influence of, among others, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar’s theses about the importance of apocalypticism in Christianity’s history and the teachings’ role of Joachim de Fiore in the secularization of eschatological thinking. According to Muller, Taubes was also influenced by Karl Löwith’s book, From Hegel to Nietzsche, and Hans Jonas’ book on Gnosticism. Taubes borrowed extensively from both. Muller also founds influences from Heidegger’s On the Essence of Truth. Ultimately, Muller concludes that the aspirations of the work exceeded its execution (75-6).

  The next chapter in our story deals with Taubes’ move to America. Taubes was able to get an invitation to pursue post-doctoral studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), which he attended between 1947-49. There he was tutored in Talmud by Saul Lieberman and in the thought of Maimonides by Leo Strauss. JTS’s mission was to educate and ordain rabbis subscribing to the Conservative movement’s beliefs. But Taubes was not interested in becoming a rabbi. Eventually, he was offered to continue postdoctoral studies in Jerusalem under the supervision of the Kabballah scholar Gershom Scholem.

Jerusalem was the background for the first of the many crises that would punctuate the life of Taubes. Taubes and Scholem had a falling apart. Scholem accused Taubes of having revealed to another student information that Scholem had shared with Taubes in confidence. The story is well known and has been told before. What is new is that Muller shows that the break between Scholem and Taubes was not as complete as it was previously understood to be (173-179; 322-323). We will see below how the personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem spills over to a conflict about how to interpret the legacy of Walter Benjamin.

Taubes returned to the USA, managing after a while to secure appointments first in Princeton and later in Columbia. In terms of publications, this period was the most productive in his intellectual life. It was also a period of intensive networking that put Taubes in touch with a generation of young Jewish New Yorker intellectuals. For example, Muller refers to a Passover seder at the Taubes’ home in 1955, attended by Susan Sontag, Phillip Rieff, Stanley Cavell, Herbert Marcuse, and the Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, an occasion that Cavell and Stendahl recalled half a century later. But immediately, Muller adds that some suspected that such performances were a show and that there was no real faith and commitment (226-7). Muller also quotes from a letter written by sociologist Daniel Bell to his wife, describing an encounter with Susan and Jacob Taubes. Bell writes that the Taubes couple was full of interesting talk, but they seemed to lack “a sense of the concrete” (227). The letter that Muller quotes show the gap in their political positions, with some of the arguments presented by Jacob Taubes referring to the ideas developed in Occidental Eschatology. While Taubes referred to the political potential of the eschatological dimension of religion, Bell worried about the risks of false messianism. To this, Jacob Taubes seems to have answered: “When you believe in prophecy, you run the risk of false prophets” (228). Apparently, Bell did not think highly of Taubes. Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt concurred in their evaluation (228). But among senior scholars, he gathered enough support to get an assistant professor position to teach History and Sociology of Religion at one of the best Universities in the USA. Muller accessed the records of the ad-hoc nominating committee, and he presents an impressive list of scholars who, in general, supported Taubes’ candidature, though they were some reservations. Muller explains the novelty of the academic study of religion, which was controversial at that time. In Columbia, Religion was granted the status of a department only in 1961. At the time of Taubes’ hiring, it lacked a well-defined undergraduate curriculum, and its graduate program lacked a unifying principle. This suited Taubes fine. His courses dealt with 19th and 20th thinkers that were not taught in Columbia mainly because they fell out of the disciplines as they were then defined. Characteristically, the chapter dealing with Taubes’ Columbia years is titled “The merchant of ideas.” A later chapter, this one dealing with his work in Germany, has the title “impresario of Theory.” A provisory title for the book was, apparently, “Jacob Taubes: Merchant of Ideas and Apostle of Transgression” (according to a CV dated 2019).

Muller emphasizes the role of Taubes as a ‘merchant of ideas’ rather than an original thinker or a profound scholar. Muller writes: Taubes knew what was going on in various contexts (241-2). Much of what he knew he learned in conversation. His knowledge was wide but lacked depth. While Muller does not tire of emphasizing the shortcomings of Taubes, he also recognizes that he had a talent for making connections between ideas from different sources and was generous in sharing his knowledge with his friends.  He also had the talent to organize intellectual encounters, of which Muller cites three in Columbia, which were very successful. One was a conference with Martin Buber that led to creating a permanent Colloquy on Religion and Culture. A second project became a forum for Religion and Psychiatry, and a third was a Seminar on Hermeneutics.

Despite these successes, and his good performance as a teacher, Taubes’ felt that his position at Columbia was not strong enough. Besides, his wife Susan was not happy in New York. Starting in 1959, he began looking for a position in Germany. And already in 1961, he was appointed visiting professor at the Berlin Free University (FU). Muller provides abundant information and background on the supporters of Taubes and their moves, on the idea of a chair to study Judaism in the FU, and on the circumstances of the FU itself, in the context of the Cold War. While the position was initially a summer assignment, negotiations were on track for establishing an institute of the Science of Judaism to be directed by Taubes. There were also talks about creating an additional position as head of a Division for Hermeneutics. But initially, he did not commit himself and shuttled between Columbia and FU on alternate semesters. Finally, he obtained an even better deal. The chair was renamed Judaistik (Judaism), and he also added to the title the label “Sociology of Religion”. To add to the exceptionality of the situation, Muller mentions that Taubes was not a German citizen, a prerequisite for a position in a public university in Germany, and he was not required to have a Habilitation, usually conferred after completing a second research project and additional requirements (270).

Chapter nine reviews Taubes’ interlocutors in Berlin and Germany in general. To put it briefly, Taubes was in dialogue with probably most of the leading and would-be leading intellectuals of this period. People like Dieter Henrich, a known specialist in German Idealism, who first learn through Taubes of Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, and Eros and Civilization, and who will visit for the first time the USA with Taubes’ help. He also interacted with Habermas, with whom he shared a position as reader and editor for the influential publisher Suhrkamp. Taubes convinced Peter Unseld, the managing director of Suhrkamp, to publish books that were broadly sociological, covering both American and French authors. The quantity, quality, and variety of books that Taubes managed to recommend for publication led Muller to ask how Taubes related to books. He infers that there is a relationship between his brilliance and a certain superficiality (282-283). Taubes had also close relationship with several other intellectuals, such as Peter Szondi, Gadamer, Eric Voegelin, Ritter, Adorno, etc. All these interactions Muller characterizes as belonging to the realm of merchant or impresario of ideas, not of real scholarship or intellectual communion of ideas.

Of this period, one of the rare publications from Taubes, The intellectuals and the University, is the one he was most proud. Muller refers to the history of this lecture, its previous versions, and contents. To some extent, this lecture parallels Occidental Eschatology, with a broad exploration of the notion of the university and its development in different countries to arrive finally at a diagnosis of the institution and of the intellectual in contemporary society. The diagnostic section parallels Taubes’ Four Ages of Reason (1956, republished 1966). It draws on ideas of the Frankfurt School, though Taubes’ version seems more radical than what was advocated by Horkheimer and Adorno at that time (284-6).

Taubes was interested in movements that were unconventional and transgressive, such as Gnosticism and apocalypticism. And, in a rare coherence of theory and practice, he also had an uncommon relationship with women. Muller lists and depicts some of his love partners, starting with his wife, Susan, whom he divorced and later committed suicide, Margherita von Brentano, who chaired the philosophy department at FU and later quarreled with Taubes, Judith Glatzer, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, and many others. A review of this book by Mark Lilla in the New York Times carried the title “The Man Who Made Thinking Erotic”. While some of his womanizing would be considered predatory by today’s standards, Muller brings many examples in which Taubes seem to have helped and supported many young women in their academic careers.

Chapter ten explores Taube’s activity as a fully committed faculty of FU, starting in 1966. As a teacher at FU, he was appealing to students that were politically engaged, intellectually curious, and disdainful of disciplinary boundaries. But Taubes was not very interested in the routines of academic work. He was not a good advisor for dissertations and habilitations, as he did not lay down clear guidelines to help his students to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time. But Muller acknowledges that this problem was not only Taubes’ but was common among the more charismatic teachers. He was indeed a charismatic teacher, and Muller describes in some detail his presentation mode (310-311). He also taught courses with colleagues that became leading German intellectuals, such as Dieter Henrich, Michael Theunissen, and Rolf Tiedemann (who will edit for Suhrkamp the work of Walter Benjamin). For many of his classes, he relied on his teaching assistants. Apparently, he had a flair for identifying and coopting up-and-coming intellectuals that he integrated into his classes. Taubes’ weakness in his teaching, as in his writing, was the systematic explication of concepts. But his talent for concretizing concepts, for making them seem relevant and vital to his students, was unmatched. He could explain Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety (Angst) in a more vivid way than an expert on Kierkegaard could (312).

One of the Zelig-like characteristics of Taubes was his ability to insinuate himself into different intellectual projects. One example that Muller explores in some detail is Taubes’ participation in the multidisciplinary project Poetik und Hermeneutic, where scholars of literature, philosophy, history, and other disciplines met every two years to explore a topic together. Papers were circulated ahead of the meeting, and they were discussed face to face. The oral presentations were taped, transcribed, edited, and eventually published in a volume. Muller describes the leading participants and their background, which in many cases was very different from Taubes’. Taubes did not contribute but three papers to the colloquium, but his oral participation seemed to have been well received.

Taubes was involved also in another research project, this one focusing on the idea of political theology. Three volumes were published, with introductions by Taubes.

Chapter 11 deals with Taubes and his partner von Brentano’s role in supporting the “new left” movement and the radicalization of the FU’s students in the 1960s. Taubes was not the only one taking the side of the students against the administration and the West Berlin municipality, but apparently, his role was prominent. There is information in the chapter about Taubes’ activities, his invitation to Kojève to lecture in FU on the “End of History”, and the presence of Marcuse, who lectured on the “End of Utopia”. Marcuse is displayed in a photo with Taubes and other intellectuals (342). According to Muller, Taubes sought to influence the student movement and steer its energies away from the more anarchistic tendencies. In a letter to

Hans Robert Jauss, a member of the Poetik und Hermeneutik circle, Taubes wrote: “no stone should be left unturned to save the SDS [the socialist German student union] from the precipitous path of left-wing fascism” (344). At the same time, Taubes and von Brentano were involved in a struggle with other members of the philosophy department around the political orientation of the department.

Chapter 12 covers the period between 1969 to 1975 and is supposed to document the de-radicalization and crisis of Taubes. But a large part of the chapter is devoted to aspects of Taubes’ private life. Late in the chapter we learn about the conflict between Habermas and Taubes (369-372). Muller retraces the complex reaction of Habermas to the SDS and the student movement. Taubes advised Habermas to have a more conciliatory attitude towards the movement’s leaders, advising that Habermas apparently did not follow. Another section in the chapter talks about an indirect connection between Taubes and the founding members of the “Red Army Fraction” terror group, which brought Taubes to the interest of the police (372-373). There is also a section on a counteroffensive of the Professors (373-377).

The section “Deradicalization” starts early on, in 1971, with a story about Taubes’ colleague at FE, Peter Szondi’s suicide. While not likely the reason, it seems that many in FU suspected he was led to take his life by pressure from leftist groups. Taubes himself, who was one of the most active supporters of the activist students among the members of the chaired professors, felt by 1972 that students had become intellectually rigid and dogmatic. He even discouraged Marcuse from visiting again, fearing that he may be boycotted by the activists. There is also information on internal fights in the philosophy department about appointments. Apparently, Taubes was ambivalent, supporting critiques of the increasing influence of the Marxist-oriented candidates and advising colleagues and students to overcome their tendency to sectarianism. In this, Brentano was more radical than Taubes. The remaining section of the chapter deal with family and personal matters: Taube’s divorce from von Brentano and a serious episode of mental crisis that required his hospitalization.

Chapter 13 describes Taubes’ wanderings between Berlin, New York, and Jerusalem and his struggles against his colleagues in the philosophy department who wanted to force him into retirement. Muller chooses to illuminate this period in Taubes’ life through his acrimonious fight against fellow philosopher Michael Landmen (398-408), who was one of his original sponsors when he came to Berlin. During this period also, his association with the publisher Suhrkamp was terminated. One of the reasons, besides his inability to continue to perform his duties because of his mental health, was his insistence that the collection he and Habermas edited in Suhrkamp publish books by right-wing historian Ernst Nolte. Surprisingly, Suhrkamp kept Taubes on its payroll for several years, though not as co-editor of the Theorie library. When he was finally sacked, it was because of Suhrkamp’s financial difficulties.

The years-long personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem played out also regarding their interpretation of Walter Benjamin. As Benjamin became in the 1960s an icon of the left, and as the close friendship that bound both thinkers became known, some of the recognition given to Benjamin transferred to Scholem. Scholem was well known in West Germany in the small circle of specialists in the history of religion and Jewish studies. But with the publication in 1966 of Benjamin’s letters to Scholem, Scholem’s publication of interpretative essays that explored the Jewish dimension of Benjamin’s thought, and particularly with the publication of his memoirs Walter Benjamin: Geschichte einer Freundschaft (1975), and a few years later From Berlin to Jerusalem (1977), contributed to bring the figures of Benjamin and Scholem closer. The interest in Benjamin among the German young intellectuals led to discussions about how to interpret his legacy and how Scholem and Adorno handled the publication of his letters and unpublished manuscripts. Taubes was particularly interested in a few of Benjamin’s writings, including the “Political-Theological Fragment” and the “Theses on The Philosophy of History”, which he explored at a seminar in 1968. Taubes had written a letter to the Suhrkamp publishers objecting to a possible transcription mistake in one of Benjamin’s letters and complaining that Scholem and Adorno had disregarded the importance of Asja Lācis —a communist militant close to Brecht that was Benjamin’s lover at one point— for Benjamin’s intellectual development. Scholem reacted in a letter to Adorno, characterizing Taubes as laden with ressentiment (384).

The last act in the tragedy between Scholem and Taubes took place in 1977 and had to do with Taubes’ proposal to participate in a Festschrift in honor of Scholem, something rejected outright by Scholem. Finally, Taubes participated in a congress in Scholem’s honor in Jerusalem, where he presented a paper entitled “The price of messianism”, which is critical of Scholem’s approach.

Chapter fifteen is dedicated to Taube’s fascination with the ideas of the jurist and unrepentant former Nazi supporter, Carl Schmitt. Taubes was not only interested in Schmitt’s ideas. He also tried and ultimately succeeded in meeting Schmitt face to face. This is a complicated chapter in Taubes’ life, which puzzled friends and acquaintances, and is one of the components of the complicated appeal of his personality. Muller list several grounds for Taubes’ interest in Schmitt. One is Schmitt’s claim that there is an inextricable link between theology and politics. Second, Schmitt’s erudition, his knowledge of intellectual history, and long-forgotten intellectual debates. Third, according to Taubes’ recollections, he turns to Schmitt’s concept of constitutional law to have a better understanding of modern philosophy. Another motivation was understanding how intellectuals of Schmitt’s caliber could have been involved with the Third Reich. But there was also a shared disdain for bourgeois mentality and for liberalism. Finally, Muller finds “another factor, difficult to evaluate but impossible to overlook, was that in many of the circles in which Taubes traveled (though not all), his professed admiration for Schmitt served to scandalize, thus allowing him to engage in an exhibitionist performance as a bad boy” (454). Some of the main lines of the story are well known, as they were published in a small volume published in 1987, and Taubes refers to his relationship with Schmitt in his lectures on Paul, which were published posthumously. Muller adds to the story a portrait of the person who served as an intermediary between Taubes and Schmitt, the radical German nationalist Hans-Dietrich Sander (456-460). Taubes was not the only intellectual to be in touch with Schmitt. Hans Blumenberg, among others, was also corresponding with Schmitt. But probably no major intellectual not identified with the right-wing was making it publicly.

There is another reason for the interest of Taubes in Schmitt, one that probably influenced the future reception of Schmitt among left-wing intellectuals. From Sander, Taubes learned of a supposed connection between Walter Benjamin and Schmitt. Sander shared with Taubes a letter from Benjamin to Schmitt, in which Benjamin claimed to have based his book on the Origins of Baroque Drama on Schmitt’s discussion of the idea of sovereignty. Benjamin also used Schmitt’s idea of the ‘state of exception’ in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History (Thesis 8). However, the role of this expression in Benjamin’s argument is totally different from the one used by Schmitt. After Schmitt’s death, Taubes gave a lecture entitled Carl Schmitt – Apocalyptic Prophet of the Counterrevolution. In his lecture, Taubes discussed Schmitt’s relationship to the Third Reich and a series of anecdotes about Taubes’ encounters with Schmitt’s work, beginning with his student years in Zurich. Muller is quite severe with the content of this lecture, showing several inconsistencies, mistakes, and wild claims.

To a large extent, Taubes’ posthumous fame hangs on the lectures on Paul that he presented shortly before his death. Muller details the process that led to the preparation of the lectures, starting with a lecture in 1986 at a Lutheran research center in Heidelberg on the experience of time, a seminar in Salzburg, and an interview published in a collective published by Suhrkamp. In this intervention, Taubes defended the interpretation that what marked the experience of time of the West is neither time as eternal nor the recurrency of time but an experience of urgency. From Paul, Taubes takes not the theological substance of his teachings but Paul’s emotional stance towards the world. It is the idea that the Kingdom of God is nearby. A few months later, Taubes was invited again to lecture at the Lutheran center. But by the time he had to give his seminar, his health had declined further. He prepared his lectures with the help of Aleida Assmann. She also arranged for the lectures to be taped and transcribed. Besides the framework, Muller provides a general description of the contents and a summary of Taubes’ lectures (488-494). Muller characterizes the lectures as follows: “Taubes had been thinking about Paul since at least the time of his father’s 1940 sermon, which prefigured some of Taubes’s own themes, and he poured into his Heidelberg lectures nuggets of learning and speculation gathered over a lifetime. It was this range of reference that made the lectures an intellectual feast to some but a chore to others. Taubes developed his themes in good part through stories about the figures with whom he had discussed Paul over the course of his life… All of which added an air of exoticism and cosmopolitanism to the presentation. It made for an intellectually sparkling brew” (494).

A final chapter recounts the story of how Jacob Taubes’ legacy was preserved and multiplied in the years after his demise. Muller starts with the obituaries by Aleida and Jan Assmann, which characterized him as a Jewish philosopher, an “Arch Jew, and Primordial-Christian.” In the same newspaper, a second obituary was published by Peter Gäng, Taubes’ last doctoral student, who wrote about the difficulty of classifying Taubes from a political point of view. Muller notes other obituaries, but in his view, the most important one was by Taubes’ old friend Armin Mohler. Mohler, who was well acquainted with Taubes’ life story, mentioned it in his article Susan Taubes’ Divorcing. In Muller’s view, the reference to Divorcing set off a chain reaction that would contribute to the posthumous reputation of both Susan and Jacob (499). That means, again, that it was not what Taubes taught, thought, or wrote that made his posterity but a series of unforeseeable events. With the demise of “really existing socialism,” left-wing intellectuals, such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek, turned to Taubes’ interpretation of Paul as a model for a post-Marxists theory of revolution. Even if Badiou does not mention Taubes directly, the references in his book clearly align with Taubes’ position. Only in one issue did Badiou diverge from Taubes. While Taubes always emphasizes Paul’s Jewish background, Badiou adopts a neo-Marcionite position, claiming that Paul broke completely with the religion of the Hebrew bible (509-10). Agamben’s book on Paul was published two years later, and it was dedicated to Taubes (510-511). Finally, Žižek does not directly quote Taubes but refers to him implicitly raising the issue of Paul in several of his books (511-12). And around this idea, a cottage industry of translations (515-6) and interpretations developed, first in Europe and later in the USA. Muller explains the success of ideas taken from or inspired by Taubes as a symptom of a double crisis. On the one hand, a crisis in the appeal of the Christian faith in large parts of Western Europe, while at the same time, there is a crisis of confidence among the radical and left-wing intelligentsia (512). Muller’s account ignores other reasons for a renewed interest in the intersections between religion and politics, some older, such as liberation theology, and some newer, such as the rise of fundamentalism.

Undoubtedly this is an exceptional book, both by the quality and quantity of the research supporting it and by its lively style. It would be of interest not only for people interested in the life and works of Jacob Taubes but also for those interested in the intellectual life both in the USA and in Germany in the period between the end of WWII and the crumbling of the Berlin wall.

Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, Rodrigo Martini (Eds.): Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism Book Cover Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism
Aaron Jaffe (Anthology Editor), Michael F. Miller (Anthology Editor), Rodrigo Martini (Anthology Editor)
Bloomsbury Academic
ebook $93.60 Hardback $117.00

Reviewed by: Sarvesh Wahie (University of Jena)

Vilém Flusser’s Consciousness in ‘Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism’

Considering the scarceness of Vilém Flusser’s citability, Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism is a much-needed current toward reiterating a Flusserian significance in the contemporary philosophical discourses. The reasons for such a scarcity may vary from diversification of philosophical themes to canonical sympathies in specific disciplines, but all variation ultimately condenses down to a simple thesis of Flusser’s own writing elegance. The epilogue to the Volume rightfully calls this elegance “thinking in freestyle.”[i] One may therefore question: How to approach a freestyle thought along disciplined axes? Spontaneously, two possibilities come to mind: Either reading Flusser’s oeuvre ‘for itself’ or interpreting Flusser ‘through’ other thinkers. The editors or the book, Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, seem to subscribe to a rather agnostic approach where a majority of contributions engage handpicked themes from Flusser’s writings. This neither-nor approach diversifies itself into three meta-sections: ‘Processing Flusser’, ‘Flusser’s Expanded’ Modernism, and ‘Flusser’s Toolkit’. This grounds the overarching thesis of the volume: the collection is understood as a regulating principle between straining Flusser’s speculations on the one end and emanating a specific Modernism on the other end[ii]. With an assortment of short, long, provocative, and specialized essays, each of these sections are oriented toward opening up dialogical spaces between the ever-concretizing disposition of Flusser as a media-theorist and the fresh amplitude of him as a prolific Modernist. Going by this editorial introduction to the book, such an agnostic approach seems to be well suited for Flusser’s own writing style because the departing atmosphere for Flusser is neither philosophy, anthropology, physics and biology nor language, media, information, digitalism, existentialism and translation. Quite the reverse, the atmosphere of departure for Flusser has been text, where philosophy, anthropology, physics, biology, language, media, information, digitalism, existentialism, and translation appear as themes. Therefore, the 2021 published essay-collection on Vilém Flusser in the series Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism is undoubtedly a textual atmosphere of conversation between philosophical and Modernist currents colored in Flusserian inks.

The goal of this essay-collection is not a Flusser hagiography or an introduction of kinds. Thus, as mentioned by the editors, one of the striking features of the volume is to treat Flusser as an event, as opposed to a biographical subject[iii]. This stance immediately sets Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism apart from other books on Flusser such as Rainer Guldin & Gustav Bernanado’s Vilém Flusser, Ein Leben in der Bodenlosigkeit (2017),  Oliver Bidlo’s  Vilém Flusser: Einführung (2008), and Nils Röller & Silvia Wagnermaier’s Absolute Vilém Flusser (2003). Such a contrast translates into a reading of Flusser as an occurrence in the prevalent academic discourses. Specifically, these discourses are situated in the scene of German Media-theory, where Flusser arrived with his philosophy of communication (Kommunikologie) and gained a reputation of a prophetic media-theorist. This situatedness of event Flusser in German media theory is the departing atmosphere for the essay-collection. However, Modernism is also explored along with this situation. This is apparent in the structure of the book in the first two sections. Section one processes Flusser in the German media theoretical situatedness and section two introduces an expanded Flusserian view of Modernism. To put it simply, the essay-collection is an account of German media-theoretical handling of event Flusser as received by researchers in the Anglophone world. Therefore, it can be said, that this essay-collection is meant for a reader that desires to be informed about Flusser research on a transnational paradigm. Conversely, the volume also demands the reader to self-study and be familiar with Flusser’s writings because the essays in the collection rarely clarify Flusserian concepts as they work on a discursive plane with them. This verdict does not hold true for the third section of the book entitled ‘Flusser’s Toolkit’ though. This section is dedicated to explicating Flusserian concepts relevant for this book. Thus, on the structural scheme of things, Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism suggests also an opening to a reader not familiar with Flusser’s writings.

The section, Processing Flusser, opens with an import of Flusserian question ‘Does writing have a future?’ into the present day scenario of machine learning and artificial intelligence. The essay ‘Does AI have a future?’ seeks to locate the prominence of AI in Flusser’s writings and with it to analyze the futures invoked in asking this question. The essay posits Flusser’s prophetic writing tone as a function of the implicit temporality of apparatus like linear writing, images, and programs. Thus, from a vantage point of such temporalities the essay argues, one is able to make a prognosis about a future. In the case of this essay, the future is invoked by dealing with the question, whether AI enhances or destroys a historical future. This historical future is by extension Post-history. As propounded by Flusser, with the advent of programming and computers, history calls for a reconsideration of its values: it can no longer be thought of as unidirectional movement of a subject. On the contrary, multidirectional and multidimensional models must be thought in movement. Certainly, an AI, an automation, can do this job of making multi-directional movement faster than humans would do. But, it is not only linear history at stake, AI can be employed in various walks of life, like garden mowing, making business deals, running economy, and even writing poems. Humans can concentrate on something else then – pain and suffering. Thus, the human paradigm features as uncritically alienated in this essay. However, the confident tone that Flusser always broadcasts in his writings appears at the end of the essay as well. A creative dialogical consciousness is suggested as a feature of post-historical apparatus and therefore it promises a potentiality that can be realized in either direction of total control or total freedom. The ideas played out in this essay also function as debate-openers for the entire first section. The later contributors of the essay-collection touch upon these ideas in myriad capacities.

Take, for instance, the second and third essays. If a creative dialogical consciousness correlates to post-historical apparatuses, then it makes sense to question the design and shape of such apparatuses. This question is discussed with Flusser’s philosophy of design in the second essay of the collection, titled ‘Design/Shape’. Design for Flusser is both, process and projection into the future. The essay is in line with the Flusserian argument, but also introduces a thought that Flusser’s Design philosophy is ultimately a philosophy of language. Of course, language is not design, but is Flusser’s ‘model of all models’ that he uses to design his philosophy. Thus, by virtue of a methodological identicalness language becomes a tool for designing the future. As depicted by the essay this identification results not only in designing objects of use and programs after Auschwitz, but also in projecting a new humanness. With this understanding, the essay touches upon a Modernist point-of-view, by locating Flusser’s Design philosophy in the trajectory of an unfinished modernization from Martin Heidegger through Sigfried Giedion and toward Bruno Latour. However, in the limited scope of the essay, this trajectory is not discussed in detail. Nevertheless, the Flusserian idea of designing objects becomes known: A designed object is an object of use (Gebrauchsgegenstand) as opposed to being an object (Gegenstand) that resists communication. Immediately, one can think of guns as objects of ‘use’. The question of an intentional communication remains unanswered in the thesis portrayed in the essay. This thesis moreover stays as simple as it is. Toward the end of the essay, the very attitudes that design objects of use, except featuring a choice of value creation, remain uncommented on a theoretical plane. The third essay picks up this node of designing communication by engaging in dialogues on the plane of video images. The essay mentions Flusser’s famous video collaboration with the artist Fred Forest in 1972-74, in which Flusser appears in the video, philosophizing and attempting dialogues. This essay is a treat for anyone who desires to get informed about various collaborations that Flusser was a part of with other artists, such as from the Fluxus movement. Flusser shared sympathies for creating a participatory art experience, which would also translate to a creative dialogical consciousness. Thus, “dialogical video” as a term came out of Forest’s collaboration with Flusser. This is opposed to Film because a dialogical video involves a telepresence as evinced by Zoom-Meetings or Skype today. Other than exhibiting the term dialogical video, which in fact was coined by Forest, the essay provides a detailed view of Flusser’s engagement with artists, but shies away from describing a sound theoretical intervention.

In a similar vein, the fourth essay of the collection depicts Flusser’s involvement with the intellectuals in Europe. Specifically, the Ars Electronica Symposium of 1988 in Linz, Austria where media theorists such as Heinz von Foerster, Jean Baudrillard, Freidrich Kittler, Peter Weibel, and Hannes Böhringer each presented their theories. This was an important symposium as far as chalking out contrasts between the perspectives of these theorists is concerned and the essay takes up this job willingly. Staying true to the ethos of the volume, the essay portrays Flusser as an event where perspectives of other theorists intersect. The point of intersection is cybernetics: Flusser perhaps the strongest proponent, Baudrillard the detractor, and others drenched in the cybernetic discourse as shown by the essay. Thus, the essay argues Flusser’s influence in shaping the media theory as one knows it today. It is important to note that this essay also brushes on the questions raised by the first essay of the volume: namely, the creative dialogical consciousness and the post historical apparatus. The essay briefly puts forward the Flusserian concept of gestures as a capacity of impressing information onto objects. This feature brings together, if one wants, the philosophy of design. Since, designing is an activity of processing and projecting, it can be argued that designing memories (also Flusser’s topic at the symposium. In German: Gedächtnisse) at the subatomic level, for instance in computer chips, is an ontology of impressing information onto objects. With this, an undercurrent of modernity comes to the forefront. For Flusser this changes thinking subjects acting on objects by virtue of work to thinking of Projects projecting models/shapes/designs onto objects in order to transform them into objects of use. This is the post historical apparatus, memories to use Flusser’s term, which is programmed by multidirectional designs. To design dialogically or creatively is then to program imaginatively enough to bring about a cybernetics of conversation. For this reason, a programmer for Flusser is no less than an artist, or trickster in his words. In a theoretical discourse of the dialectic between the program and the functionary, Flusser’s theory establishes a sharp contrast because it seeks to theorize the very act of creating a program. However, it is important to note that the act of creating a program cannot be thought of in terms of individual or global for Flusser, because by virtue of its ontological credence designing objects of use is an intersubjective atmosphere. The next essay entitled ‘Flusser in the light of radiation’ explicates this atmosphere with the metaphor of radiation, but still works in the individual and global realms. Not only can programers create computers for communicating between humans and machines, but they can also create self-destructive nuclear weapons. Once again, this essay strikes back with the ethics of programing against the backdrop of Flusser’s essay-series called “Curie’s Children” written for the Artforum magazine from 1986. Apart from interpreting these writings as an apocalyptic warning, the essay introduces Flusserian concept of ‘backlash’ from an unpublished essay that bears the same name. Designing objects of use or tools according to Flusser has the capacity to strike back or backlash at the programer. For instance, the invention of a lever backlashed at the arm to make it function like a lever. Surely, the thesis is contestable, but as a fair warning to a programmer/human, it definitely makes its case. What kind of a human does the post historical radiation enlighten?

‘On being human in the universe of technical images’ is the next essay in the collection that takes up this question and inserts ‘game and play’ as prospective answers.  If one thinks of ‘play’ in general, then Freidrich Schiller promptly comes to mind. ‘Game’ thought in linguistic terms summons Ludwig Wittgenstein. The essay considers both of these traditions, but also briefly discusses Flusser’s other influences in Brazil that affected his thought toward writing Ins Universum der technichen Bilder (1985). The essay argues that in his writings Flusser uses ‘game’ as a noun – to look at an object from non-participatory distance – and he uses ‘play’ as a verb – to emphasize a first-person or an involved perspective. The differentiation between game and play, the essay also suggests, is possible in the English language, which perhaps made Flusser use the capacity to chart out a conceptual difference in a short piece called ‘Games’. In ‘Games’ Flusser seeks to define human existence as Homo ludens, which the essay expertly points out is a Flusserian acknowledgement of Johan Huizinga’s conceptualization. For Flusser, the essay shows, Homo ludens is not only involved in playing, but also the very capacity of play is able to differentiate between the player and the game. This is the link to Schiller, where this differentiation results in an aesthetic experience of humanness. The essay further states that experiencing aesthetics of humanness speaks to Flusser because it is rooted in the phenomenological description from the perspective of the player (first-person perspective). The essay is aware of the boldness of this statement and readily mentions that Schiller wrote in a time where a Husserlian Phenomenology was still a century away. Nevertheless, the essay brings to forefront that in order to understand the experience of playing, Phenomenology is categorically crucial to Flusserian thought. Talking about game, the essay describes Flusser’s piece ‘Games’ in detail and firmly concedes that for Flusser there is no outside of a game, but there are open and closed games. Language, for instance, is an open game because it has no fixed ending and it continues to gain and lose components in its movement of play. Chess, on the other hand, is an example of a closed game, because its scope of elements are fixed and it has a definite end.  A game then, like most Flusserian concepts, relate to a communicative structure of discourses and dialogues among others like philosophy, anthropology, and translation. Thus, a player is always already rooted in myriad games, playing with and against the program of the game. In further sections of the essay, this ontology of play explores possibilities in designing, projecting, and creating alternative worlds digitally, thereby reinstating the atmosphere of post-history where all objects have disappeared “into whirling particles”[iv] and left the human subject isolated. The future then opens to humans as projects, designing alternative worlds in the universe of technical images.

At this point into the reading of the book, one may surely question the coherency of Flusser’s references and influences. Seasoned readers of Flusserian thought already know Flusser’s reluctance on citing or quoting his sources. One may also see that Flusser writes from his own experience or from a first person perspective. This, of course, is not always true. But, on several occasions, Flusser clearly remarks that subjects and objects are extrapolations or abstractions elevated from a field of concrete relations. Does this make a case for Flusser’s phenomenological praxis? “Flusser’s Philosophical Backgrounds,” the next essay in the collection, surely makes a ground for Flusser’s phenomenological orientation. The essay concretely not only mentions Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger as phenomenologists to Flusser’s inspirations, but also contested phenomenologists such as Martin Buber and José Ortega y Gasset. Other than these thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Franz Kafka make for pivotal changes in Flusserian thought as shown by the essay.

Considering the background of the radical contention between media-theory and phenomenology in the German academia[v], reading Flusser as a phenomenologist is a venture doomed to isolation. On the one hand, media theorists have welcomed Flusser prophetically as the deciding element in shaping the future of media theory in general – the Ars Electronica Symposium is a good example in this regard. On the other hand, Flusser has been dubbed as a phenomenographist by key phenomenologists[vi] in Germany. For the context, Phenomenology literally orients itself to the ‘logic of the phenomenon in question and Phenomenography is a mere ‘description’ of any phenomenon. The eighth essay in the collection, ‘Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology’, however responds to this debate and agrees on reading Flusser both as a genuine phenomenologist and as a phenomenographer, but rejects reading Flusser as a media-theorist as half-truth. The essay splits Flusser’s oeuvre into phenomenographic writings such as Gestures and Things and Non-Things and phenomenological writings such as Kommunikologie (communicology). The reasons for this split, as argued by the essay, is Flusser’s inability to break the dialectics of thesis and anti-thesis in order to reach at a universal synthesis. A universal synthesis is claimed by the essay to be prevalent in Flusser’s philosophy of communication. Despite engaging with Flusserian brand of Phenomenology at an intricate level, the essay does not comment of the debate between media theory and phenomenology, where the point of contention is essentially regarding the quality of experience – mediated experience (reading books, watching television, scrolling social media etc.) as opposed to immediate experience (writing books, painting images, programming computers etc.). Flusser, surely talks about both of these experiences. An open question that arises then: What is a phenomenology of mediation?

Ironically enough, playing on post-historical consciousness where it focuses on other things such as pain and suffering, the next essay in the collection invokes Georg W.F. Hegel’s dialectics of an unhappy consciousness into ‘Processing Flusser’. The essay however argues that Flusser posits the figure of a Migrant against the Hegelian unhappy consciousness to overcome the dialectics of losing/finding oneself and finding/losing the world. A migrant, in analysis of the essay, projects herself into the uncertain future openly. The logic of this act is then not to find oneself or the world, but to find home. The essays further quotes Flusser in commenting on Hegel, where he suggests that without a home a self would be unconscious and therefore home (also dwelling in Flusser) is primary to self-consciousness and world-consciousness. Surely, this can be interpreted as being-in-the-world, but the essay does not go along this Heideggerian terrain. Instead, the essay explores Flusserian irony as a gesture of freedom. Irony for Flusser is sort of rising-above contingence and moving away from irony is engaging contingence in order to change it. Both these acts, engagement and disengagement, result in freedom for Flusser. Teleological, if one so desires, irony is itself ironical. The essay further sees potential in this kind of irony as a mode of criticism in a post-historical scenario, because Flusserian irony suggests a free being-in-the-world, which is always already capacitated to critique various determinisms or searches for freedom. A similar point is made again by the next essay entitled ‘Vampyroteuthis infernalis as Media Theory’. For the context, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, originally written in German and published in 1987, is undoubtedly Flusser’s weirdest book. It seeks to describe humanness in mode of a fable by means of an inversion from the perspective of a deep-sea organism called The Vampire Squid from Hell (Vampyroteuthis infernalis). The essay comments on media theories by stating that they must confront their “inner Hegel”[vii] This inner Hegel is another name for determinisms and searches of freedoms. In the scope of the essay, determinisms such as Darwinism are discussed. The Vampire Squid (Vampy) then becomes a metaphor for a new kind or Flusserian media theory where the human project is posited as free and is required to design inter-subjective communicative apparatus. Thus, Flusser’s goal, as interpreted by the essay, is to review mediated immediacy of technology through the fable of Vampy. This translates into reviewing projects like designing a residue-free communication, total coordination in dialogue, and unison in conversations. It is precisely these kind of projects that the essay identifies not only as vampyroteuthic, but also as third kind of super-organisms like de-individualized anthills or swarm of bees. The danger posed then is clear: The movement of technology toward becoming immediate or residue-free. To the essay, this danger is of media-literate super-fascist regimes and in doing so, the essay has transformed the inner Hegel into a super-Hegel. The last essay of the section also echoes this danger with its references to the Covid-19 outbreak in the contemporary world. As such, the questions concerning freedom remain unresolved.

In a nutshell, the first section ‘Processing Flusser’ is more of an unpacking of event Flusser than a processing. Since a plethora of themes is exploded under the common denominator of post-history, a concrete processed Flusser still manages to escape a formal vantage point. Perhaps, providing such a vantage point was not the intention of the section in the first place. Perhaps, all the essays in the section feature as a multidirectional standpoint. Nevertheless, it remains unpacking of event Flusser because at least three mutually exclusive currents can be summarized from the section: media theory, phenomenology, and critical media theory. Media theory and phenomenology already show indifference on the quality of experience and a critical media theory does not speak of phenomenology at all. Hence, these three currents lie unpacked on the table for the reader to decide herself on weaving a process out of them.

On such considerations, a reader not familiar with Flusser’s Philosophy is definitely out of the scope of the volume. The section ‘Flusser’s expanded Modernism’ makes this issue even more complicated. As a Flusserian reader, one is compelled to go back to Flusserian writings in order to make sense of the essays in this section. For instance, both the essays ‘“Naked little spasms of the self ” In search of an authentic gesture in posthistorical times’ and ‘The ‘Pataphysical Span: Alfred Jarry and Vilém Flusser’, work with the Flusserian concept of Gestures and even employ similar quotes from Flusser’s writings to comment on Modernity but miss out on a phenomenological relevance of the theme. Phenomenology as a term is mentioned in various contexts in these two essays, but a theoretical working out of the concept Gesture in attunement with phenomenology is not to be read. Hence, a reader wonders what statements like “a phenomenology of phenomenology”[viii] and “historical stages of phenomenological consciousness”[ix] actually seek to deliver. Partly this confusion is a result of using the English translation of Gestures as the reference text for these essays. In the English version, Gestures (2014) the opening text of the book, where Flusser’s seeks to contrast attunement with gestures in order to define them, ‘attunement’ has been replaced by ‘affect’[x]. In the German version Gesten, Versuch einer Phänomenologie (1991) attunement is called ‚Gestimmtheit‘(a mood, in which a person/thing positions themselves – attunement). The Spanish translation, Los Gestos (1994) uses ‘acordamiento[xi] (accord/agreement). Flusser’s own English variant was ‘sentimentality’[xii]. The translator of the English version mentions Flusser’s variant and also acknowledges that ‘attunement’ has already appeared as a word in translation for German philosophy in English to emphasize the idea of intentionality (directedness of consciousness) in Husserlian Phenomenology. Yet, ‘affect’ is preferred over ‘attunement’, so that it opens the scope of Flusser’s theory across various disciplines and with that, the word is supposed to retain the quality of uniting the internal and external worlds. Of course, the German writing can also not be considered as the so-called original text because Flusser himself wrote the text in French and during the first publication of the book in 1991, it was translated into German with the title ‘Geste und Gestimmtheit. Einübung in die Phänomenologie der Gesten’. Keeping this in mind, it cannot be argued if ‘affect’ as translation of ‘Gestimmtheit’ is correct or not. But, what can be argued is how much the translation affects the relevance of Phenomenology in Flusser’s theory of gestures. In the mentioned essay Flusser argues, Gestures are bodily movements that express an intention[xiii] and goes on to revise the definition by introducing a symbolic communication[xiv] to gestures. Now, if gestures are to express an intention, it is necessary that the mode of expression be attuned to the symbolic intention a gesture communicates. A simple gesture of an eye contact made by a person wearing spectacles can bring out the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘attunement’. If my spectacles merely affect my intention to make an eye contact, it would mean that my glasses affect my eyes in a way that helps me make an eye contact. As such, the affect my glasses have on my eyes link the inner intention of looking the other person into the eyes and the outer objectivity of an eye contact. Phenomenologically, if ‘affect’ is understood as ‘affection’ (Affektion) it would make a direct reference to Husserlian Phenomenology and Gestures would be understood as intentional acts. However, my spectacles do not merely affect my eyes; the affect is encoded in a specific intentionality that lets me see the world according to the strength of my eyes in the first place. This means that my glasses feature the same nature of intentionality that I would be directed toward without glasses (that is if my eyes were not weak) – making an eye contact.  Hence, an attunement, so that my glasses work in accordance with the strength of my eyes, is primary to express an intention in my gesture of an eye contact. If the glasses are not attuned, I must forget about an eye contact because the world would appear in a haze of colors[xv].  Both the mentioned essays in the collection Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism do not engage with this difference of translations and hence spin-off at the tangent of interpreting Flusser’s theory of gestures in the light speculative journalism and negentropic movement in post-history. As such, these essays call for a closer reviewing of Flusser’s concept of Gesture.

On the contrary, the collection also features essays that comment on a phenomenological relevance of Flusser’s philosophy. Take, for instance, the essays titled ‘An Intersubjective Style’, ‘Flusser’s New Weird’, and ‘A Philosophy of Refraction’. Each of these essays not only grounds phenomenology in Flusser’s writings, but also comments on how Modernism can be understood through Flusser’s spectacles. “Flusser understood intersubjectivity to be both the substrate and goal of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology”[xvi], immediately clarifies that Flusser sees the ground of concrete relations as being intersubjective and thereby critiques the technological tendency of media becoming objective. Such a reference speaks volume for the debate if Flusser at all can be considered as phenomenologist. The most controversial work from Flusser, Vampyroteuthis infernalis that has unbearable fixation for the entire volume is also contested to be phenomenological in nature. “The important thing for Flusser is that the cephalopod’s message is intentional: it is preceded by an experience; the creature’s attitude, reaction, or concept of that experience; the desire to transmit that information; and finally the information’s encoding and transmission via chromatophoric inscription on the skin.”[xvii] Of course, from a phenomenological view, it can be argued, if at all ‘other’s’ experience as one’s own can be spoken of when the other is not located in an immediate proximity. Vampy dwells the oceanic depths where an immediate experience for a human phenomenologist is impossible. Nevertheless, the following quotation makes this argument debatable. “Heidegger not only provides some of the conceptual raw material for Flusser’s fable, as it rests heavily on the notion of Dasein, but Flusser also takes up ideas from Heidegger’s metaphysics that address the question of whether or not we, as humans, can transpose our being onto the place of another.”[xviii] On such grounds, cutting into Flusser’s work with phenomenology, may not necessarily prove Flusser to be a “phenomenologist”[xix] but Flusser’s writings can definitely provide a discourse for Phenomenology to consider media technologies in the Lifeworld. Among others, these mentioned essays speak of Husserl, Heidegger, Gasset, and Buber – a valid contribution of the book to the contemporary academic discourse that perhaps results in understanding Flusser’s Modernism.

However, the essay ‘On Synthesis and Synthetic Reality’ argues that the entirety of Flusser’s work cannot simply be called Modernist or Post-Modernist because similar to the contradictions and similarities between the two positions Flusser’s writings feature a self-contradictory style of thinking. This self-contradictory nature has been described by illustrating the concepts of Synthesis and Synthetic reality – both that run through the length of Flusser’s work. Synthesis, close to etymological sense for Flusser, is way of bringing differences and contradictions between various philosophical positions into a kind of amalgamation – a Modernist penchant for unity. Synthetic Reality, according to the essay, first appeared to describe the notion of technical images – a post-Modernist confession toward the artificiality of reality. Both synthesis and synthetic reality imply a mutual-inclusion of Sinngebung[xx] (sense giving) by virtue of Flusserian concept of projecting models onto the world. Thus, the essay argues, Flusser shares a similarity with Slavoj Žižek’s philosophy because both positions describe all reality as virtual. This sets Flusser immediately apart from Jean Baudrillard, for whom reality is hidden by simulation. This notion is again clarified in ‘Surface and Simulation Vilém Flusser and Jean Baudrillard’ in the toolkit section, where Flusser is posited as a phenomenologist as opposed to Baudrillard’s disposition as a post-structuralist. This piece also features Flusser’s direct remark on Baudrillard from an unpublished interview where Flusser holds the concept of simulation for a nonsensical proposition because of the lack of availability of an ontological tool to differentiate simulation from non-simulation. Despite this remark, Flusser agrees on a differentiation between concentricity and abstractness[xxi]. Thus, one may think of concentricity as a Modernist affinity toward unification and abstractness as a post-Modernist assertion of artificiality. Yes, Flusserian thought feature both of these positions, which by extension also bring out the difference between phenomenological concrete relations and media theoretical abstractness.

Conclusively, it can be said that section two and three of Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism make for a more engaged reading of the research on Flusser’s work. Section two, ‘Flusser’s Expanded Modernism’, also illustrates Flusser’s works in literary heritage of Modernism relating it to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne. This has not been discussed in the scope of this review, but as such, they surely open new paradigms of Flusser-research in literary studies. In line with this assertion, the epilogue, ‘Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century’ illustrates five non-disciplinary aspects into uncovering Flusser’s Modernism. The fall of classical Modernism and humanism (Eurocentric) after the Auschwitz, result in ‘No Fatherland’, ‘No Mother Tongue’, ‘Dialogical existence’, ‘Thinking in Freestyle’, and ‘Philosophy in Motion’[xxii]. Taken together with Phenomenology, Media-theory, and Literary studies all these aspects may be seen as the departing atmosphere of an expanded Modernism that the book desires to communicate. Over-simply put, after the fall of classical Modernism, Flusser’s consciousness synthesizes a project of humanity in a Post/Modern synthetic reality.

Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism is definitely a keystone for a scholar who desires to deepen the arc of disciplined and non-disciplined research. Nevertheless, this deepening requires reviewing and self-study of the positions engaged in this book because ultimately the collection is not open to a reader not familiar with Flusserian consciousness.

[i] Siegfried Zielinski. 2021. “Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century”, translation Daniel Raschke. In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 323, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[ii] ———. 2021. “Introduction” In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 9, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[iii] Ibid., 7.

[iv] Nancy Roth. 2021. “Games and Play On Being Human in the Universe of Technical Images”, Ibid,. 64.

[v] Friedrich A. Kittler. “Phänomenologie versus Medienwissenschaft”, Accessed May 20, 2022.

[vi] Andreas Max Ströhl. 2021.” Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology”, In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 79, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[vii] Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. 2021. “Vampyroteuthis Infernalis as Media Theory”, Ibid,. 98.

[viii] Judith Roof. 2021. “The ‘Pataphysical Span Alfred Jarry and Vilém Flusser”, Ibid,.148.

[ix] Ibid,. 146.

[x] Nancy Roth. 2014. “Gestures and Affect the Practice of Phenomenology of Gestures”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 1- 9, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xi] Claudio Gancho. 1994. “Gesto y acordiamento Ejercitación en la fenomenología de los gestos”, In: Vilém Flusser. 1994. “Los Gestos: fenomenología y comunicación”, translated by Claudio Gancho, 7-18, Spain: Herder.

[xii] Nancy Roth. 2014. “Translator’s Notes”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 178, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xiii] Vilém Flusser. 1994. “Geste und Gestimmtheit Einübung in die Phänomenologie der Gesten”, In: Flusser. 1994. “Gesten Versuch einer Phänomenologie”, 7, Germany: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

[xiv] Ibid,. 11.

[xv] See: Die Frage lautet nicht, ob das Darstellen einer Stimmung lügnerisch ist, und noch weniger, ob eine dargestellte Stimmung wahrheitsfähig ist, sondern ob sie den Betrachter berührt.” Ibid,. 14.

See also: “The question is not whether the representation of a state of mind is false, still less whether a represented state of mind has the capacity to be true. Rather, it concerns whether the observer is touched.” In: Nancy Roth. 2014. “Gestures and Affect the Practice of Phenomenology of Gestures”, In: Vilém Flusser. 2014 “Gestures”, translated by Nancy Roth, 6, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

[xvi] Frances McDonald. 2021. “An Intersubjective Style”, In: Understanding Flusser, Understanding Modernism, edited by Aaron Jaffe, Michael F. Miller, and Rodrigo Martini, 123, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.

[xvii] Keith Leslie Johnson. 2021. “Flusser’s New Weird”, Ibid,. 154.

[xviii] David Bering-Porter. 2021. “A Philosophy of Refraction Vilém Flusser’s Speculative Biology and the Study of Paramedia”, Ibid,. 166.

[xix] See: “Without hesitation, Edith Flusser replied that Vilem had always considered himself a phenomenologist more than anything else.” Andreas Max Ströhl. 2021. “Vilém Flusser’s Quasi-Phenomenology”, Ibid,. 77.

[xx] Rainer Guldin. 2021. “On Synthesis and Synthetic Reality Post/Modernism in Flusser’s Thinking”, Ibid,. 199.

[xxi] Thomas Tooley. 2021. “Surface and Simulation Vilém Flusser and Jean Baudrillard”, Ibid,. 300.

[xxii] Siegfried Zielinski. 2021. “Between Languages and Without Discipline: A Twentieth-Century Intellect Drafted for the Twenty-First Century”, translation Daniel Raschke. Ibid. 314 – 328.

Maria Gyemant: Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun

Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun Book Cover Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun
Philosophies contemporaines, n° 14
Maria Gyemant
Classiques Garnier
Paperback 29,00 €

Reviewed by: Rayyan Dabbous (University of Toronto)

Psychoanalysis and phenomenology are the two fruits of the same seed – except different gardeners cared for their roots. That image encapsulates Maria Gyemant’s objective in Husserl and Freud: a common heritage, a book with historical and philosophical relevance.

In this review, I walk you through the author’s main discussions: the psychological theories of 19th century philosophers, the status of the unconscious prior to Freud, the relevance of truth before Husserl, the notion of trauma between psychoanalysis and phenomenology, and whether either two thinkers can fairly be called philosophers.

It is a history of philosophy that is at stake in Maria Gyemant’s account – a history intimately related to the origins of psychoanalysis and phenomenology. In 1900, Europe was simultaneously discussing the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams and that of Logical Investigations. Thanks to Maria Gyemant, we now have a proper explanation as to how the rival creeds that divided the 20th century – psychoanalysts and phenomenologists – have common origins.

I. Freud and Husserl, a question of generation

Maria Gyemant first immerses us in the post-Kantian world to which Freud and Husserl belong. “Since all human thoughts unfold in the psyche of subjects,” she notes of the intellectual rationale of the time, “and since the sciences cannot produce except within mental activity, it is the laws of psychology that govern all other human activities,” (15). The Kantian revolution, at the turn of the nineteenth century, severed the bond between objectivity and subjectivity, and Gyemant populates that century of the fractured ego with a set of characters who wished to pick up the pieces; to re-stitch the link between pure mental life and pure reality.

For example, in the post-Kantian response of Wilhelm Wundt, a predecessor to Freud and Husserl, his objective is not to “be dragged into the excess of its opposite and deal with nothing but the will and emotions, but rather to consider that voluntary and intentional action is the paradigm of all psychical processes,” (23). It is a “dynamic vision of psychic life” that Wundt is promoting, as though the presuppositions of his own processors did not allow that dynamism to occur. We notice a similarly-withdrawn intellectual position in Frantz Brentano who “advocated prioritizing description over explanation,” (24) which is also a way to let the psyche speak for itself; rather than repeat what we wish it to speak. These intellectual positions are fertile from a gender studies angle. Were these two thinkers unwittingly responding to the masculine posture of psychology at the time? Or is it rather against the individualistic ethos of Kant’s philosophy – masculinity and individualism belonging together – that the Wundt-Brentano backlash targets in the field of 19th century psychology?

One would assume, at this point, that the responses of Wundt and Brentano suffice to deliver psychology from its Kantian shackles. Yet it is hard to see where the smoke is coming when   one stands too close to the fire – and indeed Gyemant succinctly shows the reasons that psychoanalysis or phenomenology could come not from the generation born in the 1830s but the one quarter of a century later. Gyemant indeed notes how “according to an idea traced back to Kant, the psychic cannot be the object of science because it is not measurable,” (39). The objective of Wilhelm Wundt would be to “show that psychology can be an exact science.” With this goal, “the objective of Wundt, like Brentano’s, was to banish all forms of metaphysics that postulated the existence of a soul,” (40). Of course the problem arising from this banishment is not the taboo against the soul, but the taboo to discuss metaphysics at all; talking about an invisible unconscious or an all-encompassing phenomenological method included. One could argue that such a taboo remains alive nowadays after the usefulness of exact science triumphed post-Einstein.

Gyemant’s book is insightful because it sees Freud and Husserl not as our contemporaries, us who still dabble in psychoanalysis or phenomenology, but as standalone figures who were part of a lost generation. This generation, more or less, is stuck between the philosophically-informed scientific ambitions of the 1830s generation (Wundt, Brentano, but also Ernst Mach, who thought the ego could not be ‘saved’) and the mathematical geniuses born after the mid 1870s, Einstein among them; the generation that abolished metaphysics (and philosophy) for good when physics became the most exact way to measure the world.

We also notice in Gyemant a marriage between these two generations. A student of Wilhelm Wundt, Moritz Geiger (b. 1880), wrote how “it is impossible to describe emotions when they are lived out,” (48). It would take an astute historian to analyse the use of the word ‘impossible’ around the time of Einstein’s revolution. Yet Husserl’s critique against Geiger meant to focus rather on the possible: he “shows that it is not emotions, but reflection in general, that causes the problem,” (49). This inversion – from the im/possibility of quantifying human emotions to the im/possibility of counting on our human intellect – is not only typical of Husserl and Freud, but also their contemporary Henri Bergson, whose critique of the intellect, and quarrel with Einstein, are well known. In any case, whether with Husserl, Freud, or Bergson, we are facing the limits not of ungraspable nature of human emotions (or the human soul) but the limits of the human intellect.

The subject of time, so central in Bergson’s controversy with Einstein, is also what distinguishes Husserl or Freud from the generations that preceded and followed them. For Gyemant notes how “for Husserl as much for Brentano it is time that creates the necessary distance for introspection, but unlike Brentano’s view, it is not because emotion has passed that it is over,” (52). Bergson held a similar view of time, and though Freud will not go as far in words, the continued liveliness of memories is central to his psychoanalysis.

II. Freud, defending the unconscious

After situating Freud and Husserl in their common intellectual context, Gyemant moves to isolate the psychoanalyst and explore the novelty of his theory of the unconscious. The idea that Freud’s unconscious is not new is an attractive topic for all philosophically-minded students of history, who will find parallels with Nietzsche or Schopenhauer. Freud’s snobbery is well known about this subject – he does not read philosophers, he often repeated. Gyemant’s account, in some way, justifies Freud’s claim of uniqueness. She keenly focuses on Brentano’s rejection of the unconscious, manifest in the following claim: “on the question of whether there exists an unconscious consciousness […] we can therefore respond with a categorical no,” (55). For Brentano, “psychical phenomena are all conscious,” (68).

Between a categorical no and the use of all, we begin to understand the animosity against the underground level of our mind which would vindicate Freud’s snobbery against the philosophers. Wundt, him, would also dismiss the unconscious by “relegating it to the rank of physiological processes,” (79). Or there is worse – Gustav Fechner’s view, that “the unconscious is another name for psychical phenomena that are too weak in intensity to cross the threshold of consciousness.” (80). This dismissal should strike us in the same way philosophers since Freud have downplayed his psychoanalysis. Clearly it is a chief concern of philosophy, to ban the unconscious. Perhaps philosophy itself, to preserve its legitimacy, requires its banishment.

It is one thing to be deemed a heretical philosophy – but a hysterical philosopher! Of course Gyemant rightly shows that it is not the philosophers who are heretics – a kind of philosophical establishment rises in her account, one keen on the motto, ‘all is conscious!’ Here we have strayed from the anti-masculine posture of contenting oneself with the description of phenomena rather than its explanation. Even a concession to masculinity remains masculine! Perhaps the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was right, that it is masculinity itself, diluted or not, that is epistemologically restrictive.

But Gyemant points to one predecessor to Freud who accepted the unconscious: Theodor Lipps. Lipps is not too older than Freud, so he does belong to relatively the same generation, but Gyemant makes sure to note that “before Freud, Lipps said in his conference that the unconscious ‘does not appear as an occasional fact but rather as the general base of psychical life,” (77). This is an important claim to locate because within Freud’s originality lies his insistence that the unconscious is constantly working, namely through how “repression does not happen once and for all but it is must be permanently maintained,” (83).

Gyemant very well pins down the important facet of Freud’s psychoanalysis, whose emphasis on the unconscious, ironically, will be downplayed by future psychoanalysts as Elizabeth Young-Bruehl analyzed in her own works. But Gyemant interestingly shows that Freud still has claim for originality over Lipps, for whom “it is essential to preserve a continuity between the conscious phases and the unconscious phases of psychical processes,” (85). Meaning, there cannot be for Lipps an independent unconscious operating on its own. Freud himself would not be opposed to the idea of continuity between conscious and unconscious, but it is true that there cannot be any psychoanalytic methodology if the unconscious is not given its rightful throne through which it could exercise its powers. In some way, with Freud, there must be an impasse in the psyche, there must remain one road or channel of communication completely blocked between the conscious and the unconscious (otherwise, the unconscious itself would be overthrown).

It may be in Freud’s acquiescence to the unconscious, in giving it a throne of its own, that lies philosophy’s aversion to psychoanalysis, for it is philosophy who ought to be the queen of thinking. In some sense, what Freud was claiming for the unconscious was the right for its own empire. The journey of his unconscious, so long persecuted by philosophy, is therefore not unlike the story of prince Abd al-Rahman, whose family, the ruling Umayyads, were overthrown in Damascus by the Abbasid Revolution. Alone this disinherited prince would flee to the extremity of the rising Abbasid Empire, Spain, to establish his own caliphate. Does psychoanalysis not continue to live in a similar way today, it ruling discretely from Cordoba, whereas philosophy rules the lands and the seas comfortably from Damascus?

III. Husserl, defending truth

After sketching the reasons that lead Freud to assiduously defend his theory of the unconscious, Gyemant moves onto tracing the path that led Husserl to defend truth. That truth needed to be defended at all in the nineteenth century is a complex landscape draw out. Reasons for confusion surely arose when the search for objective facts under the emerging scientism of the time collided with the prevailing individualism of the century. How could we assert that truth existed if everyone – poets, philosophers, peoples – claimed their own? Hannah Arendt, herself affiliated to Husserl through Heidegger, was right when she characterized the nineteenth century as a clash between individualism and collectivism, ego mentality and class mentality.

Husserl, according to Gyemant, is cognizant of that clash between subjectivity and objectivity. She interestingly reminds us his interest in the work of his predecessor Bernard Bolzano, who “concludes that truths must have an existence in themselves, whether they were thought or not,” (91). This is a great quote, because it points us to the those few voices in the early-to-mid nineteenth century (Bolzano was born in 1781) who had to insist against both the prevailing subjectivism and idealism of the time that truth did exist. But would Husserl, through Bolzano, be ushering a return to Platonic Ideas, which have an existence of their own? According to Gyemant, it would be the work of another predecessor, Hermann Lotze (b. 1817), which helped Husserl understand that “while Ideas are not, since only things are, they are also not nothing, they have their own ontological status: a validity,” (93). Thus Husserl synthesized his readings of Bolzano and Lotze to reach the conclusion that “it is not the subjective character of acts that are primary when it comes to knowledge, but the objective character of its truths,” (94).

It is not surprising that philosophically-minded mathematicians at the time wondered whether a square existed. Following another student of Brentano, Alexius Meinong, “some philosophers wished to attribute a certain form of minimal existence to inexistent objects,” (94). We learn thanks to Gyemant that Husserl solves this debate in a very cheeky way: “an “inexistent object is not an object at all,” (98) which might be another way of saying that existence is not necessarily the imperative of objects alone. For sometimes “this projection does not meet its target in the real world,” meaning that for Husserl, “even when there is nothing to refer itself to, there is always, in all acts, an objective content,” (99). All acts have an objective content – that is a provocative thought, because it denies the futility of any action, but also of any thought; and hence it is strange that existentialism, concerned with nothingness, would branch off from Husserl’s own disciples, Heidegger and Jaspers, and from them through Sartre and the French existentialists. That is why I qualified Husserl and Freud as belonging to a lost and lone generation – Gyemant’s account demonstrates how their ideas were as strange and revolutionary to those who preceded them as to those who followed them.

Moreover, Gyemant dwells on Husserl’s notion of ‘filledness’ – and that is reminiscent once again of Bergson, who in Creative Evolution deemed ridiculous that philosophers opposed the whole with nothingness, since according to him that meant to oppose the whole with the whole. We are still here circling around the notion of existence; and how could we not think about Rene Descartes’s I think, therefore I am? Of course both Bergson and Husserl (and Freud, but through a detour) stand opposite of Descartes, since they wish to surpass the ego, the I, and look at existence from a general viewpoint.

But Gyemant rightly paints Husserl as a kind of heir of Descartes, when she singles out one quote from his journal: “I have tasted enough the torments of obscurity, of doubt which comes and go. I must arrive to an intimate assurance,” (107). These two sentences encapsulate the brave journey Descartes embarked on to find a similar assurance; except that while Descartes found himself to exist, it seems Husserl landed upon the existence of everything. By finding that totality existed, truth, that last bastion Husserl wished to defend against the scepticism, romanticism, and idealism of his time, appeared to exist along with it.

IV. The notion of trauma

One of the last and curious inquiries Gyemant wages in her book is the question of trauma. She is very right to square Freud and Husserl against each other on the issue, and frankly this moment in her inquiry is the gem in the crown. Gyemant postulates that “psychical trauma, understood as such, seems radically incompatible with the phenomenological idea of an absolute consciousness, which encompasses all psychical possibilities,” (120). Yet trauma, under Freudian inquiry, is precisely that which escapes the conscious; Gyemant rightly notes that it is that which “is impossible to integrate without bringing with it the collapse of the coherence of our world,” (114). Hence why we repress traumatic events; it is a trade-off which our unconscious brands for the greater good. What should we then make of Husserl’s loyalty to the conscious, to its professed ability to grasp everything, including traumatic events?

The disagreement between Freud and Husserl here is about categories and degrees as Gyemant points out: whereas there is a qualitative difference in Freud, between the conscious and the unconscious; for Husserl, there is only a quantitative difference; there is “never night but always dawn,” that is, “there is no distinction of categories but only a gradual distinction,” (128-129). Admittedly, this is a very poetic difference between Freud and Husserl; because their disagreement is about rupture or continuity, the beginning of sin following the irredeemable departure from Eden or the continued love of God in spite of human fault, the final collapse of a long-standing empire or the refusal of nostalgia for a reign not completely lost.

If anyone brought forth such a distinction to Freud’s ears, it would have been Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose psychoanalysis seems to follow a similar aversion to rupture as Husserl’s phenomenology. Hence the disagreement about trauma is not so much between psychoanalysis and phenomenology as between Freud and Husserl, between the founders of these two disciplines, as though the problem were indeed about the very act of founding something; that the founder must decide on very essential laws to their enterprise.

It is a philosophical question on its own to begin musing over whether Freud or Husserl was right, whether categories should exist or whether changes in degree are not neutral. But I do want to dwell on a very provocative insight that Gyemant draws from the debate. “Shouldn’t we then conclude,” she asks, “that trauma is an experience that is inconceivable unless it is attached to an individual subject, imprisoned in a personal history?” (121). Gyemant is telling us that it is only when feel to be individually ourselves, separate and isolated, that trauma becomes relevant to us; that the I feels traumatized only when there is an I.

Here is a very common example illustrating Gyemant’s argument. Many of us will say, after a breakup with a love partner, that we did not feel the pain that the relationship caused throughout its life. We will say, ‘gosh, this was so toxic, I don’t know why only now I am feeling the pain it caused.’ This common experience reveals that when we are not individuals, when we are with someone, as a twoness, trauma does not knock on our doors; it does not or cannot make itself felt, not even symptomatically. It is only when we regain our individuality that pain begins to make sense to us, both psychically and physiologically.

Where does this push our Husserl-Freud debate? For Gyemant, the subject of trauma “creates a hole in the phenomenological coherence of the transcendental ego,” (123). But does it? I am not sure, and I don’t fault Gyemant for not probing further, because the matter appears to be an intellectual rabbit hole. Yet it is so interesting, and we might need another Freud and another Husserl to settle the debate in outlandish terms; for the next frontier of that debate, clearly, has to do with seemingly mystical notions of the self that neither Freud neither Husserl wished to entertain. And maybe they were right not to go there? Jung did, and the rest was history!

V. Freud, Husserl… philosophers?

The last subject Gyemant entertains in her book concerns Freud’s status as a philosopher. She tells us the Freud’s earliest ambitions, regardless of his later dismissal of philosophers, was a “step toward philosophy,” (139). When I read this sentence, I felt compelled to write in the margin: “or poetry?”. For after reading Gyemant’s book, our view of philosophers is rather poor. Freud and Husserl strike to us as anomalies in their epochs, misunderstood poetic insights, and it is of the ironies of history that we remember them both very well today though we might have better understood them had their works remained in obscurity. Husserl is part of the philosophical canon, Freud to a lesser extent – but what does it mean for their respective revolutions, when their works were finally ‘admitted’ into the academy? Gyemant’s book, after all, is a reminder that we misread them both equally. But at what cost do we wish to rehabilitate the images of these two figures; and does rehabilitation mean to call them philosophers?

It may be loftier, to call them poets! But it is also fairer, for while Husserl is regarded as a philosopher, his thinking defied, like Freud’s, the regal innocence of philosophy; or more generally that of the human intellect. But Gyemant’s hunch at the end of her book is right, that after clarifying our relationship with Freud and Husserl, it is our / their rapport with philosophy that should be made clear. This task, too titanic to embark on, might be more suited to the philosophers themselves, who, if we understand Gyemant well, should be critical of their reliance on Husserl if they dismiss Freud, their loyalty to Freud if they dismiss Husserl.


How often did Freud think of Husserl and Husserl of Freud? That is a question Gyemant rightly chooses to ignore: her book brought them closer together in the same way one reminds two estranged brothers that their origins are common. If Freud and Husserl are deemed irreconcilable, it is because they are in some way brothers; that is, by growing up so close, it was natural for them to grow apart. I salute Gyemant’s effort, because she did not succumb to the lassitude with which we normally distinguish both thinkers; a too intellectual lassitude which we ought to discard, and replace with the childlike confidence that no, sometimes, two things, so seemingly different, are one and the same.

Constantin Noica: The Romanian Sentiment of Being

The Romanian Sentiment of Being Book Cover The Romanian Sentiment of Being
Constantin Noica. Translated by Octavian Gabor and Elena Gabor
punctum books
Paperback $23

Reviewed by: Elena Gabor (Associate Professor of Communication at Bradley University) and Octavian Gabor (Professor of Philosophy at Methodist College)

Being “întru” (within) a language: Bending time and space while translating The Romanian Sentiment of Being by Constantin Noica

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Z, perhaps one of the most difficult of his works, begins by his famous claim that being is said in many ways. Aristotle refers to the Categories, where he explains the various ways in which one thing is said to be. He writes about being in a language that, after all, is no longer spoken today. Nevertheless, his ideas influenced generations of philosophers who could not work in ontology without first referring to his work. The greatness of Aristotle as philosopher makes it so that when we speak of being we do it as if we were analyzing a universal idea. But is it possible that being itself always appears in a body, a language, and due to this, is always particular to a culture?

Noica’s The Romanian Sentiment of Being seems to make such a claim: being in a universal sense is only an abstraction. Being, though, is embodied, and thus it manifests particularly in a particular environment.

While this final claim may be appealing to many, a philosopher focused on metaphysical concepts would not readily agree. In 1978, existential philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-1995), friend of Constantin Noica (1909-1987), wrote him a short letter. The epistle ended with some words about Noica’s newly published volume, The Romanian Sentiment of Being: “Your last book is excellent; the only thing is that it could have been called just as well The Paraguayan Sentiment of Being. In your place, I would return to Logic: where, if not there, can one engage in delirium  better?”[1] Indeed, what would make the Romanian sentiment of being both unique and also interesting to other peoples?

We should not rush into believing that Noica claims that cultures have no way of communicating among themselves because of their unicity. Their particular way of being is, to use Noica’s word, întru, oriented within. However, the particularity in which they express being gives beauty to the diversity of the world. So, if we refer to one of the questions above, one reason for anyone to understand the particular way of being in Romanian culture is to further enjoy the beauty of this world. Furthermore, as Anna Marmodoro and Erasmus Mayr remind us, “metaphysical questions are not just questions about language […]. But nonetheless, natural language can be an important guide in many cases, since it usually encapsulates ways of thinking about the structure of reality which come naturally to us and which have proved useful and viable over the time the language evolved.”[2] Noica would add this: “But every language is, after all, the wisdom of the world in one of its versions. This wisdom of the world needs the particular wisdom of language in order to explore reality in all the ways and to transfer its knowledge into words.”[3]

Noica finds six ways of being in Romanian, all of them expressed grammatically in a doubling of the verb to be. These expressions are used quite often in typical interactions and feel natural to the native Romanian speaker. In English, the doubling of the verb to be poses challenges of meaning making, since English-speakers rarely employ such constructions that invite rather imprecise temporality. Here they are:

It was not to be (n-a fost să fie)

It was about to be (era să fie)

It may well be to be (va fi fiind)

It would be to be (ar fi să fie)

It is to be (este să fie)

It was to be (a fost sa fie)

The Romanian language, then, has a grammatical peculiarity in all of these cases: the doubling of the verb to be. For Noica, this is a very important philosophical aspect: all of these modulations of being are întru Being itself. Some of them, such as the first four, are moving toward Being, but they do not achieve it. The fifth one is on the border of being, while the last is accomplished being. This doubling of to be allows for both becoming and being in the same expression: the suggestion of becoming within (or întru) being. English, however, does not allow for this doubling in all of the previous expressions. We can, of course, rely on philosophical terminology and say that the six modulations of being from Romanian can be organized in the following categories: impossibility, possibility, contingency, necessity, and existence. Here, though, we lose the slight modulations taking place in Romanian, as for example the difference between va fi fiind (it may well be to be) and ar fi sa fie (it would be to be). None of these modulations expresses the fulfillment of being. The first one, though, is a region of being that is somehow exterior to it, as Noica says, while the second is a modulation that has almost all of the conditions to be, but it cannot fulfill its calling.

What is one to do in such a situation? The problem is as old as translation is. Eugenio Refini, for example, writes about Antonio Colombella, an Augustinian friar, who translated in the vernacular Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics sometime at the beginning of the 15th century. In his prologue, he writes about the difficulty of the translation, pointing to the distinction between what he calls words and sense. The translator must find himself in this dichotomy: to be faithful to the words of the author (in our case, to expressing modulations of being by doubling the verb to be) or to be faithful to the sense of the ideas. It is the enduring “debate over verbum de verbo and ad sensum translations.”[4]

The beauty of Noica’s volume is that mediation and translation already happened at various levels. His text is a philosophical endeavor that deals with literary works, bringing into dialogue different approaches to culture. Translation between the philosophical language of necessity, possibility, or contingency to the folk language of children stories or to the elevated literary language of a poem considered the chef-d’oeuvre of Romanian culture make out of his book a feast of words. Indeed, “Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning.”[5] In this volume, mediation is at work in the original language prior to even encountering its English version. The children’s story and Eminescu’s poem “The Evening Star,” both of them protagonists of Noica’s philosophical thought, are not included in the original volume. Known by every Romanian reader, they appear in Noica’s text in the beauty of his interpretation only. The English edition could not have rendered this mediation without bringing forward the texts themselves, and so readers will find original, new translations of both these jewels of Romanian thought.

It is here that we can rediscover the dialogical nature of translation, as some scholars call it: the translator must attempt to live in two cultures at the same time, and transfer one’s way of being from one culture to another. How can this be done, especially since this particular work raises deeper problems, because it is not directly about universal philosophical problems, which would offer a common philosophical language, but it is rather about knowing the Romanian soul itself, the Romanian expression of being in the world. Implicitly, the question becomes, how can one know the soul of a people?

Folktales are the source of inspiration for Noica. Even Eminescu’s poem, “The Evening Star,” has a folktale as its origin, Noica says. The story is about a young princess who falls in love with the Evening Star and calls upon him every night. He descends from heaven and invites her to take a place next to him:

Oh, come my one and only love,

Thy world behind leave, dear!

I am the evening star above,

Be thou my bride sincere.

She refuses, inviting him to give up his immortality instead. At the end, it is a story of unfulfillment of being. The maiden asks the Evening Star to offer her necessity: the individual nature asks from the general to receive a law. The way she asks for it and the way he can offer it do not match, so the story is a failed encounter between contingency and necessity.

What do thou care, oh, face of clay,

If it’s me or some other…

In narrow circle you relive,

Your luck is daily master,

But I, in my world, always live

Immortal and cold aster.

However, Noica says, the story shows that, at least, the two called each other. While the poem shows unfulfillment in this relationship, Noica believes fulfillment is shown in the second example, a centuries old folk story, Ageless Youth and Deathless Life, first documented and published by Petre Ispirescu in the 19th century and identified with the Romanian ethos ever since.

As Noica says, the story is quite straightforward and down to earth in the way it accounts for the essence of the activity of being.

I don’t know another work in prose of the Romanian genius that has so much substance, from the first to the last word, and such rigorous writing or saying. I wouldn’t dare to interpret any other Romanian work in prose, verse by verse, as I plan on doing, […]—the only one which does not have a positive ending, as it has been observed, and still the only one that expresses, not indirectly, as any other fairytale, but directly, the fulness, the measure, and the truth of that which can be called: being.[6]

Here is a quick summary of the story: a child of a royal couple cries from within his mother’s womb, not wanting to be born into this world of becoming. His father makes him many earthly promises, he offers him the entire world itself and the most beautiful wife he could have, but the baby is not convinced. The only promise that makes him be born is ageless youth and deathless life.

When he grows up, he searches for it himself, since the father reveals he cannot offer it after all. After many trials, he reaches the realm of ageless life and dwells there without time. One day, however, he is struck by memory and wants to go back. Regardless of the advice from the princesses of the realm, he goes back to his parents’ castle, finds that centuries have passed and everything is changed, and death, his own death, finally finds him and slaps him dead.

Reading it or trying to translate it, one can feel how verb-driven and action-oriented the narrative is. In two-three sentences the reader is already in Fat-Frumos’ next stage of life. The story is out of balance at times, with certain less important details being given more space than key magical events in the prince’s journey. You almost get a sense that the story was captured from a capricious storyteller, as if told while doing some other activity. The text is only four pages and a half long, single spaced, but it contains the whole life of a soul inside and outside time. An example of “outside time” is when the unborn soul of the prince refuses to be born and to begin his linear temporal lifepath before his father promises him eternity in the offering of ageless youth and deathless life. The story normalizes a relative view of time long before Albert Einstein wrote about the relativity of space/time. The few pages of this folk tale contain the entire life story of Fat Frumos with accelerations and decelerations, with ascensions and descensions both physical (in the magical flight of the horse) and emotional (sadness and happiness). Memory also transcends the physical body, since the nine-month-old fetus remembers what he was promised before becoming an egg in his mother’s womb. As part of the process of translation, the translator has to believe that the English reader will accept this Romanian story of being that bends time and space without much explanation.

And this is where knowledge comes in: reading the English translation of “Ageless Youth and Deathless Life” can stimulate our own reflecting on the detours we take in life, the importance of challenges and encounters that affect us for decades and even impact how we die. This centuries old fairytale has the potential to be not just an old Romanian folk story but a story of the human soul, with universal appeal and resonance.

Perhaps this volume reminds us that we don’t need to be universalists or relativists to be able to know and accept others. One doesn’t have to be Romanian to know a Romanian, just like one doesn’t need to be Russian to understand Dostoevsky. This doesn’t mean that our knowledge of Dostoevsky is the same with the knowledge a Russian or someone else may have of him. But this is perfectly fine. It is our or your personal knowledge of him—not in a relativist sense, but rather in a truly personal fashion. This means that one can know the Romanian “soul” by accepting who one is, a unique person that belongs to a unique people, American, Ukrainian, Indian, or Paraguayan. Once we know where we come from, once we know how we greet every morning of our lives, we can have a genuine relationship with anyone else.

[1] Emil Cioran. 1995. Scrisori către cei de acasă (Letters for Those Who Remained Home). Bucureşti: Humanitas, p. 310.

[2] Aristotle. 2019. Metaphysics: An Introduction to Contemporary Debates and Their History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 8.

[3] C. Noica, The Romanian Sentiment of Being. Punctum Books, 2022, p. 58. The one term/idea that has been at the core of our work proceeds from Noica’s philosophy. The Romanian notion of întru can be rendered in English by using both “within” and “toward.” “Întru” originates from the Latin prefix intro (to the inside, inward—as in, for example, the English word “introduction”: intro—inward + ducere—to lead). Alistair Ian Blyth has translated the title of Devenirea întru fiinţă as Becoming within Being (Marquette University Press, 2009). Noica’s “întru” captures the idea that becoming does not only take place within a nature of something, but also always toward a nature: it is perhaps the path a translation takes, a becoming into something that it already is, but not yet manifested prior to the completion of a project.

[4] Eugenio Refini. 2020. The Vernacular Aristotle, Cambridge University Press, p. 101.

[5] Anthony J. Liddicoat. 2016. Translation as intercultural mediation: Setting the scene, Perspectives, 24:3, 347-353, DOI: 10.1080/0907676X.2015.1125934

[6] C. Noica, op. cit., p. 122.

Gioia Laura Iannilli: L’estetico e il quotidiano

L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza Book Cover L’estetico e il quotidiano: Design, Everyday Aesthetics, Esperienza
Esperienze dell’estetico
Gioia Laura Iannilli
Paperback 22,80 €

Reviewed by: Asia Brunetti (University of Bologna)

Questa è la storia di un tentativo di emancipazione: quello del concetto dell’”estetico”, o meglio, della cosiddetta dimensione estetica. Si tratta di un concetto che per lungo tempo ha rischiato di fossilizzarsi irrimediabilmente sullo scoglio della propria dimensione istituzionale e istituzionalizzata, e al quale oggi, invece, è finalmente concesso prendere aria. La concezione tradizionale dell’estetico, infatti, che lo voleva come membro dell’equazione quasi monolitica “estetico = artistico” – la quale ha segnato la storia dell’estetica filosofica per diversi secoli -, è stata fatta scendere finalmente dal piedistallo che l’aveva ospitata fin quasi alla metà del XX secolo. Oggi, fortunatamente, possiamo revocare in dubbio questa idea (pur ancora fortemente consolidata nell’opinione pubblica, oltre che in quella di alcuni esperti in materia); ci è concesso di guardare al di là dei rigidi bordi del concetto dell’estetico, di avvicinarci sempre di più a questi confini – un tempo concepiti come rigidi e netti – per scoprire, man mano che ci avviciniamo, che sono in realtà ampiamente sfumati e tutt’altro che ben definiti.

È bene ricordare inoltre come questa stessa sorte toccata all’estetico sia efficacemente rimbalzata anche sul secondo termine della nostra monumentale equazione: l’artistico. Anche il concetto di arte nell’ultimo secolo ha subito un affascinante ridimensionamento, volgendo la propria natura ad una nuova capacità inclusiva e di “apertura”, talmente evidente da garantire un’accoglienza entro il novero degli oggetti d’arte persino a quei prodotti di consumo costruiti in serie come risultato di un’opera di progettazione, ossia gli oggetti di design. Sarà allora possibile, in maniera quasi paradossale, elaborare persino un’estetica del design; oppure, rendendo all’estetico ciò che da sempre gli appartiene  ma che ha portato a lungo con sé solo nel nome come radice etimologica, – ossia il suo riferimento alla sensibilità, all’esperienza sensibile – pensare ad un’estetica che non comprenda più al suo interno solo il campo semantico dell’artistico, ma, letteralmente qualsiasi cosa, fino a ciò che più si discosta dalla straordinarietà delle opere artistiche, persino le cose ordinarie, quotidiane, la nostra everydayness.

Proprio di questi temi tratta ampiamente l’opera di Gioia Laura Iannilli, L’estetico e il quotidiano, che fa di “Design, Everyday Aesthetics ed Esperienza” i tre cardini o pilastri sui quali installare la riflessione, come recita appunto il sottotitolo del testo. Sono proprio queste tre grandi tematiche, appunto, a scandire il flusso delle considerazioni dell’autrice, nonché a dividere il testo in altrettante sezioni volte al loro approfondimento. Ciò che si vuole sostenere con fermezza è la preziosità che contraddistingue elementi di per sé difficilmente accostabili all’ambito dell’estetico – poiché esso è stato a lungo marcato dal profondo pregiudizio arte o natura-centrico – come l’ambito quotidiano, le pratiche ordinarie e la progettazione di oggetti quotidiani (il design), per una riflessione sull’esperienza estetica che voglia aspirare ad una certa completezza.

Per quanto riguarda il primo elemento di questa triade, il design, esso viene messo in rilievo nel testo per la sua potenzialità nel far emergere la dimensione pratica dell’estetico, una sfaccettatura di quest’ultimo raramente presa in considerazione negli studi dell’estetica filosofica. L’autrice, nel delineare le categorie concettuali – principalmente coppie di concetti, dicotomie – e tutto l’apparato interpretativo attraverso il quale è stato studiato il design a livello istituzionale (utile/bello; funzione/forma; consumo/immagine), rivendica una modalità nuova di avere a che fare con questo tema: «È necessaria un’analisi estetologica sul design che si concentri sulla categoria dell’esperienzialità (o della relazionalità) che trova riscontro nelle pratiche quotidiane». Il migliore amico del design, d’altra parte, è proprio il quotidiano, la dimensione della “everydayness”, dalla quale esso appunto risulta estremamente inscindibile. In secondo luogo l’autrice rivolge la trattazione verso l’analisi della genesi e degli sviluppi di un ambito di studi relativamente recente, sorto in seno all’indagine estetica; una linea di ricerca che si potrebbe quasi definire “oscura”, incerta, sulla quale l’autrice, perciò, vuole tentare di gettare un po’ di luce e di chiarezza: si tratta della cosiddetta “Everyday Aesthetics”, sub-disciplina dell’estetica sviluppatasi pressappoco negli ultimi tre decenni.

La valutazione dell’autrice in merito a questo nuovo ambito di studio risulta chiaro fin dalle prime pagine del testo: si tratta di un vero e proprio congedo. Infatti, pur mettendo in campo elementi essenziali nel gioco della riflessione estetica – in primo luogo proprio i fenomeni quotidiani – tuttavia essa tende a ricadere troppo spesso nella trappola dei pregiudizi e delle impostazioni tradizionali degli studi estetici; una grande “pecca” dell’Everyday Aesthetics sarebbe ad esempio, quella di conferire troppa poca importanza all’ambito del design. Tuttavia, l’analisi dell’Everyday Aesthetics compiuta dall’autrice in questa sede risulta molto accurata e particolareggiata; il suo intento principale è quello di sistematizzare quelli che sono i più importanti contributi sorti in grembo alla disciplina, scandendoli in base al criterio della loro vicinanza e adesione oppure rifiuto e lontananza rispetto alla tradizione estetica consolidata. Vengono a delinearsi in tal modo da un lato degli approcci “deboli, continuisti o straordinaristi”, cioè fedeli alla tradizione, e dall’altro degli approcci “forti, discontinuisti o familiaristi”, che appunto se ne distanziano in maniera evidente. Tra i grandi autori dei quali l’autrice esamina i contributi, cioè i maggiori esponenti dell’Everyday Aesthetics, si può rintracciare nel primo gruppo Thomas Leddy con la sua Aesthetics of Aura Experience e Ossi Naukkarinen con la sua Aesthetics of Everydayness, nel secondo Yuriko Saito, fautrice di una Aesthetics of Care, Arto Haapala, di una Aesthetics of Lacking e Kevin Melchionne, propugnatore di una Aesthetics of Well-Being.

Dopo aver trattato approfonditamente le posizioni di questi teorici, da considerarsi i veri e propri “pilastri” dell’Everyday Aesthetics, l’autrice passa in rassegna quelli che denomina i suoi “meta-teorici”. Questi ultimi, i quali si sarebbero spesi in una revisione critica degli approcci teorici dell’Everyday Aesthetics, sarebbero a suo avviso i responsabili della svolta normativa della disciplina in una direzione intersoggettivo-continuista. Tutto ciò vuol significare il rientro in campo con piena dignità di una colonna portante del discorso estetico tradizionale, specialmente di matrice kantiana: la dimensione della condivisione dei giudizi di gusto, dell’intersoggettività, appunto. Ma ciò non significa affatto che i “meta-teorici” dell’Everyday Aesthetics convergano tutti verso una medesima prospettiva: tutt’altro; anche per quanto riguarda i più recenti approcci “critici” ciò che emerge è un’aria di disaccordo ed un certo attrito. L’autrice prende in considerazione in particolare i contributi di Cristopher Dowling, Dan Eugen Ratiu, Jane Forsey e la prospettiva dell’Egalitarian Aesthetics avanzata nel 2016 da Giovanni Matteucci, i quali concordano appunto nel riconoscere la necessità di rintracciare un aspetto normativo entro la cornice della nuova sub-disciplina dell’estetica; inoltre essi tendono a condividere, non a caso, una linea di pensiero di carattere continuista.

Il binomio intersoggettività-continuità, che dunque qualifica in maniera determinante la linea teorica dei cosiddetti approcci “meta-teorici”, è evidentemente sotteso ad una fondamentale dimensione dell’estetico, ossia al suo carattere di relazionalità. Scrive infatti l’autrice: «La relazionalità […] è indubbiamente cifra specifica dell’estetico in quanto è proprio in un contesto fondamentalmente intersoggettivo, ossia espressivo (sia esplicito sia implicito, sia proposizionale sia gestuale), che l’esperienza estetica ha luogo». Ma, come ribadisce l’autrice in un altro punto, questa relazione che connota l’estetico in quanto tale in ogni suo dispiegarsi, è sempre “da qualche parte”, cioè è sempre situata, e quindi «specificata e vincolata topograficamente». Quest’ultimo aspetto ci spinge ad aprire un ulteriore contesto di riflessione: quello che riguarda gli “spazi estetici”, e in particolare gli spazi estetici quotidiani. Essi vengono ripartiti dall’autrice nelle seguenti categorie: gli spazi estetici privati, pubblici, istituzionalizzati, virtuali-globali e commerciali. Si vuol far emergere in tal modo una caratteristica di fondo dello spazio estetico quotidiano, ovvero la dimensione di benessere che esso tende a produrre: «Gli spazi estetici quotidiani sono spazi in cui “si sta bene”», che garantiscono una qualche gratificazione, e far risaltare inoltre l’intreccio che attraverso questi spazi viene a configurarsi tra l’estetico e l’economico.

L’autrice sofferma infine la propria attenzione su una configurazione del design di origine molto recente: il cosiddetto Experience Design – risultato del recentissimo processo (cominciato all’incirca negli anni ’80 ma sempre più diffuso) di «smaterializzazione, diffusione e integrazione del design nelle pratiche quotidiane» -, facendone un caso esemplare per dispiegare ulteriori concetti sottesi alle dinamiche estetiche quotidiane. Esso consiste generalmente nella produzione di esperienze nelle quali la componente materiale decresce progressivamente d’importanza a favore di una dimensione interattiva sempre più rilevante. Tale ambito viene introdotto dall’autrice soprattutto al fine di rimarcare e giustificare la caduta e risoluzione delle dicotomie e delle storiche antinomie tra “soggetto” e “oggetto” e tra “natura” e “tecnica” o “artificio”. I due settori ai quali l’autrice fa riferimento nell’esame di questo recente sviluppo del design sono quelli della moda e dell’interazione con le interfacce.

L’Experience Design viene analizzato alla luce di una contrapposizione di fondo tra due concetti: quello di Lebenswelt e quello di Everydayness, proprio per sottolineare l’impatto che esso produce su tali dimensioni. L’intento dell’autrice è mostrare l’inadeguatezza ai nostri scopi di questi termini e proporre dunque una sostituzione di questi ultimi con le nozioni di “habitus” da un lato e di “campo” dall’altro, dove la prima dev’essere intesa sulla scorta di Bourdieu come «strutture strutturate predisposte a funzionare come strutture strutturanti, cioè in quanto principi generatori e organizzatori» e la seconda come «contesto dinamico in cui interagiscono energie significative», o meglio, bisognerebbe parlare di: «Mondo della vita, dinamicizzato in habitus, e quotidianità restituita alla sua funzione di campo di gioco». L’autrice ritrae tale nuovo settore come una vera e propria radicalizzazione odierna del design, la quale porta con sé l’«intreccio tra esteticità e quotidianità in una prospettiva centrata sulla intersoggettività e sulla continuità tra i vari livelli dell’estetico». Scrive inoltre che: «L’Experience Design […] plasma in modo sempre più significativo la nostra realtà proponendo un tipo di esperienzialità basata sulla “immediatezza”, sulla “superficialità”, sulla disponibilità, e sul piacere che deriva proprio dalla facilità con cui è possibile realizzare le esperienze che esso progetta, propone o innesta nella vita quotidiana».

Alla luce di quanto emerso è facile notare come il problema fondamentale per noi sia quello di cercare una risposta ad un tale interrogativo: se, dato che la progettazione (il design) sembra orientare sempre di più e in modo maggiormente pervasivo le nostre esperienze estetiche, tale circostanza conduca ad una alienazione oppure consenta, al contrario, dei margini di spontaneità e libertà. L’estetico può essere inteso come un mezzo di emancipazione dell’individuo contemporaneo oppure no? Per usare le parole dell’autrice: «Non potrebbe forse l’estetico rivelarsi un fattore di disincantamento dalla metafisica dualistica, piuttosto che propriamente di alienazione, e dunque essere un mezzo di emancipazione per l’individuo contemporaneo?».

Oggi le dinamiche esperienziali quotidiane sono modellate con un’incidenza sempre maggiore dal design, dalla progettazione, spesso attaccato come se fosse causa dell’estinzione della spontaneità. È innegabile quanto l’esperienza sia «oggi sempre più evidentemente in oscillazione tra spontaneità e natura progettata»; ma questa dinamica, risultata dallo sviluppo sempre più incredibilmente rapido e inarrestabile delle pratiche umane, ed in questo caso specialmente delle arti, ci accompagna davvero necessariamente di fronte ad un baratro oltre il quale non c’è più umanità (intesa qui come spontaneità naturale dell’uomo)? Per quanto possa sembrare difficile rispondere a questi interrogativi, ciò che è evidente – e questa è l’opinione portante del testo – è il bisogno di elaborare ai nostri fini «un’estetica generale che si occupi anche di quotidianità avendone acquisito i motivi al proprio interno senza farli diventare caratteri essenziali, ma relazionalmente e dinamicamente strutturali dell’estetico»; infatti «è proprio su queste basi, ovvero su basi relazionali, o intersoggettivo-continuiste, che andrebbe elaborata una teoria generale dell’estetica (del quotidiano), di fatto non ancora disponibile». Solo in tali condizioni, infatti, potremmo essere in grado di riflettere ampiamente ed apertamente sulle recenti acquisizioni dell’ambito estetico e sulle sue nuove promesse, liberati finalmente dal giogo del pensiero più tradizionalista e diretti verso un nuovo mondo, il mondo ordinario, quello che da sempre tutti abbiamo ed abbiamo avuto sotto gli occhi, ancora tutto da scoprire.

John Sallis: On Beauty and Measure

On Beauty and Measure: Plato's Symposium and Statesman Book Cover On Beauty and Measure: Plato's Symposium and Statesman
The Collected Writings of John Sallis
John Sallis. Edited by S. Montgomery Ewegen
Indiana University Press
Paperback $25.00
160 Pages, 22 graphs

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, UAE University)

Translating Plato Back into Greek: A Review of Sallis’s On Beauty and Measure: Plato’s Symposium and Statesman

I. Sallis’s Method of Reading Plato

John Sallis’s On Beauty and Measure: Plato’s Symposium and Statesman, expertly edited by Shane Montgomery Ewegen, offers an illuminating and nuanced interpretation of Plato’s texts.[1] This volume contains Sallis’s lectures on the Symposium and the Statesman. Sallis’s reading of Plato gives direction, unwavering focus, and elicits insights into the most meaningful truths. If one reads Sallis carefully and without prejudice – if one really reads him – one stands a very good chance to find heretofore untreaded paths in Plato’s dialogues.

From the start, Sallis calls our attention to the manner in which we should engage with Plato. It is only when we set aside any “ready-made preconceptions” (3) that we may have the meaning of Plato’s writing, and that we “begin to learn how to read” (3) the Symposium, the Statesman, or any of the dialogues. It should go without saying, but Sallis’s text should be read just as Plato’s: with great care, slowly, and with Plato’s original side by side. If we adopt this kind of measured approach, then we can experience in Plato’s and in Sallis’s writing the “wonder—which, for the Greeks, was the beginning of philosophy” (3). Part of Sallis’s methodology to which he calls our attention time and again is his focus on the difference and the distance between Plato and the dialogical characters. This is an absolutely essential insight that Sallis articulates for us when he writes that “Plato is an unusual kind of author. … [I]n all of the dialogues attributed to Plato—Plato never speaks in his own name. … Plato never says a word. … Of course, many people are prone to using the phrase ‘Plato says …’; however, as soon as one says this, one has become careless and has failed to attend to the character of the Platonic dialogues” (73). This distance between Plato, the author, and any of his dialogical characters serves to alert the readers and interpreters of Plato to the fact that nothing of what any given character says can simply be equated with what Plato himself thinks. Whatever doctrines, theories, models, or beliefs may enter into the discussion taking place between the dialogical characters – and Socrates is no exception – we have to keep in mind that Plato as the author need not uphold any of these. However, Plato’s writing presents for our consideration a dialogical and (this is Sallis’s point) a dramatic interplay of the various opinions and ideas. And yet, to take any of them on faith as Plato’s own is to foreclose one’s understanding of Plato’s dialogical philosophizing.

For example, and although none of the characters in any of Plato’s dialogues ever claim to have a “Theory of Ideas” or to be adherents of a “Theory of Forms,” such theories are so often attributed to Plato as to be virtually identified with the main subject of his philosophy. However, and as Sallis warns, it is a mistake to hold this preconceived view according to which “Plato is supposed to have held something like a theory of forms or ideas. More nonsense has been written about this than about almost any other topic in Greek philosophy. [However,] [s]eldom has it even been considered that the very concept of theory (and of concept) relies upon, and indeed presupposes, what was said about the εἰδη in the Platonic dialogues” (54, fn. 25).[2] Sallis also explains why, given the common Greek use of the words εἶδος and ἰδέα it is precipitous to always translate textual instances of these as either a mental “form” or an “idea” instead of a “look” or a visible form. This is just one concrete example of the way in which Sallis’s exceptional sensitivity to Plato’s text – its language, as well as its historical and its cultural situatedness – constitutes nothing short of an opening of a new field of Plato studies. It is a field of thought attuned to the sensible and sense-bound dimension of Plato’s texts. It is an interpretive method, which finally allows us to see that Platonism cannot be attributed to Plato; that the two-world doctrine is something that has been imposed upon Plato’s texts; and that there is a way to read the dialogues so as to allow the equal primacy of the sensible and the intelligible to shine forth (instead of denigrating the world of sense and experience, making them inferior in respect of some otherworldly noetic reality). This is what happens when instead of bringing sedimented, preconceived views to the dialogues (be these the views of the establishment or our own), we actually read Plato – with the gratitude and care that is due to the texts of a world-shaping thinker.

Another methodological insight that Sallis offers for our interpretation of Plato is the fact that we are well-advised to “give up thinking that Plato’s texts consist primarily of so-called logical arguments, and to abandon the belief that whatever does not belong to these arguments can safely be ignored, or at least be passed quickly by as if it were a mere ornament” (3). If, as Sallis indicates, “in the Platonic dialogues there are virtually no insignificant details” (3), then to speed-read through Plato’s text to get to the so-called “arguments” (“the latter of which is a post-Platonic invention,” 74) is to do utter violence to the dialogues and a great disservice to one’s understanding thereof.

Another set of methodological reflections has to do with mythical speeches, playfulness, and the relationship between the form and content of the dialogues (74-75). The fact that the “textuality” of Plato’s dialogues “includes the stories of the sort that one would readily call mythical” of course does not mean that Plato meant to have these mythical elements as something that would appeal to the non-learned reader, reserving the so-called arguments for the scholarly type. Instead, the mythical elements often situate the other dialogical speeches in such a way as to play up the radical incompleteness of the seemingly most coherent ideas that human beings have about the world – be they discussed by Plato’s characters or applied to our own lives. This does not exhaust the function of the mythical accounts in Plato, but it rather serves to underscore “another feature that is often found in Platonic dialogues: namely, their playfulness, as well as their character as plays, as dramas” (75).[3] This claim about the dramatic nature of Plato’s texts, leads Sallis to observe the importance of paying heed to the relationship between the dialogues’ dramatic form and their content. This means that the form has to be part and parcel of our understanding of the content; both are philosophically pertinent, and we ought to see them as belonging together. In Sallis’s own words “this entails that one must take into account not only what is said in the dialogues, but also how it is said (i.e., in what kind of speech), as well as by whom and at what place and time. In a dialogue, all of these various moments have an appropriateness to one another and to the whole of the dialogue” (75). Sallis’s own engagement with the dialogues, which always remains faithful to these recommendations, is extraordinarily fruitful as it unearths for us Plato’s dialogical philosophizing, retrieving it from underneath the layers of sedimented views and rescuing it from the deadening effects of dogmatic approaches.

There are then these methodological elements which, following Sallis, we should observe: 1) we should read slowly and with utmost attention to even the minutest details of Plato’s text. 2) We should practice interpreting the dialogues on the basis of a realization that Plato is not any of his dialogical characters and that Plato never says anything in the dialogues attributed to him. 3) It is critically important to realize that Plato does not, strictly speaking, offer for us any such systems of philosophy that are readily recognizable, for example, as in 19th Century German thought. Therefore, we cannot simply look for Plato’s systematic “arguments,” avoiding any serious engagement with the other, e.g., mythical speeches in his texts. 4) The “multitextured character” (74) of Plato’s dialogues should alert us to “their playfulness” and to the fact that Plato’s play is also dramatic. 5) The “dramatic form of the dialogues” (75) cannot be separated from their content. In other words, to philosophize along with Plato, we must take into consideration the way in which the drama of the dialogues informs their meaning.

II. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Symposium

Sallis observes that the “Symposium is the only dialogue devoted to speeches in praise of a god” – Eros (10). Sallis’s discussion of the opening scene of the dialogue serves as an example of his method of interpreting Plato’s dialogues, whereby we have to make sense of the coincidence between the dialogical drama and content. For example, one of the insights that comes to light on the basis of Sallis’s nuanced examination of the dialogical frame of the Symposium, is that Glaucon (the only named person who is said to be listening to Apollodorus’ narration of the events and speeches that constitute the Symposium) had no frame of reference according to which he could situate his hearsay acquaintance with the speeches exchanged in praise of ἔρως (10-12).[4] More specifically, prior to speaking with Apollodorus, Glaucon could not have known what occasion prompted the gathering where the speeches about ἔρως were exchanged; who the speakers were (besides Socrates); or where they were congregating. Thus, Glaucon was only aware of the intellectual content of the speeches (badly retold to him, at that), but not of the concrete situatedness of those speeches. To extend this realization a bit further, we can say that the content of the Symposium hovers in a vacuum unless we attempt to work out the concrete details surrounding its characters, history, religion, and even politics. This is precisely what Sallis’s analysis of the opening frames of the dialogue accomplishes. It is only through this concretization of the intellectual narrative that we gain a perspective necessary to engage with the dialogue (but also with any of the dialogues of Plato) in a philosophically fruitful manner.

More generally, Sallis’s focus on the opening frames of the Symposium stresses the manifold removal of us – the readers – from the content of the speeches that constitute this dialogue (12). The Symposium’s setting highlights the importance of being mindful of the perspectival distance that memory, transmission and reception of ideas, and human finitude play in philosophizing. The distance that separates the reader and the text also qualifies the sorts of philosophical views we adopt and conclusions we arrive at when interpreting this dialogue. It is likewise important to keep in mind that an individual reader, whoever she may be, brings to the text a certain set of presuppositions, opinions, cultural and personal views that inform her encounter with the dialogue. Therefore, one is well advised to follow an injunction that appeared at the entrance of the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi. Apollo is one of the divinities (the other one being Dionysus) who according to Sallis preside over the unfolding of the Symposium. Apollo’s injunction says: “Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν” or “Know Yourself” and it is this divine imperative that in the Phaedrus, Socrates tells Phaedrus he (Socrates) is as of yet unable to fulfill (229e-230a).[5] In the Symposium, and right before Phaedrus (who, as Sallis underscores, is the “father of the λόγος,” Symp., 177d, 20) speaks in praise of ἔρως, Socrates limns this question of self-knowledge.

Sallis underscores the proximity between Socrates’ statement: “I claim to know about nothing but erotics (Symp. 177e)” and the question which comes up in the Apology, i.e., the question of the relationship between ignorance and wisdom. Sallis asks about Socrates’ knowledge of erotics, “How is this claim of Socrates’s to be squared with his attestation in the Apology that his wisdom (of which the Delphic Apollo had spoken) consists in knowing only that he does not know (Ap. 23b)? Is it the case that knowing about ἔρως amounts somehow to knowing the limits of one’s wisdom?” (20). Taking up Sallis’s question, we can say that in relation to oneself, questioning about one’s ἔρως would amount to thinking about or even analyzing that which characterizes one’s strongest longings, excitations, and pangs of desire, as well as one’s vulnerabilities and insecurities that have to do with ἔρως. We are well advised to hear a wide breadth of meanings in the use of this term, which might include one’s social or political and not only strictly personal ἔρως. Therefore, Socrates’ knowledge of erotics in the first instance has to do with the question of self-knowledge – with the problem of the forces that shape one’s life but, which nonetheless, are not entirely within one’s own power to control. Second, Socrates’ knowledge of erotics is also a capacity to interrogate and look into ἔρως as it manifests in others. Socrates’ practice of erotics is a questioning of ἔρως as it shapes and forms, but also warps, the lives of other human beings and even cities. In this double aspect, Socrates’ study and knowledge of ἔρως, in Sallis’s language, “amounts somehow to knowing the limits” (20) as well as continuously interrogating the limits of one’s rationality and of one’s power to rationally shape the course of one’s life. Moreover, in Socrates’ philosophical person (who questions others and himself in response to the Delphic injunction), pursuit of self-knowledge, knowledge of ἔρως, and philosophizing coincide.

As Sallis works through each of the speeches in the Symposium, he shows how each consequent interlocutor is appropriating certain key moments of the preceding speech. This culminates in Socrates’ recitation of Diotima’s speech about ἔρως that to some extent includes refractions of all of the preceding accounts. Such refractions happen also prior to Diotima, when Pausanias picks up on a motif from Phaedrus’ opening praise of ἔρως.

In Phaedrus’ speech, the lovers are praised for the sacrifices they suffer for the sake of their beloveds. The longing that the lovers have for their beloveds – at least to some extent – is being idealized or elevated in Phaedrus’ speech. Pausanias goes as far as to separate out the lowly “Pandemian Eros” from the “Uranian Eros” of the select few. As Sallis writes, “the worthless people (ὁι φαῦλοι) … being only concerned with the sexual act, are no less in love with women than with boys, are in love with their bodies rather than with their souls, and are in love with the stupidest sort of people. But Uranian Eros, like Uranian Aphrodite,” Sallis continues, “partakes only of male, and not of female: in other words, it is the love of boys (pederasty)” (24). Therefore, the motif of idealization of ἔρως that Phaedrus introduced is further accentuated in Pausanias’ speech, and brought to a point where a separation is made between the better and the worse sort of erotic longing.

Another thing that would be interesting to trace out is the treatment of women, which is rather dismissive in Pausanias’ view of ἔρως. Arguably, the preferential treatment of men and male love is also inscribed into Phaedrus’ presentation of the relationships between Alcestis and Admetus or Eurydice’s and Orpheus, which Phaedrus opposes to that of Patroclus and Achilles. As Sallis makes clear, Plato oftentimes uses motifs and ideas that are worked out not only in speech, but also in the action of both the characters and the dialogue itself. For example, in the Symposium, Eryximachus’ avowed attempts at subduing, managing, and regulating the body and its erotic expressions are undermined in the very actions of the next speakers, i.e., in the comedic unruliness of Aristophanes’ bodily expressions (20).[6]

Aristophanes is a comic playwright, and in the Symposium, not only the involuntary expressions of his body, but also his “speech [are] … comical” (32). “And yet, Aristophanes’ speech is not merely a comedy of a usual sort” (32). Sallis develops the idea that “[w]hereas comedy of the usual sort is directed against individuals or particular groups or types, Aristophanes’s speech is about all human beings, about human beings as such: in this respect, it is more akin to tragedy than to comedy” (32). We can take this insight to heart and, moving from all to one, bring Sallis’s observation about the tragi-comic character of Aristophanes’ speech to bear on the question of philosophical self-knowledge. In this case, we can say that tragedy transpires or ensues if comedy is not also applied to oneself. In other words, if we are blind to the comic, lowly, fallible aspects of ourselves, then we tend to idealize and value ourselves above others. This attitude to life is likely to lead to tragic outcomes.

More specifically, in terms of the content of Aristophanes’ speech, Sallis argues that Aristophanes presents the tragicomedy of human beings in terms of our erotic ignorance. The latter has to do with the fact that in longing for an erotic relationship with another, we really seek ourselves – or even and in stronger terms – we desire to love ourselves. Thus, we can reposition the relationship between comedy, tragedy, and self-knowledge (the opposite of self-knowledge, of course, is ignorance) in one more way. We can say that tragedy comes onto the scene if we remain blind to the (comic) reality that it is our self-love that inspires our ἔρως for the other. Such comically grotesque egoism is bound to end up in tragic ὕβρις, unless we work to lay bare the self-infatuation at the core of our erotic lives. However, if we do work to expose this self-love, then we become aware of the tragicomic core of our ἔρως. In this case we stop idealizing our erotic personas and attachments. Instead, we become open to a more joking and lighthearted attitude to ourselves. We invite ridicule, and thereby – by becoming a subject of a joke – we reckon with our downfalls, weaknesses, and flaws, thereby entering on a path of self-examination.

After Aristophanes’ account of ἔρως, Agathon – the man in whose honor the entire proceedings of the Symposium are held – delivers his praise of ἔρως. Just as with the previous speeches, certain elements of the speech that preceded Agathon’s, i.e., certain elements of Aristophanes’ speech, are preserved in Agathon’s own account. Although it is not entirely on the surface of Agathon’s praise of ἔρως (and Sallis’s analysis is absolutely indispensable if we wish to move past the surface of Agathon’s speech), what his speech amounts to is a kind of performative explication of one of the core ideas that Aristophanes’ account relates. Agathon’s praise of ἔρως embodies the haughty, self-centered attitude that Aristophanes’ speech both disclosed and – in some sense – seeks to dispel. As Sallis puts its (after offering a very nuanced and very helpful break down of the key compositional elements of Agathon’s eulogy of ἔρως), in his praise of ἔρως “Agathon is elevating himself” (41). Agathon’s adoration of ἔρως “is a veiled self-evaluation, a eulogy in praise of his own youth, beauty and virtue that blurs the distinction between himself and the god so that,” Sallis continues, “at this event that is his [Agathon’s] celebration, he can praise himself without incurring reproach that outright self-praise would bring” (41). In this brilliant interpretive turn, Sallis gathers together the historical occasion of the dialogical event (Agathon’s victory at the 416 BCE Lenaia, 13); the historical backdrop of the recitation of the speeches that took place on the day of Agathon’s victory (the mutilation of the Herms, the profanation of Eleusinian mysteries, and Athens disastrous Sicilian engagement, 13-16); as well as the questions of ἔρως, ὕβρις, tragic lack of self-knowledge, comedy, and the importance of self-examination. All of these elements align in Agathon’s ridiculous self-aggrandizement, which is not dissimilar in spirit from the impulse that possessed those warmongering Athenians who favored the Delian imperial aggression and rallied with Alcibiades for the ill-fated Sicilian campaign.

Before Alcibiades appears on the scene, as if an ivy-crowned Dionysus, Socrates speaks about ἔρως. In the Apology, Socrates tells us about his determination to test the oracle of Apollo (Ap.; 20d-21e, 5). He sees this as his service to the god. However, despite this, Socrates is charged, among other things, with impiety and ὕβρις (5-6). Whereas, in Alcibiades’ drunken, but maybe therefore more honest, outburst we find a portrayal of Socrates, in Socrates’ recitation of Diotima’s speech, we find a gathering and a rearticulation of the key moments of all of the speeches that have been presented prior to Socrates’ account.

Sallis’s elucidations of Socrates’ (42-58) and Alcibiades’ (59-67) speeches are groundbreaking and must be attended to with utmost care on one’s own. For example, such elements of Sallis’s interpretation as Socrates’ snubbing of Pausanias’ disregard for women (44); or the insidiousness of the ascent toward the Beautiful (57-58); or the Five Images of Socrates that Alcibiades produces in his speech, reposition the many extant scholarly accounts of the Symposium in critical ways. Another crucial insight that emerges when one reads Sallis’s text is the fact that in Socrates’ speech about ἔρως, Socratic philosophizing re-enters the scene. What I mean is that despite the fact that Socrates, following the form that others keep to, offers a soliloquy, his speech explodes this monological form from within. This is the case because since Socrates is retelling a conversation he allegedly once had with Diotima, he is able to insert the question-and-answer structure into his narrative. In this, Plato’s dialogical method becomes conspicuous again – the method whereby dramatic presentation often undermines or at least alters (and presents in the new light) the meaning of that which is being said.

III. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Statesman

It is in his analysis of the Statesman that Sallis makes one of his most poignant remarks regrading Plato when he speaks about the need to “translate Plato back into Greek” (90). This remark appears in the context of Sallis’s disambiguation of the much used (and abused) language of ἰδέα and εἶδος. These terms have undergone so much interpretive sedimentation that it is all but impossible for someone working in ancient Greek philosophy or even in classics to hear the originary meaning of these words. All the same, ἰδέα and εἶδος have less to do with mental states, let alone extra- or supra-mental realities, and more to do with the immediacy of the sensible look or shape of something. It is through this kind of a sensitive engagement with Plato’s texts that Sallis opens for us untreaded pathways of interpretation.

For example, at the start of his Statesman chapter, Sallis observes that the interlocutors (whose historical background Sallis presents to start, 78-83) initiate a movement of abstraction.[7] In the dialogue that deals with readily practical matters such as the governance of a state, the interlocutors who do the lion’s share of speaking (young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger), present their task of finding the best statesman in the guise of cognitive science (γνωστική ἐπιστήμη). Moreover, they proceed according to the method of dialectic and “theoretical arithmetic” (87). The latter is problematic as far as the search for the statesman is concerned, because it installs an artificial equality among all those who may be considered as candidates for the role. Thus, when we deal with theoretical arithmetic and “number becomes a number of pure units” (87), these units or “pure ones to which the number would refer are identical” (87). Therefore, abstracting from the singular character of things presages the failure of the initial attempts at situating the best ruler in the Statesman. Instead of a single best ruler, numerous contestants (such as “for example, merchants, farmers, food makers, trainers, and physicians,” 109) show up demanding to be considered for the role of the statesman.

The inadequacy of the arithmetic and the divisionary procedure in the search for the statesman is announced most clearly by what Sallis sees as comedy. “There are five ways,” Sallis writes, “in which the λόγος underway within the Statesman plays out as comedy” (107). These five ways include 1) a “digression … away from anything having to do with knowledge” (107); 2) “a comic disregard of differences between the human and the merely animal” (107). 3) The third comedic element has to do with a mismatch and a mixing of professions – a confusion that has to do with the initial abstraction of the differences between humans and non-human animals. This mismatch eventuates in “the statesman … running along with his herd of pigs” (107; and Sallis’s graphs on 97, 102, 108-109). 4) The fourth comedic moment arises when the supposedly rigid difference between the “tame” and the “wild” animals is introduced into the diaresis (107-108). 5) Lastly, the fifth comedic element is the Stranger’s explicit announcement of the “comedic character of their undertaking … (Stat. 266b)” (109).

Although the initial diaretic searches end up in comedy, and the interlocutors agree to proceed differently, some elements of the opening discussion are preserved and carried over into the subsequent attempts at identifying the best ruler. For example, the Stranger’s and young Socrates’ attempts to secure the statesman through a mythic account include the comedic confusion that arises when differences between human and non-human animals are removed. At the height of the Stranger’s mythic narration – during the halcyon time of Cronos – humans and animals are mixed up to such a degree that none of them can be meaningfully differentiated from one another. In fact, the confusion is so thoroughgoing that humans (who no longer partake of sexual reproduction) and animals (none of which prey on one another) are said to philosophize together (272c). However, this fantastical time comes to an end, and the age of Zeus ushers in violence, destitution, but also politics.

As Sallis observes, the mythical reversal of the two ages (i.e., the age of Cronos and the age of Zeus) does not abide by a one-directional causal principle, but rather exhibits an oscillating movement (117). This mutually affective backward and forward directionality is a principle according to which later in the dialogue, the Stranger will describe the manner in which we should measure the appropriateness of something. Concretely, and in Sallis’s words, “the appropriate length of a λόγος is determined by what the λόγος is aimed at making manifest—more precisely it is determined by the manifestation that it aims to bring about” (125). This is but one example of Sallis’s expansive reading strategies. This example leads us to realize, among other things, how reversible the causal nexus is. The antecedent-consequent relationship is such that the λόγος ceases to dominate that which is supposed to be brought into the light by it, and instead the subject matter determines the strictures of the manifestation. However, the λόγος is not insignificant either, and it still determines the lines along which the manifestation takes place. This mutually implicative arrangement is even more pronounced in Sallis’s reading of the Stranger’s myth.

As Sallis notes, the reversal or rather the ever alternating back and forth between the age of Cronos and the age of Zeus is presaged in the Stranger’s remarks about the original myth on which the Stranger draws in order to offer his own mythical narration. The Stranger himself denies that he means to draw the young Socrates’ attention to the reversal in the course of the sun or to the cosmological dimension of the original, older myth (Stat., 268e-269a). However, it is precisely, the alteration in the course of the cosmos that plays the key role in the Stranger’s own myth. The latter speaks about the suffering and violence that enter into the picture once “the heaven (or cosmos) … ‘turns back in the opposite direction’ (Stat. 269c-d)” (113). Critically, the motif of violence – unthinkable, gruesome violence – is first indicated in the older myth that the Stranger says he will borrow from in order to introduce his own mythic story.

Sallis discusses the gory violence of the older myth that the Stranger has in mind (112). This discussion calls to our attention the explicitly violent elements that surface at the end of the Stranger’s own mythical narration when he describes the time of Zeus. However, and perhaps even more importantly, Sallis’s presentation of the awful brutality in the myth of Atreus and Thyestes (the myth on which the Stranger claims to base his story), sheds some light on the sinister underbelly of the carefree time that the Stranger says reigns in the age of Cronos. For the students and scholars of the Statesman, Sallis’s analysis puts his work in conversation with such authors as Seth Benardete (1984), Melissa Lane (1998), and Mitchell Miller (1980), all of whom take note of address the various instances of violence in the Statesman. Based on Sallis’s discussion of violence in the original myth as well as of the work that comedy does in the Statesman, we can say that the comedic element. The comedy in the myth echoes the earlier diaretic comedy that abstracted from the differences between human and non-human animals. The erasure of distinctions leads to the possibility of the homogeneous and halcyon life in the age of Cronos where both animals and humans are all overseen or herded together by the divinities. However, this peaceful time falls away according to the strictures of preordained fate (Stat., 272e). It is superseded by the aggression that marks the onset of the age of Zeus.

The question of violence never quite leaves the dialogue, and perhaps in its persistence, we ought to see something having to do with the nature of ruling and being ruled. It is the kind of enterprise that, in virtue of what it is, includes harmful abstraction (from the particulars of life, from the uniqueness of the elements that make up the state, and so on). Sallis takes note of this, the inherent violence of ruling, when in his analysis of the division of the “πολιτική or βασιλική” from the various arts and occupations that constitute the polis, he highlights the Stranger’s recommendation that we should “divide them, as if it were a sacrificial victim, limb by limb … (Stat. 287c).”

The very art of the statesman is supposed to be identified according to the paradigmatic method (the method that Sallis addresses in his discussion of the paradigm, 120-122). In identifying this art, Sallis states, the “Stranger … strikes—and he says that he is striking—a dissonant note, one that sounds against the assumption regarding the delimitation of the right regime. In a sense,” Sallis continues, “he reaches all the way back to the beginning of the Statesman, back to that from which the initial series of divisions proceeded—a beginning that, despite all of the modifications and displacements, has remained at play. That beginning was knowledge” (132). Thus, the true statesman will leave other considerations aside (even the ones that have to do with the strictures and prescriptions of the law) and govern only relying on the knowledge of statesmanship.

Regarding the role of law in politics the dialogue makes a point, as Sallis observes, that the law is “poorly fitted to human affairs” (133). Sallis states that “[t]here are three points to consider regarding the Stranger’s discussion concerning law” (133). The first point has to do with the arithmetic character of the law, which abstracts from uniqueness and particularity, and therefore addresses all as if they were interchangeable units or ones (133-134). The second point is the “difficulty—if not impossibility—of prescribing for each one,” that is each particular individual, the proper course of political action (134). The third issue has to do with the alteration that the, so to speak, “living” spirit of the law undergoes once the law has been securely laid down in writing (134).

Hence, the dialogical discussion arrives at the conclusion that the best regime would be that in which the king ruled not necessarily in accordance with the written law, but through the knowledge of the king. However, this is a paradoxical conclusion. As Sallis observes, “the true statesman” can only be “found … in a regime that is removed … as a god is separated from human beings” (138). There is an unbridgeable distance between any human, law-governed regimes, and the allegedly best regime. “One could say, then, that the true statesman withdraws. … [W]e might venture to say that one can pursue these traces [of withdrawal], and so imitate the withdrawing statesman, only by engaging in that very withdrawal—that is, only by letting oneself be drawn along in the withdrawal. As to what such engagement requires—this remains an open question” (139). An answer to this question is ventured in such works as Shane Montgomery Ewegen’s, The Way of Platonic Socrates.[8]

[1] Ewegen’s editorial work, which includes many helpful notes on Sallis’s text, as well as excellent indexes in the English and Greek, is superb. Sallis’s own notes are indispensable to a thoroughgoing engagement both with Sallis’s lectures on the Symposium and the Statesman as well as with Plato’s own texts.

[2] On the issue of the “Theory of the Forms” or the “Theory of Ideas,” see also Drew Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (New York, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), 165-96.

[3] On Plato’s play, see further, John Sallis, Being and Logos: Reading the Platonic Dialogues (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); Bernard Freydberg, The Play of the Platonic Dialogues: Literature and the Sciences of Man (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.

[4] See also Sallis’s discussion of the Symposium’s dialogical frames in “Frames,” Comparative and Continental Philosophy Journal, 12(3) (2020): 245-53.

[5] See also Sallis, On Beauty and Measure, 30, 33. On the ridiculousness or the comedic nature of “lack of self-knowledge,” see the same, 32.

[6] See also Sallis’s observation about the way in which themes from Eryximachus’ account reappear in Agathon’s speech, 40.

[7] Sallis also helpfully situates the dramatic dating of the Statesman and includes a discussion of the dramatic progression from the Theaetetus to the Phaedo, 77.

[8] The notion of withdrawal can be traced back to Martin Heidegger’s thought, e.g., in What is Called Thinking (1954), Fred D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray trans. (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishing, 1968).