Martin Heidegger: Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance”

Hölderlin's Hymn "Remembrance" Book Cover Hölderlin's Hymn "Remembrance"
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger, translated by William McNeill and Julia Ireland
Indiana University Press
Hardback $50.00

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

This text originates in a lecture course Heidegger gave at the University of Freiburg in the winter semester of 1941-42.  This course preceded a second course, on Hölderlin’s “The Ister,” which Heidegger later gave in Summer 1942.  As reported in the Editor’s Afterword, Heidegger originally conceived these courses as a single course covering the poetry of Hölderlin, but ended up using the entire winter 1941-42 semester to develop his reading of “Remembrance.” This work comes seven years after an earlier course Heidegger gave on Hölderlin, in winter 1934-35, on the hymns “Germania” and “The Rhine.”  This very readable translation of Hölderlin’s Hymn “Remembrance” furnished by eminent Heidegger scholars McNeill and Ireland completes the English translation of the entirety of Heidegger’s Hölderlin courses, the others having appeared intermittently over the last several years.

The majority of this lecture course shows Heidegger providing a very close reading of Hölderlin’s important hymn “Remembrance,” often dissecting it line by line and word by word.  However, equally important are the introductory sections, which comprise a significant portion of the course and which engage at length the correct mode of access for reading a poet such as Hölderlin.  The correct way into understanding Hölderlin, Heidegger says, is not to focus on Hölderlin the person, or his life and times, or even his mental illness.  Nor does the task involve getting a grip on the images or content of Hölderlin’s poetry, as if the primary obstacle is simply to understand what the poems are about.  (Throughout the course, it will be clear to the reader that constructing a “correct” reading of the poem is not of significant interest for Heidegger.)  He asks rhetorically on this note, are we sure that the content of the poem “coincides with what this poetizing poeticizes” (19)?  Heidegger emphasizes instead that in order to comprehend Hölderlin’s poetry, one must “think into the poetizing word” (22) encountered in the poem.  One cannot appropriate the meaning of Hölderlin’s poetry without entering into the proper hearing of what has come to language in the poet’s work.  The task involves appreciating the poetized moments, the disclosures of being that were occasioned to the poet and which gave themselves to expression in words.  In a way, then, Heidegger’s point here about comprehending what has been poeticized echoes the methodological claims one also finds in his writings on ancient thinkers such as Heraclitus and Parmenides from the same period, to wit, that there is no understanding to be gained of the thought at hand solely through an analysis of the philosopher’s words alone.  Instead, the task calls for appreciating the matter of thought [das Zu-Denkende] – the disclosure under whose sway the thinker operates – or in the present case, the poeticizing of what has been poetized.  Much of the territory explored in Heidegger’s reading of “Remembrance” has its focus in this approach.

On Heidegger’s reading of “Remembrance” proper: Heidegger suggests at the outset that Hölderlin’s hymn thematizes the concept of thinking [Denken] just as much as it connotes a notion of commemoration or memory.  Heidegger highlights the root word at work in the poem’s title: “Remembrance” in German is An-denken.  For Heidegger this entails an overlap in the notions of thinking and poetry; “thinking” [Denken] in the genuine sense involves tracing the poetic disclosure and movement of being.  He says in a passage well into the text: “Poetizing and thinking is authentic seeking” (114), where seeking is questioning, with the poet’s vocation to question the holy.

While the ins and outs of Heidegger’s analysis of “Remembrance” are too complex for me to summarize in a short space, in what follows I will highlight some of the principal themes and contours of Heidegger’s reading.  I begin at the end of the course, in view of his claim that the last lines of the hymn connect it with its beginning and reinforce its message.  Overall, as Heidegger reads it, “Remembrance” is a description of the poet’s experience as a poet.  The hymn’s last words read “Yet what remains the poets found” (18).  As Heidegger reads this line, the poets preserve and keep alive the time-space of the historical being of the human, the things that have come to pass and those that remain to be borne (165).  Heidegger interprets the hymn as poeticizing a narrative of the poet’s sojourn and homecoming, such that the hymn illustrates the poet’s experience as one of figuratively departing from one’s own land, and then returning to it.  (On this score Heidegger observes the correspondence between the hymn’s travel narrative and Hölderlin’s own return to Germany, on foot, after a period in Bordeaux.)  The poet is the one who can appropriate this very crossing from the foreign to the homely, recognizing the foreign and the homely in their own right.  Heidegger highlights several images in the poem that articulate metaphorically the poet’s sojourn: the northeasterly wind’s promise of the sun’s return; the turning of the equinox; a footbridge crossing a narrow valley (from France to Germany, and more distantly, Germany to Greece); the Garonne river of France joining the Dordogne and spreading to the sea.

Heidegger does not spend much time in this lecture course discussing what the poem means.  The reader should not expect that Heidegger’s analysis will enhance their understanding of what Hölderlin was trying to say, or of the metaphorical allusions Hölderlin gives to the various places and phenomena mentioned in the hymn.  Heidegger’s interest is much more to isolate the poeticizing, historically significant moments that phenomenologically condition the poem’s principal images and overall composition.  In other words, Heidegger attempts to highlight within specific concepts and themes of “Remembrance” the primordial disclosures that were poeticized for Hölderlin and which received some voice in his poetry.  One such theme is that of the “festival” or “holiday,” and the relation of these to the more fundamental notion of the “holy.”  As Heidegger describes it, the festival constitutes a commemoration of a momentous event in the past, a celebration of a god’s presence in and consecration of the human domain.  In its original instantiation, “[t]he festival is the event in which gods and humans come to encounter one another” (62).  For Heidegger, this commemorated moment originates with the dawn of history in Greece and the advent of the Greek gods.  Accordingly, the festival and the holiday occasioning it are a reflection of the presence of the holy in the historical being of the present.  Phenomenologically speaking, Heidegger’s meaning seems to be this: the existence of the festival as articulated by the poet is significant because the festival and its holiday illustrate the extraordinary quality of certain days and times by which they command celebration, revealing their own consecration.  More broadly, Heidegger interprets the festival and holiday to commemorate historical being itself, including the circle of life to which human beings belong as the receivers of this being.

Another theme for which Heidegger gives a rather idiosyncratic, yet ostensibly phenomenological account is that of dreams.  This treatment is noteworthy given that dreams are a subject that does not figure prominently in many other texts of Heidegger’s corpus.  He takes up dreams here in the course of discussing the ending lines of the second strophe of “Remembrance.”  These lines read “And over slow footbridges/Heavy with golden dreams/Lulling breezes draw.”  In the wider context of this citation, Heidegger interprets this image as a reference to the poet crossing over to the homeland, where “golden dreams” convey the slumbering but still extant, “lulling” presence of ancient Greek culture (103ff).  However, Heidegger gives a deeper analysis of how dreams are to be understood in their own right and outside the framework of modern psychology.  He emphasizes that we should consider dreams “nonscientifically,” an approach that stands to be “more scientific” than traditional science by virtue of interpreting dreams outside of any standard point of reference.  Heidegger offers a phenomenological description of dreams, citing for illustration two passages from the Greek poet Pindar, whom he identifies as an ancient counterpart of Hölderlin.  In the first cited passage, taken from Pindar’s eighth “Pythian Ode,” the key phrase reads: “Shadows’ dream are human beings” (95).  Human beings are the dream of shadows.  Heidegger interprets this phrase to portray dreams as a vanishing within an appearing, but an appearing which itself is constituted by a darkening, a shadow-character.  In Heidegger’s words:

Pindar wants to say that the dream is the way in which whatever is itself in a certain way already lightless, absences: the dream as the most extreme absencing into the lightless, and yet nevertheless not nothing, but in this way too still an appearing: this vanishing itself still an appearing, the appearing of a passing away into that which is altogether devoid of radiance, which no longer illuminates (98).

So Heidegger’s account of dreams sets about attempting to describe the underlying phenomenological character of dreaming, particularly as dreams are characterized by an evanescent but nonetheless definite, illuminating appearance from a hidden source.  In claiming that he aims to give a nonscientific account, Heidegger’s emphasis seems to rest in the fact that dreams are first-person experiences.  As such, the most one can provide in a genuinely philosophical reckoning must be formulated on the basis of how dreaming presents itself.

On the relation Pindar’s ode sketches between the dream and the human being (“Shadows’ dream are human beings”), Heidegger goes on to comment as follows:

The shadow’s dream is the fading presence of that which is faded, lightless; by no means a nothing; to the contrary, perhaps even that which is real – that which alone is admitted as real where the human being is stuck only with that which is constantly vanishing, the daily aspect of the everyday, insofar as the latter counts as the only thing that life knows as proximate and real (Ibid.).

Heidegger offers something profound here in his citation of Pindar.  He casts dreams more broadly as reflecting the vanishing of the original illumination that constitutes the open of human being itself (100).  Dreams echo the original, yet always withdrawn presence of being.  The evanescent character of dreams simply is the character of the human experience of meaningful intelligibility, and of everyday human life.  This observation yields at once a metaphysical sketch of everyday human being, and a cloaked criticism of modern culture, on the ground that every moment of life is a fleeting instantaneous juxtaposition of consciousness and forgetting.  Heidegger concludes that dreams reflect the presence-in-absence constitutive of human being itself: “And so it is that what the human being is, as presencing in the manner of a shadow, he is not in the manner of mere presence and cropping up….  That which presences stretches itself as such…in accordance with its essence – into absencing” (100).  In sum, to call human beings the dream of shadows is a way of sketching the temporally stretched, yet self-negating character of human existence.  While this interpretation stands on its own and greatly fills in the opaque meaning of Pindar’s words, Heidegger also explains the significance of this excursus for Hölderlin’s mention of “golden dreams.”  Here Heidegger cites a fragment from Hölderlin’s philosophical treatise “Becoming in Dissolution,” where Hölderlin describes the freedom realized in the creation of art as a terrifying yet divine dream, straddling the line between being and nonbeing, possible and real, and actual and ideal.  Heidegger explains: “the dreamlike concerns the becoming real of the possible in the becoming ideal of the actual” (103).  As Heidegger writes elsewhere in his own accounts of the origin of art, art’s creation articulates the interplay of one’s own place and time with the presence of the divine.  Thus, the “golden dreams” of the “lulling breezes” blowing across the footbridge convey the historical presence of Greece’s golden age, which in turn also represents the dawn of historical meaning occasioned in the advent of art, poetry, and language.  So while Heidegger provides an exhaustive hermeneutic analysis of dreams and their presence in human being, he also interprets Hölderlin’s lines regarding the lulling breeze crossing the footbridge to express at once the poet’s experience of straddling the homely and foreign, and more broadly, the essence and meaning of the existence of art.

On a related note, another example of Heidegger’s preoccupation with the phenomenological disclosure bound up with the birth of poetry and art is visible with his highlighting of Hölderlin’s emphases in “Remembrance” of phenomena as they occur to him.  In the first strophe, Hölderlin describes the “northeasterly” as the most beloved of winds “to me” (16).  A few lines after, he invites the reader to “go now and greet/The beautiful Garonne” (Ibid.).  And in the second strophe, Hölderlin says “Still it thinks its way to me” [Noch denket das mir wohl] (17), suggesting a notion of being reminded, of having a thought occasioned from outside oneself.  For Heidegger, Hölderlin’s use of these locutions indicates that the poetic experience involves heeding moments that disclose themselves, rather than actively seeking out words that describe experiences.  In this light, the northeasterly wind, or the Garonne, are poeticized phenomena that self-present, as it were.  They are not discovered by the human agent’s searching or cataloguing of geography or atmospheric patterns, or finding aesthetically pleasing ways to describe these.

What results from Heidegger’s often tangential explorations in this lecture course are as penetrating and exhaustive discussions as one will find in his oeuvre on the nature of poetry and particularly, what it means for disclosures of being to be “poeticized.”  This book will make a fine companion to Heidegger’s other writings on poetry such as On the Way to Language, “Poetically Man Dwells,” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  Also noteworthy in this volume, several early sections of the course address at length the biography and legacy of Norbert Von Hellingrath, the young Hölderlin scholar who, before his untimely death in the first World War, collected the edition of Hölderlin’s poems Heidegger deems essential.  Although many of Heidegger’s other writings of this period, especially those on Hölderlin, exhibit a nationalistic streak, the presence of this dimension in Heidegger’s analysis of “Remembrance” is for the most part rather muted.  In this vein, Heidegger primarily takes his cues from Hölderlin’s historical conceptions of Germania and does not develop much material from out of his own voice.  These topics feature most prominently in Part Three of the text, which is entitled “The Search for the Free Use of One’s Own.”  I do not believe this text will provide a major contribution for understanding themes of nationalism in Heidegger’s work.

I will finish by highlighting one last issue to which Heidegger gives attention in this lecture course that I believe is very interesting vis-à-vis his treatments of art and poetry elsewhere.  Heidegger gives repeated attention to the concept of images [Bild], particularly in the context of the visual representations one experiences in reading and hearing poetry.  In these passages, Heidegger emphasizes that the images evoked by poetry cannot function as a vehicle for understanding what is poeticized.  Similarly, he argues that images are not simply the visible counterpart of an unspoken, invisible form or essence comprising the real truth of the poem, as if the poem were some kind of derivative, lesser version of a true reality not possible to capture in words (29-30).  As Heidegger describes, images have this limitation because what is poeticized transcends the poem altogether.  What is poeticized is not something the poem represents or symbolizes.  Thus, the fact that a piece of poetry contributes to the formation of images in the hearer has no bearing on a poem’s meaning or the disclosure of being that occasioned the poem’s composition.  Interestingly, Heidegger does not speak here of the actual ontology of images, or of the human capacity for image consciousness.  Nor does he comment on the western tradition of privileging visual perception among the sources of knowledge, as he does more critically elsewhere in writings such as “The Age of the World Picture” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  In those works, Heidegger’s position is that artworks (which, as he says, have their origin in poetry) do not merely represent; art in the genuine sense does not simply re-produce a subject by placing it in front of the viewer in the manner of a copy.  Instead, artworks have the function of preserving the eventuation of historical truth for a particular time, place, and culture.  Artworks wrest truth from oblivion and bring it into light, albeit not permanently.  In view of his comments on images in the course on “Remembrance,” I believe one can take issue slightly with the dichotomy Heidegger draws between the images occasioned through poetry, and the question of whether such images represent a more original meaning or not.  In other words, Heidegger’s suggestion that images are merely representative, and not reflective of a deeper disclosure, is perhaps overly restrictive.  As Karen Gover has written on this topic, Heidegger perhaps ought to say that art and poetry do in fact represent their subjects (in the manner of re-presenting), but in a way that goes deeper than merely copying their subjects.  Maybe the key is that they simply represent in a more originary way, and not that they do not represent at all.  In the case of Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s “Remembrance,” Heidegger would seem to allow that the hymn re-enacts some trace of the primordial disclosure that was given to the poet; one simply needs to be in the correct mode of hearing to appreciate the offering of this disclosure.  On the other hand, the equally decisive point emerging from Heidegger’s interpretive framework in the lecture course seems to be that the images Hölderlin’s hymn affords us must not distract us from the fact that poetry’s origins transcend both images and words; poetry (or poeticizing) is the moment of being coming into language.  Understanding Hölderlin’s hymn therefore concerns heeding the eventuation of being that precedes both the poem and its images.

Works Cited:

Gover, K.  “The Overlooked Work of Art in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art.’”  International Philosophical Quarterly 48 (2) (2008): 143-53.

Empathy, Sociality and Personhood: Essays on Edith Stein’s Phenomenological Investigations

Empathy, Sociality, and Personhood: Essays on Edith Stein’s Phenomenological Investigations Book Cover Empathy, Sociality, and Personhood: Essays on Edith Stein’s Phenomenological Investigations
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 94
Elisa Magrì, Dermot Moran (Eds.)
Hardback 93,59 €
VI, 218

Reviewed by: Davide Perrotta (Roma Tre University)

Empathy, Sociality and Personhood is a collection of essays about Edith Stein’s thought and its surrounding theoretical context edited by Elisa Magrì and Dermot Moran. Both of the editors have worked on several books about Husserl, the phenomenological tradition, and, in particular, on Edith Stein.

In the Introduction the editors carefully reconstruct the interdisciplinary debates motivated by Stein’s theoretical concepts, which are discussed at length and relevant to many different philosophical and scientific fields. The Introduction points out that there are at least 43 different definitions of the term ‘empathy’ and this circumstance strongly motivates the phenomenological research which investigates empathy as a philosophical issue. Edith Stein’s interest in the topic constitutes a key aspect of her work which has attracted much attention and study. The debate concerning an emotive account of empathy and the extent to which it is present in both humans and animals, has a long history and can be traced in the Darwinian conception of animal sociality, and within the Theodor Lipps’ thesis from the psychological side[1]. The Introduction also makes reference to Vittorio Gallese’s conception of the emphatic process, which leads us into the realm of contemporary neuroscience and cognitive debates[2]. It is part of contemporary common practice to compare scientific definitions of empathy with those from the philosophical tradition, however, the empirical approach of the natural sciences is largely missing from Stein’s phenomenological descriptions.

In contrast to the prominent empirical status of the contemporary approach, this text instead refers to the phenomenological approach. As it becomes clear within the text: only with Husserl’s epistemological turn in the investigations of conscious life are we really able to describe experience structures. The essays in the collection acknowledge Edith Stein’s assimilation of the phenomenological method in order to develop new intentional investigations. Stein’s interest in empathy as a topic stems from her recognition of the importance of this theme in Husserl’s dissertations, for Stein he did not adequately treat or fully elaborate on empathy as a specific intentional act. Stein’s investigations of empathetic psychological acts is therefore profoundly intertwined with Husserl’s account and empathy is defined as an intentional act near to perception and imagination, but different from both.

The book is divided into four parts: the first part contains several essays which treat the concept of ‘Person’. This notion shouldn’t be defined as a single unit, but integrated within a whole series of psychological acts including relational spatiality. The second part integrates this topic with the affective theme of the human experience; regarding the peculiarities of intentionality in relation to the emotional style of the subject. Related to these discussion, themes such as ‘empathy’ or ‘imagination’ are carefully introduced. In the third part, different essays discuss the topic of communal experience which is  very important for integrating the description of the human experience. In the fourth part, the essays discuss the thought of some lesser known  phenomenologists which  nonetheless, supply us with very important descriptions of the communal experience.

The first contribution in the collection is entitled ‘Edith Stein’s Encounter with Edmund Husserl and Her Phenomenology of the Person’ and is by Dermot Moran. The essay begins with a brief introduction which covers the career of Edith Stein, Moran then explores the context in which Husserl’s first book of Ideas was received by his students. The transcendental turn in this book proved difficult to accept for those who were bound to the strong realism of Husserl’s Logical investigations. However, in contrast to his other students, Edith Stein found it easy to grasp, understand and appreciate Husserl’s turn in relation to e.g. both eidetic analysis and the embodied state of consciousness. Moran communicates how Stein conceptualizes the differences between ‘originary and non-originary experience’[3] which is an essential aspect of the phenomenological analysis of consciousness.  Within these theoretical features Stein conducted careful examination of the description of the empathetic act essence, and used this to develop her own conception of the subjective and inter-subjective ‘living body’. Moran then describes the way in which she worked on the affective account of subjectivity beginning with psycho-physical conditionality and moving towards the spiritual peculiarities of the emotional life. He then goes on to explain the peculiarity of Stein’s studies on the essence of the ‘individual person’; he adequately communicates the complex relation between the metaphysical influences on her thought and the phenomenological method. In spite of the complex relation between the two, Moran concludes that Stein proposes a very deep phenomenological description of the person that is strongly philosophical with theological influences.

The second essay is by Hans Rainer Sepp and it explores ‘Edith Stein’s Conception of the Person within the Context of the Phenomenological Movement’.Sepp discusses the concept of personhood in Stein’s phenomenological investigations, in which the structural conception of individuality emerges. He explores the way in which personhood is analyzed by Stein with a focus on descriptions of the intentional structures of conscience life. In the same way in which consciousness organizes our own experience of the world, for Stein personhood is constructed through a multi-stratum ontology, where the deeper found the higher ones. Fort example: we must define the sensorial psychological dimensions as an integrating part of the more complex spiritual values. Sepp explains this important definition with reference to Stein’s distinction between soul and spirit; soul relates to contemporary psychological themes, spirit concerns the values sphere, where social values emerge as the ‘responsibility’.

Sepp then compares Stein’s concept of ‘person’ with that of Max Scheler. Scheler had similar notions about personhood as  Stein, but he also presents differences concerning the relation between the person and their own acts; the person is defined by Scheler as not comparable with their own acts, however, these acts continuously modify their personality. The last part of the text returns to Stein’s concept of personhood, this time focusing on Husserl’s notions of ‘ego’. Stein points out that the Greek notion of oikos, with which she spoke about an oikological conceptuality, in relation to the human spatiality. This interesting topic is well presented by Sepp as, by revealing Stein’s interest in the phenomenological spatiality among peoples the concept is not only defined by her as functional, but as essential in order to define personhood[4]. The topic concerning the spatiality of the own experience is an important prerogative for understanding the concept of ‘person’. The environment is an integral feature for  understanding our relational habits, and this concept shouldn’t be avoided in the psychological understanding of the human life.

The second part of the book is entitled ‘Empathy, Subjectivity, and Affectivity’. The first contribution is by Ingrid Vendrell Ferran and is entitled ‘Intentionality, Value Disclosure, and Constitution: Stein’s Model’. Ferran retraces the debate on the relation among values and emotion from Brentano to the phenomenological context. Her brief but efficient introduction is useful for understanding the distinctness of Stein’s model of affectivity and she presents Stein’s account of the ‘ontology of person’ which is explained with care in its peculiarity. The various elements of affectivity are explained with an accurate relation to the intentional aspect of them. In this way, the author discloses these essential notions to explain the role of emotionality in the perception of values. In contrast to perception and other theoretical acts, the role of the emotional act in the constitution of values is explained coherently. Values are defined not only in the sense of ‘material objects’ but also as formal and it becomes clear how emotions have their own intentionality. In the last part of the essay Ferran uses the drafted instruments for connecting to the discussion of axiology in Stein’s thought. The topic of intentionality in relation to the affective style is an important prerogative for understanding the contrast with Scheler’s realism. Relating to the latter peculiarity, Ferran describes an affinity between Stein and Husserl’s thesis. Even though the theme of the ‘discovery’ of values seems to speak about a realism, she conceives support for the thesis of a ‘constitution’ of values in both in Husserl and in Stein. The constitution of intentional structures allows us to avoid a strong realism about values, paying greater attention to the relation between the consciousness and the world.

The contribution by Michela Summa concerns two main topics: the multiple-level structure of intentionality in Stein’s work and the presentation of various proposals in relation to the complex theme of ‘simulation’  in the emphatic intentional act. Hereafter, the essay contemplates the thought of Peter Goldie, a lesser known philosopher who makes an interesting contribution to how Stein’s work relates to these areas. Summa carefully explains the relation among understanding and imagination in Goldie’s thought overall in relation to the empathetic grasping of individual narration. Goldie shows the role of the imagination in the understanding of the other’s lived events. So, Summa shows how, in Goldie’s thought it is not only the single mental act that is to be grasped, but an entire event of the other’s individual narration. Goldie’s phenomenological description of empathy is classified with several steps, from the more cognitive level toward the most affective attitude of sympathy. The importance of the intentional directivity toward the other’s narration is described with different levels of complexity; from the essential pre-cognitive backgrounds, with which important aspects of the personality are grasped, towards the cultural features or higher motivational states.

‘Stein’s understanding of Mental Health and Mental Illness’ is the contribution by Mette Lebech, in which the topics concerning Stein’s treatment of the empirical psychological tradition are discussed. Lebech describes an interesting difference between the natural stance of the illness and the individual story. Nature intervenes in the individual story, but it doesn’t coincide with individual motivations. In Lebech’s reconstruction, the spirit is presented as the most important dimension of the person which is not only influenced by natural causes. Lebech uses a metaphor of the battery to speak about the psychological process to show how the spiritual attitude of the person lies outside of mechanical dynamics. As with Stein’s reference to God, the latter activity motivates consciousness without a strong requirement of the psychological energetic dimension. Lebech also writes about the group dynamics of the psychological affection and even in the latter case, the passive processes, like imitation, are defined differently to the higher ones – such as the sharing of common values in the community – as mere natural processes.

The third part of the book is entitled ‘Empathy, Sociality, and Medical Ethics’. The first article of this section is ‘From I to you to We: Empathy and Community in Edith Stein’s Phenomenology’. The first contribution in this part is written by Timothy A. Burns and he begins by speaking about Stein’s dissertation in which the intentional act of empathy is deeply analyzed. Burns shows the necessity of distinguishing between ‘primordial’ and ‘non primordial’ acts. The primordial part of the empathetic act belongs to the perception of the other’s physical body, while the other’s experience is defined as the ‘non-primordial’ content. Empathy, as distinct from memory, fantasy or expectation, is defined as an act that transcends the ego. Empathy doesn’t regard the ‘I’ as a subject of its acts, but instead allows us to represent the other’s experience. For this reason, Burns notices, that in empathy an ‘apperception’ is not established, because I don’t apperceive myself as subject of the act. Burns reveals two different levels of empathy: the first is defined as ‘sensual’ and concerns the bodily experience of others, the second is reiterated empathy with which we may grasp the acts by which the other experiences us. Burns uses Stein’s account of empathy in relation to the topic of the community; despite the inalienable aloneness of each individual subject, we can join each other in one community through empathetic acts. Burns explains that, through the possibility of a communal experience, the ego remains ontologically separated from the others because our own experience relates first of all to the subject to whom it belongs. So, the communal intentional structure is not independent of the subjectivities, but is a product of them, and this peculiarity is coherently treated by the author as an essential ‘noetic’ sense of communal experience, belonging to a multiplicity of subjects.

Antonio Calcagno’s contribution is entitled: ‘The Role of Identification in Experiencing Community: Edith Stein, Empathy, and Max Scheler’. Calcagno contemplates the topic of ‘shared experience’ by debating the ideas of Edith Stein and Max Scheler together. Although they use different terms, Scheler and Stein both speak about a ‘we’ experience, or GemeineschaftErlebnisse to use Stein’s terms. In Stein’s first work we find the tension between ‘individuation’ and ‘identification’ and, in contrast to Scheler, Stein ascribes greater importance to personal individuation and argues that it shouldn’t become lost when the person lives within one community. The community itself is described as an intentional structure, stratified like the other form of intentional objects. Calcagno explains how the community is constituted by categorical acts other than by the psychological process of imitation. Indeed, the logical-linguistic dimension is an important aspect which defines a spiritual community and is different from one guided by a ‘psychical infection’[5].  On the other hand, the author reconstructs Scheler’s discussion about values in strict opposition with skeptic theories of morality. Scheler claims the possibility of discovering an eidetic structure of values that characterizes his strong realism about this theme. The author correctly shows the propensity of Scheler concerning a more communal ethical thought in comparison to Stein. Scheler, indeed, speaks about the importance of the spiritual values, with which we can become a ‘collective person’, rather than a community of single individuals organized by each other.

In ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Empathy and Medical Ethics’ Fredrik Svenaeus speaks about the relation between the concepts of ‘person’ and ‘patient’. In the first part of the text, Svenaeus explains the multi-level status of the empathetic act. The most elementary phase depends on the perception of the other’s body; the second step concerns the role of the imagination, with which the other’s experience can be simulated. At the last step, the cognitive elaboration returns to the first person perspective, with an enriched intentionality. Stein speaks about the lack of this capacity for the most part in medics who work on the ‘medical body’ rather than on the ‘lived’ one. Empathy must not necessarily become ‘sympathy’, but it is an essential step we must take to grasp the other’s world, through meaningful events relating to their existence.

In the fourth part of the book is discussed the topic of ‘Edith Stein and her Contemporaries’. The first essay is entitled ‘Kurt Stavenhangen on the Phenomenology of the We’ and is written by Alessandro Salice. Salice examines the thought of Kurt Stavenhangen; a less famous phenomenologist whose work is interesting nonetheless. Stavenhangen worked on the thesis of shared intentionality, and, in line with his thinking, Salice observes that the plural pronoun ‘we’ is not merely a simple function of grammar; it is a change in the intentional structure of experience. The shared experience is characterized by the phenomenologist as a reference to the selfsame intentional object, like a general ‘we like G’. This abstract sentence is shown to explain the structural property of the communal experience. We are not describing a specific cultural expression, but the universal structure of the shared experience. So, being aware of the selfsame object, whatever it was, is not only a theoretical act, but, as Salice explains, it concerns the establishment of shared preferences within the community. What follows is a debate concerning the intentional classification of the ‘we experience’ as examined by Stavenhangen with two peculiar, different intentional forms.

‘A Philosophical Resonance: Hedwig Conrad-Martius versus Edith Stein’ is the final essay in the book and it is written by Ronny Miron. The essay focuses on the relationship between the two phenomenologists quoted in the title and how they have influenced one another. Hedwig Conrad-Martius had strong relationship with Edith Stein, and in such a way there are conspicuous theoretical resonances between them. Hedwig Conrad-Martius based her thought on several critics of Husserl, since she claimed that his thought was flawed by a lack of reality. Indeed, she did not appreciate Husserl’s turn to the transcendental ego and judged that this theoretical move concerned only a ‘pure’ investigation. She remained, for this reason, strongly bound to Husserl’s Logical investigations. Even Hedwig Conrad-Martius, as Edith Stein, spoke about theology as an essential philosophical theme, in which can be applied the phenomenological method. Indeed, the description of the eidetic structure of intentionality could be applied to ‘faith’. For both phenomenologists faith is an essential step for the construction of our own world of meaning, and for this reason it concerns an intentional act considered important for philosophical conceptualization.

In summary, this book makes an important contribution to discussions regarding the definition of empathy not only in respect to traditional philosophical approaches which concern ethical peculiarities on the topic, but also in respect to other theoretical features. The latter characteristic is important, not only to obtain a theoretical understanding of the topic, but also in respect to the experimental practice of modern psychology. ‘Empathy’ is a complex concept which warrants philosophical investigation if we are to  better understand an essential feature of human beings.


[i] Husserl, E., Logische Untersuchungen (1900); Husserl, E., Logical Investigations, 2 vols, Trans, J.N. Findlay, New York, Humanities Press, 1970.

[ii] Husserl, E., Ideen zu einer reinen phänomenologie und phänomenologischen philosophie (1912-1928);  Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, Dodrecht, Kluwer, 1989.

[iii] Husserl, E., Ideen zu einer reinen phänomenologie und phänomenologischen philosophie (1912-1928); Husserl, E., Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book, Dodrecht, Kluwer, 1989.

[iv] Husserl, E., Erfarhung und Urteil: Untersuchungen zur Genealogie der Logik; Husserl, E., Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. Northwestern University Press, 1973.

Gilbert Simondon: La résolution des problèmes

La résolution des problèmes Book Cover La résolution des problèmes
Gilbert Simondon
Presses Universitaires de France
Paperback 25,00 €

Reviewed by: Pierluca D'Amato (Durham University)

In an age in which psychic and social spheres are heavily influenced by means of pervasive and inscrutable technologies, Gilbert Simondon’s ideas are progressively being recognised as crucial for the comprehension of the current relation between humans and technics.

Situated at the crossroad between philosophy of science, phenomenology and the study of social and developmental psychology, Simondon’s thought matured under the guidance of teachers of the calibre of Georges Canguilhem, Jean Hyppolite and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and deals with two main themes: the reflexion on the notion of individual, and the development of a theory of technics. With the publication of his doctoral theses L’Individu et sa Genèse Physico-Biologique[1] (1964) and Du Mode d’Existence des Objets Techniques (1958), Simondon’s work on these topics influenced central names of the philosophical landscape of our epoch, such as Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler, and keeps fuelling the new generations of thinkers involved in a quest for the comprehension of times thanks to the generous quantity of essays and lectures that are in the process of being published for the first time, and slowly starting to be translated from French.

The processual account that Simondon develops for the notion of individual, indeed, sets off form a critique of the hylomorphic model, the Aristotelian account of beings as composed by a form and a matter, that is defined by Simondon as a technological schema derived from a cursory consideration of technics, and whose application has significant social implications. In this framework, his theory of technics, that he calls mechanology, represents an experiment at the same time theoretical and pedagogical, that is meant to fight a double problem: the general alienation of technics from the cultural debate, and the consequent unawareness regarding the material foundation of social systems, whose status and potentialities for change are always grounded on and constrained by technical forms of mediation.

Except for the article titled La perception de longue durée, appeared in the Journal de Psychologie normale et patologique in 1969, the essays collected in La Résolution des problémes were prepared as support material for psychology courses that Simondon gave between the 1974 and 1976, in the late stage of his philosophical production, and appear for the first time published in a collection.

Ranking among the many that the philosopher has produced during his intense life of work, these essays share the same emancipatory motivation underlying the thesis on the technical object, namely that the knowledge of the technician has to become the support for a theory of machines and tools, in order to shed light on the ways in which individuals relate to the world and on the relations of which social fabrics are woven. The four essays collected in this book, in fact, can be thought of as being linked by the notion of relation, declined as the one between the individual and the object, and the one between a movement and an obstacle. These two types of relations are based on the definitions of two main concepts, namely the one of object and the one of problem.

The first essay, L’homme et l’objet, is dedicated to the relations between the individual and different types of objects, and the last one, La perception de longue durée, to the character of the objet quelconque, the any-object-whatever. The remaining two essays explore the notion of problem, one from the point of view of its possible solutions (La résolution des problémes), and the other from the point of view of the intellectual resources at work behind these operations (Invention et créativité).

This book connects the concepts of object and problem through the notion of instrumentality, by which Simondon explains how, under certain circumstances, objects can become means to solve problems, and problems, in turn, represent a way for objects and techniques to evolve.

This review will focus on addressing this set of interactions, proposing a way to read the collection through a line that crosses three major relations: the one between individuals and objects, the one between oriented movements and the obstacles to their completion, and the relation established through the instrumental mediation between objects and problems. We will then conclude by addressing the definition of philosophy that can be modelled on the latter relation.


In the first essay of the collection, the concept of object is defined in relation to the individual that perceives it. Simondon’s idea of this phenomenological relation can be summarised as follows: ‘For there to be an object, motricity is not enough, a differentiated sensorium and the combination of the data of the different senses are also necessary’ (23). For the author, objects are given as results of the integration of different perceptions, that can be carried out by individuals equipped with the appropriate cognitive system, as the one developed in adults and generally present in animals provided with complex nervous systems. On this basis, Simondon claims that ‘the object is an already complex and elevated construction, which…  characterizes a defined level of the structure or of the development of the living being’ (23).

The relation between individuals and objects varies then according to the age of the individuals and to their place in space and society and is configured on a case-by-case basis according to the relative size of the object, i.e., its order of magnitude. According to Simondon, it is precisely ‘according to orders of magnitude of the object that this relation has to be studied’ (12).

Infants, for example, intervene clumsily on what surrounds them because they relate to an object that is perceived as greater than them, a “complex and constant”, enduring world of objects that is somehow difficult to handle. With the growth of individuals, their relationships with people and objects change, and the world appears gradually smaller. During their growth, in fact, a new psycho-social “situation” (20), that Simondon defines as the instance of the acquisition of a system of objects (21), comes to describe the novel point of view assumed by individuals in relation to the world. From this more mature point of view, objects appear richer, as consisting of multiple dimensions and offering different possible uses. Occupying a new psycho-social situation as a novel point of view, individuals assume a new perspective on the material world and re-situate themselves in relation to it.

The development that leads to this change in perspective causes somatic and mental changes. The latter are produced not only by the individual’s biological growth, but also by the culture-induced classification of objects. The individual doesn’t change point of view and perspective exclusively because of its status of development then, but also because of the web of relations of which he is part, as an object among other objects. Once the individual reaches the psychosocial situation of the adult, the world of objects doesn’t appear as a unicum anymore, nor as a “fixed system”, but as a system composed by interconnected and mobile parts whose alteration can disclose useful energy (24).

When the individual reaches the psychosocial situation that corresponds to a renewed point of view, he assumes a new perspective over this world of objects, and the latter appears as composed of a series of objects culturally classified among which he can orient himself and on which he can intervene. The possibility of acting on the world is dependent on the proportions between the individual and the objects that surround him, that ‘varies according to the distance that separates them’ (12). The distance of which Simondon is speaking can be shortened by technology, whose mediatory character allows to access “distant” magnitudes and to intervene on the infinitesimally small or big. For this reason, the first essay will conclude by establishing the importance of technical mediation in the discourse on the relation between men and the object.

Simondon’s world of objects is then characterised a system of related magnitudes, whose relation to individuals is disciplined by cultural frameworks and alterable by the use of instruments. In his perspective, the greater the difference between the sizes of the individual and of the object, the greater is the role of tools that support the observation or the manipulation of the latter. The individual himself is an object among others whose perspective is influenced by the status of the system of relations of which it is part.

The second half of L’homme et l’objet is devoted to the consideration of the principal types of objects and to the perceptive relation with the extremely small or extremely big ones. In his classification, Simondon reserves a special place to tools, defined here as objects related to the definite actions that they allow, included the acquisition of information. With this characterization on the background, the author specifies that ‘technics are not necessarily a reconstruction of the natural through materials or different assemblages [and that] they can consist in an interweaving of natural objects of different categories’ (23). The possibility to encounter or produce couplings among different types of objects is connected to an interesting rethinking of the primacy of the solid in the general reflection on matter. On this topic, Simondon claims that objects can comport different states of matter and even include voids. Indeed, he explains, objects are not always “full”, and ‘an object may not be everywhere materialized and have real or apparent voids. The real void is a space without function in the object. The apparent void is a medium of transmission’ (23).

The discourse on transmission media and apparent voids brings about the notion of milieu, characterised as an object of a special class. According to Simondon, what he defines as “enveloping objects” have the property to influence the reciprocal relations of the objects that they contain, and can easily go unnoticed, “become invisible”, despite the importance of their effect on what they contain. The author specifies that the milieu is an object too, specifically because ‘it intervenes in the phenomenon. The position of the object is part of the object because it designates its potential energy’ (24).  According to this view, the surroundings of an object not only act on the individual, influencing his perspective, but determine the state of the object itself, that “appears” because of the stability of its conditions. It is this stability, although relative because ‘situated between two orders of magnitude unstable or metastable’ (24), that makes possible to speak about objects in general. In Simondon’s account then, the milieu represents one of the most relevant parts of the coordinate reference system that shapes the relation between individuals and objects, and determines various effects of constancy, but also clichés and stereotypes, which influence the perception of objects.

Objects can appear to be near or far, and be perceived as familiar, rare or extraneous.  According to the author, the “proximity” of a type of object grows proportionally to its degree of circulation among individuals and causes variations in society (29-32). For Simondon, the “extraneity” of an object is directly connected to the ideology on which a society is shaped and reflects the consequence of the division of work. Indeed, the degrees of extraneity of a type of object correspond to specific modes of production and to the distance between the figures of the user, the producer and the designer. The various relations between these figures produce three cultural models, that Simondon shapes on “different degrees of extraneity”: style and tradition are the ones in which the user has a relationship only with the designer or with the producer, while consumerism is the pole of the relation in which the user doesn’t have any relation with the other two figures. The last model, representing the opposite pole on the scale, is designated as the anthropological one, in which the three figures are all related.

On the basis of this classification, Simondon describes the current situation of technology, in which the arrangement of the relations between objects is such that things are submitted to a process of premature obsolescence, and in which the possibility to intervene on the configuration of objects is being denied by design choices that favour disposables and their endless production and consumption (32-34).

Beyond all the possible configurations of this network of relations, and all the kinds of particular objects that he classifies, Simondon posits what he calls the any-object-whatever. This notion describes the most generic object, that however has a peculiar characteristic: ‘Th[is] object is, first of all and existentially, supposed to be another organism or product or announcement of an organism, or even a group of organisms’ (57).

This idea is considered more in depth in the last essay, that consists in a detailed exposition of experiments with vision that should provide evidence for this thesis through an illustration of what Simondon calls the organism-effect. Such conception is grounded on the claim that ‘the perception of the object bears on a functional real enhanced and pre-marked by a signage’ (58). This means that objects appear because the perceiver, as agent, has a functional relation with its surrounding, and that the objects that appear to him are already filtered by his own physiological needs.

Because of this filtering function, the object is perceived on a background that Simondon describes as continuous and unlimited, because not fractioned by the selective attention of the perceiver. This background, he adds, ‘has an ecological sense, it is a texture’ (58), and ‘the texture is a characteristic of the milieu… [or better still] it is the support, the milieu’ (59).

Since the triple relation between the perceiver, the morphology of the object and this texture allows the object to be grasped, Simondon defines the milieu as a “perceptive mediator” between subject and object. This texture is defined as a microstructure, a multilevel code whose internal differences provide the basis for the action that is taking place on them and exert a regulatory function on it. According to the author, form and texture are two extreme orders of magnitude coexisting on the same perceptive field, the middle term of which is the structure. Different microstructures can produce the exact same form, so that a form is said to be the global result of a texture, i.e., a level of perceptual approximation.

With the series of experiments illustrated in the last essay of the collection, La perception de longue durée, Simondon argues that perception is always biased, and that this bias characterizes the any-object-whatever as an organism.

The experiments illustrated in the article concern prolonged observations of objects and rotating surfaces projected on a screen. According to Simondon, the optic effects generated by long periods of fixation should testify that perception is modelled on organisms, be them friends, partners, prays, food or foes.

This essay, however, has at least two problems: the first is that the study focuses only on the sense of sight, when, as shown, Simondon believed that to have an object is necessary to integrate data from different senses. Moreover, this research does not appear to be scientifically rigorous because, by admission of the author himself: ‘it would be advisable to multiply the observations, to operate with the participation of various subjects, and … by involving subjects that ignore the true nature and the real movement of the object’ (289). This issue is connected to the second problem of the essay: Simondon’s formula tends to project the quality of being an organism onto the object, while the organism-effect takes place not because the any-object-whatever is an organism, but because the perceiver is. Long durations entail the prolongation of the natural intersaccadic periods of fixation, and the effects Simondon describes can be the result of ocular drift and microtremors: it is not the object that moves then, but the eye, and because of its constitution.

Besides of these issues, the idea underlying the series of tests conducted by Simondon can be summarised as follows: ‘It may be thought that, just as there are stimuli-signals, studied by ethology, there exist archetypes and types providing to perception in critical condition its hypotheses’ (334). According to Simondon then, the illusory movement of the images resulting from long periods of fixation is a manifestation of the archetypes that orient perception. As a consequence, the idea that the any-object-whatever is an organism, means that there is an inclination of perception to expect to find organisms, and this because perception serves action, as in the case of the search for food or in the attempt to avoid predators, facilitating the survival of the living being.

Problems and Solutions

Survival is the result of a constant practice of problem-solving.

In the essay that gives the name to the collection, Simondon defines problems as follows: ‘a problem exists as soon as a finalized conduct encounters an obstacle to its realization’ (61), and problems can be classified on the basis of the kind of operations required to overcome these obstacles or avoid harmful stimuli. These operations are the result of a “change of strategy” of sorts, that can be performed as the result of blind attempts in different directions, in view of a plan and recurring to some sort of mediation, be it material or symbolic.

The easiest example of the first modality of problem-solving involves a change in the original direction of a movement. The new direction can be found accidentally and chosen after a random series of unsuccessful trials that increase the chance of not encountering the obstacle again. Simondon shows that this type of conduct is already observable in organisms that are not able to perceive stimuli at a distance, that don’t possess a spatial memory, and in which the motor function is predominant on the sensory one (67).

A more complex way to solve a problem involves the production of a “plan” and requires memory and the capacity to perceive from a distance. Differentiated from the previous by the neurophysiological capacities of the individuals, the presence of acquired habits and hereditary behavioural schemes (77), this kind of conduct presupposes the perception of an actual object instead of isolated uncomfortable sensations (69). The solution of labyrinths by laboratory mice represents a good example of this second type of strategy because mice possess both the capacity to perform a cognitive synthesis of stimuli coming from different senses and the ability to memorise simple information.

The learning process of the subjects of these tests is defined as the gradual limitation of errors, which is complemented by the memorisation of specific spatial relations, and their characterisation as either useful or unattractive. What the mice learn is therefore a new pattern of relations. At this level of complexity, the “plan” is nothing more than the memory of this pattern: ‘”what the rat learns is the labyrinth itself”, that is to say spatial relationships, a topography that had to be sought … learning is not about movements, but about spatial relationships’ (79).

Other problems ‘involve the preparation of instruments’ (88), and necessitate a more complex nervous system, as it is the case of monkeys and humans.

The usage of complex tools is crucially related to their preparation and improvement, and implies the identification of non-urgent needs. Conservation and reparation of the tools derive from this capability of the users, whose activities include the search for materials and the use of other tools in order to produce the ones desired. The conservation of the means of production represents another practice that has direct social implications, because it generates what Simondon describes as the social filters that new inventions must overcome in order to see the light. This highlights the fact that the conditions of the birth of technical objects are not only environmental, but also socio-economical.

La résolution des problèmes focuses then on the consideration of the process of invention, the analysis of which can be found, with more details, also in the third essay of the collection, Invention et créativité.

An invention can be defined as the creation of a group whose elements are in a functional relation, and the sum of which results in a function or a number of functions available to the user (105). The elements of this functional unity, the “organs” of an invention, are arranged and chosen so that ‘there is not necessarily one organ per function or one function per organ’ (105), and their assemblage derives from the articulation of a ‘plurality of tensions towards the fulfilment of functions thanks to the state created by their simultaneous fulfilment’ (100).

The equilibrium between these tensions is reached through a process constituted by three phases: a syncretic phase, an analytic one and a synthetic one. The scheme theorised by Simondon applies to the most complex objects, and is exemplifiable by the invention of industrial machines, which ‘is characterised by … a syncretism, that consist in the act of amalgamating, of blending functional parts, an analysis of the functions and of the structure of the objects, and a synthesis acting as a multifunctional combination of the structures’ (160).

Indeed, the syncretic phase can be described as the act of putting together elements that may lack functional and structural separation, and whose defective assembly makes the object impossible to be industrialised and difficult to automatize. In order to overcome the drawbacks of the initial configuration of the machine, to improve its effects, and/or to produce a new effect, the device must go through an analytic phase, in which the functions of the object are considered separately, and their functions dissociated. This leads to a reshuffle of structures and functions (147) that can be performed also to solve problems belonging to the internal milieu of the object. Problems of this sort can be risen by the fact that one of the components has been transformed by evolution, and because ‘The introduction of a new element affects the way of being of the totality, but must conform to the new laws of the totality resulting’ (105).

Leaving behind ‘a new arrangement of objects or the production of a movement that wasn’t existing before’ (131), the solution of a problem trough instrumental mediation brings about something new, qualifying as a not completely reversible activity that entails a genuine progress.


Theoretical problems or obstacles that cannot be solved by resorting to a material basis to manipulate can be approached through a different “strategy”, that involves the use of symbols.

Very interestingly, part of Invention et créativité is dedicated to the consideration of the process of invention in Greek philosophy. In Simondon’s view, the monism of the primordial element selected by Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes represents the syncretic phase of the early western philosophical invention, whilst the dualistic doctrine of Plato assumes the character of an analytic phase. The synthetic moment of invention in Greek philosophy is instead represented by Aristotle’s philosophy, who, in Simondon’s view, ‘replaced the Platonic opposition between the Idea and the object with the asymmetrical coupling of form and matter, which constitutes the whole universe’ (201). According to the author then, it is possible to apply these schemes to the rest of the history of philosophy, parsing it in a dialectic taxonomy that echoes the Hegelian one.

Even more interesting than this classificatory exercise, however, is the fact that philosophy is considered as ‘a mode of thought capable of real inventions, in the manner of technical thought’ (203), and therefore essentially as a way to solve problems. This definition of the nature of philosophy can be shared or not: what is perhaps more important, is to consider it in relation to what Simondon omits. Among all the possible strategies considered by the author, in fact, solving problems through the creation of new problems has been remarkably left out. Thinking of hungry rats and mazes, for example, makes evident that all sorts of traps have been designed to solve the problem of infestation through the production of a new problem, a very difficult one to solve for the rat.

The nature of these kinds of solutions, that at the same time are also problems, forces us to re-consider Simondon’s conception of philosophy: the idea that the discipline is an inventive one is definitely acceptable, even though the condition of this invention should be debated, but the qualification of philosophy as a problem-solving technique can be quite limiting.

Unlike Simondon, Gilles Deleuze was well aware of this issue: he believed that philosophy is the art of fabricating concepts, but also that these can be created only as ‘a function of problems’ (1991, 2). According to Deleuze, problems are not simply found, they have to be posed, and raised in order to allow the invention of concepts. From this point of view, the creation of problems assumes a certain kind of primacy over their solution. This conception is explicit in a passage of Deleuze’s Bergsonism (1988), in which the philosopher quotes Bergson’s La Pensée et le Mouvant (1934), and with which is probably appropriate to conclude this review of La Résolution des Problèmes:

True Freedom lies in a power to decide, to constitute problems themselves. And this “semi-divine” power entails the disappearance of false problems as much as the creative upsurge of true ones. “The truth is that in philosophy and even elsewhere it is a question of finding the problem and consequently of positing it, even more than of solving it … its solution may remain hidden and, so to speak, covered up; The only thing left to do is to uncover it. But stating the problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing (1988, 15).


[1] First part of the major theses, later published in its entirety as L’individuation à la Lumière des Notions de Forme et d’Iinformation (1989).

Kevin Aho: Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness

Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness Book Cover Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness
New Heidegger Research
Kevin Aho
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95

Reviewed by: Helene Scott-Fordsmand (University of Copenhagen)

In contemporary debates in philosophy of medicine medical humanities are gaining ground in a discipline that was for many years dominated by bioethics. Phenomenology, with its focus on human experience, and a long history of interest in illness as boundary cases of human existence, turns up as a tradition with a lot to offer in this context. In their introduction to the Edinburgh Companion in Critical Medical Humanities Whitehead & Woods thus mention phenomenology as one of two key traditions within what can be called second wave medical humanities (Whitehead & Woods 2016, 11). In this spirit, the collection of essays in Kevin Aho’s inspiring publication is an invitation to join the exploration of phenomenology and existential medicine and find new potentials for philosophy of medicine within these traditions.

Existential Medicine is a well-balanced but also composite collection of essays, a rhizome of Heidegger-medicine-hybrids that cover a remarkable amount of ground within the medical sphere. We join the many skilful thinkers who have contributed to the volume in an exploration of the possibilities for phenomenology—and particularly Heideggerian thought—to contribute in manifold ways and in a variety of debates within philosophy of medicine. Readers should not expect the book to give them a clear and stringent definition of the field, nor a coherent “existential view” to use in opposition to other approaches in philosophy of medicine. The individual essays do of course present clear positions and proposals, but as a collection, they invite scholars to explore, broaden and discuss the concepts and methods offered by the phenomenological and existential tradition in light of the revived interest in meaningful lives and human relations.

To set the scene for the exploration, Aho introduces the collection of essays with a brief outline of key concepts in phenomenology that make it particularly relevant for medical debates: embodiment, space and time, affectivity and existence as hermeneutic. Given this introduction it is clear that the ambition of the book is not just to speak within phenomenological circles, but rather the book reaches out to novices in the existential/phenomenological tradition. However, even if the book may aim at the community of philosophers within medical humanities or philosophy of medicine, who have yet to learn the insights and wonders of phenomenology, it has something to offer to a wide range of people, Heidegger scholars included. As a sign of quality in interdisciplinary work, anyone working somewhere in-between the fields of phenomenology and medicine will find valuable insights within the pages of this book, from practising doctors in need of a little food for thought, to experienced phenomenology scholars looking for new perspectives.

The main character in the book is (of course) Heidegger. A key inspiration for taking the subject of medicine up in a Heidegger publishing series is the Zollikon seminars (Heidegger 2001)– a row of seminars held between 1959-1969 on an invitation from Medard Boss. The invitation was motivated by an aspiration to think about medicine outside of the biomedical-technical regime which Boss thought was too dominant at the time, and Boss’ conviction that Heidegger’s work proved valuable for this task. Many of the contributors in the volume agree that it is still the case that medicine is dominated by biomedical-technological regimen, and hence that there is a continued relevance of Heidegger’s work.

The heavy emphasis on Heidegger can seem frustrating to a non-Heideggerian at first, particularly given that some of the key concepts outlined by Aho in the introduction are also well-established as Merleau-Pontian notions. However, the particular focus serves as a helpful unifying principle throughout the essays, whose subjects and approaches may seem otherwise to be philosophical worlds apart. The use of Heidegger thus lets us return to the same concept over the course of many essays.

Surprisingly only a few of the essays in Existential Medicine reference the Zollikon seminars, and if you are not already familiar with them, it remains vague throughout the book—perhaps with the exception of some remarks in Frederik Svenaeus’ and Carolyn Culbertson’s essays—what precisely the Zollikon seminars have to offer. Other of Heidegger’s works and many of his well-known concepts, however, feature prominently in the essays as harbouring important notions for philosophy of medicine. Among these, his works Being and Time (Heidegger 1993) and The question concerning technology (Heidegger 1977) are particularly noteworthy, with notions such as being-towards-death, anxiety, being-with(-others), the they (das Man), and being-at-home recurring in several essays and forming a connecting thread throughout the book. Further, other philosophers from the phenomenological and existential tradition such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hans-Georg Gadamer play a central role in many of the discussions, and a whole range of philosophers, theoreticians, and writers such as Husserl, Binswanger, Sartre, Foucault, Freud, and many more are drawn on in the varying topics treated throughout the book. This multiplicity of voices serves to highlight the ambition of the book to explore the many potentials offered by the phenomenological and existential tradition, rather than merely applying Heideggerian thought to yet another field.

Rather than venture into the individual essays of the volume, I will attempt to give an impression of the content of the essay collection by drawing up some noteworthy or common themes worked upon in the book. Not every essay touches directly upon either one of these themes, and many of them include more themes than I will be able to mention here. I have chosen to focus on three trajectories that seem to be of general importance to the area of existential medicine and the crossing of Heideggerian thought and medical practice. First, existential medicine has an important task in its critical engagement with the biomedical model of healthcare and the relation between lived human life and medical science. Second, existential medicine can tell us something about suffering, relief, health, and the role of authenticity in illness. Interestingly, this is treated mainly through issues of sociality in many of the essays. And third, existential medicine can help us understand the relation between possibilities in biotechnological development and the limits of being human.

Human Life  ⇋  Medical Science

One of the strong motivations for the growing interest in existential medicine, and medical humanities in general, is a growing awareness of a dissatisfaction with the biomedical model of healthcare. The ultimate promise of biomedical discovery explaining all diseases through the genomics project did not succeed, and suffering is still abundant. Introducing her essay “Losing the Measure of Health”, Culbertson writes of this dissatisfaction as an ironic clash between the amount of success-stories of modern medicine, and the ever more common criticisms and complaints as well as the estranging effects of modern healthcare systems (179).

A strong conviction in medical humanities is that medicine and medical practice has lost something by focusing on generalisable results and universal diagnostic manuals and treatments. This critique of modern medicine is specifically thematised by both Svenaeus and Culbertson in their essays on medicine as a techno-science, i.e. as taken over by technology in ways that Heidegger warned about in The question concerning technology, and later applied to medicine in the Zollikon seminars. In “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Technology and the Perils of Medicalization” Svenaeus develops this critique through Gadamer and quotes from The enigma of health:

“In medical science we encounter the dissolution of personhood when the patient is objectified in terms of a mere multiplicity of data. […] the question is nevertheless whether the unique value of the individual (Eigenwert) is properly recognized in this process” (Svenaeus’ modified translation of Gadamer 1996). (133)

The proposal in medical humanities is for medical personal to turn towards and learn from the humanities as a “science of the particular” (a term I borrow, though slightly modified, from Carlo Ginzburg (Ginzburg & Davin 1980)). Something similar is claimed in existential medicine, where it is held that a turn of awareness towards existential elements of life will re-individualise patients. This idea is expressed throughout the essays in Existential Medicine as a strong reservation toward the reductionist character of modern biomedicine, and the assumption that health is a matter of physiological restauration.

Biomedical Reductionism

Various essays thematise the biomedical model in various ways. In line with ideas from medical humanities Svenaeus distinguishes existential medicine from biomedicine by assigning illness experience to the phenomenological or existential realm, that is, subjective experience, as something the biomedical sense of disease cannot inspect or measure (139). Tina Williams & Havi Carel use the term phenomenological exploration in their essay “Breathlessness” (156) as something similar to Svenaeus’ description of the role of phenomenology (as focused on illness experience) to emphasise phenomenology as a hidden resource for medicine, and criticise the lack of attention paid to this element of illness. They argue that the narrowed vision of biomedicine does not only speak against “medicine’s stated commitment to patient-centred care” (157), but also often result in injustices committed against the patient. In “Emotional Disturbance, Trauma, and Authenticity” Robert D. Stolorow criticises the decontextualization of human existence in modern medicine. Particularly in diagnostic manuals, and—referring to Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance—argues that the DSM-system reduces complex existential alterations for the individual to non-substantiated essences of pathology (19) (Svenaeus makes a similar remark when discussing the implicit technologisation in diagnostic manuals (144)). Kristin Zeiler, likewise—in her essay “On the Autós of Autonomous Decision Making”, on parental kidney donation—talks of issues around reductionism and decontextualization in the medical idea of autonomy, as a concept based on disembodied subjects who make rational choices expressed in forms of informed consent (97). Drew Leder briefly touches the subject in “What is it to ‘Age Well’?”, in terms of reducing successful aging to an absence of biological change (or at least a minimisation of change) (224). And John Russon & Kirsten Jacobson argue in “Existential Medicine and the Intersubjective Body” that biomedicine overlooks some of the most important issues in treatment of IBD (inflammatory bowel diseases) and HIV. Biomedicine is blind to the element of stigma that is part of living with these diseases, and which entails a range of existential issues. They argue this to the extent where they even seem to be suggesting that biomedical treatment is of lesser importance (identifying existential issues as “the real problem” in HIV and IBD (201)).

By turning critically towards biomedicine, the idea in existential medicine is not (at least in most cases) that medicine as biomedical science should be stopped. In fact—as Aho states in the introduction of the book—one compelling aspects of approaching medicine through Heidegger is that he acknowledges that medical science (i.e. biomedicine) is important, but simultaneously works to problematise assumptions and aspects of medicine as science. Rather than to do away with the scientific aspects of medicine, the idea is, writes Svenaeus, that the techno-scientific side of medicine – often exemplified in biomedical sciences – recognises its limitations, and does not become the dictating force within the discipline (136).

Psyche / Soma

Another related reservation evident throughout the essays, is toward the reified body conception in modern medicine as well as the dualistic subject-object divide—or rather, the psyche / soma—that underpins it. This is not the existential view of the body, as is made clear by Aho in his introduction of the notion of embodiment. Existential medicine does not mean psychiatry, its role is not to care for the psyche while biomedicine cares for the soma. With roots in phenomenology, existential medicine involves the whole existence of a human, life, body, moods, and so on.

In the essays several authors use the well-known phenomenological notion of the body as an “I can” usually associated with the healthy body. Some refer to the Leib / Körper distinction as an approximation of the two views on the body in biomedicine and existential medicine respectively. However, two particular essays in the volume challenge the dualism more directly, namely Slatman and Williams & Carel. In “Reclaiming Embodiment in Medically Unexplained Physical Symptoms”, Slatman argues from the case of MUPS (medically unexplained physical symptoms, such as chronic fatigue) that some diseases cannot be dealt with if we do not find a way to un-rigify the concept of body in our medical language (102 and throughout). The body in cases of MUPS is neither a smoothly lived body, an “I can”, nor a reified biological apparatus, whereby attempts to give meaning to the symptoms fail insofar as there is no proper language. Williams & Carel argue from the case of breathlessness that there are some cases where we have no way of distinguishing physiological and psychological symptoms from each other, as for breathlessness in respiratory illnesses and in anxiety disorders. The two can work interchangeably, simultaneously, they can cause one another, and thus appear as inseparable (150 and throughout). Looking only at the physiological side to understand the symptom (biomedicine) is insufficient, but so is the attempt to divide the symptoms between differing specialities even if including non-biomedical views. Breathlessness is a suspension of conservative medical categories, forcing us to come to terms with a material productivity of cultural aspects in our lives as well as a cultural productivity of the material aspects (formulation taken from Kristeva, Moro, Ødemark et al. 2018).

These attempts to dissolve the distinction between psyche and soma touch upon an interesting meta-discussion: whether existential medicine and biomedicine are and should be thought of as separate elements that work on separate issues, or if not, how the two are connected or integrated. Insisting that the two are completely differentiable categories, seem strange given the acceptance of the concept of embodiment. Arguing that either existential health should be more important than biomedical health or vice versa, as some of the essays in the volume flirt with, seems to uphold a divide between body and self. If we are to take the notion of embodiment as well as the points made by Slatman and Williams & Carel seriously, neither meaning nor bodily function can take preference over the other. The issue at hand is to look for ways to understand the individual life of and meaning of this life for the patient (in order to properly recognise the Eigenwert of the patient), while finding ways to make both existential medicine and biomedicine co-contributors to human health.

Positively surprising after many essays that thematise the faults of modern biomedicine, Culbertson makes the interesting observation that despite all the faults and despite a strong inclination towards the biomedical model in research and education, this is not what goes on in medical practice (186). Doctors have to engage with patients, and even if there is a lot of room for improvement, we already (or still) see existential care being practised.

Anxiety, Sustainable Authenticity, and Sociality

Illness as the Cure

One basic phenomenological observation on the experience of becoming ill, is that the suffering is often connected to a disruption of habitual ways of living, and with that a break of trust in some or many elements of existence (our body, the world, the future, etc.) that would normally be a pre-reflective part of our life. In efforts to understand this break, scholars use the Heideggerian coupling between the mode of being according to the they (das Man)—i.e. a pre-reflectively dominated, normal life before illness—and anxiety as developed by Heidegger in Being and Time. Several of the essays in Existential Medicine engage with the relation between these notions. Anxiety is not—as obvious from its identification with illness—a desired mode of being. However, for Heidegger it gives us the possibility of authenticity, of freeing ourselves through having truly acknowledged our own finitude. In existential medicine then, authenticity – because of its link with a positive way out of illness – becomes linked with existential health.

Essays by Shaun Gallagher, Martin Kusch & Matthew Ratcliffe, Slatman, Williams & Carel, Russon & Jacobson, and Nicole Piemonte & Ramsey Eric Ramsey all touch upon illness as something that breaks with habitual living. Russon & Jacobson bring out authenticity through anxiety as a positive potential in becoming ill, as a moment for patients to “own up to the realities of their own lives” (201). Likewise, Williams & Carel talk about anxiety as an opportunity to reclaim existence as one’s own (154). In both cases, the inclination is that existential health is something that can be separated from or even opposed to physiological health, that is, the idea that serious illness can be seen as a potential to reclaim an authentic life, so that patients can get existentially better even in cases where there are no biomedical cures available.

In “Health Like a Broken Hammer or the Strange Wish to make Health disappear” Piemonte & Ramsey, rightly—I think—approach the somewhat romantic idea of illness as an existential cure for mediocracy from a more sceptical perspective. They write: “it may be the case that one is simply ‘not up for it.’ Illness—and the fatigue, nausea, pain, and weakness that can accompany it—is onerous, and adding to that the expectation that one ought to honestly confront my finitude and allow it to transform me can simply be too much” (213). In their essay (on existential notions of health) they critically investigate the heroic ideal of breaking with the “they-self” (the self embedded in the they) through serious illness to obtain solitary authenticity. They suggest that solitude in illness is not necessarily something to strive for, and the tale of “finding one-self” in hardship can itself, become a symbolic figure that bears resemblance of a they (an inauthentic role, lived by outer expectations more than self-determination) (214). Emphasising Heidegger’s remark that authenticity is not a break with, but a modification of the they (215), Piemonte & Ramsey show the centrality of a they rather than its inauthenticity, in interpreting, making decisions or even understanding the world which we are thrown into. They argue that (existential) health is not a matter of breaking with the they, or not, but a rebuilding of a more authentic belonging in a they, that is not only tied up in illness.

Mitsein, Existential Individualism and Second-Person Phenomenology

In recent years the notion of intersubjectivity and “we” has gained philosophical, or at least phenomenological, influence. Interestingly, despite the prior mentioned importance of re-individualising the patient, a re-occurring theme in the volume is the notion of intersubjectivity, the importance of relations, and the effects of illness on sociality. At times this even amounts to direct criticism of the individualistic traits discernible in the Heideggerian idea of becoming authentic through isolating anxiety (what Gallagher calls existential individualism (10)).

I his essay on inauthenticity, “The Cure for Existential Inauthenticity”,  Gallagher notes that the Heideggerian notion of being-with (Mitsein) is underdeveloped. He therefore draws on Merleau-Ponty, Werner Marx, and a range of Heidegger scholars to develop a more full-fletched idea of Mitsein as a relational authenticity, obtainable through shared mortality (rather than solitary confrontation with death). In the subsequent essay Robert D. Stolorow talks about something similar, and calls it “our existential kinship-in-finitude” (24). He develops a notion of relational authenticity based on the idea of a relational home arising through shared “emotional dwelling” (23). In cases of trauma – for which he develops the concept – emotional dwelling means for one to lean into the other’s emotional pain and participate in it, thus, through the relation, helping the other to bear the weight of the trauma enough to find room and time for healing. In this way, Stolorow opens up the idea of sharing anxiety and becoming authentic through communality.

However, what is importantly different between relational authenticity as described by Gallagher and Stolorow, and the they as described earlier is that relational authenticity is bound up in a sharing between individuals recognised as such. The phenomenological we may contain many forms of relations, but the idea of the second person perspective seems to offer something of importance here, although not explicitly used in the volume. A “second person phenomenology” can tell us something about how we relate to others while keeping their individuality in mind. What risks becoming a solitary individualism—authenticity in illness as a confrontation of the I with its own finitude—finds a way through the second-person-relation towards authentic recognition of individuality in a relation, insofar as the you—the other-in-front-of-us—is always a specific you. As such, it seems that even if existentialism has a reputation for freedom through solitude, there is an interest within existential medicine in finding other, perhaps more sustainable ways of authenticity, and existential health.

Slatman also emphasises being-with as a fundamental concept in understanding illness. Turning to Jean-Luc Nancy she goes as far as to reject the individual as a point of origin for sense-making (although not rejecting the idea that medicine should be more sensitive to the sense-making around the individual patient). She builds upon the idea that any meaningful self-conception—and as such any form of authentic selfhood (Jemeinigkeit)—is derived from a fundamental être-avec (Mitsein) or being-together (108), and as such, a medicine that cares for the existence of the individual must care for the relations between individuals. Much the same is touched upon by Zeiler with the notion of “intercorporeality” (83), i.e. being bodies that engage and interact, our bodily selves as always co-constituted by others. Even if we support an idea of bodily autonomy among patients (or donors, as in Zeiler’s essay), it cannot be thought about in isolation from others.

Negative Social Dimensions

Other than relational authenticity and the problem of the they, some of the essays in the volume focus on social problems in illness. Russon & Jacobson argue from a Merleau-Pontian perspective that the body is that through which we come to relate to others, but also that through which others come to relate to us. Changes to our bodies (such as illness) are thus essentially changes in our relation to others (192). They then emphasis the consequences of stigma and problematic social values in relation to illness (much like Drew Leder does in his essay on aging), and argue that an important aspect of existential medicine is to work with changing social values around disease (202). In “The world of Chronic Pain” Kusch & Ratcliffe bring focus on the potential negative social synergy that can arise from the loss of future in cases of serious or all-consuming illness (such as chronic pain). This loss of future, and the loss of the usual trust in the world which follows from serious illness, does – according to them – not only lead to a change in relations, but to a loss of agency in relations, a “self-infantilization” that leaves the patient in an incapacitating downward spiral (65).

The volume thus offers several—at times disagreeing—perspectives on the ways of regaining (or obtaining) existential health, the relation between sociality and illness and the importance of this.

New Technologies and Being-Towards-Death

The relation between medicine and technology comes up in several essays. As already touched upon, it is specifically prominent in the criticism of medicine as techno-science. Beyond Svenaeus and Culbertson, who discuss the notion of technologisation, technology comes up in the form of biotechnology and related to ethical debates. Tara Kennedy developpes an intriguing Heideggerian theory of bioethics in order to evaluate new medical technologies in “Heideggerian Ethics and the Permissibility of Bio- and Nano-Medicine”. She bases her ethics proposal on the notion of dwelling, as an opposition to the technological enframing and drive to mastery. She importantly adds that it is not an anti-technology ethics (165): as with biomedicine, Heidegger was not against technology, but rather cautious with the modes of operation it brings about and its effects on humanity. The ethics of dwelling is an ethics of care, humility and openness towards disclosures of being. Although the theory—like many other ethical theories—turns out to be somewhat vague and ambiguous when applied to actual cases, it reveals something important about the techno-scientific approach to medicine, and also manages—I think—to deepen the understanding of some common intuitions around bioethics without turning to naturalism.

Biotechnology also comes up in Adam Buben’s essay “Heidegger, Curing Aging, and the Desirability of Immortality” on the promise of immortality. Here the Heideggerian notion of being-towards-death—that features in relation to anxiety throughout the volume—is a central phrase of discussion. Buben re-interprets the notion as unrelated to actual death but rather dependent on human temporality as restricted. He writes “one does not so much fear death as feel anxious in the face of one’s limited, but still significant, capacity for choice and action” (125). Thus, we should not fear immortality as a threat to our humanity, at least not for the sake of losing our being as being-towards-death.

As the notion of being-towards-death figures in many of the other essays in light of illness as something that makes actual death more acutely present, Buben’s reinterpretation is intriguing for its unspoken consequences for the common coupling between illness, being-towards-death and authenticity. Unfortunately, the volume does not allow the various essays to relate to each other. Although many authors reference each other’s prior work, there is no direct interaction between them. I am curious as to what consequences the Buben reading would have for Williams & Carel, for instance, and if these consequences are something that Buben will want to accept in order to stick to his proposal. Several other papers would have been intriguing to hear comment on each other, Kusch & Ratcliffe and Slatman for instance, or Leder and Svenaeus, and reactions and discussions between them will be something to look forward to.

Final Remarks

In my attempt to summarise some broader trajectories, I have neglected to mention the essays of Anthony Vincent Fernandez and Dylan Trigg. These are the two most abstract essays in the volume, and also the two that speak most directly to scholars already within the field. Fernandez’ essay, “Beyond the Ontological Difference”, gives a very thorough analysis of the misunderstanding of the ontological difference in Binswanger’s Daseinsanalysis, and the consequences this misconception still has in current phenomenological discussions of psychiatry. Trigg’s essay, “From Anxiety to Nostalgia”, treats the difference in temporality of anxiety and nostalgia, and despite that, their interconnectedness. These phenomena have some relevance in psychiatry, but the most interesting aspect—I think—of the analysis is its insights on human inclination towards conservativism in times of existential challenge, and the connection one can make—and in fact Trigg does make—to current western politics.

For the essay collection Aho has managed to curate a book that touches upon an impressive range of philosophical and medical fields. Particularly it is enjoyable that the collection has such a strong emphasis on illnesses that are typically considered somatic, thus succeeding in moving existential medicine beyond the psychiatric realm within which the use of philosophy—and particularly the use of existential philosophy—in medicine is sometimes stuck. The book is divided into four parts: (1) New currents in existential psychiatry, (2) Phenomenologies of anxiety, pain, and death, (3) Ethics, medicalization, and technology, and (4) Existential health. If you are reading the book for a specific purpose or with a particular focus, take care with staying too strictly within parts. Many of the essays might as well have been placed under different part-headings, with some of their key-points relating clearly to essays in other parts of the book. If you are on a tight timeline use the outline of the volume at the end of the introduction to select relevant essays rather than chose by title. Valuable insights, thoughts and dilemmas on a variety of topics and concepts, however, pop up here and there, so reading the entire volume is definitely recommendable.


Ginzburg, C. & Davin, A. 1980. “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method”. History Workshop, (9), 5–36.

Kristeva, J., Moro, M. R., Ødemark, J., & Engebretsen, E. 2018. ”Cultural Crossings of Care: An Appeal to the Medical Humanities”. Medical Humanities, 44 (1), 55–58.

Whitehead, A. & Woods, A. 2016. “Introduction” in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1-31.

Heidegger, M. 2001. Zollikon Seminars: Protocols-Conversations-Letters. F Mayr & R Askey (trans.) Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Heidegger, M. 1993. Being and Time (Reprint. ed.). J Macquarrie & E Robinson (trans.) Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. W Lovitt (trans) New York: Garland Pub.

Gadamer, H.-G. 1996. The Enigma of Health. J. Gaiger & N. Walker (trans.) Stanford, CT: Stanford University Press (quoted in Aho, K. (Ed.) 2018. Existential Medicine: Essays on Health and Illness. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield International)

Thomas Fuchs: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind Book Cover Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press

Reviewed by:  Elodie Boublil (Alexander von Humboldt Fellow-Universität zu Köln)

What makes us persons?

By developing an “ecological approach” of the brain, Thomas Fuchs, who is Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophical Foundations at the Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Heidelberg, demonstrates the powerful illustration that phenomenology is not only relevant for contemporary neurosciences; it also provides human and natural sciences with an accurate description of the phenomenon of embodied cognition. Indeed, Ecology of the Brain. The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind, which is a revised version of a book published in 2007 (Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan), is faithful to the Husserlian claim that considers phenomenology as a grounding science.

Fuchs rightly shows that the phenomenological analysis of the brain he undertakes impacts not only on intellectual endeavors in contemporary neurosciences but also displays significant results for medical sciences such as psychiatry, and human sciences such as cultural studies and developmental psychology. The book displays two central theses: the brain is “an organ of relation, interaction, mediation, and resonance”; the mind-body problem is solved by Fuchs’ “theory of the dual aspect of the living being: both as a lived or subjective body and as a living or objective body.” This holistic yet differentiated approach ultimately leads to a libertarian conception of free will, embedded into —yet not reducible to—its biological, social and cultural determinants. Consequently, Fuchs’s book is not only a breakthrough in the philosophy of cognitive sciences. It also opens up a decisive ethical reflection on the worldview that underlies contemporary epistemology. As Fuchs boldly shows it: “The acid test of every epistemology is, when all is said and done, the intersubjective relationship” (27).

The first part of the book aims to defeat the arguments that support neurobiological reductionism and the representationalist concepts that support it. The representationalist paradigm considers that what we call reality is always reconstructed in the brain thanks to neuronal processes. According to such framework, the world is a fictitious entity reconstructed by the subject’s brain. Fuchs refutes this theory by showing the relevance of three phenomenological key ideas: embodied perception, the distinction between the lived body and the physical body, and the co-constitution of the life-world that is an objective shared reality. As Fuchs states: “human reality is therefore always co-constituted or, as we might say, “interenacted” (…). We live in a shared objective reality because we continuously “interenact” it through our joint activities and participatory sense-making.” (27).

The first chapter titled “Cosmos in the head?” denounces the contradiction inherent to neurobiological reductionism, namely the idea according to which world’s perception is reducible to some representations the brain would produce.  According to Fuchs and following ecological theories (Gibson, Thompson, Varela), perception relies on enaction, which is the capacity of a living organism to co-create its environment and constantly adjust to it. This capacity of self-production named autopoiesis requires the contribution of our body, making the embodied nature of cognition a prerequisite to any form of perception. Subjectivity is irreducible to brain processes. As Fuchs puts it:

“nowhere is the subject found in the brain. Rather, the brain is the organ, which mediates our relationship towards the world, to other people, and ourselves. The brain is the mediator making the world accessible to us, and the transformer connecting our perceptions and movements. However, in isolation, the brain would be just a dead organ.” (xvii).

The second chapter demonstrates that intentional consciousness indeed is not reducible to neuronal processes. In phenomenological terms, “consciousness is the presence of the world for a subject” (33). Drawing on the notions of self-affection and intentionality, Fuchs shows that consciousness shall not be reified, as it is always oriented toward goals and meaningful actions, able to integrate the spatiotemporal features of its environment. Perception amounts to the living body’s engagement with the world, not to the “picture” her brain would make of reality. Moreover, our conception of free will is contingent upon the description we make of the causal relations between the mind and physiological processes. Fuchs warns us against the ethical risk conveyed by the determinism proclaimed by neurosciences: “De-anthropomorphizing nature would turn into the complete naturalization of the human being” (xv). The challenge is then to give a scientifically accurate description of the brain while making room for free will and the co-constitution of the lifeworld.

The notions of “dual aspectivity” and “circular causality” developed in the second part of the book are meant to overcome neurobiological reductionism, by introducing a “mediated monism,” able to describe the “integral causality by which living beings become the causes of their conscious enactments of life” (xix). Indeed, in the following chapter, Fuchs elaborates, and ecological theory of the brain understood as “an organ of a living being in its environment” in order to make possible a scientific theory of the brain that is compatible with our first and second person experiences in the lifeworld.

Chapter 3 focuses on the notion of embodied subjectivity and introduces the idea of “dual aspectivity.” The living person is a “dialectical unity of the “subjective body” (Leib) and the “objective body” (Körper)” (91). Relying on phenomenological conceptions of the lived body (Leib) and self-affection, Fuchs recalls that the subjective body is the background of all experiences. Drawing on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Fuchs explains that: “the subjective body is the ensemble of all skills and capacities at our disposal. As “habitual body” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 71), it contains the preliminary drafts of our enactments of life and thus conveys the founding experience of “I can” (Husserl 1989, 266)” (73). However, persons “are also lived body for others,” and his phenomenological description rightly stresses this intersubjective aspect of the embodiment. Intercorporeity is the basis of our experience, whereas objectification – for instance in the scientific examination of the body of others – is secondary. The subjective body and the body apprehended as “living organism” are not opposed to each other. Rather there is a “fundamental coextensivity of subjective body and physical body” (211). This unity is most articulated in the concept of “capacity” that Fuchs takes up from Aristotle: “on the basis of existing capacities a new situational coherence of organism and environment is created” (101). Therefore, as autopoietic systems, living organisms are both differentiated from and continuously related to their environment. Each stimulus leads to the reconfiguration of the entire system thanks to a circular causality that links together the various levels of experience. The brain consequently plays a crucial role in this process, as an organ of mediation and transformation.

Chapter 4 investigates what Fuchs calls the phenomenon of “resonance” between the brain and the living organism. Indeed, after relying on the phenomenological experience to put forward the idea of embodied cognition, Fuchs goes back to the reductionist argument he is opposing and designs the role and status of the brain anew. Fuchs notices the persistence and prevalence of the representationalist concepts even in the neuroscientific frameworks that aim to take our lived experience and intercorporeity into account. An accurate description of the brain’s functions and its relation to the living organism is required in order to escape the representationalist paradigm and to overcome the idea that consciousness is located in the brain. Bodily resonance is strongly at play in inter-affectivity and emotional responses and leads one to think that consciousness is an overarching structure of the living person that involves the entire organism. In such a context, the brain operates as an organ “of regulation and perception for the entire organism” (147). As Fuchs puts it:

“The central function of the brain for the experiencing and acting living creature consists in transforming configurations of individual elements into resonant patterns that form the basis of integral acts of life. Thus, the brain becomes the organ of mediation, between, on the one hand, the microscopic world of material-physiological processes and, on the other, the macroscopic world of living creatures” (169).

Chapter 5 then focuses on this “macroscopic world of living creatures” by exploring the “brain as an organ of the person.” By looking at contemporary findings in developmental psychology, Fuchs aims to demonstrate the validity of his theory of “resonance” in the context of the development of inter-affectivity. Experiences concerning the role of intercorporeity in early childhood and attachment theory as well as studies related to the development of secondary intersubjectivity through joint attention strongly back up Fuchs’s claims. Locating the mind “in the brain” constitute a logical and naturalistic fallacy. Rather, the brain becomes the “organ of the mind” in the sense that it mediates its interactions with our environment and other living beings, including most importantly other human beings. Indeed, Fuchs’s account shows that intersubjectivity is key to the development of the brain, considering its neuroplasticity and recent findings in epigenetics. Such theory bears significant ethical and social consequences regarding education theory and cultural studies. As Fuchs states: “the brain becomes a social, cultural, and biographically shaped organ” (175). The biological level and the social and intercorporeal levels are intertwined from prenatal development:

“in neural terms, this means that every interaction with others, by means of synaptic learning, leaves traces at the neural level; of course, not in the form of localizable, stored “memories”, “images”, or “representations” of the interactions or attachment figures, but in the form of dispositions to perceive, feel, and behave in certain ways” (203).

In Chapter 6, Fuchs goes back to the concept of dual aspectivity in order to draw its implications for a theory of free will. The brain is thus presented as an “organ of relations,” and the mind-body problem rephrased as “body-body problem,” that is to say as a matter of articulating the subjective body (Leib) and the objective body (Körper) in personal individuation. A phenomenology of decision-making shows that the mind is not disconnected from its environment and physiological background and does not intervene and modify reality, as a deus ex machina would do. Claiming the embodied nature of any decision does not mean denying freedom. Rather, it shows that one is potentially free provided she learns through her development to acquire sufficient capacities for inhibition and reflection, which are decisive to personal emancipation and responsibility. The brain supports such a process, as it is an “organ of capacities.”

Consequently, “taking a decision is not the intervention of an autonomous self, but the activity of an embodied subject which must have learned and incorporated the capacities for inhibition and reflection in the course of his biography. Free will is thus a complex capacity of human agents whose components can only be acquired and practiced through a self-cultivation in the course of social interactions” (263). Such understanding impacts on medicine and particularly on psychiatry and its therapeutic practices. Indeed, if the mind is neither purely spiritual nor material but the complex and individuated expression of a mutual implication of the subjective body and the objective body, then medicine should take into consideration both the intercorporeal basis of any encounter and interaction and the plasticity of the brain due to its biological, ecological and personal embedding.

Chapter 7 addresses thereby, more specifically, the implications of the ecological theory of the brain for contemporary psychiatry and psychological medicine, which are mostly influenced by neurobiological reductionism. As Fuchs explains, neuropsychiatry considers that mental illness results from brain disorders that seem to be localizable in the brain. Moreover, the patient is seen as an autonomous individual separated from her environment and relationships. In light of the previous refutation of the dualist framework, Fuchs aims to provide here a new understanding of mental illness able to encompass all the aspects aforementioned, namely the mutual implication of the biological, psychological and intersubjective levels. Therapeutic practices should be grounded into a relational medicine that grasps the meaning associated by the patient with her relationships, situation or condition. As Fuchs puts it: “Depression results from a perceived loss of meaning and social resonance, not from a lack of serotonin” (285). An ecological conception of mental illness must address the dual aspect of the person, “as the living unity and personal organism.” “The existential dimension of self-recognition, relationship, and meaning, which is crucial for every type of intensive therapy, is beyond the reach of neuroscientific methods. Thus, psychotherapy will never become a branch of applied neurobiology. Its essential grounding sciences remain psychology, hermeneutics, and the social sciences and humanities overall” (299).

Chapter 8 summarizes the main achievements realized throughout the book and recalls the most important claim made by Fuchs:  “It is erroneous to identify the brain with the human subject and to look inside for what makes up the person. What essentially characterizes a human person is being in relationships. (…) A person is not a localizable part of the body but is embodied and animate. We do not exist a second time inside ourselves. Human persons have brains, but they are not brains” (301). The brain mediates the various levels of experience but is not equivalent to concepts such as subjectivity, self or personhood. The naturalization of the concept of the human person leads to “self-reification” and represents an ethical danger that does not even fit with the reality of our interpersonal relations. Fuchs’s enterprise shall be praised for its clarity, rigor but also for reminding us of an evident yet dangerously lost experience:

“to truly become themselves, human persons must become real for one another. This is arguably the most profound reason to regard the conception of the subject as a construction of the brain as nothing else but the human person’s depersonalization. For persons are the primordial phenomenon: that is, what shows itself, and what it is present in its very appearing. I hear the other’s thoughts in his words. Grasping his hand, I give him my hand. Looking into his eyes, I see him. We are not the figments of our brains, but human persons in the flesh” (291).

At the end of the first chapter, Fuchs declares: “In the last analysis, the question of what is “really real”—physical matter instead of animated bodies, brains instead of selves, neural computation instead of conscious experience—is an ethical question.” Indeed, it seems that the ethical impact of The Ecology of the Brain should not be underestimated. Four ethical implications should be briefly discussed:

1/ Fuchs’s work recalls the fact that an anthropological and metaphysical picture of the human being lies behind any scientific account of the latter;

2 / a reductionist account of the human being based on neurobiology could lead to new individual and social forms of alienation, especially considering its prevalence in the design of new therapeutic practices which deny the role of intersubjectivity and social interactions in the mental disease;

3/ the picture of the human being presented in the book echoes Simondon’s work on individuation. Simondon explicitly elaborated a concept of “resonance” that builds ethical and existential considerations onto an analysis of perception that is ontogenetic and that draws on Aristotle’s notion of capacity;

4/ Finally, in the context of contemporary moral issues, the reader would benefit from a particular focus on the differences between the notions of living beings, human beings and persons and notably their ontological implications.

The contributions of the German philosophical anthropology to the debates on the ethical significance of the scientific picture of the human being—as evidenced by the reference to Plessner—constitute indeed productive resources to reconsider the self-proclaimed ethical neutrality of neurosciences. As Edith Stein explained in her lessons on the human person, every picture of the human being implies a metaphysical worldview whether it is a nihilistic, an existentialist, a religious or a political one has to be determined. Nevertheless, reflecting on the human being implies meaning ascription and providing a general framework to make sense of her development and her social environment and relations. This is, even more, the case when one has to design therapeutic practices that draw—consciously or unconsciously—on a preconceived distinction between what is normal and what is pathological. In such a context, The Ecology of the Brain questions the pervasiveness of chemical treatments when they are not associated with psychotherapeutic practices taking into account inter-affectivity and the history of the patient and her relations. The relational dimension of any human reality, as described notably by Fuchs in the second part of the book calls inevitably for further reflections in medical ethics and investigations into the medical policies implemented by states, notably in the care strategies related to psycho-trauma. The powerful demonstration in support of a relational ontology featured in this book echoes the works written by French philosopher Gilbert Simondon who developed a conception of individuation that explicitly takes into account these ethical and social implications. To Simondon, one must overcome the hylemorphic and dualist framework that does not capture the reality of individuation processes. Drawing on a renewed conception of information Simondon explains that the person is the result of a “metastable” process of individuation. The pre-individual is a creative and generative force that perpetually decenters and recomposes its individual instantiations. The living organism is characterized by its plasticity, and the challenge is to think together the individuating movement of life and the instantiation of meanings that impact on it and transform potentialities into actions:

“The living being preserve in it an act of permanent individuation; it is not only a result of individuation, like the crystal or the molecule but a theater of individuation. So every activity of the living being is not, like that of the physical individual, concentrated at its limit; there exists in it a more complete regime of internal resonance requiring permanent communication, and metastability which is a condition of life.” (L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, p. 28)

Drawing on Aristotle in his lessons on perception, Simondon explains further that the idea of “capacity” does not amount to a logical possibility or a representation. It is a “force that becomes a tendency of the living being,” a “desire.” “The individual life relies on differentiation insofar as it relies on integration” (IFI, p. 163). Simondon calls this process “transduction.” “Transduction” describes the operation by which a system passes from one state to another by re-articulating the stages of its development, transindividuality designates this capacity of the subject to adapt and transform, thanks to pre-individual potentialities, and according to the crises which destabilize its existence and punctuate its psychic individuation. It is therefore not a question of objectifying or actualizing a possibility, but rather of potentiating an existing structure in order to extract a new relation to oneself and to the world: “Perception is not the seizure of a form, but the solution of a conflict, the discovery of a compatibility, the invention of a form.” (IFI, 235)  “All the functions of the living are ontogenetic to some extent, not only because they ensure an adaptation to an external world, but because they participate in this permanent individuation that is life. The individual lives to the extent that it continues to individuate, and it individuates through the activity of memory as through imagination or abstract inventive thinking” (IFI, 209). Therefore, it seems that Simondon provided us with a philosophical and anthropological conception of life that would complement Fuchs’s account or at least bridge the gap between the relational ontology that is here phenomenological uncovered yet not explicitly addressed, and its ethical implications for science and technology. Indeed, our picture of embodiment and embodied cognition impacts on any debates on the dignity of the person and the respect of life. The materialistic and reductionist views of embodiment seem to lead to a new kind of Gnosticism fantasizing about an invulnerable subject disconnected from its intercorporeal reality. Fuchs’s book makes a decisive breakthrough in leading us to question the grounds and legitimacy of our technological and “ethically neutral” postmodern lives, as well as the urgency to reflect on what makes us persons, namely becoming free, in the world, with others.

Maria Baghramian, Sarin Marchetti (Eds.): Pragmatism and the European Traditions

Pragmatism and the European Traditions: Encounters with Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology before the Great Divide Book Cover Pragmatism and the European Traditions: Encounters with Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology before the Great Divide
Routledge Studies in American Philosophy
Maria Baghramian, Sarin Marchetti (Eds.)
Hardback £92.00

Reviewed by: Devin R Fitzpatrick (University of Oregon)

Academic philosophy’s self-conception has long been dominated by divisions: between “analytic” and “Continental,” Frege and Husserl, Russell and James. In Pragmatism and the European Traditions, editors Maria Baghramian and Sarin Marchetti offer an alternative narrative of 20th-century philosophy, one defined by meaningful exchanges and intersections rather than clearly defined opposing camps. Analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology are presented as “three philosophical revolutions,” as the editors write in their Introduction, whose “comprehensive story” of “multivoiced conversations” has gone untold (3). As the title suggests, the editors unite these divided histories by emphasizing pragmatism’s historical role “as a facilitator” of “dialogues and exchanges” (5). This structure lends welcome coherence to the collection: pragmatism’s influence on both phenomenology and analytic philosophy allows a narrative that intertwines all three traditions to naturally unfold.

But the editors do not see pragmatism’s role as mediator as an accident of history. Rather, they argue, pragmatism “possesses a distinct intellectual temperament that lies equidistant between the analytic demand for clarity, rigor, and respect for the natural sciences and the Phenomenological emphasis on lived experience and its subjective manifestation” (2). The implication seems clear: pragmatism as a methodology may serve us today in bridging the silent chasms that still divide academic philosophy. This volume’s purposes are thus both descriptive, as a history of forgotten connections, and normative, as a guide to forging new connections today.

I believe that Pragmatism and the European Traditions largely succeeds in its first task but less so in its second. I accept their distinction between analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology as three traditions as articulating a reality of how philosophy is often taught. For a scholar of any of the three traditions under discussion, many chapters are thus illuminating, particularly Chapter 5, by James Levine on Russell, and Chapter 9, by James O’Shea on Lewis and Sellars. It is also understandable to position pragmatism as a mediator: this is pragmatism’s self-conception. But several articles on classical pragmatism are undermined by their lack of attention to neopragmatic criticisms. The editors intend to write a “companion volume” (6) that focuses on neopragmatism. But in this volume, they neglect a pressing problem for their normative task of mediation: as the volume exposes, pragmatism itself remains a house divided.

In Chapter 1, Richard Cobb-Stevens argues that the divergent readings of William James by Husserl and Wittgenstein better explain the methodological differences between phenomenology and analytic philosophy than the more commonly cited Husserl-Frege debate over psychologism. Cobb-Stevens convincingly shows not only the well-known connections between James’s concept of “fringes” and Husserl’s “horizons,” but between their accounts of time-consciousness. The “first-person” methodology beginning in lived experience which the pragmatist and phenomenologist share in this account is contrasted with Wittgenstein’s claim that linguistic competence better explains our sense of time. Wittgenstein’s approach yields a “third-person” methodology that rejects intuition, in Wittgenstein’s quoted words, as an “unnecessary shuffle” (34). Cobb-Stevens bridges this divide by defining a concept as “the intuited intelligibility of a thing or situation (its look) as disclosed in language” (32) and suggesting, following Thomas Nagel, that the task of philosophy is to reconcile these two methodologies, perhaps thereby reconciling the traditions under discussion.

I note two criticisms. First, Cobb-Stevens’s discussion of Husserl and James’s views on the ego does not distinguish between the transcendental and empirical egos, a distinction central to Husserl’s transcendental method and arguably in tension with Jamesian pragmatism. The notion of a “first-person” methodology may be overly reductive if it blurs this difference. Second, Cobb-Stevens’s criticism of Wittgenstein misses the distinction between causal mechanism and normative justification. It may be that the structure of perception has some causal effect on the structure of predication. But does “intuitive intelligibility” count as knowledge? Is a discursive appeal to it necessary to make the use of a concept count as correct? If not, isn’t inserting intuition into the definition of a concept an “unnecessary shuffle”? This is the gist of Sellars’s critique of the “myth of the given.” Cobb-Stevens cites Sellars positively without acknowledging the possibility of this Sellarsian criticism. Cobb-Stevens claims that James, unlike the British empiricists, is not vulnerable to Wittgenstein’s similar “shuffle” objection, but his defense of James centers on claims like: “We have something to say only because we have pre-linguistic experiences that we bring to language” (32). This is a claim about how knowledge originates, not how it is justified. At stake in this methodological divide is the justification of knowledge claims. If what counts as knowledge is settled in the public domain of linguistic concepts without appeal to intuition, then “first-person” philosophy will take at best a subordinate role in this philosophical reconciliation.

In Chapter 2, Kevin Mulligan shifts the focus from Husserl’s reception of pragmatism to Scheler’s lesser-known but comprehensive response. Mulligan neatly categorizes Scheler’s position: distinguishing between the “world of common sense and the world of science” (37), Scheler concedes to pragmatism that objects in both worlds are relative objects, the former relative to human bodies and drives and the latter to living beings in general. This “essential interdependence of types of act and types of object” (46) is for Scheler a truth of phenomenology and an insight for which he praises pragmatism. However, Scheler counters pragmatism by claiming that truth and knowledge are absolute and, moreover, that the objects of philosophy are these absolute and essential truths.

I welcome Mulligan’s sophisticated analysis of Scheler’s still-relevant perspective on classical pragmatism, long untranslated into English. As to Mulligan’s legitimate concerns with the epistemic or ontological status of existential relativity in Scheler, it may help to consider that the objective truth that Scheler defends against pragmatism is what grounds his ethics. If Scheler is thinking of values when he discusses existentially relative objects of which we have absolute knowledge, then Mulligan might look to Manfred Frings, who cites Scheler’s dissertation to claim that there cannot be for Scheler an ontological account of value.[1] I add only a gentle note that in rigorous scholarship, I hope authors will cease to use, or editors will question, phrasing like “crazy” (37) and “wears the trousers” (59).

Chapters 3 through 5 are thematically linked and so I will not consider them individually, but instead reflect on how their authors might inform one another’s positions. In Chapter 3, Colin Koopman sidesteps the traditional conflict between classical pragmatism’s emphasis on experience and neopragmatism’s emphasis on language, asserting that James and Wittgenstein’s most relevant commonality is their emphasis on conduct. To think in terms of conduct is to think contextually and, in contrast to metaphysical idealism, to think of context-change or expansion as contingent and not logically necessitated. Koopman contrasts this resistance to idealism and emphasis on contingency in Wittgenstein and the early James against Brandom’s focus on the semantic. Conduct is for Koopman not reducible to speech-act pragmatics: there is “conceptual richness” even where we “remain rapt in our silence” (81). But he also claims that this comparison exposes a divide between the earlier pragmatic James and the later metaphysical James, whose radical empiricism succumbs, like classical empiricism, to the Sellarsian critique of the myth of the given. If pragmatism “cashes out metaphysics into practical differences” (73), then, according to Koopman, James should reject his Bergsonian appeal to pure knowledge disconnected from use.

In Chapter 4, Tim Button considers the contrasting responses of James and Schiller to the Russell-Stout objection and concludes that Schiller’s humanism falls to the objection whereas James surmounts it by an appeal to naïve realism, at the cost of undermining a pragmatic argument for God’s existence. The Russell-Stout objection concerns an account of the content of the claim “Other minds exist”: if the validity of this claim depends on a fact external to my own experience, and if its truth is distinct from that of the claim “For me, other minds exist,” then a “locked-in phenomenalist” (86) account of truth and meaning which cannot appeal to external facts is erroneous. Button argues that Schiller is effectively a locked-in phenomenalist and that his distinction between primary (internal) and secondary (external) reality is an inadequate defense against Russell-Stout because, for Schiller, references to secondary reality are still references to what I have constructed. James, despite some mixed messages, overcomes the objection by identifying as a naïve realist and enabling reference to a reality external to the individual subject’s constructions. However, Button continues, if the claim that other minds exist appeals to an external reality, then plausibly so too does the claim that God exists. To be consistent, then, James must reject a pragmatic justification of claims for God’s existence.

In Chapter 5, James Levine provides a comprehensive history of the evolution of Russell’s thought that portrays him not as an implacable foe of pragmatism, but as eventually and intentionally incorporating pragmatic ideas to become a forerunner of linguistic pragmatism. Levine categorizes Russell’s thought into three periods: after his Moorean break with idealism, in which he strongly opposes pragmatism; after the Peano conference, wherein he rejects the foundationalism of his Moorean epistemology in favor of fallibilism and coherentism; and during and after prison, in which he begins to privilege use over meaning and, further, claim that meaning “’distilled out’ of use” is ineluctably “’vague’ or indeterminate” (112). Russell initially makes a strict distinction between the meaning and the criterion of truth, arguing that the latter depends upon the former’s having precise content. But this hierarchy inverts as Russell comes to reject his theory of acquaintance, for which acquaintance with an entity is a prerequisite for labeling it, “thereby securing a precise meaning for the word we now use to stand for that entity” (130). By claiming that meaning follows use, Russell trades precision for vagueness and anticipates the insights of Quine and the later Wittgenstein by taking a, in Quine’s words, “’behavioral view of meaning’” (112). On this basis, Levine challenges Brandom’s history of philosophy, which emphasizes Russell’s early views in opposition to pragmatism.

Taking the previous three chapters together raises two questions for Button. First, if Koopman is right that James’s radical empiricism conflicts with James’s pragmatism, then does naïve realism not also conflict with pragmatism? If so – if one of the strengths of pragmatism is its rejection of what Rorty calls “sky-hooks,” guarantees of discursive truth that are external to discourse, which naïve realism serves to provide and which are notoriously vulnerable to skepticism – then the problem that ascribing to naïve realism raises for a pragmatic justification of God’s existence extends to pragmatic justification in general. Moreover, if James’s overcoming of Russell-Stout comes at the cost of an unwitting rejection of pragmatism, I would hesitate to call it a success. Second, does not the weight of the Russell-Stout objection depend implicitly on Russell’s theory of acquaintance, which secures the precise content of “Other minds exist”? If we reject the theory of acquaintance, as Levine says that Russell eventually does, then the proposition “Other minds exist” may not be functioning as a direct reference to an external reality, in which case I suspect that the objection could be defused. Perhaps pragmatism must reject naïve realism to remain coherent, and perhaps that is a strength.

In Chapter 6, Cheryl Misak discusses Ramsey’s reception of Peirce’s pragmatism and how, were it not for Ramsey’s untimely death, the analytic reception of pragmatism and the debate over the relation between truth and success might have been reshaped for the better. Misak compares Peirce’s account of truth to deflationism and claims that Peirce contributes the normative insight that asserting truth means also “asserting that [the belief] stands up to reasons now and we bet that it would continue to do so” (159). Ramsey, following Peirce, does not think that claiming that one’s belief is true is merely redundant, but distinguishes between what Misak refers to as “the generalizing and endorsing functions of the truth predicate” (164). Ramsey thus teaches the contemporary disquotationalist to become a pragmatist and to consider the multiple functions of the concept of truth. Misak’s account is a succinct and compelling summary of a neglected and informative intersection between pragmatism and the analytic tradition.

In Chapter 7, Anna Boncompagni hones in on an overlooked 1930 remark by Wittgenstein on pragmatism and develops the historical account of Wittgenstein’s reception of pragmatism and of Ramsey’s influence on Wittgenstein. In the remark, Wittgenstein identifies “’the pragmatist conception of true and false’” with “the idea that ‘a sentence is true as long as it proves to be useful’” (168). Boncompagni explains that Wittgenstein is concerned with accounting for the “hypothetical nature of sentences” (170) in ordinary language: propositions point to the future, not to the present moment of verification, because they embody “expectations of future possible experiences” (172). She concludes that though Ramsey’s conversations with Wittgenstein likely induced the latter to be more receptive to pragmatism, considering Ramsey’s positive reception of Peirce, Wittgenstein continued to reject pragmatism as “an encompassing vision of the real meaning of ‘truth’” (179) due to the influence of the prevailing Cambridge response to Jamesian pragmatism. Boncompagni adds nuance to the historical account of the analytic reception of pragmatism and encourages greater attention to Ramsey’s role, which Misak’s previous chapter elucidates.

In Chapter 8, John Capps refocuses the relation between pragmatism and expressivism away from Dewey’s rejection of Ayer’s emotivism and toward C. L. Stevenson’s 1944 Ethics and Language, which was shaped by Deweyan pragmatism. Dewey’s Theory of Valuation objects against Ayer that ethical assertions do not merely express feelings because there is no “mere” expression of feeling that does not also involve a response to circumstances and a request for a response. Capps rightly observes that this conflict comes down to the fact/value distinction: whereas for Ayer science “deals with facts alone” (194), for Dewey science can play a normative role in developing ethical judgment. Capps positions Stevenson as reconciling this conflict: though ethical judgments are primarily attitudinal rather than expressions of beliefs, ethical judgment may also serve a “descriptive function” that is “sensitive to evidence and argument” and “tempers the idea that ethical assertions are neither true nor false” (Ibid). Capps attributes Dewey’s strong position on science’s ethical relevance, and thus his greatest difference from Stevenson, to his working with the logical empiricists on the topic of unified science.

While I appreciate Capps’s attention to this philosophical juncture, I worry that he underrates the significance of the divergent Deweyan and logico-empiricist views of science. This divergence arguably drives the rise of neopragmatic accounts of normativity. It is tellingly Rortyan for Stevenson to turn to persuasion over science as driving the rational development of ethical judgments. Consider: How is Dewey’s belief that science can drive ethical development to be understood? It’s one thing to claim that science is a practice of inquiry itself normatively structured by values such as coherence, undermining a strict fact/value distinction. But it would be another thing, which does not follow from the first, to be able to leap from a scientific conclusion to an ethical conclusion. For example: No matter how precise an account of climate change a scientist offers, that account alone will not show that climate change is “bad.” That value judgment is justified otherwise. So how exactly does scientific explanation bear on ethical (or political) justification? It may be that a broad definition of science-as-inquiry obscures more about ethical judgment and deliberation than it reveals. As a Deweyan, I think the burden is on the Deweyan to carefully distinguish naturalizing ethics from committing the naturalistic fallacy.

In Chapter 9, James O’Shea offers a highlight of the volume: a clearly presented account of how Sellars improves on C. I. Lewis’s Kantian epistemological account of alternative a priori conceptual frameworks. The possibility of change in conceptual frameworks does not square easily with Kant’s claim for the universality and necessity of synthetic a priori principles. Lewis affirms the possibility of holistic conceptual redefinition that “must ultimately appeal to broadly pragmatic grounds” (208) while also recognizing that some generalizations have the status of inductive hypotheses open to falsification by evidence, not a priori criteria. However, O’Shea argues, contra Misak, that Lewis relies upon a flawed analytic/synthetic distinction that blurs the line between logical analyticity and the pragmatic a priori, and further upon an immediate grasp of a “real”/”unreal” distinction in experience, which is vulnerable to Sellars’s critique of the myth of the given. Sellars replaces the Kantian synthetic a priori with “material inference principles” that rest on his view of conceptual content, whereby having a concept is a “a matter of one’s perceptual or ‘language entry’ responses … and one’s relevant intentional actions, conforming to certain overall norm-governed patterns” (219). O’Shea concludes that Sellars provides a plausible alternative to Lewis and Quine’s views on analyticity and a priori knowledge. The chapter demonstrates significant historical and theoretical links between thinkers sometimes divided between pragmatic and analytic camps.

In Chapter 10, Alexander Klein defends a Jamesian epistemology of discovery against Quine’s epistemology of justification, stating approvingly that unlike Quine, “James cannot draw a sharp distinction between discovery and justification” and that this is essential to pragmatism itself: “all pragmatists share an emphasis on discovery as a (perhaps the) crucial locus for epistemological inquiry” (229). Though both Quine and James view knowledge as holistic and agree that “pragmatic considerations like simplicity and elegance” (228) may determine what beliefs to adopt, Quine rejects James’s position that emotions may also play a role in adopting beliefs. Klein rightly notes that this is because Quine is concerned with the justification of beliefs and does not see the emotional appeal of a belief as an acceptable justification for it. Klein argues for a “strong reading” of James as a “wishful thinker” that is incompatible with Quine: emotion is not only “useful for hypothesis generation” but may influence “belief choices” (236). In defense, Klein cites the example of Barry Marshall, a scientist who was emotionally driven to take a personal risk on research that led to his earning a Nobel Prize. According to Klein, this demonstrates that an epistemology of justification must not reject the emotion that can be central to discovery: he compares such a dispassionate epistemology to “an evolutionary explanation of a biological trait” (243) that does not account for that trait’s history and so is incomplete.

I am persuaded that Klein’s “strong reading” of James is correct, but I am not persuaded that James’s position is defensible. There are three major problems with Klein’s argument. First, even if Marshall was led to his scientific discovery by his emotions, his emotions played no obvious role in justifying his findings as true to the scientific community, which is the process of “belief choice” that concerns Quine. If I make a lucky guess about a fact, the reasons why I make the guess have nothing to do with what makes the guess true or false. Only if one denies this claim does one blur the discovery-justification distinction and engage in “wishful thinking.” Second, in defense of his view of justification, Klein cites an explanation, which is not a justification. This confusion is an unfortunate pattern in this volume. Explanations involve descriptive claims about causal mechanisms, not normative accounts of why one should take those claims to be true. If I’m asked why it rains, I describe the rain cycle; if I’m asked how I know, only then am I called to make normative claims about what one should believe and why. This double conflation of the descriptive and the normative intensifies the third problem: the implication that “all pragmatists” define epistemology in terms of discovery excludes neopragmatists like Rorty. Intentional or not, this gatekeeping serves to preserve the aforementioned confusion and evade a critical challenge. Do emotions themselves make scientific claims true? If not, how is it epistemologically relevant if emotions happen to lead to someone making scientific claims that come to be otherwise verified as true?

I cannot overstate the importance of pragmatists taking these questions, and the distinction between the descriptive and the normative, seriously in our current intellectual climate. Consider, as Klein does, evolutionary biology. The claim that values like fairness or mating preferences might causally trace their origin to our evolutionary history does not straightforwardly justify those values or preferences in any way. Why, absent a teleological (anti-Darwinian) view of nature, should what is natural be what we take to be good? This question is left unasked by influential public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson.[2] It is worth our asking.

In Chapter 11, Sami Pihlström develops a historical narrative that presents logical empiricism as developing pragmatic ideas and themes, focusing on the less-considered relations between neopragmatism and logical empiricism. Pihlström considers what he calls “Putnam’s residual Carnapianism” (253): though Putnam rejects the logical empiricist doctrines of the analytic/synthetic and fact/value dichotomies, Putnam inherits his critique of metaphysics from that philosophical legacy. Pihlström argues that scientific realism unites the concerns of pragmatism and logical empiricism, citing the Finnish logical empiricist Eino Kaila, whose embrace of James’s “will to believe” highlights the tension shared by those traditions between advocating for scientific realism and a “romantic” concern with “the possible dominance of science over other human practices” (260). This chapter weaves together seemingly disconnected themes in an intriguing and illuminating manner. I was, however, left unsure why Pihlström takes it to be necessary that pragmatists reinterpret and engage in metaphysical theorizing.

In Chapter 12, Dermot Moran surveys two intersections between phenomenology and pragmatism, detailing the Husserlian reception of James on consciousness and the neopragmatic reading of Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein. Moran notes that both intersections involve a shift toward greater contextuality, the former away from Brentano’s theory of object-intentionality toward Husserl’s horizon-intentionality and the latter away from “Cartesian style representationalist ‘spectator’ thinking” (270) toward Dreyfusian skillful coping. Moran is also careful to point out tensions between pragmatism and phenomenology. He cites Schutz’s observation that Husserl’s transcendental method is antithetical to James’s empiricism, and on neopragmatism, he emphasizes that the analytic of Dasein involves more than Zuhandenheit or readiness-to-hand: Heidegger’s “contrast between authenticity and inauthenticity” (280) suggests he is less concerned with the functioning than with the overcoming of implicit practices of the sort that Brandom theorizes or the “socially established and mutually accepted norms” (282) that operate in Rorty’s ethnocentrism. This balanced piece would have served well as an introductory chapter. Unfortunately, Moran only hints at the deeper tension between pragmatic naturalism and the transcendental phenomenological method or Heidegger’s later anti-humanism. He might have elaborated on what Husserl and Heidegger share: a transcendental move away from the starting point of everyday experience, from which one departs to discern the structures that constitute said experience.

For many analytic philosophers and neopragmatists, those experience-constituting structures are linguistic. From their perspective, an appeal to lived experience in defining a concept can be an “unnecessary shuffle” when that experience only informs discursive practices to the degree that it is already subsumed under linguistic concepts.[3] There are potential counters to this criticism: perhaps not all relevant practices are discursive or not all of what we should call knowledge is conceptual. But this conversation can only be developed to the degree that tensions are taken seriously: not only between pragmatism, phenomenology, and analytic philosophy, but within pragmatism itself.

The normative project of this volume is vital and promising. I think its promise can only be fulfilled in the coming companion volume, where neopragmatism is said to take center stage. If pragmatism’s intersections with analytic philosophy and phenomenology are more than historical curiosities, if pragmatism also provides a method for meliorating current divides between philosophical traditions, it must show that it can meliorate the divide between classical and neopragmatism still visible in this volume.

[1] Frings, Manfred. S, The Mind of Max Scheler: The First Comprehensive Guide Based on the Complete Works (Marquette University Press, 1997), 23.

[2] Pinker was challenged on this point directly by Rorty in “Philosophy-Envy,” Daedalus, Vol. 133, No. 4, On Human Nature (Fall, 2004): 18-24.

[3] This critique of classical pragmatism by neopragmatism parallels the post-structuralist and deconstructionist critiques of phenomenology. I hope this parallel is considered in the companion volume to come.

Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy: German Philosophy: A dialogue

German Philosophy: A Dialogue Book Cover German Philosophy: A Dialogue
Untimely Meditations
Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy. Edited by Jan Völker. Translated by Richard Lambert
MIT Press
Paperback $12.95 T | £9.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

On January 30, 2016, Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy conducted a public dialogue at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) moderated by Jan Völker. The agenda for the dialogue was Badiou’s and Nancy’s perspectives of German philosophy and of its influence on French philosophy. This book records their conversation.

In his “Afterword”, Völker wonders if something like a dialogue is ever possible between philosophers. While skeptic that a dialogue in the strong sense is possible among philosophers, he suggests that to have a philosophical dialogue is to “exhibit the presence of philosophy, to share its essence, to develop problems by debating shared concepts…it is always an address, a praxis—an invitation, a letter” (81). What a philosophical dialogue does not seem to be, is a shared effort to reach an agreement and mutual understanding.  With that in mind, we need also to remark that this book is not a discussion about the reception of 19th and 20th Century German philosophy into French philosophy in general, but a reflection on Badiou’s and Nancy’s personal and highly original relationship to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. It is not the history of German philosophy in France, which would have to include also the influence of the different strands of neo-Kantianism, but an attempt to map the convergences and divergences between two leading French thinkers, which also happen to be the last representatives and inheritors of the great “Philosophical Moment of 1960’s”.

Völker opens the conversation stating that German philosophy plays an important role in the thought of Badiou and Nancy, while at the same time both subscribe to the idea of the timelessness of philosophy. Based on that, Völker asks from Badiou and Nancy to assess the philosophical relationship between Germany and France.

Badiou replies that philosophy is not really timelessness. There are discontinuous philosophical periods that we can locate historically and geographically.  We can speak of a Greek, an Arabic, a French (which starts with Descartes, and includes Spinoza and Leibnitz, both not French as he acknowledges), an English, a German (German Idealism), and finally a German-French period which seems to be reaching its end. This German-French period includes thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy and Ricoeur, and continues in Lacan’s and Foucault’s influenced French structuralism. Characteristic of this “French period”, which represent the last stage of the German-French philosophical constellation, is the effort to release Philosophy from its academic restraints and infuse it with new life, and to orient it towards a more political role, drawing inspiration from Psychoanalysis, the Arts and Mathematics.

Nancy adopts a more historical approach. He first comments on the fact that while Völker asked about the French-German philosophical relationship, both interlocutors are French, and they represent the French tradition. Nancy stresses that the influence of German philosophy dates from the interwar period, while the Second World War and its aftermath saw the departure of Philosophy from Germany and the invigoration of French thought.  What French philosophy inherited from the German tradition was the idea that the saying of Philosophy should be present in what it is said (7), which he opposes to a Cartesian tradition advocating a neutral language.

The second movement of the dialogue pertains to Badiou’s and Nancy’s relationship with Kant.  Badiou doesn’t like Kant.  He does not like the idea that there is a limit to human cognition, nor does he like the notion of a categorical imperative or the distinction between sublime and beautiful.  Nancy offers a nuanced rebuke to Badiou. Indeed, he also finds Kant “unlovable”, but this can be explained by the fact that Kant is writing in a language which is not mature enough to express his thought. Nancy also rejects Badiou’s understanding of Kantian epistemology as placing limits to knowledge. The “thing-in-itself” is not a something unknowable hidden behind the phenomena but, in a Heideggerian spirit, the “positing of the thing as such” (15). Nancy further explains that this is pure reality, which pushes reason to seek the unconditional, even if Reason knows that it will not find it.  Badiou declines this position. Everything can be absolutely known (17).  The “thing-in-itself” is nothing but “the general system of the possible forms of multiplicity”, one that we can explore mathematically, and therefore come to know (18). To say otherwise is to open the door to obscurantism and to political enslavement.

The question of limits to knowledge serves as a cue to Völker to steer the conversation to Hegel and to the question of the negative. Völker asks: “How much system is necessary to think negatively” (21). Nancy interprets negativity as mobility. Hegel’s system is one that does not cease to systematize itself.  Even when Hegel engages into fields that seem odd today, like in his Philosophy of Nature, his purpose is to give voice to all things or to “traversing all things through language” (23).  Badiou, for his part, expresses his passionate relation to Hegel, but also his impatience with Hegel’s encyclopedist drive, which does not leave room for what is to come.  But Hegel is also a true thinker of an affirmative negativity. In this, he is, in spite of his shortcoming, our contemporary.

Nancy objects to Badiou’s affirmation of contemporaneity. We come after Hegel, and we reread him.  For Nancy, the relationship is one of reception. There is no direct encounter with a text but through those reading that already influenced our encounter. Nancy’s own reading of Hegel is mediated by a chain of tradition constituted of Derrida, Bataille, and Kojève. Nancy also objects to Badiou’s emphasis on the “exhaustive” impulse in Hegel. Nancy prefers to speak of a “process of coming to fulfillment”. He sketches the difference through a succinct discussion of Hegel’s presentation of the modern state as a “moral idea”, which already contains the idea of the disappearance of the State and its replacement with a more adequate form of “ethical idea in action”. On a more general way, Nancy reads Hegel’s like a philosophy of “infinite jouissance”.

Badiou rejects Nancy’s characterization. The “jouissance” we find in Hegel is a relationship internal to the spirit. Therefore, does not exclude the exhaustion of possibilities. Furthermore, Badiou believes that there is a big difference in the way in which he and Nancy relate to texts. Badiou characterizes his own reading as “naïve”, as seriously taking into consideration what it is said, and then to rewrite it in his own terms (30). Nancy feels compelled to defend his hermeneutical approach, shifting the question to the relationship between history and thought, and to Marx.

At this point, the moderator steers the discussion to Marx and to Marxism.  Völker asks the panelists to address the questions that Marx poses to philosophy: the question of practice, the question of the absence of Marx in contemporary critical discourse.

Badiou asks if it is adequate to characterize Marx (and also Freud) as philosophers.  Marx’s oeuvre contains philosophical ingredients but is not primarily a work of Philosophy. Furthermore, Badiou criticizes the notion of philosophical praxis and the idea—which goes back to the “Theses on Feuerbach”—which reduces philosophy to the interpretation of the world.  Badiou understands interpretation in a narrow sense, e.g., the production of myths, religions, wisdom. Philosophy, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of the rational and is based on science and mathematics.

Nancy concurs that Marx is not a philosopher because he does not push his questioning to the end. Marx is happy with pointing out to a future state of humankind but does not push forward to say what that future state would be. Marx is a philosopher which at a certain point got caught into something more urgent.  Interestingly, Badiou retorts that while not a philosopher himself, Marx indeed elaborated in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the concept of “generic humanity” (Badiou’s rendering of Gattungswessen, generally translated as “generic being”), and the “problem” is to identify in existing societies the seeds of this generic humanity (39).  It is noteworthy that Badiou is quoting here from the same 1844 Manuscripts that his master Althusser banished to the realm of the pre-Marxist. Badiou concludes this answer with the observation that on this point he feels that they both agree and that he is happy that such understanding was reached in reference to Marx.

Nancy and Badiou agree on the claim that philosophy is not interpretation but something else, but their agreement is only nominal. And their conversation turns to the question of the beginning of Philosophy which becomes the question of the beginning of Mathematics. Badiou’s position seems to shift during the conversation. He begins asserting that the birth of Mathematics is an event, an exception to the laws of a given situation (41).  But finally, he accepts Nancy’s hypothesis that Mathematics, as well as Philosophy and Tragedy, had their origin in the de-mythologization of the world. Badiou prefers to formulate this using the formula: “to speak the truth is no longer a question of a prescribed enunciative position” (44). But under the insistence of Nancy, he finally sums up his position beautifully saying that Philosophy needs to find rational and shareable protocols so that humanity is not poisoned by its mourning the death of the Gods (46).

The book concludes with two questions which were added by Völker after the discussion, one dealing with Adorno and the second with Heidegger. Völker asks about the disconnect between Critical Theory and post-structuralist French thought, particularly at a time when the questions asked by Adorno are again relevant.  Badiou rejects the idea of “negative dialects”, preferring an affirmative form of dialectics that can be the basis for a measured, controlled, and creative form of negation. Nancy’s position is more nuanced. He acknowledges that Adorno is not well known in France. This is in part because of his difficult style but is also related to the divorce between radical political movements which emphasized “workerism” at the expense of theory, and a university where Positivism was hegemonic. This split left room only for marginal forms of Marxism (he offers as an example, Bataille and Lefebvre). Nonetheless, Lyotard, Abensour, and others were interested in Adorno. From an English reading perspective, it is noteworthy that Habermas and the thinkers from the third generation of the Frankfurt School are airbrushed from the discussion and also from the conference that provided the framework for this dialogue, though the conference shows extensive examination of Adorno’s philosophy.

The last question refers to Heidegger. Völker refers to the renewed debates on Heidegger’s antisemitism and entanglements with Nationalsocialism.  Badiou offers a succinct response based on three points: (a) that Heidegger’s merit was to bring back the question of being; (b) that he brought it essentially as a historical question; (c) that Heidegger brought the question of being in what is essentially an identitarian context. Nonetheless, his crude nationalism and antisemitism do not erase the importance of bringing back the question of being (53-54).

Nancy disagrees. It is not enough to say that regarding the question of being Heidegger was a great philosopher but that otherwise, he was an uninspiring human being.  Nancy also rejects those interpretations of the work of Heidegger that focus exclusively on his criticism of technology. Nancy believes that there is something more, which was deeply attuned to his time. He refers to the infamous Black Notebooks in terms of “philosophical hyperbole” and “unbelievably hysterical”, that has to do with the “overwhelming within Europe” of the relationship to what we know as “politics”. But he does not elaborate further, turning instead to “being” in what can be taken as a silent rebuke to Badiou’s affirmation of the importance of the question of being.  Badiou begs to differ and offers an autobiographical observation: “it was only in a space opened by the Heideggerian question that I was able to arrive at this mathematical vision of the indifference of being” (59).  He then summarizes their discussion as follows:

“…after the French infatuation with German thought (exemplified by Sartre and Derrida) and the distance separating French structuralism and German hermeneutics, what we can now expect to emerge is a new form…of thinking…that…will address the following problem: how are we to reconstruct an affirmative dialectic on the basis of an ontology that accepts the indifference of being” (64).

It befalls to Nancy to pronounce the closing sentences of the discussion, but it is doubtful that these last words should be taken as a summation of the whole conversation.  Ultimately, Völker is right in arguing that what was productive in this debate was the debate itself, and not some implausible coincidences between the parties. French philosophical thought in mid 20th century was intertwined with German Philosophy in complicated ways, and resonated differently in different philosophers, constituting their distinctive oeuvre. Völker created the opportunity for this wide range exploration

Aaron James Wendland, Christopher Merwin, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.): Heidegger on Technology

Heidegger on Technology Book Cover Heidegger on Technology
Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy
Aaron James Wendland, Christopher Merwin, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.)
Hardback £96.00

Reviewed by: Florian Arnold (Heidelberg University and State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, Germany)

Releasing Gestell

Our daily life is influenced deeply and massively by technical devices, while their effects on our economic, social or even political behaviour are largely unknown. It seems obvious that we are not yet at the end of the story regarding technology but rather at the very beginning of an unforeseeable change, a downright revolution whose real import only the future will show. Given that technologies always had a crucial impact on human mindsets we have now entered a new realm of reality in terms of a global digitization. What determines this new era as truly new relates to intricate challenges on every field of human activity or thought, touching upon our very self-image as human beings. Can we still take for granted that we only change our equipment without, in turn, being equally changed by it? How can we cope with this new situation? And how can we develop a proper understanding of what is going on around us – or even with us?

In this state of affairs Heidegger’s reflections on technology and his equally famous and opaque notion “das Gestell” have gained renewed attention. For addressing our current situation on an “ontological”, or to be precise: a “seinsgeschichtlichen” level, his approach provides the reader with deeper “insights in that what is” than a mere description of surface phenomena. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing with a technical mode of unconcealing that not only transforms both our practical and theoretical encounters with a mostly concealed world. For in doing so it increases the same concealment to an extent such that we even forget about its very “nature” or “essence” (“Wesen”, or rather “Unwesen” in this case). According to this setting the expectations run high where a publication like the present “Heidegger on Technology” is concerned, which not only lays claim to clarifying Heidegger’s relation to technology but even engages in a broader discussion, following the editor’s appeal “to apply Heidegger’s analysis of technology to some of the most pressing ethical and political problems we confront today.” (8)

“Heidegger on Technology” contains instructive contributions that provide its readers with plenty of insights concerning Heidegger’s development of thought, whether it be its breaks or its continuities. Like any other companion it offers useful hints, much needed clarifications, even congenial interpretations; but also mere recapitulations of already prominent ideas. The book contains 17 articles, starting with a former presentation by Mark A. Wrathall, first given at the University of Sussex in 2016 which is representative for the inner tension between “Gestell” and “Gelassenheit” (“releasement”) both in the outline of the volume and of our time in general.

In The Task of Thinking in an Technological Age Wrathall argues for a reconfiguration of the academic curricula based on a late Heideggerian approach which abandons homogenisation, forgetfulness, and efficacy in favour of what Heidegger calls “thinking”. Wrathall advocates a certain “sensibility” (“Besinnung”, 31) towards contingency and whatever is questionable in our lifeworld, a kind of sense for possibilities and options that we are to choose for the purpose of an alternative way of life: “to accomplish Heidegger’s purposes, an education in history needs to highlight the discontinuities in style, and emphasize the breaks and ruptures between worlds which show those worlds to be lacking in determinate foundations.” (33)

It is worth mentioning, however, that Wrathall does not stop at this point. May teaching first be conceptualized as a close collaboration of learning subjects (which finds an echo in Iain Thomson’s article)[i], he hereafter goes deeper into a “apprenticeship in skilful behaviour” (34) by stating: “All of this suggests that an education in thinking requires a curriculum that includes fostering bodily skills, even if–especially if–those skills have no ready value in the global economy. For instance, the inclusion of sports in educational curricula […] should not be on training a few athletes to play a role in the entertainment industry”. (36) Should “releasement” from the Gestell finally lead to sports in terms of a “non-calculable” flow, representing “the surprising, the genuinely risky, the open-ended”? (36)

In fact there is some evidence that this is indeed a genuinely Heideggerian line of thought, considering his affections for the former German team leader Franz Beckenbauer but also his attempts during his rectorship to militarize the academic curriculum. The latter rather foils Wrathall intentions but at the same time it sheds some light on the inherent dialectics of this case: playfulness seems to be an essential condition of releasement but when it comes to a normative structuring for the purpose of social engagement, like in the case of an academic schedule, the Gestell comes nearer and, finally, the game could be over before it begins. In other words: Unless we are not willing to serve the Gestell, could Gelassenheit remain something else than an end in itself? For taken as a means, instead, we have been already caught in the trap of gamification, understood as the post-industrial revenge of the Gestell, instrumentalizing creativity, inspiration, flow etc. for its own ends. From this perspective the question whether there could be other ways to (re)interpret Heidegger’s notion of releasement, and what they should look like becomes crucial.

Bret W. Davis’ reading of the Country Path Conversations appears to offer such a way: Heidegger’s Realeasement From the Technological Will. In a well-informed recapitulation of Heidegger’s intellectual development since Being and Time Davis shows that the concept of the will plays a central role during all periods. For the will is already literally present in the “umwillen” of Dasein’s care-structure, and thus marks an episode directly leading into Heidegger’s commitment to National socialism.[ii] But it was only after Heidegger resigned from his rectorship and his deeper study of Hölderlin and Nietzsche that he saw clearer: his own existential voluntarism had in a way imitated the ‘will to will’, carried out to its devastating consequences in WWII especially by the Nazis but also by the Communists or even the ‘Americans’. According to this late insight Davis states a “second turn”: “Heidegger’s thought-path also underwent a ‘second turn’ around 1940, a turn from a tendency to think the relation between human being and being (beyng) in terms of will, and a turn to a sustained attempt to think this relation in terms of a non-willing releasement and letting-be.” (136) This willing, however, exhibits a well-known dialectic: the “willing to/of non-willing”, in order to be successful, requires a releasement from quasi any “to”. And while releasement “to” is not under the dictate of being or a result of our mute obedience, every releasement “to” remains a willing, even in the case of a “non-willing” and is therefore no proper releasement (We will come back to this point later).

Following the Country Path Conversations, Tobias Keiling compellingly demonstrates that only in respect to particular beings a ‘will to thinking’ in terms of generalising subsumptions can be overcome. In his radical reading of Heidegger’s “Seinsgeschichte” the notion of “being” itself tends to occupy the horizons of possible interpretations when it comes to singular beings. By presupposing that there is one final horizon of all horizons, we fail to recognize (the basic insight of set theory) that the plurality of things is accompanied by a plurality of ontologies (108), settled in a strictly open “horizon”, and, therefore, open to a transfinite series of encounters. We only get in touch with “things for themselves”, instead of “things in themselves”, or things for us, if we learn to let things be in such a way that we cease our ontological commitment (104). Releasement in this sense means letting, not even letting be – and thus enables, in turn, the freeing of thinking from its own will to think only for itself.  Correspondingly, one could say, released thinking is letting things be ends in themselves, and what is more: a thinking on behalf of things.

So far, so good. But does this apply only to a released thinking in Heidegger’s sense or also to a released thinking of the Gestell itself – a thinking that thinks on behalf of the Gestell by letting it be for itself? Looking for an answer, one of the first things that comes to mind could be the reply: Like science, the Gestell doesn’t think. But like in science, there is still a calculative intelligence at work, even if Heidegger is not willing to call it thinking. But then “was heißt denken”? Heidegger’s general answer amounts to letting beings be as well as thinking led by being. Now, Technology is a mode of disclosure, and the Gestell is the very “Wesen” of technology, a “Wesen” of being, thus even if the Gestell itself does not think, it lets think for itself by leading our thoughts (into itself). So, the question arises: Must we distinguish a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ thinking – as two modes of being’s disclosure?

In fact it is not Gelassenheit whose opponent is the Gestell, but the “Geviert”. And so releasement turns out to be a mere vehicle of transition on the way from Gestell to Geviert. According to this characteristic of Gelassenheit, as a vehicle or device, it shows striking resemblance to Husserl’s epoché, understood as the enabling condition of a phenomo-logic. As Christos Hadjioannou reconstructs in his text Heidegger’s Critique of Techno-science as a Critique of Husserl’s Reductive Method Heidegger’s early notion of a “formal indication” lays ground to his critique of a so-called “care about certainty” (66) in Husserl’s concept of phenomenology as transcendental science: “So, formal indication lets everything stand as is, without referring, without imposing on things any pre-judged order. By indicating phenomena, it unassumingly releases them into the open, allowing them to show themselves from themselves. Thus, with ‘formal indication’, Heidegger attempts to replace Husserlian phenomenological analysis with a hermeneutic praxis that does not objectify, that does not posit any sort of order or classification, that does not assume an indifferent stance towards the content of phenomena, hiding the enactmental character of the philosophical praxis, and that does not slip into an attitudinal/theoretical comportment.” (71)

Sounds familiar. But here we see now that Heidegger, right from the beginning, is engaged in the methodological question of how to let things be, in order to let them show themselves. “Hermeneutical praxis” in this sense shall overcome “phenomenological analysis” by giving things a voice in the conversation of being, whereas Husserlian phenomenology seems to objectify things by quasi scrutinizing them only in respect of its own ‘worldview’. In other words: Heidegger’s methodological ground (or unground) is language, rather than the supposed ocularcentrism of Husserlian phenomenology. Therefore, Heidegger’s own philosophical praxis approaches poetry. Until this reversement from scientific classifications to the inner heart of the named holy, the Geviert, is executed, there will be no releasement from the Gestell according to Heidegger.

A deeper discussion of this relation is found in Susanne Claxton’s Poetry and the Gods. From Gestell to Gelassenheit, and here again, the emphasis lies on Gelassenheit. While not being wrong, this constitutes only one half of the way towards Heiddegger’s language as a phenomenology of poetry. As Claxton herself knows, Heidegger’s evoking of gods, the mortals, sky, and earth within the Geviert is not metaphorical in a pejorative sense. Instead, he truly believes in gods that rise to speak through their prayer-like addressing by mortals. As Claxton puts it: “For myths are not explanations, but rather ways of creatively conceptualizing experiences, experiences felt and perceived by mortals to be encounters with something outside themselves, something that has force.” (238) And later: “A given god, as such, can feel nothing in himself; the god needs a mortal to feel for him. Understood in this way, divinities may be seen as affective powers intending toward manifestations via mortals as embodied expressions thus experienced. In the coming together of mortal and divinity, fullness of experience is achieved.” (239) In other words: What is to be saved from the Gestell are certain extraordinary “feelings” (“Stimmungen”) that are conveyed, articulated, and experienced through a quasi-divine poetical language. These “Stimmungen” need “Stimmen” (“voices”) in order to not be ignored and forgotten. And so, it is not only for the sake of the gods that “Dasein” shall listen attentively to what ‘his’ experiences tell him.

Yet as we have already heard, gods are not the only ones who “need” or “use” (“brauchen”) Dasein as a kind of resonator. Moreover, the question seems to be whether gods simply do not feel or whether they do not think either. If the latter, there could very well be other gods than the mythological ones – for instance, technical ones or what we tend to call artificial intelligences. Without going too much into detail here, it seems quite obvious that they (still) need and are (already) using (“brauchen”) us, as well. Whereas the Geviert, in Heidegger’s view, stands for the holy shrine of the mystery (“Geheimnis”), the Gestell could turn out to be the secular shrine of the “need of needlessness” (“Not der Notlosigkeit”)[iii]. To put it another way: Are we still in need (and use) of Heidegger’s gods? – I’m not sure. Maybe in need and use of others? But why call them gods any longer?

Moving on from the gods some of the contributions to the volume rightly stress the point that there is still a lot to concerning big issues of our time such as the need for a new ecology (Michael E. Zimmerman and Trish Glazebrook) or the outcomes of an “audit society” (Denis McManus). In all the three cases Heidegger’s notion of the Gestell (or its forerunner “Machenschaft”) functions like a guideline to conceptualize what is going wrong, even if there might be no complot or genius malignus behind the scenes. Especially in the case of the audit society we are facing developments that foil the intended results: “So despite audit’s ‘promise of accountability and visibility’ (Power 1997, 127)[iv], there is reason to think it makes it significantly harder to see where power actually lies.” (277) If we cede our powers of decision to anonymous evaluation systems or even algorithms we get lost in our own lifeworld when it comes to human politics.

To be clear on this point, I do not deny that it is crucial to engage in such critiques as supported by Heidegger’s conceptual framework. Releasement is fine and I acknowledge the policy of emphasizing this notion in place of the Geviert. Yet I side with McManus here when he asks at the end of his chapter: “even if we accept that Heidegger’s diagnosis of our contemporary situation sheds light on the phenomena that Power describes, is it the best diagnosis?” I think it is one of the best, and two out of four names which McManus mentions subsequently even based their own diagnosis on Heidegger’s (Foucault and Arendt, while Marx and Weber undergo Heidegger’s critique). The only question I am asking here is, how far one can get, sticking to Heidegger original attempt. Of course, there are still points to be made, for instance, against Habermas, when Julian Young points out that a Habermasian communicative rationality ignores a certain “need for dwelling” (205 et passim). Or when Aaron James Wendland shows that the Kuhnian concept of “paradigm shifts” still emphasizes assimilation tendencies after the break where Heidegger rightly sees a needful release (297). And even when Taylor Carman, regarding the controversy between Heidegger and Heisenberg, argues that ‘science still doesn’t think’ because of its reductionist concept of “physis” (309 et passim). But does this lead to Heidegger’s final insight that only a god can save us–a god of poetry and a poetry of gods?

I am afraid it does, but only if we accept that Hölderlin is the greatest poet and that dwelling means to ensconce oneself in Heidegger’s ‘house of being’, viz. in his private language of thinking under the advice of being, including his idiosyncrasies, wrong etymologies, and ‘mystery’ lecture performances. Then we might believe that we live in times of the “Not der Notlosigkeit” in an era of a self-accomplishing forgetfulness of being, of self-deceit, which manages to ignore its own need to be saved. And even today there are still several believers among Heidegger’s readers. But maybe (according to Heidegger’s late reticence) there will be no saving needed anymore. Not because everything is just fine, but because the Gestell, along with its essence, the “danger” (“Gefahr”), could be in itself already the saving (“Rettung”)–not the saving from it, but the saving for itself. In other words: Could there be a saving of the Gestell by letting it be (for itself)? Having said this, what would this actually mean?

There is one moment in his Bremen Lectures where Heidegger comes close to this point: “Das Wesen der Technik ist das Seyn selber in der Wesensgestalt des Ge-Stells. Das Wesen des Ge-Stells aber ist die Gefahr. […] Die Gefahr ist das Ge-Stell nicht als Technik, sondern als das Seyn. Das Wesende der Gefahr ist das Seyn selbst, insofern es der Wahrheit seines Wesens mit der Vergesslichkeit dieses Wesens nachstellt.“ (GA 79, 62)

Can being be forgotten, or even forget itself? In this passage Heidegger reflects on the essence not only of the Gestell and on what is meant to be the Gefahr, but also on the essence (or ‘the essenceing’ = “das Wesende”) of the Gefahr: “das Seyn” being after itself (“nachstellen”), and in so doing, disguising (‘verstellen’) itself with the “Ge-Stell”. Hence, the danger is, according to Heidegger, that there seems to be no danger. Like the “need of needlessness”, Heidegger conceives of a danger of “safety” (“Gefahrlosigkeit”, literally ‘dangerlessness’). According to its own dialectics, the essence of danger is un-essence (“Unwesen”), an essence (“Wesen”) that denies itself and in doing so finally would become the ‘essencelessness’ (= “Wesenlosigkeit”) of being, if it is not recalled by Dasein anymore as the danger of being or the threat of its own forgetfulness.

To let the Gestell be for itself would therefore mean not to ignore the danger of forgetting, but to recognize the danger of forgetting as that what it truly is: our fear of death, angst. The real danger seems to be that not even danger will remain when we are gone. But that is probably going to happen. In contrast, the inherent ‘nihilism’ of the Gestell reminds us not of death, but of the forgetfulness of death (expressed through the loss of angst). As a result, the threat to Heidegger’s own thinking, as a permeant contemplation of the meaning of death, is simply that it could be pointless–because of the meaninglessness of death. This, in turn, doesn’t mean that there is no being and yet it means that the meaning of being is not necessarily the being of meaning, or what Heidegger would call the “Ereignis” of meaningfulness.

To conclude I return to the Country Path Conversations and listen to what Steven Crowell has to say about the correlation between “Sein” and “Dasein” in his chapter: The Challenge of Heidegger’s Approach to Technology. A Phenomenological Reading: “The first thing to note is that Heidegger’s attempt to overcome representational thinking does not abandon correlationism […]. Heidegger is quite clear about this: ‘das Seyn braucht den Menschen’ (GA 65: 261), the worlding of world requires the thinking being (GA 77: 147). But one might wonder whether Heidegger’s late notion of thinking as the ‘indwelling releasement to the worlding of world’ retains the feature of the care-structure that […] is the phenomenological ground of meaning–namely, trying to be (Worumwillen). Is the ‘relation to the essence of the human being’ that allows the Open ‘to be as it is [wesen…wie es west]’ (GA 77: 146), a relation that involves my being at issue in trying to be a thinker?” (89)

In the last sentence before this passage Crowell added an endnote. In this endnote Crowell replies to Quentin Meillassoux in defence of Heidegger’s correlationism: “Calling something an arche-fossil or a hammer or an electron–or a jug or a Gegnet or a Geviert, for that matter–has a determinate meaning only in a normative context grounded in the speaker’s commitment. The ‘realism’ which opposes this is perfectly suited to Ge-stell since, by denying the correlational conditions of meaning, it does away with meaning altogether and bottoms out in nihilism.” (94)

This punchline is remarkable, not primarily, however, as a critique but rather in the sense that Crowell laudably clarifies the relation (or correlation?) between a so-called “speculative realism” (or in the case of Meillassoux: speculative materialism) and the prevailing Gestell. Indeed, we are living in the Gestell, and Meillassoux somehow approves this insight by transcending every correlationism stemming from an anthropocentric vision of thinking. Now, is there a contradiction implied in what Crowell refers to? So far as I can see, none that Meillassoux hasn’t already dealt with elsewhere. Instead, there are consequences that concern not least the Heideggerian concept of releasement. Whereas Heidegger tries to free thought from the Gestell in order to gain a free relation to technology, speculative realism takes the opposite view: the freeing of thought from “Dasein”.

There still might be “the correlational conditions of meaning” but only for us as a species which cannot cease to make sense of everything, even nothing. But unfortunately that does not guarantee that beyond human comprehension meaning exists at all. Instead, we are today facing a situation wherein an intelligent form of calculation takes command without any proper understanding of its own agenda. And the same holds for philosophical speculations on the necessity of contingency, necessitating us to think the end of thinking as a possible, although unthinkable event (or rather “Enteignis”). Therefore, to talk about releasement under present conditions points, if anything, to a releasement into “nihilism” – according to our human, all-to-human presuppositions and expectations. Even though this does not mean that meaning does not mean anything to us, we find ourselves alone, surrounded by silicon and silence.

The German term “Gelassenheit” has its Latin equivalent in the Christian notion of “resignatio”. What in English still echoes the expression “resignation” or “resign” is translated into German as “Entlassung” – another, often unmentioned morphological derivation of “lassen”. Could it be that Heidegger’s own “releasement” from onto-theo-technology only renamed his resigning, his resignation by the Gestell, seine Entlassung durch die Seinsgeschichte? In this case he would have been the first and last thinker of the complete “Enteignis”: ‘The end of philosophy and the task/capitulation (“Aufgabe”) of thinking’ within the Gestell…a releasement from a self-annihilating being (“Sein”), and into a new substantial commitment with beings (“Seienden”)…the reversal from resigning to designing?

[i]See Technology, Ontotheology, Education, p. 185: “At the heart of Heidegger’s reontologization of education is a rethinking of what is called ‘learning,’ in which teaching itself becomes ‘the highest form of learning,’ an exemplary art of ‘learning-in-public,’ from which students learn how to learn by example, and learning comes to stand higher than being learned or knowing. (In what I have called ‘the pedagogical truth event,’ teachers learn to come into their own as teachers by showing students how to disclose the being of entities creatively, responsively, and responsibly, thereby helping students, things, and being all come into their own together.)” This “pedagogical truth event”, as Thomson calls it, seems to be already a common praxis, especially in demographic societies where youthfulness represents a rare good, whereas maturity is believed to be a kind of sale out.

[ii]For a closer reading of Heidegger’s thinking having an affair with National Socialism see Aaron James Wendland contribution to the present volume: Heidegger’s New Beginning. History, Technology, and National Socialism.

[iii]The German expression “Not” has also the connotation of “misery”.

[iv]McManus is quoting the inventor of the term “Audit Society” Michael Power in his book: The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.

Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer & Stefano Micali: Das überforderte Subjekt – Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft

Das überforderte Subjekt - Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft Book Cover Das überforderte Subjekt - Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft
Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer, Stefano Micali
Suhrkamp Verlag
Paperback 22,00 €

Reviewed by: Jaakko Vuori (University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland)

Byung-Chul Han claims in his philosophical bestseller Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (2010) [“The Burnout Society”] that the psychopathological landscape in the beginning of the 21st century has shifted in contrast to the 20th. It is dominated by what he calls “neuronal” illnesses and ailments: depression, burnout syndrome and attention-deficit disorder (Han 2010, 7). Han’s diagnosis is confirmed by the fact that such conditions are increasingly on the focus of public interest. “A 26 year old university graduate developed a burnout syndrome and the stress did not ease even on sick-leave – Researcher: ‘I am worried of the work ethos of our generation’,” “Half of the working age population today cannot relax properly after work – Employees perform more than required and are burdened by exceeding demands,” and “The whole Finnish society is in slumber, says [the psychologist] Tommy Hellsten, who has recovered from burnout”. These are merely a few randomly selected titles from major media outlets from the author’s native context[1]. They all point to a growing public concern on illnesses and pathologies related to exhaustion.

It is such psychopathological and social landscape that the book Das Überforderte Subjekt: Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft edited by Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer, and Stefano Micali seeks to tackle, in the words of the editors, by providing “a diagnosis of the times” of “an accelerated society”. The editors inform the reader that the aim of the book is to provide “a psychogram of contemporary society” and for this purpose, “a phenomenology of experiences in mental and physiological overload (Überforderung)” is needed (14). Even though they do not define the concept of a psychogram, I take it that in the context of the book it refers to a presentation of the distinct aspects and intertwined elements of a complex whole, in this case the modern or late-modern subject in her social and experiential organization.

The book is divided into three sections dealing with philosophical and historical perspectives of “Überforderung,”[2] epidemiological and sociological aspects, and clinical perspectives, respectively. Each of the sections is followed by a summarizing and critical review of the contributions included in that section. This is a welcomed introduction because it brings coherence to the book, which is not completely methodologically or stylistically consistent. In the first instance, it is somewhat surprising that while the concept “social acceleration” (Beschleunigung), made famous by Hartmut Rosa, features in the subtitle of the book, no single contribution is devoted to Rosa’s theorizations per se.

As Hartmut Böhme emphasizes in his essay, “the modern tiredness” is essentially a product of highly organized labor (31). Accordingly, many of the contributions of the book are focused on the concepts, discourses and phenomena surrounding changes in the organization of labor, working life and employment, as much as for example on “social acceleration”. “Gainful work” (Erwerbsarbeit) is explicitly the focus of one third of the contributions. On hindsight, however, this fact might not be that surprising after all, since many of the current political and social disputes in highly developed countries are centered on the changing practices and discourses related to the organization of labor due to globalization and digitalization. In this respect, it is perhaps precisely in working life and in its increasing pace and precarization that the pressures and demands created by social acceleration manifest themselves most emphatically.

In contemporary sociological and politological discourses such a shift in the understanding of work is thematized in many ways, of which the following by Rolf Haubl is one example. As he writes, “differently than in Fordism-Taylorism, [today] it is not the life after work that appears as the domain of freedom, but rather the life in work” (370). Correspondingly, based on the contributions collected in the book, it seems that it is a specific Gestalt borrowed from the discourses on working life and organization of labor that serves as the guiding ideal for late-modern processes of subjectivation as a whole. The ideal type is the self-responsible, self-optimizing, and ever innovative entrepreneur, who knows no distinction between labor and leisure, as becomes clear especially in the contributions by Stefano Micali, Cornelia Klinger, and Friederike Hardering and Greta Wagner. The last-mentioned demonstrate convincingly that also the increasingly popular techniques for stress-management, such as mindfulness, serve the purpose for self-optimization and maximal mobilization of resources of a person.

Since it would be impractical to provide an assessment of all the contributions and diverse approaches gathered in the book, in the remainder of this review I will proceed as follows: First, I will reconstruct “the psychogram of contemporary society” in its relevant aspects. Then I will move to offer a few critical remarks regarding some of the approaches and analyses from a methodological perspective.


Even though the editors emphasize the role of phenomenology, it is mainly the essays by Thomas Fuchs and Stefano Micali that provide phenomenological analyses in the strict sense. Both Fuchs and Micali build their essays on their previous work and on the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology. In the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology mental distress is characterized primarily as a “chronopathology” (15), that is it is analyzed and understood with regard to its temporal aspects. Hence, in analyzing pathologies of Überforderung in the context of acceleration societies, classical phenomenological psychopathology offers an important starting point.

Fuchs and Micali emphasize especially the importance of Hubertus Tellenbach’s analyses of melancholia and the conceptualization of an experience that Tellenbach deems “remanence”. Tellenbach introduced the concept already in the beginning of the 1960s to identify specific vulnerability factors and triggering situations of the subject for developing severe depression. Thus conceived, remanence refers to a “feeling of being left behind,” “guilt” (Schuld), and generally to an experience of “remaining short of something or other” (schuldig bleiben), for example of obligations and commitments regarding other persons and of experienced demands set on one’s performance by the social environment and interpersonal world (e.g. 67; 104). In specific situations, remanence can transform into depression or melancholia proper, into an experience of being “tied up to the past,” of being irredeemably guilty, and having no future.

Especially Fuchs seeks to further Tellenbach’s conceptualizations with regard to a general theory of “chronopathology”. According to Fuchs, experiences of remanence should be understood as distinct manners of “desynchronization”, literally as temporal manners of disconnection from the intersubjectively mediated and sustained reality (67; cf. 57–59). In his analysis, individual life consists in processes of synchronization, which aim to maintain a sense of resonance and contemporaneity between an individual and her environment. Already the interaction between an infant and the caregiver is characterized by patterns of mutual affective attunement or “rhythmic melodic interactions” (57). However, also the life of an adult is governed by a similar principle, for example in the case of performing major transitions and role-changes between different stages of life. From Fuchs’s perspective, these are not mere subjective experiences or projects, but in essence relational processes. The intersubjective and social world is structured according to temporal norms that regulate, for example when and how a person should leave her childhood world behind and enter adulthood along with its rights and responsibilities. When the basic sense of resonance is disturbed, or the performance of a life-stage transition left incomplete, a feeling of being left behind or remanence ensues. Following Tellenbach, Fuchs argues that the most extreme form of such an experience is depression or melancholia. In this way, “depression can be conceived as a general desynchronization between organism and environment” (71).

Whereas Fuchs grounds his analysis in a general anthropological and philosophical account of different forms of temporality, according to Micali the temporal norms in acceleration societies are themselves products of specific processes of socialization and subjectivation guided by the ideals of personal initiative, responsibility, and self-optimization (92–93). In other words, due to demands of dynamization of individual life, the subject is dominated by an ever-increasing degree of social demands such as “to catch up,” “to update one’s knowledge,” “to seize the moment until it is too late”. By analyzing the temporal aspects of a society that emphasizes personal initiative and psychic emancipation, Micali is able to give a phenomenological justification to Alain Ehrenberg’s (2010) classical analysis of the conceptual development of modern depression. Echoing Ehrenberg, Micali argues that contemporary depression appears as the mirror-image of a society where “the entrepreneur has become an anthropological paradigm” (92).

By following and reinterpreting Tellenbach’s analyses the largely complementary accounts by Fuchs and Micali are able to provide extremely fruitful analogies between Überforderung and depression in acceleration societies. Tellenbach’s analyses indeed seem fit in further clarifying the experiential and temporal aspect of social acceleration, which in Rosa’s description produces temporally indebted subjects: “subjects of guilt,” “who almost never succeed in working of their to-do lists” (Rosa 2018, 39). However, to speak of the entrepreneur as the anthropological paradigm or of an esthetic manner of subjectivation in late-modern societies, like Cornelia Klinger maintains in her essay (125), amounts to a highly abstract level of reflection. Moreover, as emphasized in the contribution by Vera King, Benigna Gerisch, Hartmut Rosa, Julia Schreiber, and Benedikt Salfeld, analyses that focus on exhaustion-related pathologies from a general philosophical and anthropological perspective at times give the impression that the societal demands in question were imposed on the subject merely “from the outside”. Thus, the focus on pathologies of Überforderung is in danger of giving an oversimplified picture of the complex mediation between “culture and psyche” (227).

To avoid such simplifications, King, Gerisch, Rosa, Schreiber, and Salfeld argue that the demands experienced by the subject are not merely imposed on her performance, but rather “translated” by the subject into her individual patterns of self-understanding and -formation (ibid.). In other words, practices that aim at self-optimization, self-improvement and personal innovativeness are products of complex social and individual processes of normalization. Hence, such social processes are also subjectively affirmed and perhaps even perceived as desirable for the person in question. On the one hand, then, the individual value and experience of self-worth depends on the person’s positioning on “different markets” (229). On the other, the distinct practices of self-optimization offer and are perceived by the individual as practices of self-realization and social participation (230).

In further clarifying such processes of normalization and their pathology inducing character, the more empirically oriented contributions included in the volume offer valuable insights. They also, even if mostly implicitly, open up possibilities for a critical social philosophical reflection on Überforderung that differ from the rather Foucauldian character of Micali’s analysis.

As already implicated, one of the key institutional structures of late-modern societies affected by processes of social acceleration is the organization of labor. In his essay, Johannes Siegrist refers to empirical studies in order to answer the question whether increasing demands in working life makes subjects fall ill. His aim is to identify stress-inducing factors in late-modern working life with the help of two theoretical models that seek to recognize such stressors and enable an empirical testing of their effect. Siegrist’s motivation is sociological. Changes brought about by globalization and digitalization of work become manifest in the growing global competition in costs of labor, which in turn forces companies and employers to intensify the pace of work, to initiate organizational restructuration and reduce personnel (213–214). Moreover, decrease in long-term full-time employment and in the corresponding increase in atypical forms of employment ensues from such changes (ibid.).

The theoretical models Siegrist employs stem from stress-theory. In stress-theory, “stressors” are understood as exceeding and pressing demands that the subject has to cope with and manage yet cannot avoid or elude (215). In this way, such stressors are accompanied by an awareness of a possibility of failure and thereby induce fears of loss of control.

The first of the two models, the so-called “demand-control model,” characterizes and seeks to make empirically accessible the relationship between work-related demands and the range of control a person enjoys over her work environment (216). An imbalance between demands and control manifests, to use a term not employed by Siegrist, in the diminished experience of self-efficacy of the person and thereby induces feelings of anxiety and fear. Since it was developed in the beginning of the 1990s, the demand-control model concentrates on work environment and industrial labor. The second model, the so-called “effort-reward imbalance model” developed by Siegrist himself, seeks also to take into account more distant macro-economic labor market conditions. For this reason, it can be seen as more suitable in identifying stressors of the late-modern increasingly precarious working life. As Siegrist argues, since work is a form of exchange regulated by contract, the principle of equity or fairness is important (217). From this perspective, the focal point of his model is the balance or imbalance between spent effort at work and the received reward in the form of salary, esteem or appreciation, and career opportunities including security of job.

In addition to these factors, in the effort-reward imbalance model, conditions are identified where the expected reward frequently remains missing: such as when the person must defend her position amidst tough competition, or when no alternative possibilities exist for her in the labor market. Yet, regardless of the conditions, when an expected reward stays missing, this results not only in negative emotions such as anger and frustration, but also in psychophysical stress-reactions (ibid.).

As Siegrist demonstrates, extensive empirical research has been conducted based on both models and a heightened risk to fall prey to illnesses such as depression under stressful conditions has been established. In the present context more important is to emphasize that as the sense of security of job can be understood as a form of control, that is, a fear reducing factor, the two models can be combined. Hence, both a sense of self-efficacy and the feeling of self-esteem of the person are in the danger of being eroded under circumstances identified by Siegrist. Importantly, Rolf Haubl in his essay describes the experience of a person who attended Haubl’s coaching session in a way that confirms Siegrist’s analyses. “It became evident, that his limitless efforts at work … were the result of the panic and fear that he himself could be the next one to be dismissed. He constantly sought to convince himself that only tireless working would guarantee his further advances in life.” (379)

In this way, as the very phrasing of Haubl’s case study indicates, Siegrist’s analyses can be read in the overall context of Fuchs’s and Micali’s accounts. Hence, they do not merely characterize specific harmful practices in contemporary working life, but rather the societal situation of individuals in contemporary societies as a whole. The factors identified by Siegrist also remain closer to empirical reality than the rather far reaching analyses of Fuchs, Klinger, and Micali. Still, in Siegrists essay as well as in the contributions by King and others, it remains somewhat open why and how such clearly harmful conditions are normalized, and their effects downplayed or even trivialized. In this respect, it is important as Sabine Flick points out in her commentary that the crises of effort-reward imbalance that Siegrist identifies and King and others also seek to describe can be interpreted also as “crises of recognition” (Anerkennungskrisen) (282).

Freely following Flick’s suggestion, one promising manner of explicating how societal and systemic demands are translated into individual patterns of self-understanding would be to examine how recognition is granted in contemporary societies based on individual merit, innovativeness, and personal initiative. Understood in this way, the conditions described by Siegrist would not amount merely to a lack of recognition, but rather to a specific form of recognition, albeit perhaps itself a pathological one. In other words, conditions of late-modern working life described above could very well also be seen to motivate struggles for recognition in the form of reward or esteem regarding efforts spent at work. Correspondingly, it could be hypothesized that subjects who are constantly threatened by the fear of “being left behind” are produced through such processes of esteeming performance, innovativeness and self-optimization. Yet, the very same processes, by establishing esteem and appreciation based on performance, also fulfill the promise of self-realization and social participation. In this way, Überforderung would amount to a social pathology that could be analyzed and criticized not only by means of Foucauldian analyses but also with the help of critical social philosophy. Such a possibility is hinted at in some of the contributions, most notably in the essay by Martin Heinze and Samuel Thoma, yet not thoroughly cashed out.


Such is, given in broad outlines, the psychogram of contemporary society as it is provided in the volume. As mentioned, the general theme of the book and the focus of many individual contributions is on pathologies of Überforderung. Of these, especially depression acquires a prime importance, even though also burnout and even such conditions as Hikikomori and “Cocooning” are mentioned.

When it comes to depression Siegrist demonstrates convincingly that there exists an elevated risk for persons under high work-related stress to fall ill on depression. Yet, a major difference exists between a claim of an empirically established relation between depression and work-related stressors on the one hand, and an understanding of depression as a social pathology or a mirror-image of the neo-liberal subject on the other. Moreover, as Josua Handerer, Julia Thom, and Frank Jacobi argue, an increasing prevalence of cases of clinical depression has not been established through epidemiological studies (190). On the contrary, the contemporary prevalence of depression can be explained through the global increase in population and in life expectancy (187). Such is the case, for example, with the often-cited estimate of the WHO that major depression disorder would become the leading cause for the global burden of disease by the 2030s. Hence, claims that experiences of Überforderung would simply be the cause of an epidemiologically established increase in cases of clinical depression are not warranted.

In addition, also the corresponding theoretical claims put forward by Micali on the one hand and empirical scientists on the other are fundamentally different in nature. That neo-liberal governmentality or late capitalism amounts to a “cult of guilt” (vershuldender Kultus) (93) is a claim that obviously cannot be verified empirically. Micali himself takes into account such discrepancy between empirical and sociophilosophical analyses of Überforderung by distinguishing between the “social relevance” of a psychopathology and its epidemiological prevalence (86). However, in many other contributions of the volume such discreetness is not sufficiently practiced.

This fact is partly due to the rather general level of anthropological reflection employed in some of the contributions. Even though the socially and interpersonally oriented approach to psychotherapy advocated by Martin Heinze and Samuel Thoma is a welcomed suggestion, one asks how useful generalizations such as the following are in recognizing critically relevant social pathologies or empirically established factors for Überforderung in contemporary societies: “that the modern subject suffers under exceeding demands results also from the fact that she misunderstands her place in the world: by taking herself to be above nature, she fails to notice the fact that she can be free only by recognizing her naturalness and sociality” (356). To freely paraphrase the commentary by Matthias Flatscher, contrary to what Heinze and Thoma suggest, Überforderung is perhaps not a matter of a misguided self-understanding of the modern or late-modern subject, but rather a “calculated aspect of modern capitalism to make subjects under precarious conditions obedient and compliant and thereby further advance their exploitation” (154). For if a person is made to fight for her plain survival, then the danger of a genuine solidarity between groups of people and a struggle for a reform of the prevailing societal conditions can be avoided (ibid.).

In the case of Fuchs’s account, similar anthropological generalizations lead to downright problematic conclusions. In distinguishing between a cyclic form of temporality of pre-modern societies and the linear form of time in modernity and arguing for “an attitude of melancholy” as an antidote to “the frantically optimistic culture of universal communication and consumption” of today (75), Fuchs comes dangerously close to such conservative approaches to modernity as the cultural-pessimistic theories of Mircea Eliade or Karl Löwith.

Thus, such anthropological generalizations as are found in Heinze and Thoma’s and in Fuchs’s accounts at times undermine the emancipatory and social critical potential of an analysis of Überforderung. They also seem counter-productive for establishing empirical relations between depression or burnout and processes related to social acceleration in the domain of organization of labor. In this respect, the manner the diagnosis of the times is cashed out in some of the non-empirically oriented contributions seems at times problematic.

However, perhaps such shortcomings point only towards a more closely realized collaboration between phenomenologists, social philosophers, and most importantly, empirically oriented researchers in fields such as medical sociology. In opening up these horizons for discussion and demonstrating the social relevance of Überforderung as subjective suffering, the book serves its purpose more than well.


Ehrenberg, Alain. (2010). The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Han, Byung-Chul. (2010). Müdigkeitsgesellschaft. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

Rosa, Hartmut. (2018). “Available, accessible, attainable: The mindset of growth and the resonance conception of the good life.” In Rosa, Hartmut & Henning, Christoph (2018) The Good Life Beyond Growth: New Perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 39–53.

[1] These titles stem from the newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat” and the news outlet of the Finnish public broadcasting company (YLE), respectively. All are published in the year 2018.

[2] As the possible English translations for Überforderung (“mental and physiological overload,” “exceeding demands” etc.) are somewhat clumsy, in the following I will employ the German concept for the sake of readability.

Mauro Senatore: Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida

Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida Book Cover Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Mauro Senatore
SUNY Press
Hardback $80.00

Reviewed by: David Maruzzella (DePaul University)

Mauro Senatore’s first book in English, Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida, is a compact and ambitious reading of a significant portion of Jacques Derrida’s philosophical work from his earliest writings on Husserl to unpublished seminars from the 1970s and 1980s. Divided into 5 chapters (2 on Platonism and 3 on Hegelianism), Senatore’s book aims to provide “a systematic elaboration of how Derrida develops the Husserlian concept of genesis through a critical engagement with Plato’s and Hegel’s legacies as well as with the biological thought of his time” (xii). Indeed, if the chapters’ explicit focus are on Derrida’s on-going engagement with Platonic and Hegelian accounts of genesis, life, transmission and inheritance, the book’s toile de fond is no doubt the place of Derrida’s thought in larger debates and developments in contemporary biology and the life sciences more generally. By reading Derrida in light of the transformations that took place in these scientific fields—a shift, broadly speaking, from the genetic paradigm to the post-genetic or epigenetic paradigm—Senatore makes a convincing case that Derrida’s writings constitute nothing less than a significant contribution, “nonphilosophical and nonpreformationist,” to a “post-genetic interrogation of life” (xii). The stakes of this reading are high, since, if Senatore is correct, it would perhaps make Catharine Malabou’s abandonment of the Derridean language of writing premature and unnecessary. What Derrida will have meant by writing and programme, for example, as early as 1967 in De la grammatologie where he already speaks of biological writing and the biological pro-gramme[i], would in fact be quite close to what Malabou will call plasticity in reference to contemporary neuroscience.[ii]

In many ways, the center of gravity around which Senatore’s book turns is the recent wave of interest that Derrida scholars[iii] have taken in Derrida’s unpublished 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort[iv], which in turn makes clear the connection between deconstruction and the life sciences proposed by Senatore, since Derrida devotes a substantial portion of his seminar to discussing the French biologist François Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant[v] as well as the work of Georges Canguilhem. Senatore, with this seminar in mind, reads the Derridean notions of writing, dissemination, trace, etc. as responding to the latent teleological and metaphysical presuppositions that still structured the philosophical musings of biologists such as Jacob. But if Derrida shows how the then recent discoveries in genetics seem only to be a repetition of biological preformationism, this time without a divine creator—and thus of philosophical teleology more generally—, he also attempts to show how the contradictions and aporias in the biological text point necessarily beyond themselves to a new thinking of life, one more in line with the work of the biophysicist Henri Atlan who emphasizes the necessity of living beings not to simply repeat pre-inscribed genetic instructions, but to be submitted to the “aleatory perturbations” of the organism’s environment (xii).

Though a fair amount of attention has been recently given to Derrida’s engagement with mathematics and the formal sciences[vi], Senatore’s book opens up new debates and will certainly path the way for future research trajectories that seek to re-inscribe Derrida’s thought in larger historical and scientific contexts, thus avoiding the typical readings of Derrida that made his work a staple in English and Comparative Literature departments. It is perhaps not even an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift—if not at least a renaissance (to which Senatore’s book no doubt belongs)—in critical studies on the work of Jacques Derrida. Beginning with Martin Hägglund’s influential Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, 2008) and even continuing into the field of intellectual history with Edward Baring’s The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, 2011), as commentators have come to insist more and more upon the authentically philosophical nature of Derrida’s project.

Indispensable to this philosophical revival of Derrida is of course the meticulous editing and translation of Derrida’s seminars of which Senatore avails himself. This in turn has given scholars access to Derrida’s teaching as a philosophy instructor where he was often tasked with preparing young students for the competitive agrégation de philosophie. This meant that it was Derrida’s job to prepare students to work through the major philosophical problems of the Western tradition as treated by this tradition’s classical figures. Deconstruction was, it must be said, indebted to these close-readings of canonical texts that are to this day central to French philosophical training. In other words, Derrida is being read more widely as making original contributions to philosophy and no longer merely to literary theory[vii], where deconstruction was seen as one possible grid of literary analysis among others (psychoanalytic criticism, historicism, etc.), or, more generally, as an interpretive method applicable to any field whatsoever (i.e. deconstruction and architecture, deconstruction and legal theory, etc.). Indeed, this new turn in Derrida scholarship is making it quite clear that deconstruction does not consist simply in one possible hermeneutic strategy or analytic framework, nor is it a purely negative or critical project, but rather it uncovers and names in some sense the very movement of Being itself, the quasi-ontological conditions of possibility of all beings, the minimal and necessary structure of meaning and experience as such.

Senatore, rightly, does not shy away from such bold claims and asserts this at the outset: “I argue that Derrida conceives of the inscription-seed as the minimal structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis. This structure constitutes the element of a geneticism of sense in general—that is, of an analysis that accounts for the genesis of the discourse as well as of the living” (2). But this is not all. Derrida’s originality, according to Senatore’s account, is that this account of genesis in general is strictly “post-genetic,” by which he means that it is a thinking of genesis that is non-teleological and therefore breaks with the model wherein arche and telos coincide, the latter being simply an outgrowth of a potentiality present in the former. If the philosophical tradition from Aristotle to Hegel and beyond—albeit a particular reading of Hegel that has been largely discredited today[viii]—conceived of genesis as essentially the internal playing-out of instructions or a programme present already at the origin (a conception that is mirrored in the biological discourses from preformationism to modern geneticism whereby an organism is nothing other than the result of a set of pre-determined instructions transmitted from one generation to another), a post-genetic theory of genesis that takes seriously the irreducibility of the movement of necessary externalization that defines all beings. Indeed, it is Derrida’s contention that a kind of spontaneous Hegelianism was present throughout Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant. Yet Derrida’s engagement with the life sciences is not simply critical and destructive, but also seeks to to elaborate another thinking of life beyond the opposition life/death. Derrida in turn prepares the ground for the elaboration of a post-genetic thinking of life or what Derrida will come to call “life death”, one that anticipates more recent developments in biological epigenesis.

And yet while reading Senatore’s book, as well as Derrida’s seminar itself[ix], it is unclear how Derrida conceives of the relationship between philosophy and science. At certain moments, one gets the impression that Derrida is suggesting that philosophy, in particular deconstruction, can itself theorize certain objects and structures before the biological and life sciences, that is, that it anticipates discoveries and theoretical developments in various scientific fields. This would appear to make deconstruction a kind of science[x]—or a non-philosophical science? At other moments, it appears that the textual structure that necessarily conditions the life sciences as well as any being whatsoever, renders scientific objectivity both possible and impossible. Deconstruction, insofar as it is attuned to the particularities of the trace structure of beings in general, would be a paradoxical non-science of this most general condition of scientificity as such. Or put differently, and this is Senatore’s claim, it is indeed possible to generalize the notion of dissemination that unconsciously guides the text of biology into a quasi-transcendental structure that accounts for all genesis, “from biological to cultural genesis” (2). And in other moments still, Derrida’s position seems to be close to Althusser’s position in his 1967 lecture course Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants, where he explicitly takes up the biological theories of Jacob’s partner, Jacques Monod, in order to argue that there is a salvageable materialist tendency in Monod’s otherwise idealist discourse and that it is the text of philosophy to intervene politically within the scientists to help eliminate unquestioned ideological intrusions that hinder the practice of scientists. But what Althusser takes issue with is precisely Monod’s attempt to generalize his biological findings in order to explain genesis in general. Derrida, for his part, writes in the sixth session of his seminar:

The activity of the scientist, science, the text of genetic science as a whole are determined as products of their object, if you will, products of the life they are studying, textual products of the text they are translating or deciphering or whose procedures of deciphering they are deciphering. And this, which appears as a limit to objectivity, is also—by virtue of the structural law according to which a message can only be translated by the very products of its own translation—the  condition of scientificity, in this domain, of the effectuation of science (and of all the sciences).[xi]

Not surprisingly, this session begins with a reference to Gödel, since once we see textuality as a general structure, a paradox of self-reference immediately arises wherein the biological text studied by the life sciences (the genetic code or inscriptions) necessarily refers to other texts, to a text without a non-textual outside. And it is the paradoxical structure of textuality all the way down, so to speak, that seems to legitimate deconstruction’s capacity to outstrip the sciences, if not at the very least, guide their future researches into the textuality that they necessarily study, and which moreover conditions their object of study, but which the science’s fail to thematize. All of this by way of introduction not to delegitimate Derrida’s project, or Senatore’s remarkable interpretation of it, but rather as serious questions and challenges to attempting to think the relationship between philosophy and science from within a transcendental or post-phenomenological framework.


Senatore’s book begins with an introductory chapter that proposes a reading of Derrida’s 1963 essay “Force and Signification”, in particular, a passage where Derrida refers to the Leibnizian scene of divine creation wherein God necessarily brings about the existence of the best possible world. This will then be linked to the more or less contemporaneous translation and commentary that Derrida published on Husserl’s late manuscript The Origin of Geometry. What Derrida develops across both works is a rethinking of genesis that is fundamentally different from what Senatore, following Derrida, calls the logos spermatikos whose biological analog is preformationism, the doctrine according to which an organism develops out of an initial germ which contains already in itself that which it will only later become. Derrida argues, as is now well-known, that meaning or sense cannot be seen as pre-existing the act of inscription, and, in turn, that the moment of inscription should not merely be seen as an external, secondary, and empirical accident, but rather, as an essential condition of possibility for meaning in general. It is in Husserl’s late writings where Derrida finds the basic structure of a rigorously non-theological and non-classical thinking of genesis. Here, meaning must await its inscription, and does not precede the act of writing. Ideality is thus a result of the process that writing names, “only writing permits the full accomplishment of the ideal objectivity of ideality by unbinding the latter from an actual subjectivity in general” (9). And so if ideality is only produced in some sense retrospectively after the event of writing, genesis must be conceived of as a fundamentally creative and productive, and not as an act of revelation of some pre-existing meaning or essence. Since nothing precedes inscription, there is strictly speaking no ideality without writing. This understanding of a generalized writing, as Derrida will later call it, is what Senatore calls “the most general geneticism” whereby writing is conceived as “the structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis” (14). With Husserl’s account of writing in mind, Senatore turns to the structuralism espoused by Jean Rousset in his reading of Proust, the main subject of Derrida’s “Force and Signification.” It is clear in what way structuralism will necessarily presuppose and repeat the classical scene of Leibnizian creation, which is itself analogous to biological preformationism. The structure of which the work is an expression seems to suggest that literary work is nothing but the fully developed form of what was once a germ latent in the structure itself. In the same way, Leibniz’s God moves from essence to existence, inscribing the former in the latter, and in so doing avoids what Derrida calls the anguish of writing, that is, the necessity of essence being produced not before the act of creation, but only in and by way of the genesis of existence itself. Derrida writes, “the metaphysics implicit in all structuralism, or in every structuralist proposition…always presupposes and appeals to the theological simultaneity of the book, and considers itself deprived of the essential when this simultaneity is not accessible” (19-20). Put differently, the classical notion of genesis makes meaning the result of internal transmission, rather than meaning having to necessarily be constituted as the result of passing through an essential moment of exteriority in the act of writing taken in a general sense, a movement that in turn erases the “externality” of this process of exteriorization.

Senatore then turns to Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” in the first of two chapters on Platonism in order to differentiate Derrida’s notion of dissemination from the Platonic theory of genesis. Like Leibniz’s scene of divine creation, Platonism “tends to annihilate what Derrida identifies as its anagrammatic structure—namely, the site of the concatenation of forms, of the tropic and syntactical movements, which precede and render possible the concatenation or movement of Platonism itself as well as of philosophy in general” (26). Reading Derrida’s famous essay alongside the recently published seminar on Heidegger from 1964-65 Senatore insists upon the necessity of refusing to “tell stories”, that is, to assimilate being and Beings and to nominate one particular being to be the cause or ontic explanation of the origin of beings. Indeed, the early sessions of Derrida’s lecture course are devoted to investigating what he calls “ontic metaphors” and the necessity to think with them—what is needed most of all is not that we simply abandon these metaphors, as if that were possible, but rather think their necessity and introduce new ones into philosophical discourse. The discussion of metaphoricity brings Senatore to a discussion of the notion of a living logos in Plato’s text. Despite Plato’s attempt to describe the genesis of the logos without recourse to an ontic metaphor, the origin of logos is nevertheless inscribed in the zoological and biological metaphor of generation—Plato is necessarily forced to think speech’s difference from writing as the result of the former’s having a father, that is, its being accompanied or even chaperoned by the direct source of its emission. Whereas writing is orphaned, a dead letter left to circulate without the possibility of response and responsibility, the voice is a living logos that can answer directly and respond to all inquiries addressed to it. Senatore writes, “This suggests once more that the structure of the logos constitutes a metaphor borrowed from a certain understanding of the living and thus that the relation to its father (the noble birth, the body proper, etc.) hinges on a genetic and zoological explanation” (34). But Derrida’s argument is stronger: it is not simply that Plato appeals to the metaphor of paternity and biological generation to explain the origin of the logos in the voice of the speaker, but rather that the casual order of determination is precisely relational. The existence of logos produces the familial relation and not the other way around such that “the concepts of the living and of the zoological process of generation are grounded on the concept of logos and on the relationship between the logos and its subject respectively” (35). Now this conception wherein the logos is the logic of the living is precisely what Derrida seeks to rethink. Indeed, the problem is less that metaphors were imported into the text of philosophy whereas they should be ideally left out of it, but rather that the chosen metaphor makes the production of living logos in speech into a general theory of genesis. Turning to later sections of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Senatore convincingly shows that what Derrida sought to uncover was the irreducibility of writing or the anagrammatic structure of the text is itself an even more general geneticism. This is how we should understand Derrida’s famous interpretation of the signifier pharmakon: its inscription in Plato’s text makes it the untranslatable site of a condensation of multiple, contradictory meanings that are necessarily obscured in the moment of translation. Senatore quoting Derrida writes, “The effect of such a translation is most importantly to destroy what we will later call Plato’s anagrammatic writing…and, in the end, quit simply of the very textuality of the translated text” (37). Platonism is then the attempt to suppress the effects of the written trace, which necessarily carries with it these possible deviations and disseminations,  “the irreducible synthesis of grammatical concatenations and stories that make up the grapheme pharmakon constitues the very element of Platonism, the vigil from which it wishes to dissociate itself” (37). We see again that writing, the process of inscription itself, cannot be seen as a derivative or secondary moment in the production of meaning, as if we passed simply from intention to expression in language, but rather meaning is the effect produced by writing. And since writing is taken as the general condition of the production of meaning this means that it necessarily carries within itself, from the very start, the irreducible possibility of its going astray as its essential possibility. Logos spermatikos and logos-zoon are then both attempts by Platonism to neutralize the necessary and aleatory effects of writing, which are in fact the minimal conditions of possibility of all beings: “…the grapheme-seed is the element of linguistics, zoology, politics, and thus of all regional discourses” (44).

Senatore’s second chapter on Platonism turns to a reading of the Derridean notion of khora as developed in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Timaeus. Senatore here makes extensive use of Derrida’s unpublished seminars from 1970-71 (Theory of Philosophical Discourse: Conditions for the Inscription of the Text of Political PhilosophyThe Example of Materialism) and 1985-86 (Comparative Literature and Philosophy: Nationality and Philosophical Nationalism). What is at stake is pushing this previously elaborated thinking of writing to its extreme by considering its implications for the notion of origin.  It is a question of going beyond the opposition of paradigm/copy or father/son to what precedes and makes possible oppositionality as such. Philosophy, as Derrida suggests in the 1970-71 seminar, deals exclusively with the oppositional, but is not able to think what makes oppositions possible in the first instance. But khora names the very condition of these oppositions in general, the very possibility or opening for beings. Quoting Derrida’s unpublished seminar we read, “Being absolutely figurable, the receptacle escapes all figures, it does not let itself be captured by any figure and necessarily exceeds the trope or the representation that are intended for it [quon lui destine]” (60). Senatore will then connect this to Derrida’s final essay on khora wherein the originary opening and receptivity that this Platonic notion is meant to designate is thematized as the minimal condition for understanding history: history is possible only on the basis of the originary openness that khora names, that is, the empirical succession of events that we call history, wherein all thing come to be called historical, presupposes precisely this originary opening and condition of possibility, this formlessness that gives form. And it is here that Senatore suggests that Derrida discovers in Plato’s text a thinking of history irreducible to Platonism. We are no longer thinking in terms of generational succession, of direct and risk-free intergenerational transmission, but rather thinking on the basis of something—though certainly not a being— pre-originary, or as Derrida writes “before and outside all generation” (67). This thinking of the pre-originary, as Derrida understands it, is both the unthought of philosophy, what cannot be thought in the discourse of philosophy, but also philosophy’s necessary excessiveness: “Khora withdraws from the field of philosophy, as meta-philosophical necessity that remains unheard-of or is removed, that bears within itself another thinking of history, the only thinking of the concept and historicity of history” (68).

In the final three chapters Senatore moves on to discuss Hegelianism, that is, Hegel’s philosophical considered as the most radical attempt to think through the textuality of philosophical language that Platonism had denied in order to constitute itself as philosophical discourse (69). Now, according to Derrida in his 1969-70 seminar, his goal is to call “into question what constitutes the essence and telos of philosophy, that is, holding [tenir] the most general discourse, and thus the most independent one, in relation to which particular discourses (determinate domains) would be hierarchically ordered” (70). In other words, it will be an attempt to show the impossibility of philosophy constituting itself as a completely originary and independent discourse, that is to say, one which makes no recourse to metaphoricity or language imported from other discourses. This will in turn make possible a criticism of philosophy as the most general discourse whose task it is to order regional discourses and produce “the sense of sciences” (73). In this way, the concept of life and life of the concept in Hegel repeat the Platonic logos-zoon, which makes not biological reproduction the foundation of all transmission and generation, but rather biological reproduction is understood on the basis of the philosophical logos spermatikos wherein life is understood as “the generation of consciousness and thus as the nonmetaphorical and originary relation between the father and the logos-zoon, as the removal of the mother, self-reproduction, etc.” (73-4). To affirm against this position the Derridean thinking of dissemination or the anagrammatic structure of writing is tantamount to “pointing to a minimal structure (or an element) that would be diffracted into the transcendental signification and the natural one, and thus would remain behind their difference” (79). To think the textuality of the text is thus what Hegel gets closest to doing—after all Hegel is declared in  De la grammatologie the last thinker of the book and the first thinker of writing[xii]—when reflecting upon the speculative nature of the German language, that is, its ability to think with words whose meanings are antithetical. Hegel would then be the first philosopher to consciously accept and affirm the anagrammatic structure that Plato repressed when faced with signifiers such as pharmakon. Aufhebung, for example, is the metaphorical hinge that binds the concept of life and life of the concept together, but what Hegel precisely risks is reducing the generation of life to the generation of the concept and consciousness, in turn repeating the Platonic structure: “the process of Aufhebung, which he [Derrida] understands as the scheme of the organization as well as the development of the Hegelian system, accounts for the solution of the equivocity of philosophical language” (88). In other words, the speculative identity that the signifier Aufhebung establishes between life, concept, and consciousness reduces the irreducible equivocity of language as inscription, of the anagrammatic structure of writing, or the textuality of the text.

Turning to Hegel’s explicit usage of the term germ (der Same), from which the book gets it title, Senatore focuses on Derrida’s reading of Hegel’s natural images and metaphors. It is again the speculative identity between life and concept that allows Hegel to see the movement of the concept as analogous to the development of life from seed to organism that then goes onto produce more seeds. The seed alienates itself in the process of its very development only to return to itself. Hegel’s system functions by building larger and more comprehensive accounts of this same developmental process since spirit too is self-reproducing and returns to itself as shown in the Phenomenology of Spirit. This discussion continues to include Hegel’s image of the family tree and the book of life, in various texts such as The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate and Reason in History. Again, what is at stake is the apparent covering-over by Hegel of his discovery of an irreducible difference, a remainder or excess, that cannot be included into the movement of the concept-life. Senatore goes on to discuss Derrida’s treatment of this issue in the opening text of Dissemination, which questions the role of the preface as traditionally understood. Derrida’s most experimental writing practices were developed in this period as the unorthodox opening “preface” of Dissemination bears many relations to the form and content of Derrida’s Glas that would be published two year later following the contemporaneous seminar La Famille de Hegel. If the traditional preface is intended to prepare the reader for what is to come, to make the future present at the outset, Derrida’s text is meant to draw attention to the work of dissemination as an irreducible or minimal structure as such. Senatore writes: “Dissemination is the name given to a project that he [Derrida] has started elaborating in “Force and Signification…and further developed in Of Grammatology, where he thinks of writing as the general structure of genesis and thus as the element [or minimal structure] of history and life” (132-33). Dissemination is thus what cannot be appropriated in the self-movement of the concept or life since it is the latter’s irreducible condition of possibility. Meaning, as Derrida discovered in Husserl, thus cannot be signaled or indicated in advance (by a preface or pre-text), but must awaits its moment of empirical inscription or embodiment as an “irreducible delay” that Hegel describes as an “external necessity” (121). The preface is then the attempt made by philosopher’s to suture this originary structure of delay that is immanent and necessary to the unfolding of the concept, an attempt to reduce this essential “out-of-jointness” by making the sense of what is to come present in the present, that is, at the origin.

The preface to Hegel’s Science of Logic perfectly encapsulates this tension: it both does not proclaim in advance what is to come, since logic, for Hegel, can only emerge at the end of the text and cannot be seen as an empty formal method that is discovered at the outset and applied throughout. Yet this admission makes the preface itself superfluous in some sense since it is external to the work itself and is excluded from the immanent unfolding of the concept, that is, from the logic itself. But Derrida wants to read this double status of the preface as being itself a figure of the structure of genesis in general, as that element that resists being folded into the logic of the text itself, and yet is structurally necessarily. This discussion leads Senatore to directly address Derrida’s reading of François Jacob’s La Logique du vivant from the unpublished seminar La Vie la mort. Indeed, Derrida’s “Outworking, Prefacing” is thus the “protocol for a non-Hegelian and non-genetic understanding of genesis” (135). Jacob addresses directly, by way of Claude Bernard, the way in which modern biology has reconciled the contradiction between scientific explanation and teleology: the notion of “genetic programme” allows Jacob and other modern biologists to think the developmental logic of an organism as it follows out genetic instructions inscribed in itself. Heredity viewed as a coded program in chemical sequences dissolves the paradox. But for Derrida, this is not the problem. Whether divine creator or genetic inscriptions, both appeal to and are determined by the logos spermatikos insofar as modern biology posits a preformationism without intention. In other words, dissemination, inscription, anagrammatic writing and textuality are once again repressed.

Senatore’s book then quickly concludes by turning to Derrida’s writings on philosophy, philosophical education, and teaching, which were written during a time when educational and pedagogical reforms were being proposed in France. But in the provocative final pages, Senatore analyses Derrida’s reading of Marx in an unpublished GREPH seminar where it is suggested that ideology is produced necessarily as a result of the originality of sexual difference and thus belongs to the “space of biological and natural life” and not to the superstructure as Marxists have typically held (144).


I began this review by suggesting that what makes Senatore’s book so valuable is its insistence on Derrida’s thinking of a general or minimal structure of genesis, and that recent scholarship on Derrida, which is of a very high quality, also has been seeking to reclaim Derrida as an authentic philosopher against the many decades he was appropriated as a literary theorist and critic, a post-modern or post-structuralist thinker of the insuppressible play of meaning and language or who celebrates the absence of universals or essences. Indeed, I think these new readings are not only correct, but necessary. They find in Derrida a strong and essential thinking of what is necessary, or, a thought of the necessary minimal structures and conditions for the existence and experience of beings as such. Senatore’s claim is that Derrida thinks a general or minimal theory of genesis as such, one that accounts for the genesis of anything whatsoever, from cultural products to biological organisms. Yet throughout Senatore insists on the “nonphilosophical”[xiii] nature of Derrida’s deconstruction insofar as it is non-genetic or breaks with the classical idealist conception of the logos spermatikos. But what precisely is nonphilosophical about uncovering an absolutely general condition to which all beings are necessarily submitted? Or making clear this minimal element that is presupposed not only in all previous philosophical discourses, but also in all scientific discourses? Even if this condition is paradoxical, self-effacing, or never fully present. This strikes me as a quite typical gesture of transcendental philosophy, which is constantly seeking more and more minimal, but absolutely necessary structures, that all beings (cultural, biological, or otherwise) conform to in all cases. Recent French thinkers have even pushed this further, for example, Michel Henry, who claims that the supposedly originary difference of someone like Derrida or Deleuze in fact presupposes an even more originary identity or presence that he calls “life.” At the same time, however, Senatore quotes from unpublished seminars where Derrida seems acutely aware of this problem and criticizes philosophers for attempting to organize and hierarchize all other discourses in an attempt to theorize the meaning of sciences in general. Indeed, this was the general problematic of phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger that Derrida was steeped in and in many way ways continues and radicalizes. This, as I understand it, is Derrida’s insight in his La via la mort seminar, namely, that the biological sciences must come to terms with a necessary condition-obstacle, namely writing, that they at once unknowingly theorize (since they had just begun to speak of a “genetic code”) and yet fail to thematize as such for if they were to do so their investigations would have to be fundamentally altered to account for the irreducibility of the trace structure. Only deconstruction provides such an insight and can think science’s unthought conditions of possibility-impossibility.

But there is another philosophical tradition that runs counter to the one that Derrida deconstructs most often, namely, materialism. Rarely does Derrida engage in-depth with Machiavelli, Spinoza, Althusser[xiv], not to mention Marx, Engels, and Lenin and other canonical “Marxist philosophers.” Derrida himself admitted to not understanding Spinoza[xv] and Warren Montag has argued that this supposed distance covers what is in fact an extreme proximity.[xvi] In other words, my hunch is that precisely what Senatore calls the “nonphilosophical” is what, in other circles, simply gets called materialism or to be more precise, and borrowing an expression from Althusser, aleatory materialism. Indeed, Althusser had proposed, in his innovative reading of Marx and Spinoza, as early as 1966 (if not earlier), a renewed materialist conception of the “encounter” [“théorie de la rencontre] or of “conjunction” [théorie de la conjunction] that is fundamentally different from the genetic theory of genesis.[xvii] This thought of a non-genetic genesis was also at work in Machiavelli and Spinoza, Freud too, when he theorized the overdetermination of dream elements. And Althusser will later seek to establish an entire “underground current” of thinkers who belong to this materialist tradition.

None of this is to suggest that Senatore is unaware of these issues. On the contrary, I take it that Senatore is in fact pushing Derrida in the direction of  productive encounter with thinkers like Althusser and philosophical materialism more generally. And this potential encounter to come is perhaps the one best suited for re-thinking the relationship between philosophy and science, that is, to break with the tradition that Derrida has identified according to which it is the task of philosophy to make sense of the sciences for them or to assign to them their ultimate meaning. But to what extent does this effort in Derrida remain restricted, if not stifled, by his Husserlian inheritance? Or by transcendental philosophy more generally? These are questions that I hope will spur further consideration and future philosophical inquiry and Derrida’s inclusion in these debates is highly anticipated.

[i] De la grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967), pg. 19

[ii] See in particular Malabou’s 2005 book La plasticité au soir de l’écriture (Éditions Léo Scheer) as well as her 2004  Que faire de notre cerveau? (Bayard) and more recently Ontologie de l’accident: Essai sur la plasticité destructrice (Léo Scheer, 2009), Avant demain. Épigenèse et rationalité (PUF, 2009) and Métamorphoses de lintelligence: Que faire de leur cerveau bleu? (PUF,  2017).

[iii] I have in mind not only Senatore himself, but also Francesco Vitale, whose 2018 book Biodeconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Life Sciences (SUNY) was translated by Senatore, but also the work of Dawne McCance who is preparing a book on this seminar and has been publicly lecturing on it for some time now.

[iv] The Derrida Seminars Translation Project, consisting mainly of Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington, Elizabeth Rottenberg, David Wills, Michael Naas, and Pascale-Anne Brault, has published translations of Derrida’s final two seminars The Beast and the Sovereign and The Death Penalty, as well as an early seminar on Heidegger and an 1970s seminar Theory and Practice. The English language translation team is also now in charge of preparing the French manuscripts for publication, which will mean a faster rate of publication in both French and English. The La vie la mort seminar will soon be published in French by Éditions du Seuil in the new series “Bibliothèque Derrida”, having been edited scrupulously by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf. The English translation has already been completed by Brault and Michael Naas and is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.

[v] François Jacob, it will be remembered, along with Jacques Monod and André Lwoff, won the nobel prize for medicine in 1965 and wrote La Logique du vivant as a kind of vulgarisation of his award-winning discoveries. Monod will do the same in his book Le Hasard et la Nécessité: Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne.

[vi] See, most recently, Paul M. Livingston’s excellent book The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism (Routledge, 2012) or Christopher Norris’ Derrida, Badiou, and the Formal Imperative (Bloomsbury, 2014).

[vii] The major early philosophical reading is no doubt Rudolph Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Gasché explicitly writes in the opening pages, “Indeed, Derrida’s inquiry into the limits philosophy is an investigation into the conditions of possibility and impossibility of  a type of discourse and questioning that he recognizes as absolutely indispensable” (2).

[viii] For example, in the work of Slavoj Zizek, Adrian Johnston, Frank Ruda, Rebecca Comay, and others.

[ix] The author of the present review had the honor of working on the translation of the first half of this seminar with the Derrida Seminars Translation Project in July 2017.

[x] Indeed, this paradoxical quasi-scientific character, or non-philosophical scientific character of deconstruction was precisely Derrida’s discovery in reading Husserl, namely, that phenomenology is necessarily led to posit writing as the most minimal condition for the historical transmission of ideal meaning, but in so doing, is forced to study a non-present “object”, that is to say, one that puts into question the very notion of objectivity as such. Derrida reiterates this logic in the beginning of the section “De la grammatologie comme une science positive”, where he suggests that the possibility of grammatology being a science, a science of writing or traces, rests upon its own impossibility since it would shake or make tremble (ébranler) the very concept of science itself (see page 109).

[xi] My translation.

[xii] De la grammatologie, pg. 41. This quotation is preceded by the claim that Hegel, despite appearing as, in some sense, the metaphysical teleological thinker par excellence, he is “also the thinker of irreducible difference.”

[xiii] Senatore uses this language on pages xii, 57, 63, 69, and 143.

[xiv] The recent publication in French and forthcoming translation of Derrida’s 1976-77 Théorie et pratique seminar certainly changes this. But for as much as Derrida engages with Althusser here, the seminar ultimately turns on a reading of Heidegger and the question of techne.

[xv] “Dialogue entre Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe et Jean-Luc Nancy.” Rue Descartes 2006/2 (no. 52), pg. 95.

[xvi] “Immanence, Transcendence, and the Trace: Derrida Between Levinas and Spinoza.” Badmidbar: a Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 2, Autumn 2011.

[xvii] See Althusser’s text from September 1966 “Sur la genèse”, where he explicitly attacks the genetic theory of genesis where the result is contained “en germe in the origin. Available through décalages: