Jean Wahl: Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings

Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings Book Cover Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Jean Wahl
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Reviewed by:  Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)


‘Packaged as Meat, Frenchman Jean Wahl Flees Nazi Captors in Dramatic Escape’. So reads the 1942 newspaper headline reporting one of the more sensational escapades in the philosopher’s life (6–7, n. 15). Jean Wahl is one of a number of neglected existentialist thinkers who were opponents or victims of the Nazi régime. Philosophers in this tenuous position could no longer (if they ever had) regard their philosophy as separable from the concrete life that made it possible and otherwise informed it. For this reason, the editors’ thoroughly researched introductory essay, drawing on unpublished biographical material, is one of the most valuable features of the collection under review. After the Vichy Statute that excluded Jews from teaching, as the essay explains, Wahl continued to lead seminars from his hotel room on rue des Beaux-Arts. On the day that the area was seized by the Gestapo, Wahl, who was reading Heidegger with a small group of students, is reported to have quipped, ‘If the Gestapo comes, it will not hurt to say that we are studying Heidegger. The Nazis at one time thought highly of him.’ (4).

The memorable newspaper headline refers to Wahl’s eventually successful attempt to escape from occupied France in a ‘butcher cart’, ‘wrapped in the same kind of cloth that wrapped the sides of meat’ (Green cited on 6). This earthy image of the philosopher, the archetype of consciousness and reflective thought, packaged up as inanimate, unthinking flesh is astonishing and suggestive. It may even express the quintessence of the human condition. Is there not a sense in which to be ‘packaged as meat’ is simply to be human?

The question is at the centre of the main theme of this collection of essays: the relationship between transcendence and the concrete. In the volume’s final essay, Wahl explains his and his contemporaries’ preference for the word ‘existence’ over the more archaic ‘soul’:

it is because the soul was too often considered to be a permanent substance, was too clearly separated from the body, too clearly separated from the world. The union of soul and body, of soul and world—this is what is meant by the idea of existence. (267)

As the editors point out, Wahl was ‘a sensitive and insightful reader’ and interpreter of the work of his contemporaries (2). Notably, he promoted in France German philosophers, including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers (24–5), but his own philosophical voice can be heard in the engagements with other thinkers’ work that are presented in this collection (2). Wahl’s extensive engagement with Jaspers is of particular interest (chs. 6 & 7).

The volume partially reprints ‘The Problem of Choice: Existence and Transcendence in Jaspers’s Philosophy’ (Chapter 6), in which Wahl engages in detail with Jaspers’s complex philosophical system, focusing on those aspects which are of most relevance to his own thinking and which matter to him the most. He begins with the important observation that ‘Jaspers’s philosophy is both the negation of every system and the affirmation that a system is necessary for the intensity of the life of the mind.’ (134) Jaspers’s thought, as Wahl sees it, is based on two propositions, the first of which forms the basis for the second, even as the two propositions oppose and strive to negate one another. Wahl thus makes sense of an otherwise puzzling feature of Jaspers’s work: the tension between its apparently systematic form and its profoundly anti-systematic content. ‘There is…a struggle,’ Wahl says, ‘between philosophy and the form of the system; it always stands outside of the system and breaks it.’ (136)

Wahl’s essay on Jaspers shows just how thoroughly this collection has been edited. References are given to the German edition of Jaspers’s three-volume Philosophy and also, where possible, to E. B. Ashton’s English translation (134, n. 4). The editors also provide an English translation of Wahl’s French translations of Jaspers’s German, which can differ significantly from the published English translations of Jaspers. They also helpfully correct apparent errors in Wahl’s references. However, sections III and IV of the Jaspers essay (‘Transcendence’ and ‘The World of Ciphers’) have been cut ‘for reasons of length’ (147, n. 46). This is unfortunate, because these are the sections that are of most relevance to the theme of the volume as a whole. In these excised sections, Wahl sets out some of the formulas used by Jaspers to articulate the relationship between ‘transcendence’, which is ineffable, and the essentially ambiguous and unstable ‘ciphers’ in which, for Jaspers, transcendence is embodied in the world of concrete experience. In the conclusion to the essay, Wahl holds up Jaspers’s ‘cipher of failure’ as a major link between Jaspers’s theory and some of his own deepest philosophical concerns. But, for Wahl’s explanation of that theory (which is located in the excised section IV), the reader must look elsewhere (147 n. 46). The editorial decision to omit these two sections of Wahl’s text left this reader with the sense that the editors have at times focussed on details at the expense of the broader picture.

‘Subjectivity and Transcendence’ (ch. 7), offering a valuable transcript of the December 4, 1937 session of the Société Française de Philosophie, shows Wahl in living dialogue with some of the most important philosophers of the day. We hear Wahl’s philosophy emerging out of conversations with Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Levinas and others—either in person or by letter. Of particular interest are the lengthy transcribed conversation between Wahl and his friend, Gabriel Marcel and Wahl’s insightful articulation of a particular reservation he has about Jaspers’s thought. On the latter, Wahl states:

it is a general theory of philosophies, it is the work of an observer of philosophies, it is not the act of a philosopher himself choosing his symbol, his cipher [chiffre]. Or, if it is such an act, it loses its general value and is no longer a theory of philosophies in general. (164)

While Wahl acknowledges the importance of Jaspers’s work, for the reason given above, he regards it as ‘no longer necessary to place his philosophy within the same framework as the others’ (164). Rather than being ‘one of the most serious reproaches one could make against Jaspers’s theory’, this is a profound insight into the distinctive nature of his philosophy (164). For what could ‘a general theory of philosophies’ be, if not itself philosophy? And is this not precisely the most authentic kind of philosophy that we need, as opposed to the unreflective choice of a particular cipher, made in ignorance of the fact that ciphers are what are being chosen or even (our inescapable rootedness in traditions notwithstanding) that there is a choice to make? As Jaspers says in his letter to Wahl (on a different point), ‘what you designate as dangers is exactly what I would like to achieve, at least as I conceive it’ (191).

Overall, Transcendence and the Concrete makes an important contribution to the study of the life and thought of Jean Wahl and his contemporaries. Its transcript of the 1937 session and detailed biographical essay will be of particular value to scholars and students working in the field.

Vincent Blok: Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology

Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology: Heidegger and the Poetics of the Anthropocene Book Cover Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology: Heidegger and the Poetics of the Anthropocene
Vincent Blok
Hardback £105.00

Reviewed by: Salvatore Spina (Università degli Studi di Messina/Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg)

Il volume Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology. Heidegger and the Poetics of the Anthropocene di Vincent Block non è semplicemente uno studio sulla filosofia di Ernst Jünger e sull’influenza che questa ha avuto sul pensiero di Martin Heidegger. Naturalmente i presupposti teorici e le basi concettuali del lavoro di Block affondano le proprie radici nell’analisi dei testi fondamentali dei due autori in questione, ma nelle pagine del volume è possibile trovare molto di più; esso propone, per parafrasare l’espressione di Michel Foucault, un’ontologia dell’attualità. In maniera programmatica, proprio come incipit dell’introduzione al volume, scrive l’autore: «This book studies how Ernst Jünger – one of the greatest German authors of the twentieth century – envisioned the technological age we currently live in» (1).

In altri termini lo scopo dell’autore è di mostrare come l’armamentario filosofico utilizzato da Jünger nel secolo passato risulti, nonostante i cambiamenti storici, politici e sociali, ancora attuale per descrivere la nostra epoca che, mutatis mutandis, presenta le stesse caratteristiche descritte ne L’operaio. Epoca che ha come suo attore protagonista l’uomo della tecnica, la cui incidenza sulle trasformazioni del pianeta Terra è tale da determinare il passaggio ad una nuova era geologica: l’antropocene. Scrive l’autore: «The […] reason to study Jünger’s concept of the age of  technology is, therefore, that he provides concrete strategies and methods to envision the future. Furthermore, Jünger  is one of the first authors who conceptualize this future in terms of the anthropocene» (2).

Tuttavia Block non si limita semplicemente a proporre un’analisi dettagliata del pensiero di Jünger, al fine di mostrarne il carattere profetico e attuale. Nelle pagine dell’autore tedesco egli scorge, andando al di là dell’epocale interpretazione proposta da Heidegger, la possibilità di una considerazione non metafisica dell’essere e del linguaggio filosofico; concezione che, secondo Block, è affine al pensiero di Heidegger, dello Heidegger post-svolta, più di quanto quest’ultimo sia disposto ad ammettere.

La prima parte del volume presenta un’attenta disamina dei lavori jüngeriani degli anni Trenta. In particolar modo vengono presi in considerazione due testi capitali della riflessione del giovane Jünger: L’operaio e La mobilitazione totale.

Secondo l’interpretazione di Block la Grande Guerra, esperita in prima persona da Jünger nella battaglia di Lagemark e poi raccontata nelle pagine del testo Nelle tempeste d’acciaio, non è per il filosofo tedesco un semplice evento storico; essa è piuttosto il nome di un mutamento epocale, rappresenta cioè una vera e propria categoria filosofica. Nella Prima Guerra Mondiale avviene, secondo l’interpretazione di Jünger, un vero e proprio ‘scossone nell’ordine del mondo’, così da prospettare il declino tanto dei valori borghesi, che avevano retto l’ordine sociale della modernità, quanto delle categorie filosofiche di matrice platonica, che, nonostante vari mutamenti e correzioni, avevano lo scopo di fornire un senso al divenire. Scrive Block: «Total mobilization thus primarily has the effect of engendering ontological indifference, since every connection to the transcendent essence of thing is destroyed – Jünger also speaks of a “decrease of types” –  in favor of dynamization or potential energy» (11).

In altre parole, la Prima Guerra Mondiale funge da grimaldello per scardinare un ordine divenuto ormai vetusto che aveva edificato le proprie certezze intorno all’interpretazione dell’uomo come animal rationale. Distrutta ogni connessione con l’essenza, svincolata l’interpretazione dell’umanità dell’umano dall’attributo della razionalità (almeno così come questa è pensata nell’ambito della modernità), l’uomo nell’epoca della tecnica dispiegata è da considerare in relazione a criteri del tutto inediti: l’efficienza, la funzionalità, la riproducibilità.

Detto in maniera esplicita, dalla descrizione di Jünger emerge un nuovo tipo umano; inizialmente la sua forma viene associata a quella del guerriero, successivamente, e in maniera filosoficamente più pregnante, dagli anni Trenta in avanti questo nuovo tipo umano, svincolato dall’ordine che egli stesso contribuisce a distruggere con la propria azione, avrà la forma dell’operaio.

Partendo da queste considerazioni Block si muove seguendo due vettori ermeneutici fondamentali, che in qualche modo gli studi jüngeriani danno per acquisiti da qualche decennio. Da un lato emerge chiaramente il riferimento di Jünger alla filosofia di Nietzsche, tanto nell’interpretazione del proprio tempo come nichilismo, quanto nella declinazione della mobilitazione totale (forse accostabile all’attivismo di cui parlava Nietzsche) come trasformazione della vita in energia; dall’altro lato il pensiero di Jünger non viene affrontato semplicemente nella sua dimensione narrativa, poetica, descrittiva, bensì indagato nella sua radice squisitamente filosofica ed essenziale. Utilizzando il lessico heideggeriano, potremmo dire che Block mette in evidenza lo spessore ontologico delle analisi di Jünger, non limitando l’analisi all’indagine ontica che, in qualche modo, è largamente diffusa nelle pagine del filosofo di Wilflingen.

Nella seconda parte del testo Block presenta un confronto tra la filosofia di Jünger e quella di Martin Heidegger. Il grande merito del lavoro di Block è quello di non limitarsi ad analizzare i testi in cui avviene un confronto diretto tra i due autori sulla questione del nichilismo – Oltre la linea di Jünger e La questione dell’essere di Heidegger. Da un lato, Block analizza Essere e tempo e i testi di Heidegger degli anni Trenta a partire da una prospettiva inedita, ovvero la questione del lavoro; egli mostra come tra la visone jüngeriana e quella heideggeriana vi siano dei punti di contatto ma anche delle divergenze enormi che in qualche modo rimandano al contesto generale entro cui si svolge l’intera riflessione filosofica dei due autori.

Dall’altro lato, Block focalizza la propria attenzione sul volume 90 della Gesamtausgabe in cui Heidegger si confronta direttamente ed esplicitamente con Jünger e in particolar modo con il testo L’operaio. Il lavoro filosofico di Block si muove in due direzioni parallele, mostrando sia la centralità del lavoro ermeneutico di Heidegger per poter comprendere lo spessore ontologico del pensiero di Jünger sia la possibilità di un superamento dell’interpretazione heideggeriana in virtù di una considerazione diversa della riflessione dello stesso Jünger.

Il limite della prospettiva ermeneutica heideggeriana consisterebbe, secondo Block, nell’incapacità di comprendere fino in fondo la dimensione non metafisica della riflessione di Jünger; spinto dalla necessità di far rientrare ad ogni costo anche il pensiero jüngeriano nei limiti propri della metafisica occidentale, accostandolo in tal modo a Nietzsche, Heidegger avrebbe fornito, dunque, un’interpretazione parziale e per alcuni versi faziosa. Scrive l’autore: «It will become clear that Heidegger’s reception of Jünger is biased. Because he takes Jünger’s writings a priori as philosophical reflections in light of Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will to power, Heidegger does not see that Jünger is under way to a non-metaphysical method to en vision the turning of Being, and to a non-metaphysical concept of language that is much closer to Heidegger’s than he would admit» (56).

Questa riconsiderazione del pensiero di Jünger in una prospettiva non nichilistica, al di là dell’orizzonte della storia della metafisica tracciata da Heidegger, viene condotta da Block – nella terza ed ultima parte del volume qui in esame – attraverso un’analisi del linguaggio e della poetica del pensiero di Jünger.

Come accennato in precedenza, in questo contesto il pensiero di Jünger presenta delle assonanze con la riflessione dello Heidegger post-svolta. Attraverso un’analisi puntuale del testo Al muro del tempo, Block ricava dall’opera jüngeriana una riconsiderazione fondamentale dell’essenza del linguaggio e del dire poetico, l’unico in grado di parlare realmente nell’epoca della ‘perfezione della tecnica’ in cui anche il linguaggio si riduce all’efficienza e alla funzionalità.

Nella poesia si realizza quel ‘passaggio al bosco’ che caratterizza la forma di resistenza propria nell’era del dominio incontrastato della tecnica; non una negazione dei caratteri propri della tecnica, ma un attraversamento poetante che in tal modo fornisce forme inedite di libertà. Scrive Block: «The freedom of the individual is to resist the threat of the perfection of technology and to find a way beyond the nihilist reduction and the perfection of technology, based on this individual freedom» (115).

In ultima istanza, al di là delle apparenti differenze terminologiche e contestuali, per Block risulta evidente come tanto per Jünger quanto per Heidegger l’unico modo di corrispondere all’Essere e al suo mistero nell’epoca del nichilismo dispiegato sia la poesia: «This Geheimnis of the gestalt makes clear that the new epoch of the worker is not a matter of observation but of poetry» (141).

Il volume di Vincent Block è un ottimo strumento per confrontarsi con una delle questioni fondamentali del Novecento, quella della tecnica, la cui onda lunga caratterizza il nostro tempo in maniera forse ancor più pregnante che in passato. La chiarezza espositiva, i riferimenti puntuali alla bibliografia primaria e secondaria lo rendono un segnavia essenziale, uno dei primi in lingua inglese, da un lato per comprendere la disamina filosofica della questione della tecnica e delle declinazioni che ne hanno dato Jünger e Heidegger, dall’altro per confrontarsi con le problematiche che danno forma al nostro oggi e ‘provocano’ la nostra storicità e il nostro essere nel mondo.


Peter E. Gordon: Adorno and Existence

Adorno and Existence Book Cover Adorno and Existence
Peter E. Gordon
Harvard University Press
Hardcover £23.95

Reviewed by: Jarno Hietalahti (University of Jyväskylä)

Peter E. Gordon has written a compelling book entitled Adorno and Existence about Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s relationship to existentialism. Gordon admits in the very first sentence of his book that Adorno was not an existentialist, however, according to Gordon’s analysis, Adorno was intrigued by existentialism and tantalized by phenomenology through his academic career. Gordon offers a new research perspective on Adorno’s work which has often been bypassed by secondary literature. He suggests that, although Adorno is renowned as one who challenges philosophies of existence, his position as a critic is not as straightforwardly negative as one might think.

The structure of the work begins with early ontological matters, it moves to The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), then towards Negative Dialectics (1966) and finally to salvaging metaphysics. The form and the content of the book intertwine in a spiral which lures the reader in its undertow. In a laudable manner, Gordon offers a comprehensive view of Adorno’s often forgotten and marginalized writings and lectures. All in all, the sources he refers to in support of his endeavour are well chosen for the task in hand.

Despite the complexity and depth of the subject matter, the book reads well thanks to Gordon’s skills as a writer and his philosophical acumen (for instance, his book Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, 2010, won the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society). It would have been prudent and useful to readers if an accessible list of references had been included, and not only a list of aberrations, as this would save the reader from searching through the endnotes for titles which have been referred to. This small criticism aside, Gordon conducts encompassing and convincing research to demonstrate the importance of key existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger from the beginning of Adorno’s academic career through to the final days of his life. Gordon builds the story eloquently; he starts and ends with Kierkegaard and the structure is insightful as Adorno wrote his Habilitationsschrift (a second dissertation) on Kierkegaard, and lectured on his work during the last years of his career (a 40 year timespan).

It is not surprising that Gordon presents Heidegger as the main opponent and counterpart to Adorno’s thought as Gordon has analysed Heidegger’s philosophy in his other books and in numerous articles (e.g. Gordon 2003; 2007; 2013). In this text he tries to situate Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy alongside Adorno’s social criticism; a daring and respectable task. Gordon argues that Adorno’s central idea about the primacy of the object is an attempt to finish what existential philosophers had sought to accomplish before him. According to Gordon, Adorno’s relentless criticism of existentialists is a redemption of existence. When Adorno argues that Kierkegaard and Heidegger failed to overcome a lurking idealism, it is because he envisions his philosophy as “the overcoming of existentialism but also its fulfillment” (145).

Gordon is clearly aware of Adorno’s repeated criticism of existential philosophers as the book examines even the harshest parts of these writings, however, he claims this is a reversal recognition. For Gordon, as Adorno’s intensive interest in existentialism and phenomenology spans multiple decades, he must see a hidden potential in these philosophical systems despite the failings he makes explicit. This speculative claim gives ground to a deeper consideration and reframing of Adorno’s critical thinking. Gordon builds on the old and accepted truth about Adorno (that if he states something, he will denounce the very same thought just a couple of pages later) to point to some neglected ironies in Adorno’s works and reminds us that it is intellectually insincere to focus on isolated critical slogans. As Adorno writes in the Negative Dialectics; philosophy should not forget its clownish traits: “Philosophy is the most serious thing, but then again it is not all that serious.” (Adorno, 1966, 14)

Counting on the aforementioned trait in Adorno’s writings, Gordon is able to turn the tables around time and time again. For instance, he notes how Adorno criticizes époché (a method of phenomenological bracketing) which is supposed to help to catch the pure oneself; a method of understanding and seeing how the world exists for one. Adorno suggests that this method fails miserably, and is basically transcendental xenophobia. Despite this straightforward crushing, Gordon finds evidence on how Adorno goes beyond a mere superficial panning, and wants to seek truth in what he has just a moment ago considered to be phenomenological untruth. Adorno, according to Gordon, does not want to refute phenomenology through negation but, instead, he is on a quest to show how this “failure bears within itself a hidden philosophical insight.” (64)

As the text proceeds, it is easy to grasp Gordon’s primary objective; to show that Adorno has an intellectual bond with existentialism and phenomenology. Gordon takes the sheer number of references provided as proof of this. However, one cannot accept that Gordon necessarily gets it right when he suggests that Adorno did not specifically reject existential philosophy just because he returned to the same themes again and again over many decades. Adorno was always critical towards authoritarianism, for example, and he never ceased to question the socially shared insanity in the Western world but it would be wrong to suggest that, because Adorno wrote so much about authoritarianism he saw a hidden promise in authoritarian thinking and movements.

The text does contain some careless formulations occasionally, e.g. Gordon considers Adorno a satirical writer who tries to pop the balloons of rigid authority with his dry and poisonous wit and it could be argued that true satirists tend to offer something to replace their ridiculed targets but Adorno does not do this. Instead, he uses bitter humour to belittle shared cultural insanity, philosophical hypocrisy and individuals who are simply wrong (according to his perspective). In his mockery Adorno rarely offers sympathy for the target of his ridicule; instead, he is sarcastic and quite often smug in relation to the way he offends others. Interestingly, Gordon includes an extract of one of Adorno’s letters to Herbert Marcuse where he belittles Heidegger’s student Otto Friedrich Bollnow after the publication of The Jargon of Authenticity (December, 15, 1964): “Ernst Bloch phoned to say that because of the ‘Jargon’ Bollnow is having a nervous breakdown. Let him.” (88). Adorno does give a charitable rationalization for his so-called satirical technique when he tries to embarrass people; he thought that once an authority is ridiculed its fragile nature is revealed (through laughter), then the followers of that authority would be keen to stop worshipping their former hero. This is the very same sociological thought on which Henri Bergson’s Laughter (1911) is based. Bergson argues that laughter is a form of social control and a tool to straighten people up from their silly habits. Sadly for Adorno, this does not justify every kind of banter, and a mere rationalization hardly turns a ruthless mockery into a more constructive form of satire.

At times, Gordon makes questionable rhetorical choices and one can identify a subtle smugness in formulations such as “Those who come to critical theory burdened with customary opinion…” (6), or “Adorno’s critical orientation can appear relentlessly negative, and many readers fail to see that his negativity still flows, however faintly, with a rationalist’s hope for a better world.” (11) If these points are to be taken literally, Gordon is suggesting that merited Adorno scholars are taking a ‘wrong’ approach and one might ask, where does this leave those who are new to Adorno’s work?

Similar accusations are present throughout the text as Gordon suggests that Adorno scholars who interpret his written works on existentialism as sidesteps and meaningless aberrations from the philosophical core do so neglectfully. Despite such criticisms Gordon himself displays intellectual lapses in relation to Heidegger as, though he acknowledges the controversies about Heidegger’s relationship to National Socialism, he claims that this should not cloud our vision of his philosophy. However, for the critical theorist truth is always historical and social circumstances must play a significant role. A shrug of the shoulders is not enough to allow one to bypass Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism; this is a major issue of debate which has recently resurfaced due to the publication of the so-called Black Notebooks (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

Whilst Gordon agrees that philosophical texts are part of a social whole (at least in Adorno’s case), he also claims that they cannot be reduced to this whole. It is on these grounds that he seeks to excuse the omission of any treatment of Heidegger’s relation to fascism in this text. Unfortunately, the rationale behind this omission not entirely convincing. Gordon allows himself privileges that he denies to others; he regards dubious writings by Heidegger as mere deviations (though some scholars argue that they are essential), and at the same time he claims that certain works by Adorno should not be neglected as they allow one to trace the development of his critical thinking. It is not entirely consistent for Gordon to claim that Adorno’s marginal texts are important (as one may understand them as intellectual test laboratories), but Heidegger’s marginal texts (which several scholars consider as representative of his philosophical thinking) should be considered mere sidesteps.

Gordon describes how the political and economic situation forced Adorno to emigrate from Germany to England in the 1930s, and how racial laws resulted in the decommission of his professorship. The situation resulted in Adorno having to complete a second doctorate at the University of Oxford in an intellectual environment where his enthusiasm for social theory was not shared. Gordon claims “it is against this sombre background of exile and isolation that we must understand Adorno’s readiness to bury himself in the texts of classical phenomenology.” (59) He makes a valuable point, but it again raises the issue concerning the importance of taking the social-historical situation into account when analysing the work of Heidegger.

Let us consider what remains untreated by Adorno and Existence; e.g. Gordon mentions Karl Marx twice and Sigmund Freud only once, yet both are highly influential thinkers in relation to Adorno’s intellectual development. The text concerns Adorno and existentialism so there is no need for a comprehensive study of these two critical thinkers; even so, a comparison of their influence on Adorno with that of existentialists’ would have been a valuable addition. Also, Adorno’s concept of somatic impulse (which is based on psychoanalytical thinking) is completely neglected by this text. Through this concept Adorno presents an individual with the possibility to feel that there is something wrong with the world without giving positive answers to the problem. Somatic impulse comes close to what Erich Fromm (Adorno’s former colleague and rival) calls ‘existential needs’; as they offer a dialectic but normative standpoint for both philosophy and social criticism. It would have been interesting to read about whether Gordon finds any connection between somatic impulse and, e.g. the phenomenological idea of ‘being in the world’.

All in all, Adorno and Existence is an important and insightful book as it highlights previously untreated features of Adorno’s intellectual development and his academic career. Gordon’s work presents an interesting historical and biographical study; his style concerns an original method which requires one to assemble clues that are presented through a complex story (which has not been told or fully understood before). In the style of Adorno, Gordon reminds us; that if one is to criticize something, it means that one has to make a serious and rigorous attempt to analyse the target of the criticism, otherwise the enterprise engages in nothing more than cultural chatter (a point which is well formulated and taken into account throughout Gordon’s work). It is unclear if jury will be unanimous with their verdict on this particular book as both phenomenologists and critical theorists may find the book, eventually, not entirely convincing. That said, Gordon succeeds in giving food for thought and opening up new perspectives to Adorno scholars about Adorno’s intellectual relationship to existentialism and phenomenology.

The gravest problems with the book (discussed above) lie on the meta-level and, if a brief speculation is allowed, Adorno would probably not agree with Gordon’s analysis in relation to Heidegger. Adorno, one of the sharpest critics of fascism in the 20th century, is portrayed as the saviour of Heideggerian phenomenology. Many philosophers argue (especially after the publication of the Black Notebooks) that there is an intrinsic connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and anti-Semitism. If this is the case, then Adorno himself would be rather appalled by Gordon’s conclusion: that Adorno is the one who wants to save Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is difficult to couple Heidegger (a member of the Nazi party from 1933 until the end of Second World War), and Adorno (a persecuted Jew who had to leave his motherland because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis). The historical burden is so heavy that it cannot by bypassed with a mere statement that the author does not agree with Heidegger’s fascistic tendencies but is not going to treat the question of how they are present within his philosophical works. Some scholars (e.g. Rée 2014, Losurdo 2014) argue that Heidegger’s anti-Semitic ideas taint only his person and do not impact deeply on the core of his philosophy. However, critics such as Peter Trawny (editor of the Black Notebooks) argue that Heidegger actually processed his anti-Semitic ideas philosophically. The issue of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and its presence in Heidegger’s works should be taken seriously when discussing a critical thinker like Adorno (from a Jewish background) as it is significant in relation to understanding Heidegger’s legacy. Unfortunately, Gordon does not make such an attempt.

Referred works

Adorno, T. W. 1964. The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. K. Tarnowski and F. Will, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Adorno, T. W. 1966. Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

Bergson, H. 1911. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans., Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999.

Gordon, P. E. 2003. Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy. University of California Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2007. “Hammer without a Master: French Phenomenology and the Origins of Deconstruction (or, How Derrida read Heidegger).” In: Historicizing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Gordon, P. E. 2010. Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Harvard University Press.

Gordon, P. E. 2013. “The Empire of Signs: Heidegger’s Critique of Idealism in Being and Time.” In: The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. New York: Cambridge.

Heidegger, M. 2014a. Überlegungen II–VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931–1938) [Reflections II–VI (Black Notebooks 1931–1938)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014b. Überlegungen VII–XI (Schwarze Hefte 1938/39) [Reflections VII–XI (Black Notebooks 1938/39)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Heidegger, M. 2014c. Überlegungen XII–XV (Schwarze Hefte 1939–1941) [Reflections XII–XV (Black Notebooks 1939–1941)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.

Losurdo, D. 2014. “Heidegger’s black notebooks aren’t that surprising.” In: The Guardian. March 19, 2014.

Rée, J. 2014. “In defence of Heidegger”. In: Prospect. March 12, 2014.

Giuseppina D’Oro, Søren Overgaard (Eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology

The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology Book Cover The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology
Cambridge Companions to Philosophy
Giuseppina D'Oro, Søren Overgaard (Eds.)
Cambridge University Press
Paperback £ 23.99

Reviewed by: Roland Bolz (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

In the 21st century, the landscape of philosophical methods and orientations seems increasingly complex. Reference to ‘schools of thought’ may be misleading, suggesting more internal coherence than exists. Yet, (non-)allegiance to certain ideas about style and method can have real institutional consequences. At present, one can observe an increasing number of debates focused on the reliability of certain philosophical methods. Some attention is being given to how the ever-changing methods and scope of philosophy set it apart from the sciences. Lastly, there have been attempts to understand certain philosophical disagreements as disagreements on a meta-philosophical level, i.e. disagreements about the proper scope, data, standards, and goals of philosophy itself. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology situates itself in this context of increasing reflection on methods and on the role of philosophy itself.

The editors Giuseppina D’Oro and Søren Overgaard have gathered an admirable roster of twenty authors with the aim to exhibit the contemporary wealth of positions and debates regarding philosophical methods. Quite generally, nearly all the contributions can be described as normative in scope, i.e. as giving arguments for why one should espouse certain methods. The collection gives a very good cross section of contemporary orientations in philosophy, with some of the essays aimed at a general philosophical readership and others more focused on issues internal to certain traditions. Although the collection is naturally heterogeneous (given the heterogeneity of the philosophical field itself), there is plenty of implicit conversation between the essays, including between those from adherents of different traditions.

The volume is organized into four main parts. The first section concerns broad views of philosophy. It includes essays on the merits of philosophy for the individual, the need for a systematic impulse, the centrality of the human perspective, and on disagreement in philosophy. The second part is concerned with the central thesis of analytic philosophy, which is that the proper method of philosophy is conceptual analysis. Here, different versions of this claim are defended and criticisms from naturalism and experimental philosophy are considered. The third part gathers essays about philosophical methods/orientations (e.g. Kantianism, pragmatism, and quietism) which are not classifiable as continental or analytic. The final part gathers essays clearly continental in orientation (concerning the methods of phenomenology, deconstruction, existentialism, and hermeneutics).

This division into parts befits the content of the essays well. It has the disadvantage of reifying the analytic/continental divide somewhat, perhaps discouraging cross-reading the essays, despite the editors’ reservations regarding the usefulness of this divide. Hence, the remainder of this review is organized around certain dominant themes which appear throughout the volume and which mostly disregard the organization into parts by the editors. Instead of giving detailed summaries of all twenty essays here, which would be beyond the scope of this review, the following will be an impression of the contents of the book in a single account.

The Data of Philosophy

One of the recurrent themes of the volume and a good start when orienting oneself in the vast field of philosophy is the question regarding the data for philosophizing. As Nicholas Rescher points out in his chapter, the available data for philosophy are very diverse, ranging from common sense beliefs, to recent scientific findings, to history, to empirical experience of the world around us, to ideas delivered to us from the philosophical tradition – as he says: “we always begin with a diversified cognitive heritage.” (34) The choice of a method for philosophizing seems to correlate with a preoccupation with certain data. This, of course, is reflected in the other essays in the volume as well, where very different data are considered key to the conceptual work that philosophers engage in. One may extend Rescher’s idea somewhat by recognizing that some philosophers consider the artistic productions of past and present times among the most important data for their philosophizing. This is common in continental philosophy, were one can expect philosophical books about the meaning of Franz Kafka’s work, among others. Also, for some philosophers, transformative first-person life experiences are among the key data to philosophizing (as for Sartre and Adorno, discussed in the essays of J. Reynolds & P. Stokes and Fabian Freyenhagen).

Apart from a positive choice, I would submit that a philosophical method may include the choice to disregard certain sorts of data in favor of others. In the example of methodological doubt (Descartes), the negative aspect of choosing to limit oneself to certain data only is clear. One can find similar tendencies in varieties of ‘critical philosophy’ such as Kantianism and in Wittgenstein’s quietism (explored in the chapter by David MacArthur). The latter chooses to view with suspicion the doctrines of classical ontology and favors observations of actual language use as more reliable data for philosophizing. As a philosophical approach, this is clearly powered by a negative (yet enabling) decision regarding the ‘correct’ data.

Another example of a disagreement about the data of philosophy is between proponents of naturalism and proponents of conceptual analysis, where the former advocate the primacy of phenomena over our concepts and the latter advocate the primacy of linguistic meanings for settling philosophical disputes. That said, as the essay by Hans-Johann Glock about ‘impure conceptual analysis’ shows, intermediate positions are possible. He sketches a form of conceptual analysis where concepts are still regarded as a priori, but where empirical and ethical concerns are put into play. The downright naturalistic perspective, where thinking about knowledge becomes inseparable from the cognitive sciences, is sketched by Hilary Kornblith in his chapter.

Another important theme in the volume concerns the reliability of data. Even if philosophers largely agree on the choice of data for philosophizing, there may be worries about how reliable those data really are. In analytic philosophy, one commonly employs the method of cases, where a short vignette is presented to establish or put into question certain intuitions about philosophical claims. In recent years, so-called ‘experimental philosophers’ have put into question the reliability of this method. The main issue is that one can show, using statistical methods, that certain choices made in the design of the vignette may influence the outcome, even if those choices should be irrelevant. If the outcome of such tests is not stable upon changing seemingly irrelevant details, it may be called into question whether the case reliably prompts the kind of intuition which was taken as evidence for the philosophical claim under discussion. This theme is taken up in detail in the chapter by Jonathan M. Weinberg. Far from criticizing the method of cases in its entirety, Weinberg explains that experimental philosophy aims to exercise a type of ‘quality control’ having both a restrictive and constructive side. This debate is best understood as internal to the tradition of philosophy as conceptual analysis in the armchair.

The question of the accessibility of philosophical data also emerges in phenomenology, addressed in the chapter by David R. Cerbone. In short, there is a gap between the ‘natural attitude’ (when we engage with our surroundings without reflecting on the role of consciousness) and the act of phenomenological reflection (when we consider the active role consciousness plays in constituting reality). But clearly, when engaging in the latter, one reflects on what is ‘given’ in consciousness – the question of data. The next question then becomes: what is it in the natural attitude that permits or calls us into the mode of phenomenological investigation? Cerbone draws attention to how Husserl and Heidegger try to bridge this gap differently. He points out that with both authors, an act of phenomenological reflection must be performed by the reader if she wants to understand a phenomenological text; she must somehow recall that the ideas in such a text also adequately describe her own experience.

Philosophical Disagreement

Several of the chapters focus on understanding the nature and extent of philosophical disagreement. As has often been noted, disagreement seems to be a rather pervasive feature of the philosophical field, especially when compared to the sciences. One can readily find ways to account for this. It may be that philosophy is simply harder than regular science. Alternatively, it may be that for many problems, it has not found the proper perspective (a sentiment that is strong in Kant’s philosophy, who thought that he had for the first time found the right perspective on the relation between intuition and understanding). The essays in the volume explore more subtle explanations.

Amie L. Thomasson presents an interesting perspective which accounts for at least some of the lasting disagreement. She builds on the already mentioned idea from Wittgenstein, Carnap, and others that philosophy is ultimately a form of conceptual analysis and thus primarily concerned with the proper use of concepts. This perspective has the great advantage that it does not put philosophy in a position rivalling physics (our best way of explaining ‘reality’), by focusing on language and not directly on reality itself. However, as she points out, according to the classical analytic conception, this type of work has a strictly descriptive character. Hence, it remains somewhat obscure how there can be lasting disagreement if all one needs to do is analyze the meaning of a concept. Also, if it is merely descriptive, this type of work is not so easily distinguished from linguistics after all. Her proposal to counteract these worries is to regard conceptual analysis as not only descriptive, but also prescriptive in nature. In other words, on her view, philosophers do not only debate about how words are used, but also about how they should be used – they engage in “metalinguistic negotiations” (David Plunkett quoted by Thomasson, p. 109). This proposal amounts to admitting that our conceptual schemes are often malleable and open to “ameliorative” revision (Sally Haslanger quoted by Thomasson, p. 115).

Questions that could be debated on this level are, for example, whether alcoholism is a disease, or what the best definition of ‘a person’ is. In both cases, wider societal, legal, and ethical concerns may inform our attempts at conceptual revision. An advantage of this view is that it does allow us to reinterpret a lot of ‘heavyweight metaphysics’ as negotiations of this sort. Often, it indeed seems to be the case that debates are so heated because participants are not merely trying to hit upon the one ‘correct’ usage of a pre-given concept but are advocating the best analysis among possible candidates. This opens the door to an ethical and at times imaginative type of conceptual analysis. (Thomasson suggests some compatibility between this notion and Foucault’s work on madness.)

Another essay concerned with the question of philosophical disagreement is Giuseppina D’Oro’s. The dispute she focuses on is between causalists (those who believe there are only events) and anti-causalists (those who believe there are events and actions). She asserts that on an abstract level, there seems to be little hope of resolving such debates, since there are respectable discourses which are causalist in character (engineering, physics, biology) and discourses which also speak of actions (history, sociology, psychology). D’Oro’s proposal, which follows suggestions from R.G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history, is that this debate is “best understood as a conflict between methodological practices which govern different forms of enquiry and the conception of reality that is entailed by them.” (221) The role of philosophy becomes not so much to settle the debate in favor of either of the positions, but to recognize that reality admits of several ontological schemes, dependent on the mode of inquiry undertaken (e.g. history or physics). Since both modes of enquiry are deemed legitimate as sciences, the two ontological schemes are ‘conditions of possibility’ for those modes of enquiry. Certainly, this seems to be applicable to the example debate, but one wonders whether other debates may be recast this way.

A chapter by Robert B. Talisse on pragmatism documents how the relation of pragmatist philosophies (Peirce, James, Dewey, Rorty) to the rest of philosophy is decidedly meta-philosophical. That is, the pragmatists related to other philosophies not on the level of first-order ideas but by developing intricate meta-ideas about philosophy itself. Talisse proposes this as a distinctive feature and risk of pragmatism. Finally, the chapter by Herman Cappelen, most explicitly about disagreement, tackles the claim that philosophy seems plagued by deep disagreements on a more empirical level. By and large, he puts into question the evidence for this claim in a convincing yet somewhat apologetic manner.

The Aims of Philosophy

Another important marker of methodological orientation appearing throughout this volume is the aim one ascribes to philosophy. Again, I would submit that one’s views on the aims of philosophy will generally correlate to some first-order philosophical ideas and with some view regarding philosophy’s data. For example, a scientifically inclined philosopher (‘science is our best way to describe reality’) might declare philosophy to be an “underlabourer to the sciences” (Locke), helping to elucidate the workings of science (epistemology, philosophy of science) whilst warning not to go above and beyond science. On the other hand, the larger one considers the conceptual and experiential territory outside of the bounds of science strictu sensu, the larger one may consider the task of philosophy. Also, there is the recurrent theme of the irreconcilability of internal and external perspectives on such phenomena as consciousness. Certainly, philosophers must not be oblivious about such external investigations (e.g. cognitive sciences) but they need not hand over the keys just like that either. Both the philosophy of mind and phenomenology seem to agree on this. On such views, the aim of philosophy may become to reconcile the findings of cognitive science with our first-person experience of our life-world (as advocated in the chapter by Jean-Luc Petit).

Although the volume has a section which is sort of devoted to the aims of philosophy (Part I: Visions of Philosophy), the theme certainly resonates throughout the entire volume. We already saw Amie L. Thomasson’s extension of conceptual analysis into normative and ameliorative territory. Along similar lines, Robert Piercey presents a case study of the analytic-continental divide, focusing on Richard Rorty (allegedly on the analytic side) and Paul Ricoeur (allegedly on the continental side), who share certain metaphilosophical convictions. Piercey calls these the metaphilosophy of hope and the metaphilosophy of historicity. The former designates that a central goal of philosophy should be to theorize for a better future. He shows us in some detail how this view takes shape in both thinkers and suggests that such metaphilosophical views are ultimately more helpful to orient oneself in the larger philosophical field (beyond the analytic-continental divide). Fabian Freyenhagen’s essay about critical theory and Adorno’s relation to philosophy can be taken along similar lines. There, Adorno is shown to both criticize classical philosophy to work towards its unfulfilled promises. The aim of critical theory is to soften the all too rigid hold certain problematic conceptual schemes have on society at large. This procedure both borrows from philosophy and criticizes it wherever it is found to be complicit in reinforcing the present social order. All of this also raises the questions how creative (in the sense of producing novelty) philosophy should aim to be. As A.W. Moore points out in his essay, the enduring influence of Wittgenstein in analytic philosophy has turned that tradition away from the creative conception of philosophy, an idea which is well alive with continental thinkers such as Deleuze & Guattari.

Beyond such collective aims, philosophy may also have real consequences for individuals engaging in it. Alessandra Tanesini explores a broadly Socratic view of philosophy on which the central aim for the individual is to find a way to live beautifully. She promotes the idea that this requires one to train one’s epistemic self-confidence. This includes skills pertaining to argumentation and concept-formation as well as the emotional capacity to defend unorthodox views within one’s community. Philosophy, construed as such, can greatly contribute to this effort and hence help an individual aiming to live beautifully.

Final Remarks

The volume offers a diverse and valuable cross section of discussions regarding philosophical methods. By and large it focuses on methodological ideas which are supported by tradition. The essays display a healthy degree of implicit conversation between them. Reading the entire volume at once will sharpen even the advanced reader’s sensitivity and appreciation of the matter. All the essays are directed at an uninitiated readership, fulfilling the aim of facilitating conversation between different methodological orientations. Let me now close this review with some minor criticisms.

The volume may be found wanting with regards to methods of formal logic. Positions on the role of logical methods for philosophy differ greatly, but it seems that a sufficient segment of academic philosophy attaches great value to them (especially in connection to conceptual analysis and philosophy of language). Many of the classical philosophical paradigms went hand in hand with views on logic. At a more mundane level, logic plays into the (re)construction of arguments, which is part and parcel of philosophical activity. The volume lacks any discussion of the role of logic in the narrow or wide sense.

A more nuanced worry is the following. By focusing on established methods which seem to be shared between many philosophers, the volume furthermore risks neglecting that the history of philosophy is often marked by a degree of methodological extremism. That is, it sometimes seems like each philosopher invents his/her own methods anew. It may be that the volume, despite its pluralist stance, ends up portraying the philosophical field as more unified than it really is. Relatedly, it does not always recognize the negative experience of not understanding an opponent’s position – an experience surely at the heart of philosophical activity since Plato’s Euthyphro.

Here is a final question regarding the evolution of new methods that the essays in the volume suggest but do not really breach. Consider the following: Let us say that upon reading the works of a certain philosopher X, we discern that she is a proponent of the new method Y. Such schemes are by now familiar, and the Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology offers an abundance of examples. Now consider the following question: before X committed their thoughts to paper, what was their ‘method’ Z for arriving at the method Y? In other words, is there a useful distinction for methods understood as internal to philosophical programs and methods used to develop new ones? Given the plurality of different philosophical methods that have accompanied philosophy since its inception, is not deliberation about (new) methods among the key tasks of the philosopher? Far from suggesting an infinite regress, I merely want to express that there may be more dynamism to the philosophical practice than an evaluation of framework-internal methodologies will be able to bring to the surface. If, as Stanley Cavell puts it “philosophy is one of its own normal topics” (Cavell cited in D’Oro & Overgaard, 4), one might add that reflection on philosophical methods is one of philosophy’s normal methods. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology is a recommendable way into this terrain.

Works Cited

  1. Cavell, S. Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays. updated edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  2. Collingwood, R. G. The Principles of History. eds. W. H. Dray and Jan van der Dussen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  3. Descartes, R. Meditations on First Philosophy. trans. D. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
  4. D’Oro, Giuseppina, and Søren Overgaard, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  5. Foucault, M. Madness and Civilization. trans. R. Howard. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
  6. Haslanger, S. Resisting Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  7. Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Glasgow: Collins and Sons, 1964.
  8. Plato. Complete Works. Ed. J. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
  9. Plunkett , D. “Which Concepts Should We Use?: Metalinguistic Negotiations and the Methodology of Philosophy,” Inquiry 58, no. 7-8 (2015): 828-74.


John Sallis (Ed.): Plato’s Statesman: Dialectic, Myth, and Politics

Plato's Statesman: Dialectic, Myth, and Politics Book Cover Plato's Statesman: Dialectic, Myth, and Politics
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
John Sallis (Ed.)
SUNY Press
Hardcover $90.00

Reviewed by: Nicola Grayson (The University of Manchester)

John Sallis’ edited text Plato’s Statesman; Dialectic, Myth and Politics is a collection of essays on Plato’s Statesman (Politicus). The dialogue is part of a trilogy that includes Theatetus, Sophist and Statesman, which, together seek to define three key figures; the sophist, the statesman, and the philosopher. Theatetus is concerned with understanding the nature of knowledge, the Sophist seeks to identify traits of the sophist (as distinct from the philosopher) and the Statesman seeks to define the statesman. Though the dialogues do not explicitly address the nature of the philosopher, by eliminating the characteristics ascribed to the other figures we may grasp some of the traits and features a philosopher should possess. One must note the proximity of the conversation in the Statesman to the trial and execution of Socrates as the threat of his impending absence permeates the text and is reinforced by his withdrawal from the discussion. In Theatetus the train of events leading to Socrates death has already been set in motion so that when the conversation of the Statesman takes place it has already been decided that he will go to trial. The dialogue alludes to the coming events, and towards the end the Stranger launches into an assault on the democratic regime (see 299c).

The essays in this collection approach the Statesman as a ‘strange mixture’ of mathematics, politics, ontology, dialectic and myth (1). The Introduction is written by John Sallis who maintains that in order to enable the manifest force of this dialogue to come to light, one must enter into it as another voice in the conversation. John Sallis is Frederick J. Adelman Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. He is well known for his work on phenomenology and is the founding editor of the journal Research in Phenomenology. He is the author of more than 20 books which address major philosophical themes such as the legacy of Platonic thought, art, the imagination, chorology and the elemental in nature. His works include Crossings: Nietzsche and the Space of Tragedy (1991), Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s “Timaeus” (1999), Platonic Legacies (2004), The Verge of Philosophy (2007) and more recently The Return of Nature (2016) and The Figure of Nature (2016).  The essays in this collection address the Statesman as a work in which several disparate themes are addressed but never properly conjoined. Notable themes include: absence and withdrawal, the role of law, myth, comedy, politics, and the method proper to practicing philosophy.

The theme of absence and withdrawal is always present in Plato’s dialogues as the author himself remains withdrawn; speaking through characters and figures such as Socrates. In the Statesman this theme is developed by removing Socrates as a dramatic figure and concentrating on the presence of the Stranger (who remains unnamed). Despite Socrates absence from the conversation, there is a strange doubling of him in respect to Theatetus (who looks like him) and Young Socrates (who shares his name). Socrates is therefore present despite his absence and the Stranger remains somewhat absent despite his recurring presence. Other themes such as the role of law (in its written and spoken forms) and the complex function of paradigm are significant in relation to the explicit task of the dialogue – to define the nature of a good, worthy statesman—and are given gravitas in light of Socrates’ impending trial.

Likewise, the question concerning the method through which philosophy should be conducted gains significance, in light of the impending threat posed by Socrates’ trial—a theme observed by many essays in the collection. The divisive bifurcation used by the Stranger contrasts with Socrates’ dialectical style and other questions are treated concerning: Where to begin? How to proceed? What is the role of analogy and examples? What is the effect of Plato’s use of figures, characters and dialogue? The Stranger’s method fails to yield insight into the nature of the statesman and so he turns to myth; setting out the myth of two ages. Treatment of this myth is also taken up by a number of essays in the collection which seek to extract meaning and demonstrate its philosophical significance. Various themes combine to influence how one understands the role, function and qualities of a worthy statesman, and by comparison the sophist and the philosopher.

In the Introduction Sallis notes that one should be wary of projecting concepts from Aristotle into the Statesman; he claims that the essays in this collection aim to make manifest the key themes outlined earlier (amongst others) by taking contextual and discursive forms of the dialogue into account. All of the essays seek to enter into the Statesman with attentiveness, reticence, and discretion, and all share in the desire for dramatic content and unique features to be addressed. However, each essay embarks upon a different path in respect to how to interpret Plato’s objectives, trace the primary aims of the text, uncover the rationale behind certain inclusions (and omissions), and, of course, understand Plato’s treatment of the philosopher. The essays attribute different degrees of significance to the key themes highlighted and present varied interpretations in relation to Plato’s methodological decisions.

Sallis describes how the collection of essays is intended to ‘enter into the Statesman in a way that opens from the dialogue itself’ (2). Essays such as ‘From Spontaneity to Automaticity…’ by Michael Naas address key sections of the text, whereas others e.g. ‘Where have all the Shepherd’s gone…’ by S. Montgomery Ewen focus on a particular theme. Essays such as ‘Reconsidering the Relations between the Statesman, the Philosopher and the Sophist’ by Noburu Notomi work to contextualise the Statesman by addressing it alongside the other dialogues to trace how the figures being addressed develop and are present throughout the trilogy. Those such as ‘The Art of the Example…’ by James Risser focus on the Statesman itself in order to analyse the theme addressed as it arises from and is present within this dialogue specifically.

Most texts on the Statesman analyze the work holistically or focus on a specific theme in the wider works of Plato. However, this collection sets itself apart by being beneficial through the different insights it provides regarding a variety of themes. This enables the reader to gain multiple perspectives into the disparate themes contained within the Statesman as whole. It demonstrates the complex multidirectional possibilities for interpreting the features of the topics treated and draws attention to curious aspects of Plato’s method. While the themes addressed are sufficiently treated in other works for the reader to grasp their importance, few texts on the Statesman offer insights as varied and dynamic as this one. The book contains an extensive bibliography which details different translations of the Statesman (in Greek and in English) and it purports relevant primary and secondary texts. The bibliography by itself is useful to Plato scholars interested in contextualising the Statesman or in learning more about how the key themes outlined (and others) are addressed in the Statesman itself and in Plato’s wider works.

The structure of the text involves a loose grouping of the essays according to theme, it is therefore difficult to assess a clearly defined structure in relation to how they are organised. As a result, the reader must leap between disparate themes and interpretations as the collection does not progress sequentially and it is not easy to synthesize  events as they unfold within the dialogue or to develop a structured treatment of each theme. As the dialogue within the Statesman also leaps between disparate themes it is not beneficial to set the essays within a rigid structure as such an arrangement could impose reductive and counterproductive limits on a reader’s understanding. So, although the essays are roughly grouped according to the themes they cover, such rough groupings are necessary as they mirror the content and style of the dialogue in the treatment of these themes. There is  a useful index of relevant terms in both Greek and English as well as biographical details of all contributors so the reader may reference the language structure and trace further works.

In his brief essay ‘Beginnings’ Sallis contemplates a question concerning the nature of a suitable beginning which, in regard to the Statesman is related to the dramatic order of the dialogues within the trilogy. The Sophist and the Statesman are dramatic sequels to Theatetus and all three involve the same people in the same location with a shared task of defining the sophist, the statesman and the philosopher. As the third work in the trilogy, the Statesman does not begin at the beginning and Sallis claims that a ‘palintropic turn’ is required; ‘a turn back to the beginning anterior to the beginning’ and this is a turn to myth (13). In the dialogue the rigour of mathematics gives way to myth as, when Theodorus responds to Socrates’ remark that he owes him much (in respect to the conversation he (Theodorus) arranged between Theatetus and the Stranger to delimit the sophist) Theodorus replies ‘But soon you will owe me triple this…’ inferring that, once insight into the statesman and the philosopher are gained the debt will increase threefold (257a). Socrates argues that the three figures are not reducible to equal, mathematical units, and, as one may appear in the guise of another they are not strictly distinct but are related in community. Socrates begins by marking out the limits of mathematics and for Sallis ‘The Statesman begins with a return to a beginning anterior to its own beginning’ (14).

In ‘Spontaneity to Automaticity: Polar (Opposite) Reversal at Statesman 269c-274d’ Michael Naas focuses on the myth of two ages and the role played by a double sense of αύτόματος as meaning both actively spontaneous and passively automatic. Naas argues that everywhere else in Plato’s dialogues this term is used not to suggest a positive, spontaneous movement, ‘but the lack of any kind of intelligent, guided, or oriented movement’ (4). In relation to the myth of two ages this is significant as, though it is tempting to read the movement of the universe in a positive way ‘as the spontaneous motion of a living being endowed with a capacity for self-movement’ in reality it suggests ‘a lack or deficiency at the heart of the universe’ (5). He uses an interesting (and relevant) analogy to refer to the universe in the age of Zeus as one that is adrift, abandoned, unorientated ‘like a written law without the originary lawmaker’ (5).

In ‘Autochthony, Sexual Reproduction, and the Political Life in the Statesman Myth’ Sara Brill highlights the Statesman’s contribution to ontology and the ontological status of human political phenomena. She conducts a careful reading of the myth of two ages comparing the age of Cronos to the age of Zeus in order to present two forms of generation; generation from others and generation from the same (sexual reproduction). Brill argues that the myth marks human sexual reproduction as the advent of political life; a form of self-rule in imitation of the self-rule of the cosmos that requires us to acknowledge that human political life ‘is grounded in the fact that we are born from others like ourselves’ (5). ‘Where Have All the Shepherds Gone? Socratic Withdrawal in Plato’s Statesman’ sees S. Montgomery Ewen take Socratic withdrawal as key to understanding the dialogue. He draws similarities between Socrates’ withdrawal from the conversation and the withdrawal of the god in the myth of two ages to suggest that philosophy itself is presented as a Socratic withdrawal ‘that grants things the space to become what they most properly are’ (5). He claims that, if read alongside the Phaedo, the Statesman ‘is Plato’s attempt to make sense of a world without Socrates, whose death sets us adrift on our own devices, without the care and concern of the most orderly and godlike of philosophers’ (5).

Walter Brogan interrogates questions of the relationship to time that the Statesman raises as a condition of forming human community. He considers the care for this community that should be exercised by the statesman as that which should take up an appropriate relationship to time to invest in and preserve unity amongst the people. His essay considers the time of myth (before Cronos), the time of the statesman (the time of Zeus, or due measure) and the time of law (constituted by the founding sovereign to withstand the passing of time and ensure survival). Sallis notes that ‘Brogan shows how absence and withdrawal define and haunt the Platonic conception of time in the Statesman’ (6).

Nikolas Pappas focuses on the myth in the Statesman and addresses the question of how the age of Cronos is to be connected to the present age. He notes how the verb διανέμω occurs in reference to both ages but has different meanings; it links governance by the true king in that age, with dialectic by the philosopher in this age. Pappas presents philosophy as resulting from ‘the diffusion of kingship from foreign lands’ and understands the myth as reflecting back on the way that learning from ‘ancient foreigners’ allowed the Greeks to establish philosophy as a private and institutional response to kingship elsewhere (6). In ‘Noesis and Logos in the Eleatic Trilogy, with a Focus on the Visitor’s Jokes at Statesman 266a-d’ Mitchell Miller explores the interplay of intuition and discourse as two distinct methods. He begins with the ‘orienting provocations’ provided by Socrates refutation of knowledge as “true judgement and logos” in the Theatetus, and moves on to the Stranger’s ‘obscure schematization’ of the eidetic field of dialectic to arrive at the discussion at Statesman 227a-278e of the use of paradigms (6). He seeks to show that the Stranger’s odd medley of ‘geometrical and Homeric jokes’ aim to spark an intuition of statesmanship whose ‘self-nourishing’ motivates: the rejection of the initial definition (of statesman as shepherd), a turn to the analogy of the weaver, and the rejection of bifurcation in favour of the non-bifurcatory account of an art ‘that functions as the “limbs” of a well-formed city’ (6).

Gunter Figal addresses the way that topic and method intertwine in the Statesman by interrogating the relation between dialectical training and an objective determination of the nature of the statesman. Figal argues that we cannot determine the nature of political knowledge by imposing one single idea on it; the dialectical exercise therefore fails. Eric Sanday analyses the account of paradigm to show that the Stranger provides us with a method of inquiry that draws on and is guided by wisdom. For Sanday the Stranger’s use of paradigm heralds a gap between 1) the parts of a complex, meaningful whole and 2) the ingathering normativity that challenges and exceeds its articulation. We as philosophers must understand the power of paradigm if we hope to unfold ‘new horizons of intelligibility’, only then can we understand the distinction between the paradigm of the shepherd and the paradigm of the weaver to make sense of our search for the statesman.

James Risser in ‘The Art of the Example’ interprets the section in the Statesman where the need arises to give an account of the use of an example for determining the statesman. Risser claims that this part of the dialogue indicates how the discovery of the statesman ‘cannot be extricated from the experience of learning that approximates a dialectical art’ (7). For Risser, the key lies in the Greek word παράδειγμα which is used in this context to mean both model and example. Risser also submits that the stated need is to introduce a model for how comparative learning occurs and concludes that this model is operative in every example in order to generate the organic unity of the whole that is sought.

Noburu Notomi’s essay addresses the question of the relationship between the statesman, the philosopher and the sophist. Notomi assumes that the trilogy of dialogues pursues a single theme; the nature of the philosopher. This essay addresses the question: What becomes of the philosopher in the Statesman? It draws comparisons with the sophist and the statesman in relation to the distinction between genuine and imitative kinds of knowledge or art. Notomi determines the epistemological position of the philosopher in relation to the other figures, demonstrating that both the sophist and the statesman display the nature of the philosopher in their definitions. In ‘Syngrammatology in Plato’s Statesman’ Robert Metcalf focuses on 293a-299e; the connections between the critique of law and the critique of writing. He shows that what is at issue is not just any kind of writing, but syngrammatic writing which aims to eliminate ambiguity and is a structural feature of the ‘hypergraphic polis’[8]. This raises the question about whether law can be thought on the model of non-syngrammatic forms of writing e.g. soul writing which is hypothesised by Socrates in the Phaedrus.

In ‘Stranger than the Stranger: Axiothea’ Drew Highland imagines a subsequent dialogue between Thaetetus, young Socrates and Axiothea (the purported female member of the academy). The objective is to raise the question for the two youngsters, of the limits as well as the virtues of each understanding of philosophy by comparing the dialectic method of the Stranger with Socrates interrogative method. Highland argues, it is an open question whether Plato intends us to leave behind the Socratic method in favour of the Stranger’s Eleatic formalism. Robert Bartlett’s essay considers the Stranger’s presentation of law as relevant not only to political life, but extending far beyond it. The Stranger proves quite critical of law in general and of divine law in particular; he praises the statesman as one who possesses the knowledge needed to be self-ordering in a way that those who profess to receive their law from the gods are not. This essay presents the anti-theological character of the Stranger’s account of law as an important feature of his political science.

Ryan Drake considers the fate of sophistic persuasion in the Stranger’s elucidation of the best possible regime under law; the legitimacy of this practice has been thrown into question by Socrates throughout the dialogues. Drake notes that, the Stranger remarks that the statesman in a lawful regime will need orators able to engage in ‘mythopoetic persuasion’ rather than teaching as a means of preserving civic order (9). These rhetorical tactics involve a ψυχαγωγία; a ‘leading of souls’ which is distinct from ‘the philosophical ‘directing of souls’ through dialectic’ and these methods are set in opposition. Drake observes that, for the Stranger the rhetoric of sophistry is necessary to the regime of law (but recognises that it is anti-philosophical in nature).

Burt C. Hopkins essay seeks to answer the question of whether Plato’s portrayal of multiple philosophers in the trilogy seeks to show that philosophy itself is something that is multiple (bigger than one man). For Hopkins, Socrates and the Stranger share a vision (of the difference between the whole and all the parts) and this guides their method of “looking into things by dividing them according to forms” (285A). He argues that they possess a common vision of άρχή beyond being and therefore the philosophy of the two labours is one. Gary M. Gurtler explores how Plotinus uses texts from the Statesman for different purposes; some pedagogical in nature. Gurtler argues that Plotinus’ interpretations and reference to examples intended to clarify reveal ‘different assumptions about the unity of Platonic philosophy and the possibility of its retrieval in a thinker like Plotinus’(9).

In summary, the essays within this collection make a valuable contribution to the clarification of the role and practice of the philosopher through comparison with key figures, e.g. the sophist and the statesman. The collection will be of interest to those who wish to further pursue key themes in respect to philosophical methodology such as: the limitation of mathematics, the importance of the good in politics, ontology, dialectic and the power of myth in the works of Plato. It will also be of use to those interested to explore how historical and philosophical events unfolded in the lead up to the trial and execution of Socrates and how this symbolic event is reflected and responded to through the work of Plato.


Shaun Gallagher: Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind

Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind Book Cover Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind
Shaun Gallagher
Oxford University Press
Hardback £30.00

Reviewed by: Maxime Doyon (Université de Montréal)

In Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind, Shaun Gallagher offers a strong defense of enactivism against what he calls ‘cognition-in-the-head’ (1) approaches to mind such as those of contemporary neuroscience and classical cognitivism. Throughout the book, Gallagher develops his own enactive view by engaging in a series of critical debates with more recent version of these and related models such as Theory of Mind (ToM), Predictive Coding (PC), Action-Oriented Representationalism (AOR), B-formatted Representationalism, and the Extended Mind approach, etc. Even when they positively refer to bodily action and to interactions with other people, or build into their theory contextual elements and somatic factors, these theories all fail to provide a coherent and holistic account of cognition because they all end up making the fatal mistake of buying into representationalism. From an enactivist point of view, cognition is a complex affair that has more to do with doing or transacting with one’s environment than with representing it. Cognition, as Gallagher puts it, is “a kind of dynamic adjustment process in which the brain, as part of and along with the larger organism, settles into the right kind of attunement with the environment – an environment that is physical but also social and cultural” (160; emphasis in original). In a sense, the book reads as a detailed explanation and justification of this claim.

Gallagher proceeds thematically, unpacking the details of his enactive model to cognition peu à peu as he guides us through some of the current debates in contemporary philosophy of mind. The scope of the topics discussed is broad and impressive. Gallagher deals successively with questions and problems that bear on action and representation (Chapter 1, 2 and 5), social cognition and intentionality (Chapter 4), perception (Chapter 6), free will (Chapter 7), affects and emotions (Chapter 8), posture and rationality (Chapter 9), and the various practices of thinking (Chapter 10). Scattered throughout the book, but laid out in a more systematic fashion in Chapter 3, Gallagher also provides the historical background of the enactivist position, which he situates (as we could expect) in phenomenology, in Gibson’s ecological psychology, and perhaps more surprisingly in pragmatism.

The strength and the originality of Gallagher’s position lie in his radically embodied and truly holistic conception of cognition. Not only does he, like other enactivists, emphasize the ‘unsurpassability’ of the brain-body-environment triad as the basic explanatory unit of mind, but he also stresses like no one else the profound impact of affects, culture and environmental factors on cognition without falling into the trap of representationalism. As Gallagher himself recognizes, however, this approach represents a real challenge and “often comes with strong calls to radically change our ways of thinking about the mind and about how to do cognitive science.” (40) The envisaged change might in fact be so radical that Gallagher entertains (but does not develop) the idea that enactivism may in the end “be better thought as a philosophy of nature than as a scientific research agenda.” (22) This does not mean that we should turn our back on science, or stop collecting empirical data about the functioning of the mind; it rather means that it may be necessary to revise a certain number of assumptions about the mind, and to redefine the relation between science and philosophy.

In the remaining space at my disposal, I will engage in a rapid survey of what I take to be the most interesting ideas and claims to be found in this excellent book. I will draw special attention to Gallagher’s specifically normative conception of intentionality, for although it is not by any means an explicitly developed concept, it is nevertheless powerfully operative throughout.

* * *

Expectedly, Chapter 4 (“Enactive Intentionality”) opens with a critique of the “Brentanian” or “neo-Cartesian concept of intentionality” (66), but Gallagher then quickly makes two interesting moves: first, he centers the discussion around a specific problem, namely that of understanding other minds, and criticizes in passing some of the dominant theories in social cognition (Theory-Theory, Simulation Theory, Mirror Neuron approach, etc.). Second, and in line with the preceding chapter (3. “Pragmatic Resources for Enactive and Extended Minds”), Gallagher positively elaborates his own enactive alternative by tracing its origins in both the phenomenological and pragmatist traditions. If the profound impact of Merleau-Ponty’s notions of intercorporeality and operative intentionality on the enactivist program should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the literature (cf. 77-79), the rapprochement with pragmatism is however quite original (even if not unique; cf. Menary 2007). But Gallagher is convincing, and shows with great acuity how both the first and second generations of pragmatists share some deep philosophical commitments with enactivism. Peirce “foreshadows the externalist turn” (50) taken by the enactivists and the extended mind advocates (cf. 52ff.); Dewey’s understanding of perception as based on the idea of sensori-motor coordination anticipates Noë’s and O’Regan’s talk of sensori-motor contingencies (cf. 50); Mead’s characterization of perceptual space as a “manipulatory area” (51) is close to Heidegger’s ready-to-hand (Zuhanden) and Gibson’s concept of affordances, while Dewey’s notion of “situation” is precisely the kind of concept that can serve both to “motivate a rapprochement between enactivist and extended mind theories” (54)[1], and address some of the most important objections levelled against both theories (cf. 60ff.). Clearly, the point of drawing conceptual resources in the pragmatist and neo-pragmatist traditions is not only of historical interest; it is also philosophically motivated.

Taking his cues from Robert Brandom’s normative account of intentionality (1994), Gallagher pursues this discussion in Ch. 4 by arguing that the enactive account of intentionality he is advocating is “consistent with a non-simulationist version of neo-pragmatism. Indeed, it shows us how to connect very basic operative intentionality with the neo-pragmatist emphasis on social/normative aspects of behavior.” (80) The key move to understand both how Gallagher connects with and moves beyond the neo-pragmatist framework lies in the expanded scope of the normative that informs his concept of intentionality. Intentionality is – pace Brandom – “already pervasive” (81) in a variety of normative, but still pre-social and pre-linguistic activities and behaviours. The idea, which is not formulated as such but which readers of How the Body Shapes the Mind (2005) must already be familiar with (see esp. Ch. 3 and 9), is that intentionality is originally normative in the sense that it is rooted in the neonate’s first encounters and interactions, which are meaningful experiences. The neonate sees the actions of the caretaker as calling forth certain responses on her part (not any response), thereby triggering an intentional dynamic of actions and behaviours guided and constrained by implicit normative cues. The actions of the neonate – which are properly speaking inter-actions – then show both how the mind is normatively attuned to its environment and “intersubjective from the very start” (81). Hence, “there is no mystery about where this non-derived intentionality comes from. It comes from the others with whom we interact, or more precisely, it is generated in our interaction.” (81) The same learning mechanisms and normative patterns of influence repeat in adulthood. Even at a mature age, perception remains strongly permeable to the influence of our social milieu: “we learn what objects are significant and valuable through our interactions with others, or even just our perception of what they are doing with objects in the environment. We learn to see the world along these lines of significance and value, and oftentimes objects that fall outside of such lines don’t even register.” (159)

Gallagher’s specifically normative conception of intentionality is also at the forefront of Chapter 5 (‘Action without Representation’), but this time more explicitly so. After introducing what he takes to be “the classic concept of representation” (83), the chapter brings us to the heart of one of the most heated debates in contemporary philosophy of mind and action, namely, whether there is any place for representation in action. Unsurprisingly, Gallagher answers in the negative, and develops a strong anti-representationalist argument that he sets against the background of various proposals (Action-Oriented Representations (AORs), Pre-Intentional Representations (PIAs), B-Formatted Representations, Minimal Robust Representations (MRRs), etc.) that have been put forward recently by advocates of the enactive program and/or the extended mind approach (Michael Wheeler, Mark Rowlands, Andy Clark, etc.). The discussion is detailed, at times difficult, but it gets to the bottom of things. One possibly useful way of understanding Gallagher’s argument against representationalism is to insist on the incompatibility between the ‘teleological/normative’ and the ‘decouplability’ constraints of representation. While the former characteristics say that something is representational iff it is also teleological or normatively turned towards something it tracks, the latter feature says that something is representational iff it is decouplable from what it represents. These are widely (but not universally) accepted characteristics of our concept of ‘representation’, but they are not easily compatible with one another when it comes to action. According to Gallagher, you can’t have it both ways: you cannot both track your goal and be ‘off-line:’ “But it is difficult to see how an aspect of motor control that is a constitutive part of the action can be considered decoupled from x, which it may be tracking, or, for that matter, from the context, or the action itself. Isn’t this kind of anticipation fully situated in the action context?” (92) Insofar as motor control is part of the action, it is situated; but then it is not decoupled from the movement and the proprioceptive/kinaesthetic feedback it generates. It is online, and it is precisely for this reason that it can keep track of its object or of the action itself. This is the problem predictive coding is facing: “To think that the anticipatory emulator involves a decoupled process is to think that such anticipations can be detached from perceptual and proprioceptive input, which they clearly cannot be. They are part of the online process of action; as such they register not simply some future state, but the trajectory of the action (from present to future).” (92) The problem is serious, for not only is the perceptual and proprioceptive input de facto part of the ‘online’ process of action (according to Gallagher), but they are also necessary to meet the requirements of the normative constraint (or so I would like to claim). For in order to act ‘intelligently’ or ‘adequately’ upon something, I need to know how things stand in relation to me. This knowledge is informed by the pervasive self-sensitivity generated by perceptual feedback (including, but not limited to, proprioceptive awareness). In this sense, going ‘off-line’ is equivalent to losing touch (even if only momentarily) with one’s own perceptual situation, and this can only mean that one also loses ‘grip’ on the normative orientation of the action. The point can be recast in the following manner: if predictions are in some ways ‘decoupled’ from the ongoing perceptual process, or if they come in succession, then the organism can’t continuously cast its own actions in evaluative terms, and make the required adjustments when they are needed. But this is nothing very special; it is rather something that any ‘smart living organism’ continually does.[2]

Since the elementary unit of explanation of this ‘online’ process of action is the brain-body-environment triad, “the true locus of normativity” is therefore, as Rowlands puts it, “to be found on the outside” (2012, 136), in the world. The consequence to draw from this is clear enough: “the problem of explaining our normative grip is no longer the problem of representation; it’s rather the problem of explaining how we are dynamically coupled to the world.” (105) What thus takes the place of representation in this non-representationalist account of action and perception is the complex dynamics of perceived affordances and motor responses. In this ongoing process of interaction and adjustments, intentional directedness depends crucially on “physically determined factors” (97) such as distance, lighting and position, and is bodily realized, not accomplished in representational processes.

This is a thought that Gallagher pursues in the next chapter (6. ‘Perception Without Inferences’), this time laying more emphasis on perception than on action, and criticizing in turn some of the most important inferential models currently debated in the literature (especially ToM and Predictive Coding). The core idea is nevertheless the same as in the preceding chapter, which it nicely complements: “Perception is enactive (…), but nonetheless epistemic and ‘smart’ because attuned to context” (112). Anticipating on some of the key ideas of Ch. 8 (‘Making Enactivism Even More Embodied’), Gallagher’s aim here is to argue (contra Bayesian inferentialism) for the directedness of perception, and to explain how the sources of our normative attunement are complex, rich and varied. In his descriptions, the radicality of Gallagher’s position becomes all the more apparent, even within the enactivist camp. While Noë’s and O’Regan’s “emphasis on sensori-motor contingencies and the role of action in perception” is certainly on the right track, it nevertheless “builds itself on a conception of embodiment that remains too narrow”, as “it leaves out important aspects of affectivity and intersubjectivity” (150). Perception is more complex and more embodied. Not only is it (non-inferentially) informed by culture and beliefs, but perception is also modulated by moods, practices, skills and “all kinds of affective processes” (118) and “somaesthetic factors” (151) such as hunger, fatigue, and sexual attraction. Evidently, these affective aspects “usually operate in a pre-noetic fashion” (151), but they still have a profound impact on our perceptual lives as they motivate “a sense of interest or investment” (153) captured by the notion of “perceptual interest” (Id.), which is said to be wider in scope than Husserl’s concept of the ‘I can’ (but which is not, I believe, significantly wider than Husserl’s own concept of ‘perceptual interest’[3]). But there’s more. “Even variations in circulation and heartbeat can influence perception” (Id.), just as does the whole repertoire of our “embodied practices and postures, behavioural habits, and intersubjective interactions” (125). These complex dynamics lead Gallagher to recognize very lucidly at the end of the chapter that “enactivism offers a holistic conception of cognition that is difficult to operationalize” (125) or test scientifically according to the current (mostly neuroscientific) standards. This is not a major concern though, for this is where the motivation to think of enactivism as a philosophy of nature instead of as a scientific research program comes from (cf. 125ff.).

Finally, Gallagher addresses in the final 10th Chapter (‘The Practice of Thinking’) the so-called ‘scaling up’ problem (Chemero 2009), which is the challenge for the enactivists to explain in system-dynamical terms our higher-order cognitive aptitudes. For if enactivism seems to be rather well suited to deal with lower-order or basic types of processes such as those involved in action and perception, higher-order cognitive tasks such as memory, imagination, and mathematical reasoning seem to represent a more serious challenge for enactivists, as these are apparently “representation-hungry” capacities (Clark and Toribio 1994). As anyone can expect at this point, this is not how Gallagher sees things. After providing a brief overview of E. Thompson’s (cf. 188) and D. Hutto’s (188ff.) own enactivist ‘solutions’ to the problem, Gallagher proposes a series of brief “interventions” (191) on the questions of imagination, deliberation, and mathematical reasoning. In the case of imagination, Gallagher (somewhat surprisingly) takes his cues from Gilbert Ryle’s account in The Concept of Mind. Like Ryle, for whom “there is no one thing that the imagination is” (192), Gallagher argues that “imagining involves a variety of different practices – some of them actively embodied, some of them involving the manipulation of bits of the environment, some of them sitting still and picturing something by manipulating concepts or thoughts or images (re-enacted perceptions) – which in any case may still involve affective and kinaesthetic aspects of embodiment.” (195) Like playacting (which is Ryle’s favoured example), imagining often takes the form of an embodied practice that is closer to “pretending and simulating” (192) than to mental seeing or projecting. In all instances, however, imagination involves “dealing with affordances” (195), which may include “toys, props, artifacts, instruments” (193), and even concepts or thoughts. “Pragmatically considered, concepts and thoughts can be regarded as nothing other than affordances that offer (or solicit us to) possibilities to follow one path or another as we engage in thinking” (195). In this sense, Gallagher conceives of imagining as “a kind of active engagement with possibilities” (193). Even if it is quite clear that this is the route that the enactivists must take to address the worries of the so-called ‘scale up’ problems, I wonder whether this general characterization is sufficiently developed to fully convince its detractors. In any case, the same strategy is mutatis mutandis applied to ‘mathematical reasoning’ (cf. 204ff.), a thought that brings Gallagher to the conclusion that, on the enactive point of view, thinking practices in general are better regarded as enactive performances that depend, for their realization, on our embodied skills.

All in all, this book is a much welcome addition to the literature. It is thought provoking, engaging and original in many respects. It provides not only an excellent survey of the current literature on embodied cognition in general and enactivism especially, but it also formulates new arguments, forges new concepts and proposes ideas that will certainly animate interesting debates in the years to come.


Brandom, R. (1994). Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chemero, A. (2009). Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clark and Toribio (1994). ‘Doing without representing?’ Synthese 101: 401–31.

Doyon, M. (forthcoming). ‘Husserl on Perceptual Optimality’ (under review).

Gallagher, S. (2005). How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Husserl, E. (2004). Wahrnehmung und Aufmerksamkeit: Texte aus dem Nachlass (1893–1912). Ed. T. Vongehr and R. Giuliani. Dordrecht: Springer.

Menary, R. (2007). Cognitive Integration: Mind and Cognition Unbounded. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson.

Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., and Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[1] “As extended and enactive, the mind is situated in the way that Dewey defines this notion.” (59)

[2] This is a line of thought that Merleau-Ponty developed in great detail in the Phenomenology of Perception, when he shows how bodily postures and position are in a constant process of regulation and readjustment. In this book, Gallagher revisits this topic (Ch. 9) and expands on ideas first developed in How the Body Shapes the Mind. For a similar argument in a biological context, see Rosch, Thompson and Varela (1994) and Thompson (2007).

[3] See Husserl (2004)) and my Husserl on Perceptual Optimality’ (under review; forthcoming).

Martin Heidegger: The History of Beyng

The History of Beyng Book Cover The History of Beyng
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger. Translated by William McNeill and Jeffrey Powell
Indiana University Press
ebook $44.99

Reviewed by: Joshua Sharman (University of Warwick)

This text is a new English translation of some of Heidegger’s most important reflections after his major work, Being and Time (1926). They comprise volume 69 of the Gesamtausgabe (Heidegger’s collected works) and consist of two parts, “Die Geschichte des Seyns” (The History of Beyng), produced between 1938 – 1940, and his treatise, “Κοινόν. Out of the History of Beyng” written between 1939 to 1940. The current translation builds upon the second German edition of the texts published in 2012, some 14 years after the first German edition, by incorporating several corrections made in the former. The work itself builds directly upon the material put forward in the Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) (1936 – 1938) and connects to the later text, Mindfulness (1938 -1939).

Putting the biographical concerns to one side, what is the significance of the texts themselves? They both remained unpublished during Heidegger’s lifetime and thus each remains incomplete, yet they are important despite this lack of finality. This is because of the insight that is made available into the development of Heidegger’s thinking as a whole, but in particular, into the way in which his account of the history of metaphysics is transformed in its being brought into relation with contemporary events. These contemporary events, WWII and the rise of Communism, provide the world-historical basis for Heidegger’s reflections on the manifestation of ‘power’ from 1900 onwards, through his analysis of the ontological underpinning of these events themselves.

It was in Being and Time that Heidegger introduced his analysis of the ontological structures that underlay ordinary phenomena like a car journey or other mundane, everyday activities. This analysis is what provided the basis for Heidegger’s role as one of the most insightful philosophical commentators of the 20th Century. He was able to provide insights into everyday experience previously unavailable to the phenomenological tradition, particularly the method of Husserl, his former teacher. However, this canonical status notwithstanding, Heidegger’s legacy has been hindered by his purported affinities with the movement of National Socialism during the 1930s and general antisemitic attitudes prevalent at the time. These affinities were not improved by the realisation that Heidegger had transformed standard views of the period to suit his own ontological persuasions. Nonetheless, Heidegger’s political shortcomings can be contextualised, to some degree, by the essays that make up this volume. They allow us to understand these shortcomings as intimately related to his attempts to comprehend the more general meaning attached to the far-reaching, global events occurring between 1930 and 1940, in Germany and Russia.

He argues that the phenomena constitutive of each age are only correctly understood when viewed in light of historical shifts in the nature of ‘Being’, understood as the manner in which entities are how they are and indeed, what they are. Heidegger claims that this central concept, ‘Being’, has been understood in variably different ways throughout the history of the West. It is this variation in a culture’s understanding of ‘Being’ that is referred to in the title of the volume as the “history of Beyng”, albeit in altered form, following Heidegger’s use of the archaic German spelling of the word ‘Sein’ (‘Being’) as ‘Seyn’. This archaic form is employed by Heidegger specifically to denote his own understanding of ‘Being’ as something non-metaphysical in opposition to the usual metaphysical characterisation of that notion. The easiest way to interpret his conception of Beyng is in contrast to the standard way that term has come to be understood, as ‘Being’. Our metaphysical conception of ‘Being’, according to Heidegger, is one that is unchanging and universal, whereas the non-metaphysical conception, Beyng, is constantly changing relative to history and always remains singular, rather than general.

The central issue that arises out of this difference between the two conceptions is that ‘Being’ understood metaphysically has always arrived too late on the philosophical scene. This untimely arrival is due to its metaphysical nature, which limits the ability of traditional ontologies to arrive at anything other than a view about the manner in which entities are at their most general level. A level that is extrapolated from the historical aspect under which entities are constituted i.e. we abstract from the way entities are constituted historically in order to produce the general level claim about ‘Being’. However, this kind of conception of ‘Being’ is necessarily limited by its abstractness, in that it applies to everything and hence becomes almost redundant as a metaphysical concept, or at least uninteresting at best. In contrast, the conception of Beyng introduced in this volume is far more insightful. It does not come after entities, but precedes them by providing the very possibility for their manifestation. Manifestation then is key here and is intimately related to Heidegger’s later obsession with aletheia, or that which discloses. Nonetheless, in the current text, Beyng remains proximally related to Heidegger’s focus on attunement in Being and Time as an underlying mechanism by which all worldly (or ontic-level, borrowing the terminology of Being and Time) events show up for us as they do. This essential aspect of Beyng is basically relational in that, for Heidegger, entities are always given, in some sense, by their connections with other entities. It is this relational aspect of his ontology that is highlighted so well by the current volume, focusing as it does on this intervening space, the clearing, between entities, which allows them to be mutually defined by one and other. This “abyssal ground of the in-between” (116) is what provides entities with their relational grounding i.e. their relations are sustained and governed by this ground. Yet, this ground is not an “indeterminate emptiness into which something appears,” (123) but is the very manner of attunement that relates entities to us and to each other.

The two pieces that make up the volume use this different understanding of Beyng as a way to interpret the major world-historical events that occurred from 1930 – 1940. Heidegger views the major political events of that period as manifestations of an underlying shift in the very being of entities themselves, along with a correlative alteration in the nature of human existence. These changes are located in what he views as the increase in politics of power, conjoined with an acceptance of the everyday status of war. It is here we see a foreshadowing of the Foucauldian account of ‘power’ or ‘power-relations’ in Heidegger’s assessment that power should be seen as an “essencing of Beyng itself,” (55) as the very manner in which Beyng determines the ‘essence’ of all entities that can appear in our world. When Heidegger introduces the notion of ‘power’, he refers to its essence as something which isn’t a “capability for domination that disposes over the means of all forces,” but instead as the “unconditioned domain of making of the overpowering of itself and of the malleability subservient to it.” (158) This runs strictly counter to the standard conception of power as something that requires possessing force for one’s disposal. This is because Heidegger thinks that this traditional view of power fails to adequately thematise the true essence of power in the contemporary age. He argues that this new conception of power is better for understanding the modern era (1940s Europe and Germany in particular) because the forms of power that were emergent, and still continue to be so, involved two critical components that structure our world. The first component is that power itself is always moving towards an overcoming, or “overpowering” of every “attained level of power.” (54) The second component is that power necessarily always requires the “exclusion of every outside that is not itself” and therefore is mandated in determining the “essence of beings.” (54) The implication being that historical procedures and contexts for limiting the enactment of power will always be challenged and fail to convince. This is largely due to the way in which power operates without any normative quality and simply unfolds, outside of the ordinary spheres of “morality, law and custom”. (66) In what can be considered a very Nietzschean claim, Heidegger states that power will “unconditionally shatter” each value or ideal that can conceivably constrain it. Consequently, power will fail to be limited by any imperative except that of its own essence and will answer only to its own demand to exceed “each attained level of power”. (56) It is this consequence which appears to have the greatest foreboding effect in terms of our contemporary world-view. It seems only now that we can recognise a world orientated not in terms of “standards or goals or motivations belonging to humankind hitherto,” (23) but as one that has, or at least is on its way, to becoming fully subordinated by a “machination” (41) that renders all entities as infinitely “malleable”. In a world, entirely in the throws of machination, entities show themselves as open to complete reconfiguration according to our choosing, but always in line with a maximisation for new options rendered in terms of utility. In this way, Heidegger claims that “everything becomes ever more new and ever more rapidly new.” (130)

By now, it is obvious that Heidegger’s introduction of the concept of “machination” is closely related to his later work on technology, The Question Concerning Technology (1954), which describe the manner in which technology seeks constantly to reduce all entities to mere resources, as in the harnessing of the kinetic energy found in a waterfall for instance, or the ever-increasing existence of wind farms for renewable energy. The ultimate impact of ‘machination’ then, is that we will begin to view with disdain anything that blocks or inhibits our ability to transcend the current limits of power because of the “inexorable retraction of every possibility of determining power by way of something that it itself is not.” (157) Again, we encounter similar Foucauldian themes in the way Heidegger thinks power will ultimately manifest itself in its finality (Foucault will later introduce the term “biopower” in this regard). For Heidegger, traditional values that orientate our existence will no longer hold sway over us and power will become all-encompassing in its determination of our world. He claims that we are “entering that cluelessness that vacillates in all directions and that now allows [us] only to be on the lookout for ‘goals’ that are supposed to exceed what has gone before.” (175) Therefore, this leaves nothing “beyond the cultivation of competence and the pleasurable aspect of bodily life”, except “the unconditional expansion of this ‘goal’.” (175) As a result, our world will show up as one guaranteed by power, in which no possible mode of living is considered higher than any other; ultimately, utility becomes the watch-word of such a way of living. However, at the time of writing the texts in this volume, Heidegger did not consider 1930s Germany or the rest of Europe as having entered into this finality with regards to power’s consummation. In his contemporary view, Heidegger claims that in the first instance power will act malevolently by trying to “transpose beings into the domain of power.” (64) This means that power will always try to inhibit and undermine those traditional forms of imperative that orientate an individual’s life and aim at human flourishing (religious morality, or other standard moral imperatives are relevant here), seeking to transpose these imperatives and relocate the individual within the domain of power that seeks only to increase options and avenues of usefulness. The implication of this initial stage of power then, is that when individuals are still orientated by traditional goals and aims, power will necessarily have to manifest itself in terms of violence to reconfigure the world as it requires.

This is perhaps where Heidegger is at his most perspicuous and compelling in both texts in the volume. This is because he argues that any violent pretext that power requires, when in its initial state of “over-powering,” is fulfilled by political organisations that serve to “parade various ‘ideals’ before [the public] in each case, ideals whose desirability spurs on the need for power.” (159) What this means is that, for Heidegger, every claim made by political groups regarding ‘progress’ in culture, the saving of our Western way of life, or indeed, the propositions made by any ‘political system’ (65) at all, serve as a way by which power can undercut our collective willing to fight back against the emergent reorientation of our world at the behest of power. This is why the most important message contained within the volume is that power always has the “the intent of confusing” and “undermining the possibility of forming an opinion”; (71) the result being one of “complete indifference toward everything.” (71) This makes the volume absolutely relevant to contemporary issues facing Western societies, namely how individuals can orientate themselves in democracies wholly in the throws of “machination” and the more developed stages of power, beyond those envisaged by Heidegger writing in Nazi Germany. What is most important for the contemporary reader of this volume is the emphasis placed on the possibility of genuine decision, rather than simply selecting from pre-given options determined by a world imbibed with “machination”. It is this genuine decision-making that allows for human flourishing to gain its highest dignity. “Thought in its essence”, Heidegger insists, “dignity remains so decisively alien to power that it may not even be posited as its opposite.” (65)

To summarise, this updated English translation of The History of Beyng serves as an insightful and instructive text for those seeking to gain a clearer view of the progression that Heidegger’s thinking takes after die Kehre, particularly as the themes in this volume serves as a bridge between the thinking found in Being and Time and the views espoused in later texts such as The Question Concerning Technology. The reader can gain a far deeper insight into some of the central thematic concerns of Heidegger’s philosophy in the late 1930s, specifically the concepts of “power”, “machination” and “essencing”. Rendering any of Heidegger’s texts in English is a troublesome task, given his frequent use of neologisms and play with common word roots, and something no less difficult in this volume of his works. However, William McNeill and Jeffrey Powell are evidently successful in their attempt to remain close to the original German found in the two texts. They render many of Heidegger’s terms in different ways given the way Heidegger’s nuances their meaning in various contexts. This does make it harder for the English reader to track the continuity of these terms, but on the whole, seems more useful than not, constant attention to detail on the part of the reader notwithstanding. Overall, the updated translation showcases what is a central and often-overlooked text in Heidegger’s oeuvre, with perspicuity and illumination. Maintaining a style that shows just why contemporary readers should return to this text for themes that are arguably as relevant, if not more so, to the modern world than they were at the time when Heidegger was writing.


Eugen Fink: Sein und Endlichkeit. Teilband 2: Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit

Sein und Endlichkeit. Teilband 2: Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit Book Cover Sein und Endlichkeit. Teilband 2: Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit
Eugen Fink Gesamtausgabe, Band 5/2
Eugen Fink. Riccardo Lazzari (Hg.)
Verlag Karl Alber
Hardcover 99,99 €

Reviewed by: Christian Sternad (Husserl Archives, KU Leuven)

Eugen Fink ist eine der mit Abstand wichtigsten Figuren in der phänomenologischen Bewegung. Als einzigartiger Vermittler der philosophischen Entwürfe seiner phänomenologischen Lehrer Husserl und Heidegger, jedoch aber auch als Vermittler zwischen der transzendentalen Phänomenologie Husserls und der ontologisch-existenzialen phänomenologischen Philosophie Heideggers, hat er den zukünftigen Weg der Phänomenologie im 20. Jahrhundert entscheidend mitbestimmt. Während seine Philosophie vor dem Zweiten Weltkrieg größtenteils noch sehr deutlich in der theoretischen Gefolgschaft Husserls verbleibt, erweist sich Husserls Tod 1938 und das katastrophale Ereignis des Weltkrieges auch in Finks philosophischem Weg als entscheidender und wegweisender Einschnitt. Sein lebenslanger Freund und philosophischer Gefährte Jan Patočka hat diese entscheidende Veränderung in Finks Denken in einem Brief an Robert Campbell vom 30. September 1947 in prägnanter Weise dargestellt; Patočka schreibt dort:

„Er hat sich weit von Husserl entfernt in der Heideggerschen Richtung. Aber er versucht Neues, indem er eine neue Interpretation von Kant, Nietzsche und Hegel vornimmt. Er hat mir daraus Stücke vorgelesen, die, wie mir scheint, die höchste Aufmerksamkeit verdienen. Er ist im Begriff, ein großes Werk über die ‚Ontologische Erfahrung‘ vorzubereiten, das im Aufriß schon existiert und von dem ich viel erwarte.“[i]

Der zweite Teilband von Sein und Endlichkeit versammelt Texte Eugen Finks, welche größtenteils aus dieser für Fink philosophisch so entscheidenden Zeit stammen. Wie der Herausgeber dieses Bandes, Riccardo Lazzari, in seinem vorzüglichen Nachwort erwähnt, können Finks „Überlegung[en] in den hier publizierten Vorlesungen als die Suche eines neuen Weges gedeutet werden“.[ii] Diese Suche nach einem neuen Weg erfolgt jedoch keineswegs geradlinig und führt auf den ersten Blick in sehr unterschiedliche Richtungen: Enthusiasmus, Freiheit, Endlichkeit, Welt, Zeit, etc. Was diese disparat erscheinenden Texte und Themen jedoch gleich einem unsichtbaren Faden zusammenhält, ist Finks sich in statu nascendi befindende Fragestellung nach dem Weltbezug des Menschen und jener nach der Welt überhaupt.

Die Frage nach der Welt ist bei Fink gerade jene philosophische Bewegung, in welcher er die Gedanken Husserls und Heideggers aufnimmt, sie jedoch zugleich in eigener schöpferischer Weise weiterführt. Dieser Ur-topos der Phänomenologie erfährt bei Fink eine bedeutende Neuinterpretation, welche hauptsächlich durch zwei Unzulänglichkeiten[iii] angestoßen wird:

  1. Die Welt hat bei Husserl zwar einen fundamentalen theoretischen Platz bezogen, sie bildet jedoch aufgrund ihres Horizontcharakters stets nur den (wenngleich auch allererst ermöglichenden) Hintergrund der Phänomene. Überdies scheint sich die Welt damit auf das Subjekt zu reduzieren, für welches die Welt als Horizont aller Erscheinungen fungiert. Fink möchte die Welt jedoch aus dieser Beschränkung auf das Subjekt und der damit verbundenen Horizontstruktur herauslösen.
  2. Bei Heidegger erfährt die Welt bzw. das In-der-Welt-sein bekanntlich einen existenzialen Zug, welcher jedoch umgekehrt zu dem Problem führt, dass auch hier die Welt lediglich in einer existenzialen Struktur zur Geltung kommt. Das Ganze der Welt, in welche der Mensch schon vor jeder existenzialen Struktur eingelassen ist, kann dabei jedoch nicht vollends zur Geltung kommen. Das Ganze der existenzialen Welt entspricht insofern nicht dem Ganzen der Welt als solcher, vor welche sich der Mensch gestellt sieht.

Diese Unterschiede möchten als Feinheiten der Interpretation erscheinen, sie sind jedoch letztlich entscheidend für den philosophischen Weg, welchen Fink über Husserl und Heidegger hinaus einschlägt und welcher am besten als eine Verwindung von einer phänomenologisch verstandenen Anthropologie und Kosmologie beschrieben werden kann. Bei Fink nimmt die Welt jenen Doppelcharakter ein, in welchem der Mensch auf die ihm so nah stehende Welt vor das ihm so fernliegende Ganze der Welt gestellt ist. Während im ersten Fall ein existenzieller Weltbegriff angezeigt ist, wird im zweiten Fall ein kosmischer Weltbegriff in den Blick genommen – ersterer bringt eine Welt im Menschen zum Ausdruck, der zweite Begriff der Welt zeigt einen Menschen in der Welt, welche Fink gelegentlich auch als „Allheit“ bezeichnet und welche er außerhalb der Verfügungsgewalt des Menschen verortet. Dies tritt in den Vorbetrachtungen zur Welt-Frage in der Vorlesung Welt und Endlichkeit[iv] (1949), die meines Erachtens das Herzstück dieses Bandes darstellt, in aller Deutlichkeit in Erscheinung. Hier formuliert Fink:

„Wir treffen die Welt nie an als einen Gegenstand unserer Erfahrung, weil sie in ihrer Offenheit überhaupt erst Gegenstände begegnen läßt. Vom Seienden ist jeweils nur ein Ausschnitt überblickbar, nie das Ganze. Dieses hält sich uns immer entzogen, und doch verhalten wir uns ständig zum Ganzen. […] Welt wird immer verstanden als das Ganze, in welches der Verstehende selbst mit hineingehört. Welt ist eine Urbekanntheit, die die menschliche Existenz durchmachtet und erhellt. Sofern wir überhaupt sind, leben und weben wir im Offenen der Welt.“ (199)

Diese Doppelstruktur von existenzialem und kosmologischen Denken ist das Charakteristikum von Finks philosophisch eigenständiger Fragestellung, nämlich „wie der weltoffene, aus dem Weltbezug existierende Mensch im Kosmos ist“.[v] Diese Frage nach der eigenwilligen Doppelstruktur der Welt entfaltet Fink mit jenen ihm so vertrauten Denkern wie Kant, Nietzsche und Heidegger, die im Verlauf seiner denkerischen Laufbahn ständige Gesprächspartner bilden.

Ohne der Lektüre dieses Bandes vorzugreifen, scheinen mir noch zwei Momente interessant zu sein, welche ich nur kurz andeuten möchte:

Zum einen betrifft dies das für den Phänomenologen interessante Wechselspiel zwischen Gegebenheit und Ungegebenheit, zwischen Erscheinung und Entzug, welches sich in der Weltproblematik andeutet . Welt ist das Bekannteste, die „Urbekanntheit“, jedoch auch immer das zugleich Flüchtigste. Sie ist immer da und fungiert als Erscheinungshorizont aller Erscheinungen. Zugleich verschwindet sie in eigenwilliger Weise, wenn sie zum Gegenstand der Überlegungen gemacht wird. Diese Schwierigkeit verstärkt sich, wenn die Welt in kosmologischer Hinsicht verstanden wird. Wie ist das Ganze der Welt zu fassen, wenn man nicht in einen banalen Begriff des ontischen Vorhandenseins aller Dinge abgleiten will? Wie lässt sich ein kosmischer Weltbegriff vorstellen, der die Unabhängigkeit der Welt vom Menschen beschreiben will, zugleich den Weltbegriff jedoch auch nicht in ein pures Vorkommnis außerhalb des menschlichen Bezugs nivellieren möchte? Diese Problematik motiviert die methodologischen Überlegungen in vielen von Finks Werken aus dieser Zeit. Cathrin Nielsen und Hans Rainer Sepp haben diese bedeutende Problematik bei Fink prägnant zusammengefasst:

„Es handelt sich dabei um eine paradoxe Konfrontation von solchem, das gegeben ist (Binnenweltliches) und sich zugleich jeder positiven Gebung verweigert (Welt) – oder um ein Zusammentreffen von solchem, das konkret da ist, das wir selbst sind, mit dem, was sich an der Bruchlinie des Stückhaften der Existenz in negativo noch zeigt, was zeigt, dass das, was ist, nicht alles ist – oder, noch anders und rein formal ausgedrückt, eine Identität, die nur als eine unaufhebbare Differenz fassbar ist.“[vi]

Zum anderen ist da noch die Frage nach der Transzendenz der Endlichkeit der Weltbezüge, welche Fink in verschiedenen Anläufen immer wieder neu und anders thematisiert. Vor allem der Vortrag Vom Wesen des Enthusiasmus[vii] (1947) zu Beginn dieses Bandes widmet sich dem Enthusiasmus als einem Moment der menschlichen Existenz, in welchem diese über sich hinaus gerät. Abseits von Finks konkreten Thesen – Fink interpretiert Philosophie, Kunst und Religion als jene „absoluten Verhältnisse, welche hin zum Wahren, Schönen und Heiligen führen“[viii] –, deutet Fink ein wirkmächtiges Spannungsverhältnis an, welches er selbst folgendermaßen beschreibt: „Im Bezug zum Unendlichen wird das Endliche als solches erfahren“.[ix] In diesem Spannungsverhältnis kann der Bezug zwischen dem Konkreten und jenem alle Konkretion Übersteigende erblickt werden – eine gedankliche Struktur übrigens, welche er mit seinem philosophischen Freund Jan Patočka teilt.[x]

Zuletzt noch ein Wort zum Aufbau dieses zweiten Teilbandes des fünften Bandes der Eugen Fink Gesamtausgabe: Die Haupttexte in diesem Band – Vom Wesen des Enthusiasmus (1947), Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1947), Welt und Endlichkeit (1949), Die menschliche Freiheit (1961), Die Exposition des Weltbegriffs bei Giordano Bruno (1972) – werden durch einige interessante ergänzende Texte flankiert – Freiheit und Werk (1961), Über Freiheit (Freiheit wovon…, Freiheit wozu…) (1961), Freiheit und Zeit (1962), Die Wissenschaften und das Weltproblem (1966) – und letztlich durch eine Reihe an Notizen und Disposition, welche als ergänzendes Material betrachtet werden können, abgeschlossen. Im Allgemeinen lässt sich sagen, dass der thematische Spannungsbogen dieses Bandes zwischen Sein und Endlichkeit eindeutig geglückt ist, weil sich darin die Fragen von existenziellem bzw. anthropologischem und kosmologischem Denken auf deutliche Weise verschränken. Die auf den ersten Blick disparaten Texte und Textentwürfe werden durch das hervorragende Nachwort des Herausgebers in einen erhellenden Gesamtkontext gestellt und erleichtern damit dem Leser den Einstieg in diesen voluminösen Band. Vor diesem Hintergrund lässt dieser zweite Teilband Vom Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit mit Vorfreude auf den ersten Teilband von Sein und Endlichkeit vorausblicken, welche dem Publikationsplan zufolge unter anderem weitere wichtige Texte von Fink, wie etwa die Vorlesungen Philosophie des Geistes (1946/47) und Sein und Mensch (1950/51), beinhalten werden.

[i] Eugen Fink, Jan Patočka, Briefe und Dokumente 1933-1977. Hg. Von Michael Neitz und Bernhard Nessler. Freiburg: Verlag Karl Alber 1999, 56.

[ii] 695-696.

[iii] Eine besonders klare Darstellung dieser doppelten Kritikrichtung findet sich in: Cathrin Nielsen & Hans Rainer Sepp, „Welt bei Fink“, in: Cathrin Nielsen, Hans Rainer Sepp (Hg.), Welt denken. Annäherungn an die Kosmologie Eugen Finks, Freiburg: Karl Alber 2011, 9-14.

[iv] Diese Vorlesung war bisher veröffentlicht in Eugen Fink, Welt und Endlichkeit, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 1990. Im vorliegenden Band: 191-402.

[v] Eugen Fink, Spiel als Weltsymbol, (EFGA, Bd. 7), Freiburg: Karl Alber 2010, 69.

[vi] Cathrin Nielsen & Hans Rainer Sepp, „Welt bei Fink“, in: Cathrin Nielsen, Hans Rainer Sepp (Hg.), Welt denken. Annäherungn an die Kosmologie Eugen Finks, Freiburg: Karl Alber 2011, 10.

[vii] 11-25.

[viii] 15.

[ix] 22.

[x] Vgl. hierzu die bemerkenswerte Studie: Filip Karfík, Unendlichwerden durch die Endlichkeit. Eine Lektüre der Philosophie Jan Patočkas. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2008.

Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Second Edition)

The Embodied Mind, Revised Edition: Cognitive Science and Human Experience Book Cover The Embodied Mind, Revised Edition: Cognitive Science and Human Experience
Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch. Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn
MIT Press
2017. Revised Edition
Paperback $30.00

Reviewed by: Tom McClelland (University of Warwick)

The second edition of The Embodied Mind supplements the original 1991 text with nearly 50 pages of new material: a foreword by leading figure in mindfulness therapy – Jon Kabat-Zinn – and extensive new introductions by each of the two surviving authors – Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch. This hugely provocative and influential text has certainly earned its republication, and the reader’s experience will doubtless be enriched by the new supplementary material. The book is driven by the idea of a ‘circulation’ between human experience and the sciences of the mind. Rather than insulating our lived experience from emerging insights into the nature of the mind, the authors encourage us towards ‘transformations’ that bring our everyday experience into harmony with our best understanding of the mind and have far-reaching implications for how we live our lives. Furthermore, rather than insulating our scientific inquiry from our everyday lived experience, the authors encourage us to achieve experiential insights that will free us from entrenched misconceptions about the nature of the mind and its place in the world.

The book proceeds in five parts. Part I explores the two elements of the targeted circular interaction – cognitive science and human experience. Here the authors ally their project with that of Merleau-Ponty, though they contrast the phenomenological school’s method of reflection upon experience with their preferred meditative method of open-ended mindful investigation. Part II argues that although cognitivism has uncovered that there is no unified self, it fails to reconcile this conclusion with our lived experience. They propose that the Buddhist tradition offers a deeper appreciation of the absence of the self through which we can learn to experience ourselves in an ego-less manner. Part III explores the question of how the mind should be understood if not in terms of a unified substantial self. The authors draw both on contemporary ideas in biology and cognitive science regarding self-organisation, emergent properties and connectionist architecture, and on related Buddhist ideas regarding karma and the Wheel of Life. Part IV further develops this new ‘enactive’ approach to cognitive science and clarifies their two key conceptual innovations: embodiment and enaction. They explain that the concept of embodiment is intended to highlight:

‘…first, that cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological, and cultural context.’ (173)

They go on to explain that adopting an enactive approach means endorsing the claims that:

‘(1) perception consists in perceptually guided action and (2) cognitive structures emerge from the recurrent sensorimotor patterns that enable action to be perceptually guided.’ (173)

Their radical claim that the world is not pre-given but enacted expands their groundless conception of a mind devoid of ego into a groundless conception of a world devoid of independent objects. Part V reflects critically on the place of groundlessness in contemporary Western thought and draws further lessons from Eastern traditions. In line with their project’s ‘deeply ethical concerns’ (lxvi), the authors conclude by reflecting on the ethical implications of their enactive view.

In his foreword, Kabat-Zinn reflects on the ‘seminal and historic role’ of The Embodied Mind describing the book as brave, edgy and rigorous (xi). This description is at least partly justified. The book is incredibly brave in its scope, encompassing a range of contemporary and historical ideas in phenomenology, analytic philosophy, existentialism, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, psychoanalysis, cellular biology, evolutionary theory and various schools of Buddhism. It is also edgy in its content, proposing radical reconceptions of the mind, its place in the world and of the entire methodological outlook of cognitive science. It is not, however, a text that I would describe as rigorous. Though impressive and enticing, the authors’ arguments are deeply muddled in some places, and straightforwardly fallacious in others. I will pick out three representative arguments that target methodology, the self and the world respectively.

The first part of the book emphasises the importance of achieving first-person insights into the nature of one’s experience. The authors propose that the reflective methods developed in the phenomenological school face severe limitations, and that their own preferred approach of open-ended mindful investigation avoids these shortcomings. A more rigorous examination, however, suggests that the gap between the two methods is not as profound as advertised. First, the authors exaggerate the extent to which the phenomenological method adopts a theoretical perspective that distorts the pragmatic aspects of lived experience, and the extent to which phenomenological findings are tainted by background theoretical commitments. Second, they exaggerate the extent to which meditative investigation can overcome these impediments. It is well-established that attention dramatically alters experience so, as an essentially attentive activity (78), mindfulness will distort experience rather than simply disclosing it (Dreyfus pushes a related point in his 1992 review of the book). Furthermore, the conclusions reached in the meditative tradition are, like those of the phenomenologists, strongly influenced by theoretical concerns and commitments rather than reflecting lived experience in a manner untainted by theory. Interestingly, these shortcomings of the book’s arguments are conceded in Thompson’s new introduction, though Rosch is a little less concessive on this issue. Neither author, however, recognises that there are similar exaggerations in their discussion of other themes.

Consider their extended discussion of the self. The authors argue that cognitivism is committed to the non-existence of the self: a conclusion with which they strongly agree. They object, though, that cognitive science has failed to provide a viable self-free framework for understanding the mind and has ignored the need to incorporate egolessness into our lived experience. These accusations only stand up if cognitive science is indeed committed to the non-existence of the self, but this commitment is again exaggerated. Various psychological findings do indeed put pressure on the idea of a substantial, coherent, unified and stable self that is the source of thought, the centre of perception and the origin of action. Although one response to this pressure is to deny the existence of the self, another is simply to revise our conception of the self to accommodate these findings. As Dennett puts it, the points raised in the book can plausibly be dealt with by reformation rather than revolution (1993).

One important example concerns our naïve conception of the self as an enduring substance that persists through all our mental and bodily changes. Various considerations suggest that no such substantial entity exists. However, rather than concluding that the self is unreal we can adjust our understanding so that the self is no longer an enduring substance but instead a certain kind of pattern – a ‘perduring’ entity. This kind of view gets short shrift from the authors, who misrepresent it as reducing facts about the self to a matter of perspective (65). Our naïve conception of the self also takes the self to be an essentially conscious entity, yet cognitive science posits unconscious mental processes. Again, we might take this as evidence against the existence of the self, or we could simply revise our conception of the self to accommodate the fact that we undergo both conscious and non-conscious processes. The authors again dismiss such a view too lightly, arguing that if mental processes can be either conscious or non-conscious then consciousness becomes epiphenomenal (56). This is a particularly patent fallacy: the fact that some mental processes can occur non-consciously does not entail that any mental process can occur non-consciously.

This pattern of misrepresenting existing positions also extends to their discussion of the nature of the world. The authors highlight the failings of both objectivism – the view that experience discloses a wholly mind-independent world – and subjectivism – the view that experience projects properties of the mind onto the world. They argue that ‘…Western views have…no methodological basis for a middle way between objectivism and subjectivism’ (230) and propose their own middle-way position according to which the world is enacted by organisms through a ‘history of structural coupling’ (200). On this view, there is a mutual dependence between mind and world such that an organism’s world is ‘brought forth’ by the activities of that organism. Pursuing a middle-way between objectivism and subjectivism is certainly a sensible proposal, but here the authors again exaggerate the distance between their own proposal and existing positions.

They hold that cognitivism is committed to a representational view of the mind, which is in turn committed to the objectivist thought that experience ‘recovers’ how the world is in and of itself. This disregards the myriad positions in both philosophy and psychology according to which we represent ‘response-dependent’ properties: that is, worldly properties that are characterised by the responses they elicit in certain kinds of organism. When faced with problems about the objectivity of colour – problems articulately exposed in Chapter 8 of the book – thinkers such as Locke have claimed that being red is a matter of having the dispositional property of affecting certain kinds of observer in a certain way. The notion of response-dependent properties is prevalent in Western thought, and is even compatible with a representational view of the mind, so it is a mistake to hail enactivism as revolutionary in its carving of a middle-way between objectivism and subjectivism.

It might be objected that this common-place notion of response-dependent properties is disanalogous to the proposed account of an enacted world. The authors are not merely arguing that certain experienced properties only exist relative to certain kinds of organism, but rather that an organism’s whole world is ‘brought forth’ by them. I see two ways of reading the proposed enactive view of the world. On the first reading, enactivism says that everything we experience is in some sense relative to the kind of organism we are. If this reading is accurate, the difference between enactivism and the common-place response-dependent view is merely one of degree: most theorists claim that some of the properties we experience are organism relative where enactivism claims that they all are. This does not mark a radical break from orthodoxy, and might even be read into a number of existing theories such as Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. On the second reading, enactivism says not just that everything we experience is relative to the kind of organism we are but that there is no mind-independent world beyond our experience. This view would certainly mark a more dramatic departure from orthodoxy, but it is not a view that is justified by the arguments offered in the book. The authors do offer an argument from Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna that what is seen is inseparable from the seer and the seeing of it because it is unintelligible for a sight to exist unseen. This is the kind of weak word-play easily unpicked by a keen undergraduate philosopher – a point that the authors come close to conceding themselves (223) – yet the argument is nevertheless given credence. The denial of a mind-independent world is not just poorly motivated in the book, but hard to reconcile with the enactivist framework. It seems we must posit a world that exists independently of the organism to make sense of the organism bringing forth a ‘lived world’ through its interactions with it. This comes out vividly in the authors’ example of ‘Bittorio’ – a ring of cellular automata that brings forth a world of significance through its coupling with ‘…a random soup of 1s and 0s’ (157). Overall then, it is unclear that The Embodied Mind has supplied and motivated a revolutionary understanding of the world at all.

The examples offered above are not the only cases in which the authors misrepresent existing views, nor are they the only cases in which the depiction of their own view is skewed or unclear. It is worth noting that Kabat-Zinn, despite the positivity of his foreword, admits that he didn’t understand most of the book on first reading it (xi). Similarly, Rosch’s introduction alludes to ‘…twenty years of emails from confused readers…’ (xxxviii). It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the whole book as unclear and poorly argued. The text packs in an incredible amount of content, so for every poor argument there is another that is more convincing, and for every muddled or inaccurate piece of exposition there is another that is incredibly clear and informed. More importantly, there is a sense in which criticisms of the lack of rigour in some stretches of the book risk missing the point. Consider the following statement of the book’s purpose:

‘Let us emphasize that the overriding aim of our book is pragmatic. We do not intend to build some grand, unified theory, either scientific or philosophical, of the mind-body relation. Nor do we intend to write a treatise of comparative scholarship. Our concern is to open a space of possibilities in which the circulation between cognitive science and human experience can be fully appreciated and to foster the transformative possibilities of human experience in a scientific culture.’ (lxiv-lxv)

A book that is intended to instigate an intellectual revolution in our approach to the mind can perhaps be excused for misrepresenting the orthodox views it opposes, and for over-stating the promise of the new frontier it signals. A project with this kind of space-opening remit should perhaps be judged not by the arguments behind it but by the legacy before it: that is, by the extent to which the world-view it preaches has gone on to yield valuable results. Such a retrospective evaluation was, of course, unavailable at the time of The Embodied Mind’s original publication, but 26 years on with the publication of this second edition we are in a better position to judge it by its legacy. Despite admitting his limited understanding of the text, Kabat-Zinn talks about the enormous influence that the book had upon his thinking. Perhaps this is representative of the book’s wider influence: even without understanding every claim in the book or accepting every argument, many researchers have had their thinking moulded by the spirit of the book, and have achieved a deeper understanding of the mind as a result.

The two new introductions offer a useful overview of The Embodied Mind’s legacy. Rosch identifies some key ways in which the contemporary landscape of cognitive science vindicates the ideas proposed in the book. She cites the increased appreciation of: the role of phenomenological investigation in the study of the mind; the importance of mindfulness training and the transformative experiences it yields, and; the development of enactivist principles in both psychology and philosophy. Thompson’s list is a little longer. He notes that researchers have increasingly moved away from a stimulus-response model of the brain to models on which brain activity is self-organising, non-linear, rhythmic, parallel and distributed. He places this in the context of a wider advance in our understanding of autopoietic systems. Furthermore, subjective experience is now typically regarded as an efficacious aspect of the mind that offers a suitable target for empirical investigation. Meditation and mindfulness are now commonly employed in clinical practice and Buddhism is increasingly regarded as a valuable player in philosophical debates. Many mental processes are regarded as embodied, including abstract mental capacities that are taken to be grounded in motor-perceptual processes. Finally, the enactivist principle that an organism’s world is not pre-specified but in some sense enacted by the organism has also gained traction.

Although this legacy is quite formidable, we must also note some of the recommendations that have not been so widely taken up. Rosch suggests that mindfulness has not been given the right place in contemporary research, and that its scientific investigation has displayed serious shortcomings. She also suggests that science has not approached the lessons of Buddhism with an ‘open heart’ but instead treated the tradition ‘imperialistically’, incorporating only those insights that are not too disruptive to the scientific status-quo (lii). Individual experience is still too-often disregarded in favour of an impersonal and reductive view of the mind, and there is little appreciation of evidence that, according to Rosch, indicates the separability of mind and body. Finally, little has been done to extend the enactive framework beyond our understanding of the mind to other domains such as symbol-systems, disease and societal structures. Thompson proposes that more attention should be given to enactivism’s radical view of scientific models as ‘…formalised representations of the world as disclosed to our embodied cognition.’ (xxvii). He also claims that experience is still erroneously treated as an object of scientific investigation rather than unobjectifiable, and suggests that more needs to be done to achieve the practical wisdom championed by the book.

The list of ideas in the book that have not proven successful could be extended further, but what should we make of this list? One possibility is that the network of ideas presented in the book form an integrated world view. The last 26 years have allowed some nodes of this network to be incorporated into the mainstream understanding of the mind, and with a few decades more the rest of the network will go the same way and enactivism will become the new orthodoxy. Another possibility is that the proposed network of ideas is not as integrated as the authors advertise, and that one can pick and choose which claims are worth adopting. On this view, the best components have been carved-off, refined and developed over the years while the weaker components have rightly been left by the wayside. I’m inclined to favour the latter interpretation: cognitive science has been reformed in light of the insights captured by the book, but the full-scale revolution that Varela, Thompson and Rosch call for has rightly been resisted. But even if I’m right that not all of the driving claims of The Embodied Mind will be proven true, the point remains that the book has an impressive legacy that marks it as a valuable contribution to cognitive science and as a text worthy of our continued critical attention.


Dennett, D.C. 1993. Review of “The Embodied Mind”. American Journal of Psychology, 106: 121-6.

Dreyfus, H. 1993. Review of “The Embodied Mind”. Mind, 102: 542-6.


Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Second Edition)

The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience Book Cover The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience
Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch. Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn
MIT Press
2017. Revised Edition
Paperback $30.00

Reviewed by: Diane Stringer (University of Adelaide)

Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch offer a masterful encore to their influential book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, first published in 1991. While the primary text is unchanged, the addition of detailed introductions in this 2016 Revised Edition addresses some key developments in philosophy and the cognitive sciences that have occurred over the intervening years. These introductions update, and in some cases amend, the content in the original text. The two surviving original authors, and Jon Kabat–Zinn, who contributes an interesting Foreword to the Revised Edition, invite new readers to enjoy their classic account of how contemporary work in the cognitive science and phenomenology and the contributions made by Buddhist teachings, come together to add to our understanding of the mind.

The lack of the new introduction that the late Francisco Varela would have provided for this Revised Edition makes reading these introductions all the more poignant. The Embodied Mind is an account of how a subjective, personal understanding of our mind, particularly our sense of ‘self’ and its everyday purposes can be informed by a fusion of phenomenology, a Buddhism-based account of our lived experience with contemporary work being done in the cognitive sciences.

At this point, a newcomer to this book might point out that work in phenomenology has already developed this kind of partnership (sans Buddhism) with the cognitive sciences in the service of better understanding human lived experience. For example, the phenomenologist and philosopher Edmund Husserl’s views inform philosophical accounts of our lived experiences as well as work done in the cognitive sciences, as evidenced in the works of Rick Grush (2004) and Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi (Gallagher & Zahavi 2012), amongst others. As this review is aimed primarily at readers interested in phenomenology, I will note briefly that one of the book’s authors, Evan Thompson, changed his view about the relevance of Husserl’s work in phenomenology to this project over the years that have passed between the publication of the original edition of The Embodied Mind and the Revised Edition reviewed here. Thompson now acknowledges that the 1999 edition does not do justice to Husserl’s phenomenological work on lived experience, and acknowledges that in fact Husserl’s work can positively contribute to work on embodied minds and enactivism. In 1999, the authors’ view was that:

“…Husserl claimed to be able to study the intentional contents of the mind purely internally, that is, without tracing the contents of the mind back to what they seemed to refer to in the world” (16).

Husserl’s view in Ideas I does imply that our mind is an entirely mental structure and apparently ignores the “[d]irect embodied aspect of experience” (16-17). However, in Ideas II (1989, p. 37), written at roughly the same time as Ideas I, but published much later, Husserl makes the importance of our interaction with the external world in contributing to our lived experiences much clearer.

Briefly summarised, in Ideas II Husserl describes the way we are always actively testing the world, engaging with the world and predicting what our experiences of the world will be. Sometimes we do this consciously, but our brain also appears to to anticipate the next moment of our experience at a deeper level, usually below the level of our awareness until it is reflected upon. Husserl suggests that our mind not only anticipates this “background consciousness” of the on-going streaming of experience but it also anticipates the “actual hypothetical and causal motivations”: the physical processes that lead us to action and to what we actually “do” (Husserl 1989, p. 268). This indicates that Husserl’s account of lived experience in Ideas II has considerably more relevance to the approach developed in The Embodied Mind than the authors found to be the case in 1991.

Evan Thompson allows that he misjudged the contribution that Husserl and phenomenology could offer to the work undertaken in The Embodied Mind, and outlines the reasons why, in his Mind and Life (Thompson 2007). In his new introduction to the Revised Edition of The Embodied Mind Thompson reaffirms this new view of Husserl’s work. The Revised Edition still focuses on the importance he and his co-authors placed on Buddhist insights into how “first person experiences” are brought about, a view that was startling and fresh in the original edition. Now, though, he also seems to think that more focus on often-overlooked Phenomenological approaches is also important. This is interesting; the rather extreme view that “we can [really] conceive of a mind operating without a self” (235) associated with Buddhist traditions in this book, is a view that seems unlikely to be endorsed by Husserl, whose studies of self–awareness are integral to his work (See for example Husserl 1989, pp. 85-87).

I now turn to the work that the authors undertook in the first edition of The Embodied Mind in 1991 and retain in the Revised Edition. Their main strategy and aim was, and is, to interrogate our lived experience and shed some critical light on our belief that we have a “self”. In The Embodied Mind, Buddhism is favoured as the approach that is ultimately most likely to succeed in grasping key elements of our lived experience and is seen here as a partner to phenomenology and the cognitive sciences in the project of bringing lived experience and science together. Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation are used as a bridge between phenomenology and the cognitive sciences (33), in a bid to find common ground. In fact, many aims pursued throughout this book are shared by all three approaches, notably the possibility of developing an account of the self. However, rather than explain the self, the aim of The Embodied Mind is to explain the self away. Why? In part this is because while ‘…the living body is a ‘self-organising system’ (xxxviii), ‘the false sense of self is constructed’ ( xxxix, my underlining). Or, to disambiguate: while the physical self-organising systems that operate cooperatively below the level of our awareness are not problematic in the authors’ view, our inclination to believe that we have a ‘self’ that is somehow intimately related to all we see and think and do, and yet not tangible or identifiable, is an error.

The authors claim “…all of the reflective traditions in human history — philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation — have challenged the naïve sense of self” (59). On the other hand, in our less philosophical experiences we naively assume we have “…lasting, separate and independent selves that it is our constant preoccupation to protect and foster” (63). The Buddhist tradition offers an alternative view, but this alternative implies that we should let go of “ego-centred habit” (250); we should cease seeking to possess and nurture our sense of self, and instead strive to live a life “empty of any egoistic ground” (250). So in summary, these reflective traditions, and notably Buddhism, challenge the naïve sense of self. The Buddhist view of the self is intelligible and if accepted it would have remarkable scope. However, as Hume noted, when we are not thinking as philosophers, we naturally and easily revert back to our sense of self. It seems to me that it is (for example) me (“myself”) who is typing these words right now. It is not something we will give up easily, even in the face of the evidence provided against the naïve view of the self in this book.

“Laying Down a Path in Walking”, the title of the final chapter, is rhetorical and evocative and used here to good effect. The heading describes the progress of a cognitive scientist who can conceive of a mind operating without a self (235) and develops a theory that embodies this conception. This becomes a virtuous circle whereby he can conceive of the idea there is no self in experience, because when he introspects it is nowhere to be found in his experience (235). Is this virtuous circle convincing?

The overall argument that leads to this final chapter, as it is developed in this classic book, is defended quite beautifully, especially in the final chapter. For those who are interested in multidisciplinary approaches to understanding difficult philosophical problems, this book is highly recommended.


Gallagher, S & Zahavi, D. 2012. The Phenomenological Mind, 2nd edition, Routledge, London.

Grush, R. 2004. ‘The emulation theory of representation: motor control, imagery and perception’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 27, 2004, pp. 377-442.

Husserl, E. 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy; second book, trans. R Rojcewicz & A Schuwer, Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht.

Thompson, E. 2007. Mind in Life, Cambridge, Massachusetts.