Jean Luc Marion: On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism

On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism Book Cover On Descartes’ Passive Thought: The Myth of Cartesian Dualism
Jean-Luc Marion. Translated and with an Introduction by by Christina M. Gschwandtner
University of Chicago Press
2018
Cloth $50.00
304

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Drummond Young (University of Edinburgh)

In her introduction, translator Christina Gschwandtner says that that this work represents ‘the pinnacle of the conversation between Descartes and phenomenology in Marion’s work’. Jean- Luc Marion is a foremost French phenomenologist and it should be no surprise that Descartes is, and has been, a source of great inspiration to him. The father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, used Descartes’ method of doubt which involved the excluding of all but the most certain propositions about the world, as the starting point for his own methodology of the epoche. The main difference between Marion’s earlier writings on Descartes and this book is that in the earlier writings Marion used both Husserl and Heidegger to throw light on an interpretation of Descartes. Here, he is directly engaging with Descartes’ text to show him in the light of contemporary phenomenology, where Marion has been a major contributor over many years.

In this book, which will be his last on Descartes he declares, Marion explores the sixth Meditation as a central concern, but he also relies on textual analyses of other writings, such as The Passions of the Soul. He defends Descartes from the usual criticisms of a straightforward mind/body dualist position, but more importantly gives a reading of Descartes as a modern phenomenologist, with a view of the embodied self as a thinking and feeling being. It is this being which is capable of the ‘passive thought’ referred to in the title of the book.

Marion is keen to explore the relationships between soul/mind and body, and body and flesh as conceived in the phenomenological sense which emerge in the text of the Meditations. The ‘passive thought’ referred to in the title is the thinking that is experienced both by the combined soul/mind and body of the subject( which is not to be considered as a combintion of two primitive notions, but a completely distinct and self- contained third primitive notion) and by the intellectual ego which is able to reflect on itself.  (A reminder is useful here that the verb ‘penser’ used in the first version of the famous Cogito had a wider meaning in the 17th century French than strict cognition. It was a verb which covered the experience of emotions, feelings and attitudes, for example). In other writings of his own philosophy, Marion has made much of the distinction between ‘my body’ and ‘my flesh’ and he wants to suggest that this important distinction is also implicit in Descartes’ writings, where the third primitive notion of my whole self is effectively ‘my flesh’.  In a further development, Marion, who is known for his key concept ‘the saturated phenomenon’ is able to read examples of such phenomena from Descartes’ Passions of the Soul through this idea of the person as ‘flesh’ combined with the auto-affectivity of the intellectual ego.

In the first chapter, Marion raises the difficulties posed by the sixth Meditation. It seems to stand on its own, rather than being a conclusion or summing up of the previous Meditations. Descartes himself reinforces this idea by suggesting that the first five Meditations and their objections be read together and then, and only then should the reader approach the sixth. The sixth Meditation raises two main issues, the existence of material things in the world exterior to the ‘thinking thing’ on which Descartes has elaborated in earlier Meditations, and the real distinction between the mind and the body and whether there is another notion, a union between these two. Descartes seems to concede that the argument employed in the sixth Meditation is less coherent than in the previous Meditations. Marion wonders whether this is because in the last meditation he has finally faced up to the difficulties posed by his earlier conclusions about the existence of a benevolent God and the separation of body and mind and the implications this might have for this third notion of ‘my whole self’ – the embodied self.

Marion poses the following questions about this sixth Meditation. Firstly, is my body included within the material things whose existence is in question for Descartes? Second, is Descartes trying to establish a distinction between body and mind or a union thereof? Third, what is the nature of this unified thing? Fourth, is the proof given for the existence of material things in the Sixth Meditation of the same nature/quality as those given in earlier Meditations?  He sets about answering these questions in the following chapters.

In the second chapter, Marion concentrates on textual analysis to show that Descartes firstly distinguishes knowledge of my body from other bodies (which are part of the group of material things whose existence must be proved). No such proof is required of my body, claims Marion. Further, and importantly for Marion, it is not just the case that Descartes recognises that we have special knowledge of our own body which enables it to be excluded from the doubters’ gaze, it is also the case that my body is in some way  part of the ‘thinking subject’ at the heart of the Cogito. Marion concedes that Descartes does not label the first of these distinctions as the difference between body and flesh as modern writers have done. (In fact, Marion suggests that Spinoza may have come close to making this distinction as well as Descartes in nearly explicit terms). There is a further problem in that this distinction between my body and others’ bodies comes near the start of the Sixth Meditation, which puts the structure of Descartes’ argument in a different order from the other Meditations – the conclusion being stated before the argument

Marion has thus distinguished my body with which I have a special relationship (and thus which has a special place in the world and does not form part of the world of material things) from the psychosomatic entity that is the thinking self which is the both my intellect and my flesh. It is this psychosomatic entity which is capable of passive thought. Importantly it is also capable of suffering and principally in registering a lack of bodily needs such as hunger, thirst and so on. The psychosomatic entity needs the body for this to make sense.

Marion considers whether Descartes took for granted the distinction between ‘my body’ and the bodies of others, where ‘my body’ is not just one external object amongst others but stands in a special relationship to me. (By extension, this might mean that my body might form part of the ‘I’ which certainly exists and would give Marion the platform he needs to support the thesis that Descartes has a notion of passive thought which relies on the thinking ‘I’ and the close relationship with my body.) Whether this special relationship is one which can be characterised as the distinction between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ in the fully developed sense as used by many modern philosophers is put on hold at this stage.

Marion claims that there is textual evidence for Descartes recognising the distinction between my body and other external objects such as other bodies in an incomplete early work (early 1630s) ‘The Search for Truth’, which takes the form of a dialogue. Marion suggests that one of the characters, Polyander, sows the seeds for the distinction between doubting that other bodies exist and that my own body exists. ‘I cannot deny absolutely that I have a body’ says Polyander (my italics). He also makes the comment that ‘I am not quite my body’. There is much confusion and ambiguity here as Marion points out, but there is at least not the outright denial that my own body is or might be some part of the ‘I’ which exists conclusively even in the face of familiar arguments such as madness, dreaming and an evil spirit and fashioned by a loving God.

The connection between ‘sensing’ and ‘thinking’ is raised. ‘Sensing’ that it is I that is dreaming or having experiences does not seem to rely on having a body with the five senses (so it might be acceptable to deny the existence of my body in a basic sense) It is certainly more than simply just thinking. This form of sensing leads the ego back to itself, as Marion puts it, to ‘a self-sensing of itself that is more primordial than any sensing of an object’.

Marion concludes that by the time Descartes came to write the Meditations, the distinction between my body and other external bodies was clear to him. Descartes recognised that there is more to putting my body to the sceptical tests than there is to putting other external bodies to such tests.  Denying the existence of one’s own body with all the sensory input so close at hand is a much harder task and prone to an admission of folly, rather than the more easily assimilated test that other bodies do not exist. But even if I admit that all the close sensory experience which I might have is as apparent to me in a dream as it is when I am awake, this simply shows that my sensations and feelings which have bodily manifestations are not reliant on the external world. It does not show that the body which has these experiences, which ‘senses’ and ‘feels’ does not itself exist. Marion concludes that it is the external things of the world, the ‘other bodies’ which are put to the sceptical sword, with the sixth Meditation finally confirming (in Marion’s interpretation at least) the my body is a distinct entity from the external things which are being questioned in this Meditation and that my body exists because it partakes in the sensing which is part of the cogito, the thinking ‘I’.

 The Cartesian ego is thus not just a thinking thing: it has a multiplicity of modes, states Marion and it is a failure to understand this that has led to an extended misunderstanding of Descartes’ position: it has led to his being the mind/body dualist par excellence of philosophy teaching in the analytic world. The modal multiplicity of the Cartesian ego is made clear when Descartes responds to his self-posed question ‘but what then am I?’  The answer comes back: ‘A things that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling and also imagines and has sensory perceptions’. The doubting was made clear in the first Meditation, understanding in the second, affirming and denying in the third, whilst the fourth deals with the will, the fifth with imagination and the sixth with sensory perception. My body in the sense of meum corpus turns out to be the shape of the Cartesian ego for Marion because it guarantees auto affectivity – the capability for the ego to sense itself.

Marion proceeds in the next chapter to  consider how to incorporate this principle of meum corpus (that Descartes recognised as his ‘flesh’ in modern phenomenological terms) with the other two principles (or primitive notions as Marion calls them) which emerge from the Meditations: the thinking ‘ego’ and the existence of God as the first cause: both of these stop the hyperbolic doubt.  Meum corpus is the ‘flesh’ which can sense itself (through passive thought rather than ratiocination). Marion charts the history of Descartes’ ego; in the early Rules, the ego is set up as the basis for understanding a science of objects; it is the foundation for acknowledging the existence of the external world. In the later Meditations, the mode of the ego is slightly different: it is an ontic and final principle of the metaphysics of infinity, claims Marion. But with the meum corpus, the ego now becomes capable of passive thought. Marion considers how the meum corpus can be a primitive notion in Descartes’ scheme, when it would seem to rely on an interaction between something immaterial (the mind, soul) interacting with a material body (the body rather than the flesh). Here Marion points to several examples in Descartes’ correspondence where he explains that we know that the mind can interact with the body (give instructions for movement and so on) through experience: we just know that there is a simple basic relationship between our thoughts and what happens to our body. Does this union which is acknowledged by all create a new substance – my flesh? If so, how does that escape the problems engendered by the hyperbolic doubt? There is a difference Descartes concludes between the body which can be described in physical terms as having a certain shape, size and so on and the body which is the matter which is inextricably linked with a man’s soul. (Would an example of the difference be a phantom limb story? On the second description – the body would include the now materially absent limb).

In the fourth and fifth chapters, Marion explains that this notion of meum corpus – this special union between the soul and the body forming the third primitive notion – is not obvious or even admissible to Descartes’ readers, because Descartes did not have the metaphysical vocabulary to describe it – it had not been developed. In particular, the scholastic term substantia causes problems. Marion claims that whilst Descartes is forced into using substantia in getting his idea of this primitive notion across to interlocutors such as Hobbes and Gassendi, it simply gets him into problems. Descartes wants to start with the meum corpus as a primitive notion, not one which can be arrived at through using the traditional scholastic vocabulary. In the end, he is forced back into using simple explanations and vocabulary, as in the following key explanation of the meum corpus:

‘The body does not think, except under the heading of corpus humanum taken on in the union. The res cogitans would not think if it did not also think passively, thus it would not think truly and completely in all of its modes, if it did not also think in the union.’ (173)

Marion’s final chapter extends the discussion of passive thought by his reading and discussion of Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul. Passive thought comes to be important in both moral and theological themes, suggest Marion. In this work, Descartes moves on from the traditional scholastic view of the passions, which arrive unbidden to act upon us in both a bodily and mental way. Any form of Stoicism would normally seek to repress the passions, but Descartes seeks to consider the passions as part of an early development of virtue ethics. Two sorts of passive thought are involved, according to Marion. The first involves the meum corpus which acts upon our minds so that our thinking selves do not just have ‘willed thoughts’ but passive thoughts too, which enable us to imagine, doubt and so on. We also ‘sense ourselves’ through this union of the thinking self and the meum corpus.

The second sort of passive thought is one which takes place entirely within the thinking self, although the effects of this thought will be felt throughout the whole of the extended self to include the meum corpus. Marion examines this in the context of Descartes’ analysis of the virtue of generosity.

Marion claims that Descartes’ view of this virtue relies on passive thinking. Generosity involves a recognition of the good activities of the will and a reflection on the self; a form of self-esteem and auto-affectivity, which is then followed by the recognition that this is a universal trait, so that we come to have esteem for others. Generosity is then fostered by this realisation. Indeed, passions can become ‘habits of virtue’ which can rely on this passive thought and are given a physiological support derived from meum corpus. We feel good when we do good, in short.

This self-reflection as passive thought has an important role to play in love, claims Marion. (Readers of Marion’s The Erotic Phenomenon will recognise themes here). Once we have a ‘fix’ on ourselves through self- reflection, we can begin to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole (joined with the object of our love).We can assess how much of ourselves to give to this greater whole and also learn to care for this new ‘whole’ (perhaps we could consider it the relationship formed between two people who love each other) rather more than we care for ourselves.

Marion’s book is not an easy read. The translation into English is awkward (not necessarily the fault of the translator – Marion’s style does not move easily from French idiom to English). There are many long quotations in Latin in the body of the text and footnotes are extensive and plentiful. If Descartes’ argument is hard to follow in the Sixth meditation, so is Marion’s interpretation. Many of the themes in the book are covered more coherently and helpfully in anglophone philosophy (For example, in several articles in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes’ Meditations or by the philosopher John Cottingham to whom Marion refers).

Marion has the original idea of turning Descartes into a thoroughly modern phenomenologist, however. He achieves this through his suggestion that Descartes has an idea of the self as ‘flesh’ or meum corpus, which takes in information from the outside world at all levels and this can be used both in the ordinary way of life and, as Marion makes clear in the last chapter, for the development of virtue as well.  The discussion of Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul in the last chapter is an interesting development of Marion’s idea of passive thought, using not only the notion of the ‘flesh’, but also extending the idea of the thinking self so that it too is capable of passive thought.  Norman Kemp Smith in his book New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes (1952) titled the final chapter of his survey of Descartes ‘Descartes as Pioneer’. Marion certainly would agree that Descartes was a pioneer with a modern conception of the self, providing plenty of material for modern day phenomenologists and personalist philosophers alike.

Giorgio Lando: Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction

Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction Book Cover Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction
Giorgio Lando
Bloomsbury
2017
Paperback $35.96
237

Reviewed by: Anton Killin (Australian National University)

Mereology is the philosophical study of parthood and composition. These are fairly commonplace relations. My legs are part of my body; the handle is part of the mug; Stewart Island is part of New Zealand. Canis Minor comprises two observable celestial bodies, Gomeisa and Procyon (itself a binary star system). Like all stars, Gomesia is composed of gases, mostly hydrogen and helium. The philosophical project is of course not concerned with creating a catalogue of the parts of things (although perhaps some philosophers will engage in conceptual analysis, reflective equilibrium, experimental philosophy, etc., to settle specific ‘compositional’ questions—a toy example being whether we ought consider, say, the ice cubes in the glass a proper part of the cocktail or not), but to inquire into the nature of the two relations, parthood and composition. Indeed, this is the ‘narrow’ understanding of mereology that Giorgio Lando adopts in Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction. Accordingly, mereological inquiry “is only about the formal features of the relation of parthood, and about identity and existence conditions for wholes” (p. 2, emphasis in original). Thus Lando leaves debate about other concepts in the vicinity such as essentiality, dependence, supervenience, and so on, to other areas of metaphysics. (I shall set aside questions about whether this move is legitimate or not—I will simply follow Lando’s narrowing of mereology’s domain in his book given its aims and scope.)

In the book, Lando introduces, motivates, and defends a theory about parthood and composition. It is not a novel theory, but a sensible tweak of the view dominant in twentieth century analytic philosophy, Classical Extensional Mereology (CEM), associated with Nelson Goodman, W.V.O. Quine, and David Lewis, among others. Despite its great influence (and its rejection by many contemporary scholars), this is the first book-length exposition and defence of CEM, filling a significant gap in the literature. The writing is clear and accessible, and thus the book deserves its subtitle; I cannot think of a better in-road into modern analytic mereology for the uninitiated reader than via an extended consideration of CEM. That said, there is also much in the book for the initiated. Participants in the debate will want to respond to Lando’s defence of CEM and thought-provoking critique of purportedly intuitive counterexamples.

CEM is the thesis that (1) parthood is transitive (i.e., if A is part of B, and B is part of C, then A is part of C), and (2) given some things, there is a unique thing composed by them. The first conjunct is thus the principle of transitivity applied to parthood; the second is the conjunction of the principles of uniqueness of composition and unrestricted composition. Lando articulates these latter two principles as follows: “given some things, there is at most one thing composed by them” and “no matter how heterogenous and disparate they are, there is at least one thing composed by them” (p. 1; emphasis mine). CEM is usually intended to be a unitary, exhaustive theory of composition and parthood (which has led Kit Fine to dub it ‘mereological monism’). However, Lando restricts its scope to concreta. Fair enough. In my view (admittedly, a nominastically inclined view), for any theory of mereology to be plausible it must do well when it comes to physical objects, first. I’ll return to this point later.

CEM is widely attributed to David Lewis, given his comments in his 1991 book, Parts of Classes. Lando’s defence, however, is not a mere recapitulation of Lewis’s views, since Lando and Lewis part ways on several key issues. Indeed, Lando takes these points of departure to be stances where Lewis’s version “stand at the basis of the discredit into which mereological monism has fallen” (p. 7). First, Lando disagrees that mereology is a logical doctrine. Of course, mereological theses can be axiomatised and expressed in some logical framework, but Lando points out that this does not identify mereology with logic. This issue is discussed in chapters 3 and 10.

Second, Lando emphasises mereological controversies, against Lewis’s claim that mereology is unproblematic, certain, perfectly understood. Plausibly, Lewis is best interpreted as making a normative claim: i.e., “that mereological monism should not be a topic of philosophical controversy” (p. 9). Lando argues that this normative claim too is wrong. The main purpose of the book, Lando writes, is to provide “an in-depth analysis and balanced assessment of mereological monism”, within a nominalistic framework that is “not everyone’s cup of tea” (p. 9).

Third, Lando disagrees about the application of CEM to abstracta. As noted, he explicitly restricts his application of CEM to spatiotemporal, concrete entities. After all, abstract entities (if they exist) are finicky. It is all too easy to use alleged abstracta to violate some mereological principle: one simply stipulates that some abstracta violates it. Lando hopes to show in the book that “abstract entities are both the most difficult and the least important field of application of mereological monism, and there is nothing surprising in the fact that counterexamples to mereological principles can be found among abstract entities. Concrete entities are the decisive field of application for mereological monism” (p. 10). Hear, hear.

To be sure, despite his nominalist leaning, Lando does not outright deny the existence of all abstract entities. After all, debate about which (if any) abstracta exist falls outside Lando’s narrow conception of mereology. Rather, Lando concedes a restriction of the application of CEM to concreta. This is probably the right move for Lando to make. So, “the general thesis of the book is that Classical Extensional Mereology is a highly general theory of parthood and composition. Analogously, mereological monism is understood as the thesis that there is only one highly general theory of parthood and composition. Given these stipulations about terms such as ‘general’ and ‘monism’, the difficulties of mereological monism in the realm of abstract entities do not defeat it” (p. 11; emphasis in original). This is discussed in chapters 5, 8, 12 and 13.

Fourth, and finally, Lando departs from Lewis with respect to the Composition As Identity thesis. As far as Lando is concerned, Lewis’s contention that composition is (like) identity is not an integral part of a defence of CEM and nor is it constitutive of CEM. Although the Composition As Identity thesis has engendered an increasing literature, of which much is orthogonal to a defence of CEM, Lando aims to show that CEM can be presented and defended without a foray into identity, and without “its typical, obscure, tendentiously circular jargon according to which a whole is ‘nothing over and above its parts’, or ‘a whole and its parts are the same portion of reality’” (p. 12). This issue is discussed in the appendix, where Lando argues that the Composition As Identity thesis conflicts with his narrow conception of mereology. The idea is this: “Insofar as Leibniz’s Law is a constitutive principle of identity, to claim that a whole is identical to its parts is to claim either that they share all or some of their properties or that something similar is the case (e.g., that the features of a whole determine the features of its parts, and vice versa). This consequence has nothing to do with the formal features of parthood, and with the identity and existence conditions for wholes” (p. 12). Thus the Composition As Identity thesis “runs counter to the need to separate the explanatory scope of mereological monism from other areas of metaphysics” (p. 13).

So, in summary, Lando supports CEM—the thesis that parthood is transitive and that given some things, there is a unique thing composed by them—i.e., the general mereological framework associated with Lewis, except to say “mereology is not logic, but a problematic metaphysical doctrine; it fails to work for many abstract entities; and we should not say that a whole is identical to its parts. Still, mereological monism is a defensible and promising metaphysical doctrine about concrete entities. This—I contend—is the interesting core of mereological monism” (p. 13).

The book is split into three parts: The Methodology of Mereological Monism (Part One), Extensionalism (Part Two), and Unrestricted Composition (Part Three). I briefly outline each in turn.

Part One (chapters 1-4) explains what CEM, understood as a highly general thesis about composition and parthood, is all about, with an eye on methodological issues. In chapter 1, Lando notes the ambiguous nature of the English lexeme ‘part’ and its cognates. Lando places several constraints on parthood’s formal characterisation by considering some intuitive presuppositions about what it is to be part of something, in the literal sense; he distinguishes genuine, literal parthood (i.e., what mereologists are concerned with) from merely metaphorical parthood (e.g., when lovers proclaim they are both ‘part of’ one another) and other cousins of the notion of parthood at stake in mereological debate (e.g., selective parthood).

Chapter 2 explains why mereology matters: for example, mereological theses place constraints on, and can be used to refute, various metaphysical positions. Taking seriously certain mereological theses also restricts the range of available solutions to various philosophical puzzles. To give just one example that Lando mentions, David Lewis famously argued that set membership is not parthood, given that set membership violates the principle of transitivity, an essential aspect of CEM. The general idea goes as follows. Let L be the set of all Low records (the album by David Bowie), and let DB be the set of all sets of David Bowie records (which thus includes L, and also H, the set of all Heathen’s, E, the set of all Earthling’s, and so on). My copies of Low and Heathen are members of L and H, respectively, but they are not thereby members of DB. Indeed, DB has no records as members whatsoever, but sets. This refutes the hypothesis that set membership is formally equivalent to genuine, literal parthood (at least, if we are operating under CEM’s jurisdiction; that is, taking seriously CEM constrains the identity and existence conditions for wholes: having members is not identical to having proper parts).

Chapter 3 is a foray into formality, explicating connections between mereology and formal ontology, and distinguishing various characterisations of formality. Chapter 4 discusses several key concepts (transitivity, reflexivity, and antisymmetry) standardly taken to be features of the parthood relation. Again, take transitivity, an essential feature of genuine parthood, according to CEM. Lando discusses some potential counterexamples; firstly, the idea due to Nicholas Rescher that according to biologists, a mitochondrion is a part of a cell, the cell is a part of a tissue, but the mitochondrion is not a part of the tissue. Lando puts the apparent force of this objection down to a curious feature of the English language. He suggests that removing the indefinite article preceding ‘part’ clears things up: “the mitochondrion is part of the tissue”; after all, “it is in it in a spatial sense” (p. 48, emphasis mine). Transitivity is preserved. Secondly: “The left arm of a Kemalist MP is part of her; the Kemalist MP is part of the parliament. But it seems definitely wrong to claim that the arm is part of the parliament” (p. 49, emphasis in original). The contention that this is an intuitive counterexample, Lando claims, is due to the polysemy of ‘parliament’ (e.g., the building wherein MPs discuss matters, or the social institution of parliament). Note that on whichever equivocation one has in mind, the claim is no longer a viably sensible one about genuine parthood. Alternatively, if ‘parliament’ is taken to mean set of parliamentary members, then we are back in the set theoretic domain of membership, not the mereological domain of parthood. And Lando says set membership “seems to work exactly as the relation between an MP and its parliament” (p. 50). This seems sensible enough to me.

Part Two (chapters 5-9) considers the uniqueness of composition—the principle that given some things, there is at most one thing that all of these things compose—and extensionalism—the connected idea that complex (i.e., multi-part) entities that comprise the same proper parts are numerically identical. Uniqueness of composition implies extensionalism, but not vice versa.

In chapter 5, Lando connects extensionalism to his nominalistic framework. According to the framework adopted, structure is not part of an entities’ composition. The pile of playing cards on my bookshelf comprises 52 cards; were I to build a house of cards, I would not have thereby brought something new into existence (contra mereological pluralists who wish to preserve some variety of realism about structure). The card-house and card-pile are composed of the same parts; they are the same complex entity, just with a different spatial arrangement at different temporal stages. Structure, then, is ‘safely obliterated’. Lando distinguishes his approach from Nelson Goodman’s, and argues that CEM respects Kit Fine’s four principles of obliteration (absorption, collapse, levelling, and permutation).

Chapter 6 distinguishes the uniqueness of composition from extensionalism, and discusses some cases in which the two diverge (so-called ‘fake’ ways of respecting extensionalism but not uniqueness of composition). Thus Lando introduces the reader to the useful Hasse diagram machinery. In chapter 7, Lando argues that alleged counterexamples (ones in which a structured entity and its co-located portion of matter are concerned: e.g., the infamous ‘statue and clay’ example) are reconcilable with extensionalism. The literature on these sorts of cases is massive. Lando argues that as far as these cases are concerned, either some given structured entity and its co-located portion of matter are not in fact distinct (but—following Lewis—can be thought of from different perspectives which select for different modal profiles when considering different counterfactual situations, or which make certain properties—e.g., aesthetic properties—salient), or that they are non-identically composed after all (and thus there is a difference with respect to their parts). He then argues that controversial cases involving change over time, like the Ship of Theseus, do not pose special problems for extensionalism. And in chapter 8, Lando distances extensionalism as a plausible principle about concreta from being a plausible principle about abstracta. He outlines several strategies for reconciling abstracta (e.g., linguistic types) with extensionalism: deny the existence of the abstract entity at stake, deny that the entity is abstract, deny that the entity is involved in the parthood relation at all, or revise the application of parthood so that extensionalism is not violated. Non-extensionally composed abstract objects, were they to exist, would pose a remaining problem for Lando’s view, and he concedes as much. Chapter 9 explores some alternative (non-classical, non-extensional) mereological theories. Lando concludes that although some of these theories are “technically irreproachable and relatively conservative” (p. 65), they are otherwise not well motivated.

An aside: when I began reading this book I assumed that Part Three would be where Lando and I part ways. I can accept parthood’s transitivity and Lando’s nominalism, and the counterexamples to extensionalism/uniqueness of composition do not move me. However, unrestricted composition—the principle that no matter how disparate/heterogeneous some given collection of things are, there is something that these things compose—is, pretheoretically at least, outright bizarre (not to mention overly ontologically profligate). To his merit, Lando goes a long way to offset this worry. My main complaint will be the short shrift given to alternatives, especially mereological nihilism.

In Part Three, then, Lando considers the various arguments in favour of unrestricted composition and finds them convincing. He also analyses, and finds unconvincing, the kind of objection mentioned above: that unrestricted composition is exasperatingly counterintuitive. The defender of CEM need not think that there is any interesting or salient entity that is composed of, say, Big Ben and my red pen. That entity is neither spatially continuous nor causally efficient. But, the idea goes, claiming that these two parts compose something is perhaps little more odd than the idea that Procyon (11.46 light years from Earth) and Gomesia (162 light years from Earth) compose something: Canis Minor. But because Canis Minor is listed in Ptolemy’s 48 constellations (and for other reasons), I for one find it interesting (even though it is not spatially continuous or causally efficient). I cannot say the same for Ben-pen (reluctantly supplying a specific natural-language sortal predicate for this mereological fusion). But perhaps this is a contingent matter.

Mereological fusion can thus be thought of as a function (or, in Goodman’s terminology, a ‘generating relation’) from parts to wholes. CEM does not require of wholes that they “play any explanatory role, participate in causal links, or play any role in an exhaustive description of the world” (p. 193). Wholes do not “instantiate any interesting, autonomous properties. They would inherit the properties of their parts” (p. 193). If a window were to get hit by a cricket ball, it would be redundant to claim that it was hit by something in addition to the arrangement of its parts; the ball and the parts that comprise the ball are co-located. There is no additional matter that CEM claims exists as well as the whole’s parts—so as far as physical stuff is concerned, the principle of unrestricted composition is not as ontologically profligate as some might think (indeed, Lewis thinks of his version, which includes an additional commitment to the Composition As Identity thesis, as ontologically innocent; wholes on this view are an ‘ontological free lunch’, to use David Armstrong’s expression), and is happily compatible with nominalism (it does not say anything about what kinds of entities exist, just that of the things that exist, any combination forms a mereological whole). Since Lando’s theory does not include a commitment to the Composition As Identity thesis, it may turn out on his view that unrestricted composition is less ontologically innocent than Lewis supposes: on the list of things that exist, we might need to include the cricket ball in addition to all of its parts (and in addition to all of the possible merelogical sums of its various parts, and so on), violating the eleatic principle. The proof will be in the pudding. Nonetheless, about allegedly intuitive counterexamples to unrestricted composition, note that just as using the word ‘car’ allows us to pick out a familiar object composed of various parts, using the expression ‘Ben-pen’, then, allows us to pick out a (less commonsensible, admittedly) entity composed of parts. The difference is just that we would not be inclined to talk about Ben-pen outside of philosophical discourse. Indeed, Lando admits that the principle of unrestricted composition vindicates all manner of “heterogeneous and redundant entities that are never to be mentioned outside of philosophy” (p. 193). That said, Ben-pen, trout-turkeys and car-bouquets “could become relevant, and begin to fall under certain sortal predicates” (p. 199).

Chapter 10 provides Lando’s preferred way of formalising unrestricted composition (i.e., with plural quantification) and distinguishes it from less perspicuous alternatives. Chapter 11 clarifies Lando’s definition of ‘fusion’ and provides a discussion of its formulation in first-order logic. Chapter 12 considers some counterexamples to unrestricted composition (à la Ben-pen), and chapter 13 provides an argument in support of it (largely following the ideas of Lewis, Sider, Quine, and Donald Williams—the ‘argument from vagueness’) according to which mereology should be neutral. It shouldn’t distinguish between ‘interesting’ fusions like mugs and people and Canis Minor and ‘uninteresting’ ones like Ben-pen. The basic idea comes from Lewis. If you accept that things have parts, and that parts comprise wholes, there is no precise, non-arbitrary stopping point. Now, ‘Big Ben exists’ is not a vague sentence; “nothing in the sentence that expresses the existence of a fusion is vague. By contrast, the conditions under which we would want to restrict composition are vague: this means that these conditions cannot be satisfied” (p. 180, emphasis in original), because although certain predicates are vague, existence is not. Chapter 14 wraps up by discussing some upshots for non-Quinean metaontology.

Let’s say that you agree with Lando that composition can’t be non-arbitrarily restricted. You might still reject unrestricted composition, by denying that composition is a relation that is ever instantiated. The main opponents of unrestricted composition are mereological nihilists, who say just this (or something very close to it). According to Peter van Inwagen, chairs do not exist—only the mereological atoms (‘simples’) exist. A so-called chair is thus merely simples-arranged-chairwise. (Likewise, so-called Ben-pen is merely simples-arranged-Ben-penwise). For van Inwagen, living entities are a non-arbitrary, principled exception to mereological nihilism; on his view, composition only occurs in organisms. The pros and cons of this move cannot be discussed here. For Theodore Sider, composition does not even occur then. For Sider, the only wholes are the limit case (i.e., a simple is a whole, comprising only itself)—no objects with proper parts exist. Mereological nihilism is not directly opposed to transitivity or the uniqueness of composition (these being trivially true according to the view), just unrestricted composition. Other mereological positions claim that composition is restricted in a rather brutal way, or that existence is vague, to mention a few. Lando does not push against these views, “partly due to space constraints and partly because the motivations and the articulation of these stances do not belong to mereology [as a discipline] according to the narrow understanding of it” (p. 199). This is unfortunate.

Take mereological nihilism. Lando says that it “requires a massive strategy of reconciliation with our referential and cognitive practices, which seem to involve lots of complex entities with parts, and perhaps no mereological atom at all” (p. 199). Yet it’s not obvious to me why it can be so easily cast aside in a book-length treatment of mereological monism. Many theorists distinguish between the ‘manifest image’ of, say, a table, and the ‘scientific image’. We are all aware that tables are made up of ‘simples’ (fundamental particles, or whatever is there at the fundamental level) and are thus mainly empty space, and yet we percieve the table as a solid object and refer to it as such. That’s fine, and is by and large part of ‘folk knowledge’ these days. And it might be more straightforward to reconcile just how we perceive and refer to middle-sized ordinary objects like tables and chairs with nihilism than Lando supposes. If perceiving a chair and referring to it with the term ‘chair’ are re-described in light of the scientific image as perception of, and reference to, the ‘manifestation’ of simples-arranged-chairwise, mereological nihilism comes off as less revisionary. It need not matter that we don’t directly perceive the fundamental particles themselves. (Of course I admit a much more sophisticated discussion is needed than this to fully allay Lando’s worries, but also it is true that CEM has revisionary implications!)

There is the thought that we have no need to posit a commonsense entity in addition to what the scientific image tells us is there: arrangements of fundamental entities. Simples arranged tablewise do the same causal work that tables do; tables, that is, are casually redundant. And by getting rid of tables from their ontology, nihilists can appeal to a principle of parsimony. Since Lando avoids commitment to the Composition As Identity thesis, he may be committed to the existence of tables in addition to simples-arranged-tablewise, and yet, this commitment appears redundant: the simples arranged tablewise (the entities that the scientific image vindicates) do all of the explanatory and causal work that tables do, and have scientific credentials. If composition is identity, then wholes are an ontological free lunch, but one’s ontology is just as good without them. And if composition is not identity, there is good reason to cut mereological wholes from our ontology. A commitment to wholes begins to look suspect, one might think.

So is nihilism the better option? I can’t here adjudicate on this issue further. The literature on alternatives to CEM is vast after all. But deciding which side to come down on seems to be a matter of one’s intuitions and balancing of theoretical virtues. Both mereological nihilism and CEM are counterintuitive theories: nihilism denies the existence of tables (unlike CEM), but at least it doesn’t vindicate Ben-pen (as CEM does). Defending brutalism or the vagueness of existence comes with other unsavoury implications. And so the debate in the literature has turned largely metametaphysical: about whether (say) parsimony is an appropriate theoretical virtue for deciding between various options, and about whether it is appropriate to demand a fact-of-the-matter answer to the question of whether wholes exist. But these questions, of course, are beyond Lando’s intended scope.

Time to wrap up. Lando’s Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction introduces, motivates, and defends a tweaked version of an influential thesis, CEM, in the domain of concrete entities. And this Lando does extraordinarily well. The book would well suit a higher-level undergraduate course on mereology (probably supplemented with a reading or two on mereological nihilism, brutalism, etc.) or a postgraduate seminar focused on the prospects and pitfalls of CEM. Its clarity and depth of explanation would be welcomed by students and instructors alike.

Francesco Vitale: The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture

The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture Book Cover The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture
Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory
Francesco Vitale. Mauro Senatore - Translator
SUNY Press
2018
Hardback $80.00
166

Reviewed by: Georgios Tsagdis (University of Westminster)

“For Architecture no longer defines a domain.”

(Derrida)

Opening

To begin with the title. ‘The last fortress of metaphysics’ is for Francesco Vitale architectural; it is indeed, architecture itself—at once protected and encumbered by a manifold of “theoretical, political, institutional, symbolical, and material resistances” (xvi). In its encrusted ‘lastness’ architecture presents thus the litmus test of deconstruction, making the latter’s intervention into the former the measure of deconstruction’s efficacity.

This is because at and from the outset philosophy and architecture have found themselves “in the most essential of cohabitations” (xv). The apparent oblivion to the fraught resonances of the “cohabitation with women” that haunt Rousseau’s supplementarity across the pages of the Grammatology will be partly compensated by the book’s opening two chapters, which will undertake to think habitation in the figure of the oikos. At the outset however the cohabitation of philosophy and architecture is established in the strange, troubled even, generality of the latter.  In a passage of Derrida, which the short book will quote thrice (repetition ringing across the text worse than a stylistic shortcoming) and which must thus appear here in toto, architecture’s generality is contested by logical and material consistency, if not constancy:

“On the one hand, this general architectonic erases or exceeds the sharp specificity of architecture; it is valid for other arts and regions of experience as well. On the other hand, architecture forms its most powerful metonymy; it gives it its most solid consistency, objective substance. By consistency, I do not mean only logical coherence, which implicates all dimensions of human experience in the same network: there is no work of architecture without interpretation, or even economic, religious, political, aesthetic, or philosophical decision. But by consistency I also mean duration, hardness, the monumental, mineral or ligneous subsistence, the hyletics of tradition.” (xiv, 3, 90)

It is at the juncture of this hyletics, upon the rock of its consistency, that Derrida’s confrontation with Peter Eisenman will play out, a confrontation of particular significance for the encounter of deconstruction and architecture. But since the onto-political fate of the latter with philosophy will be from the outset intertwined, so must be the fate of their critique. Accordingly, Derrida destabilises and solicits the significance of the architectural foundation: “Architecture must have a meaning, it must present this meaning, and hence signify. The signifying or symbolic value of this meaning must command the structure and syntax, the form and function of architecture. It must command it from the outside, according to a principle (archē), a grounding or foundation, a transcendence or finality (telos) whose locations are not themselves architectural.” (xviii) With the same stroke, Derrida solicits the significance of the sign itself, a significance always already philosophical. It does so, by exploring the work of spacing that antecedes all given and constituted internal and external spaces.

Law of the Oikos

Vitale’s exploration begins with a return to the ‘law of the oikos’.  The book’s first two chapters deal with the Hellenic legacy that informs the shared fate of philosophy and architecture. For, as Derrida reminds us: “there is an architecture of architecture. Down to its archaic foundation, the most fundamental concept of architecture has been constructed. […] This architecture of architecture has a history.” (1) Vitale locates the significant point of entry to this history in the Greek polis in its intricate relation to the oikos.

The politics of habitation in Athens rests on the myth of king Erichthonius, “who was born directly from earth, not from a woman, but from the soil fecundated by the seed of Hephaestus, dispersed after his clumsy attempt to possess Athena.” (7) In this reading, the soil from which Erichthonius emerges, becomes the mythical foundation of all eco-political foundations. Since no reality will be able to adequate the myth, the latter will continue to haunt the imaginary of the West, producing building and dwelling as much as theoretical and political effects. For Derrida, this ontopology, this “axiomatic linking indissociably the ontological value of present-being (on) to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general,” is today more obsolete than ever. (7) This certainly does not mean overcome.

The Erichthonian soil determines the law of the oikos, a law that “imposes the task of thinking identity (ontological and political identity) in terms that are irreducibly spatial: origin as a place, permanence, stability, being distinguished and protected from difference, alterity, the stranger, and the foreign.” (11) It does so by presenting itself as an immutable, yet indeterminate foundation. This terrestrial foundation bears the name of khōra.

Since khōra “is neither sensible nor ideal, not even a being, it cannot be determined in any way as a being could be. For this reason, to describe it, Timaeus must use a set of analogies (the receptacle, the cast, the sieve, the nursemaid, etc.), assuming that none of them are adequate since they all come from the sensible determined in the khōra. This third remains indeterminate: the indeterminate that prevents itself from any possible determination and makes every determination possible. But, at the same time, in its indeterminateness khōra imposes on us the thought that all that is, is as such because it takes place, has an origin that remains fixed, permanent, and stable, has a proper place, oikēsis idias.” (12)

Derrida explicates the status of the khōra further: “Perhaps, because it can receive everything, one could give it all the names one wants, since it can take any form, ultimately one could give a name different from khōra. As it does not exist under the form of a being identical with itself, of an ideal referent or a thing, one does not see why it would have only one name. But it is precisely because of this that it is always necessary to name it in the same way, since it is paradoxically necessary to keep the sense that it has no sense.” (12) Being the signifier of a signified which is not, the khōra is at the same time a quasi-index, a this, each time unique, yet nonetheless a name, and as such more than a mere this, a cipher eliding indication and signification.

Khōra accordingly designates political space, in the primary sense of invested, occupied space. (13) This space is occupied by the ‘dead sons of the polis’, the Erichthonian progeny which returns to rest forever in the originative soil of the city, now the burial ground of the Kerameikos. (8) The soil of the city the dead will share with the heroes, the cult of which is reactivated in the 8th century BC. The Mycenaean constructions, used by the cult are thus reactivated, offering not only the reassurance of a religious a continuity, but also assuming “a civic as well as territorial value,” by gathering the community and rooting it in the soil. In tandem, the acropolis will be “heir of the royal fortress of the Mycenaean age,” circumscribing the unity of the polis. (22) Whereas the fort would guarantee permanence to the city because of the security it afforded, the architectural permanence of acropolis offers a symbolic security. Positioned at the akron, the visible limit of the polis, it determines its whole territory, stabilising the khōra. The ethico-political significance of this stability will lend support to the Socratic indictment of the itinerant sophists, who lack a proper place, an oikos and thus the nomos, the law that pertains to it. (10) The city must exclude the dangerous other: it is a philosophical as much as an architectural function, a function summed up in the designation of an outside against a stable, striated inside. The law of the oikos, coupled with the law of the polis protect this inside, arresting and fixing the fluidity of the khōra.

Politics of Architecture

For Vitale, the significant contribution of deconstruction is precisely the re-articulation of all stability into effects of stabilization and sedentarization (let it be recalled that de-construction determines itself from the outset as de-sedimentation). Thus places lose their mythical-metaphysical origin and identity, appearing as effects of dislocation and localization, whereas the human appears as the effect of a situated self-inscription, placed by default in relation to otherness and the other. (29) Opening up a space in which to think and live this relation, is the contribution of deconstruction. (30) The law of the oikos, which protected the inside from the outside, the familiar from the stranger, and which informed the history of architecture, as well as that of the ‘architecture of architecture’ is here suspended (31). It becomes thus possible to conceive an other end of architecture, decoupled from dwelling. It certainly becomes possible to conceive of a different dwelling. For this “the deconstruction of architecture must in turn become work, it must become architecture.” (33)

The promise of this ‘architecture to come’ is affirmative of its own possibility, yet never positive. It never posits itself in a fortified security, but remains ‘risky, uncertain, improbable’. (34) It thus remains open and assumes the responsibility not only towards its own future, but towards the other to come, the nameless other, whom we do not know, cannot prefigure and imagine, the other that we do not know when, and altogether whether, will arrive. (38) This is a task not only of architecture, but of the polis as a whole. In order to achieve this, a city must strive to remain “indefinitely and structurally non-saturable, open to its own transformation, to additions that come to alter or dislocate as much as possible the memory of the heritage.” (41-2) As prime counterpoint to the acropolis and the funerary sēma, “Derrida conjures up the example of the temple of Ise in Japan, the most remarkable place of worship of Shintoism. The temple has been dismantled and rebuilt with new materials every twenty years for one thousand five hundred years.” (42) If such a thing was ever needed, one has here the most literal and least literary moment of deconstruction. It is all the same a sign.

Mythographies

The following, fourth, chapter undertakes to trace the passage ‘from architecture to writing’ and then ‘from writing to arche-writing’. Derrida, wishes to abandon ‘the envelope of a book’ to seek a different organisation of space—a space, where one does not only read, but also write between the lines. As readers, we are not handed over the model or blueprint of such ‘architectural artifacts’ as Glas or La Carte Postale, but are rather invited to inhabit their text. (47) Neither, because there is no model, nor because the model must be kept secret; we are not presented with the architectonics of architecture, because although the act of writing that has escaped the book, is a spacing akin “to the production of architectural drawing,” (49) this drawing resists its summary, its reduction to a few master-lines. The architecture of deconstructive writing resists the enclosure and subsumption under its own archē.

The book represents for Derrida precisely such a closure or totality, be it finite or infinite, of the signifier, which can only be established, once a totality of the signified has been previously asserted. (50) Although the historic veracity of this assertion is hardly questionable, Vitale could have here explored the necessity of the equivalence: even though no ground or telos might ultimately support totalisation, it appears theoretically possible to de-couple a totality of signifiers from a totality of signifieds. A ‘trans-total’ correspondence, one between a totality and a non-totality, is imaginable.

Architecture offers a paradigmatic possibility of a rupture with totalising writing. Pluri-dimensionality becomes the operative word. In Vitale’s words: “architectural writing is able to articulate geometric and mathematical notation, perspectival drawing and multiple reference systems, computer graphics, diagrams, photography, spectrography (which detects the physical nature of sites and materials as well as the anthropic presence), tridimensional models, and so on.” (51) It contributes thus to the deconstructive programmatic of conceiving “in a manner at once historical and systematic, the organized cohabitation, within the same graphic code, of figurative, symbolic, abstract, and phonetic elements.” (58) The war of linearisation against the originary pluri-dimensionality of writing, a war that reduced the cohabitation of these dimensions to successivity has long appeared won. Derrida, after Leroi-Gourhan, discovers the potentiality of resistance against the dominion of linearity, which marks the promise of a different scriptural future, in the sign of the ‘mythogram’. In the mythogram, “meaning is not subjected to successivity, to the order of a logical time, or to the irreversible temporality of sound. This pluri-dimensionality does not paralyze history within simultaneity.” (59) Mythography grants us access to arche-writing. Leaving this passage to arche-writing underexplored, Vitale follows Derrida, in an open gesture towards writing and reading architecture as mythography.

Writing Space

The fifth chapter explores the theme of spacing as it comes into play in Tschumi’s research and work. Spacing must be understood not only as an empirical necessity of every system of notation, of every scriptural or inscriptive system, but also as an irreducible condition of experience and of the production of meaning. Spacing is already there in every presence, at the heart of its own self-immediacy. (63) Accordingly, spacing is the imprint of the play of the trace, of a movement that produces space in its unfolding. The trace, as “the opening of the first exteriority in general,” (56, 64) spaces by showing the exteriority at the heart of every interiority.

For Vitale, Tschumi’s work follows faithfully the play of the trace. It is thus able to offer a new architectural possibility, a possibility that is “neither architecture nor anarchitecture, [but rather] transarchitecture.” (68) What is particularly significant and particularly topical for Derrida in transarchitecture is that “it comes to terms with the event; it no longer offers its work to users, believers, or dwellers, to contemplators, aesthetes, or consumers. Instead, it calls on the other to invent, in turn, the event, to sign, consign, or countersign: advanced by an advance made to the other—and maintaining architecture, now architecture.” (69) At a given juncture, Tschumi offers for Derrida the inventive now.

In the Manhattan Transcripts Tschumi’s struggle to escape the confines of received architectural writing becomes apparent: “The original purpose of the tripartite mode of notation (events, movement, spaces) was to introduce the order of experience, the order of time—moments, intervals, sequences—for all inevitably intervene in the reading of the city. It also proceeded from a need to question the modes of representation generally used by architects: plans, sections, axonometries, perspectives. However precise and generative they have been, each implies a logical reduction of architectural thought to what can be shown, to the exclusion of the other concerns. They are caught in a sort of prison-house of architectural language, where “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” [Wittgenstein] Any attempt to go beyond such limits, to offer another reading of architecture, demanded the questioning of these conventions.” (71)

It is precisely the function of movement in Tschumi’s work that destabilises calculability and universality, to bring forth the unique now in which a play of differences becomes possible for architectural writing. Again The Manhattan Transcripts: ‘The movements—of crowds, dancers, fighters—recall the inevitable intrusion of bodies into architectural spaces, the intrusion of one order into another. The need to record accurately such confrontations, without falling into functionalist formulas, suggests precise forms of movement notation. An extension of drawing conventions or choreography, this notation attempts to eliminate the preconceived meaning given to particular actions in order to concentrate on their spatial effects: the movement of bodies in space.’” (72)

It is because of this attentiveness to the plasticity that the play of the trace necessitates, that Tschumi appears not to betray the promise of deconstruction for a different architecture. Thus, the “unique existence and logic” that  “books of architecture, as opposed to books about architecture” develop, (70-1) will not be met by Vitale with the suspicion reserved for Eisenman’s attempt to extricate architecture from the exigencies of deconstruction, by establishing a sui generis space for it. Perhaps then the space devoted to the latter’s critique would have been better employed in following much more closely the former’s appraisal, exploring the architectural pathways opened by Tschumi’s practice.

Eisenman the Apostate

The penultimate chapter is then devoted to Eisenman—a cul-de-sac of deconstruction. A certain early rapport of the two men in view of a collaboration on the La Villette park project quickly came to a head. The rupture manifested in dramatic fashion at the 1989 congress in Inrvine, which Derrida decided not to attend. It was precisely this performative absence that dramatised their divergent positioning vis-à-vis the place and function of absence in thought and architecture. Derrida used his physical absence to address on tape a series of questions to Eisenman—a spectral confrontation. (79)

Derrida had proposed his essay Khōra as common ground for their joint exploration, a text and a notion that we saw pose a challenge to territorial foundations of identity. (17) Eisenman retracted in view of this challenge. The concrete materiality of the physical presence of buildings meant for Eisenman that “the term [deconstruction] is too metaphorical and too literal for architecture.” (82) The full scope, however, of the double hyperbole is only made apparent in Eisenman’s attempt to break with the way in which deconstruction engages with oppositionality: “In my view, your deconstruction of the presence/absence dialectic is inadequate for architecture precisely because architecture is not a two-term but a three-term system. In architecture, there is another condition, which I call presentness—that is neither absence nor presence, [neither] form nor function, but rather an excessive condition between sign and being. As long as there is a strong bond between form and function, sign and being, the excess that contains the possibility of presentness will be repressed.” (87)

Presentness as the third term is the wager of the whole dispute and the point on which Vitale will concentrate his vindication of deconstruction. He will do so by means of a theoretico-historical and a logical argument. The former suspects the structure of a transcending-encompassing third of regressing into dialectics and producing dialectical effects. Accordingly, Eisenman will remain haunted by the spectre of an architectural Hegelianism; a spectre he will not even attempt to shake off. (88) The latter argument presents Eisenman’s logic as circular. We are given to read: “Presentness is the possibility of another aura in architecture, one not in the sign or in being, but a third condition of betweenness. […] This excess is not based on the tradition of the plenitude, but rather is the condition of possibility of presentness.” The circle is clear: “Presentness is the condition of possibility of the excess that is the condition of possibility of presentness.” Neither Eisenman, nor Vitale seem to be interested here in a notion such as ‘equi-primordiality’, as an escape from the conundrum.

What emerges in the brevity of this exposition is the introduction of aura as the halo of presentness, which amounts for Eisenman to the “presence of absence.” (90) This is why Derrida will take advantage of his absence to say to Eisenman on tape: “I’m not going to take advantage of my absence, not even to tell you that you perhaps believe in it, absence, too much.” (80) Eisenman believes in absence too much because he believes in the redemptive possibility of its presentification. The implications for Derrida—or what Vitale diagnosed as dialectical effects—are significant: “Whether it has to do with houses, museums, or university research laboratories, what distinguishes your architectural space from that of the temple, indeed of the synagogue (by this word I mean a Greek word expressing a Jewish concept)? Where will the break, the rupture have been in this respect, if there is one, if there was one, for you and other architects of this period with whom you feel yourself associated? I remain very perplexed about this subject; if I had been there, I would have been a difficult interlocutor.” (81)

The difficulty for Derrida amounts to the attempt, both impossible and regressive, to presentify absence. Thus his spectral advise to Eisenman: ‘Well, you can strategically insist on absence as a disruption of the system of presence, but at a certain point you have to leave the theme of absence’.” (93). Derrida who confesses to feeling like an architect when writing, the paradox of architecture cannot be sublimated:

“The paradox, of course, is that on the face of it, architecture seems to have nothing to do with absence, in one of Heidegger’s texts, he says that a temple is a place where God is present, but that implies that the temple is an empty place ready to receive God. It is the ultimate paradox of logocentrism. […] So, because of its unique relationship to representation, architecture is more ‘present’ than any other art, but at the same time, being the most ‘present’, it is also the strongest reference to the opposite of presence, namely absence.” (92)

In the artifacts of the architectural tradition and despite the latter’s claims, the cohabitation of presence and absence remains productively irresolvable. Within this picture Eisenman appears merely to reinscribe a traditional gesture in the architectural matrix.

In order to decide the fate of this gesture Derrida invites Eisenman to position himself with regard to Benjamin’s essay Experience and Poverty, in which a ‘constructive destruction’ of aura is undertaken by the ‘new Barbarians’. (90-1) Benjamin observes the destruction of aura in the glass and steel work of architects such as Loos and Le Corbusier build with steel and glass. The hardness of the former and the (assumed) transparency of the latter preclude auratic effects, such as uniqueness, exclusiveness and mystification. Eisenman, whose attempt to rehabilitate aura is by now clear, will sidestep Benjamin’s essay.

Returning to the challenge of khōra to foundational origins, Derrida shows the need to think the auratic play of presence and absence through the notion of the trace: “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of the retentional trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life would be within itself; the self of the living present is primordially [originairement] a trace. The trace is not an attribute; we cannot say that the self of the living present “primordially is” it [l’‘est originairement’]. Being-primordial [l’être-originaire] must be thought on the basis of the trace, and not the reverse. This arche-writing is at work at the origin of the sense.” (85) The difference becomes thus clear: whereas Eisenman’s phenemonological trace enables a reconstitution of presence as retention of absence, Derrida’s deconstruction of this traces shows presence as a transitory effect of the trace’s movement. (87, 93, 95)

Here ends therefore Derrida’s engagement with Eisenman, as well as Vitale’s chapter. It is perhaps unfortunate that the latter did not attempt to identify and extract those intuitions in the latter’s work that originally attracted Derrida, and might still hold the potential of productive effects—intuitions working precisely against Eisenman’s overall gesture. The chapter’s polemic shares thus little of deconstruction’s sense of a fidelity working from within, remaining rather a siege extra muros.

Spacing Architecture

The last chapter of the book functions as a coda to the series of forays of the previous chapters. Vitale returns with Derrida to Saussure, to find a sign both arbitrary and differential (102-3), which will support the renewed call for the displacement of the linearity of architectural and non-architectural writing. The notion of the trace, the fruit of the internal tensions of the two-fold character of the sign, provides the “finite and material element of a composition that takes on the shape of an architectural product,” in order to effect the displacement of linearity. (105) The play of the trace spaces, gives space, opens up the matrix of the khōra.

Vitale chooses to close with a framing of Glas, perhaps the most ‘architectural’ of Derrida’s works, and moreover, in Derrida’s words, one replete with traces, “traces of traces without tracing, or, if you wish, tracings that only track and retrace other texts.” (110) For Vitale the two columns in which the text of Glas is arrange, constitute architectural artifacts: “two columns that are erected and stand out on account of a supposed autonomy: the autonomy of the work, of the Book, granted by the signature of the author (subject, consciousness, etc.). In this case, Hegel’s work, on one side, and Genet’s work, on the other side. […] Glas consists in this frame that exposes what makes it possible: between the two columns, the clapper [battant] of another text, of another logic: spacing.” (107)

The implications of the making, the arrangement of scriptural space are catalytic for the ciphering and de-ciphering of the text. Moreover, the text itself will reinforce its architectural space, the way a stalactite becomes the support of the cavernous, mineral space that produced it. Vitale is observant: “Genet’s work, once inscribed within the frame of Glas, can no longer be entirely solved, absolved, detached from the act of absolute self-naming to which it aims. To realize/idealize itself as such, it cannot but go through the erection of a column of writing, and thus it must leave the traces of its finite and contingent passage.” (109) In this, reading Genet is constituted by Derrida as the anarchitecture that opposes Hegelian architectonics; the space between the two becomes the desired space of transarchitecture, a space between two architectures, two idioms, two tongues. If a kulindros designates the round body of a pyramid, an obelisk or a column, as much as a rolled manuscript or a scroll, Glas, working between its two columns, presents itself as a transversal writing, the most literal trans-script.

The integrated collection of essays that comprise The Last Fortress of Metaphysics would be strengthened if, rather than being their object, trans-scripturality was their constitutive mode of articulation. A second language would have to infect that of Derrida’s, the language of “the master of masters,” in Vitale’s acclaim. (viii) Adoration repays badly the master; if the master is to be followed, his performance must be performed anew. To perform anew in this instance would also require heeding the words of Derrida that Vitale is familiar with: “I am not happy with the concept of collage. I never use it as such. It is a traditional concept. Collage implies fragment, and that implies that there is a proper body the fragment belongs to.” (97) The collage that The Last Fortress is, troubles the reader less by the precariousness of its unity or its repetitiveness, as by the tempting promise of a proper textual body, a naked body in which the intricate and far-reaching interweaving of deconstruction and architecture is exposed in its plenitude. All the same, Vitale’s effort is a first step and as such a significant contribution to the labour required in appraising the lure of this promise.

Giorgio Lando: Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction

Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction Book Cover Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction
Giorgio Lando
Bloomsbury
2017
Paperback $35.96
240

Reviewed by: Alessio Persichetti (University of Aberdeen)

Mereology studies the nature and relationships of parthood in objects, considered in the most general way. The book by Giorgio Lando, “Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction,” aims to provide an oriented introduction to the topic.

The literature on the subject does not lack examples of introductory volumes. However, monographs until now have had two weaknesses: they were either too focused on a specific aspect of mereology or provided merely a broad-spectrum summary. Regarding the former, there are F. Moltmann’s Parts and Wholes in Semantics (1997) regarding linguistic structures,  A. Varzi and R. Casati (1999) and Kleinschimdt (2014) on parts and space, and C. Calosi and P. Graziani (2014)’s collection on mereology and special sciences. In the latter case, there are the good — but outdated —  introductions of P. Simons (2000) and M. Libardi (1990), and the recent H. Burkhardt et al. Handbook of Mereology (2017). Lando’s book is the first real attempt to present an accessible general introduction to the problems of the field from a precise standpoint. In particular, this book adopts the perspective of CEM (Classic Extensional Mereology), the theory of parts and parthood that has its roots in Nelson Goodman’s A World of Individuals (1956) and David Lewis’ Parts and Classes (1991) and On the Plurality of Worlds (1986).

The book is organised into one introductory chapter, three main parts, and an appendix. The first part describes how mereology works and which relations and features a mereological theory must satisfy; the second part defends the idea that CEM is the only correct theory of mereology (i.e. argues for monism); the final part defends and clarifies the core principle of Unrestricted Composition from different kinds of criticisms.

The introduction (Chapter 0) expounds the main concepts of Classic Extensional Mereology. CEM is the theory according to which: 1) parts are in transitive relationships with other parts; 2) given n objects, there exists another thing n+1 composed by the n objects; and 3) given some objects, there exists only one fusion of them. Giorgio Lando then distinguishes the semantical senses of the term “mereology”: mereology can be intended as the sub-discipline of metaphysics that studies parts, as a theory that explains the parthood relation, or as the correct theory that describes parts. Lando identifies mereology with the third sense; specifically, he chooses CEM as the best candidate for being a unique and proper mereological theory. In this perspective, Lando claims that he has oriented his explanation towards a defence of CEM. Afterwards, he explains how the CEM arises from David Lewis’s attempt to develop a topic-neutral tool to solve problems concerning classes. Lando’s primary aim is to develop Lewis’ account into a full metaphysical theory with ambitions of generality. At the same time, the secondary goal is to clarify CEM and monism against the most common objections.

The first part, “Methodology of Mereological Monism,” is dedicated to methodological remarks concerning the scope of mereology — and the role CEM plays in it. Chapter 1 explores the semantic sphere of mereology: it starts by clarifying the semantics of the term “part” and formulating criteria a part must satisfy.  Lando argues that a part should satisfy spatial location, selectivity and formality. A part is spatially located when it has a spatio-temporal location relationship through the same region of space.  In addition, a part must satisfy selectivity, that is, it must have clear boundaries in order to be identified. Finally, a part must stand in a binary relation with another part; in this sense it must satisfy formality. Furthermore, Lando wants to make clear that mereology concerns literal parthood, not metaphorical cases. For example, the notion of parthood invoked in the sentence “You are part of my heart” is not a genuine example of parthood as investigated in mereology, because it is not literal.

Chapter 2 defends mereological monism and shows why CEM could be useful in a range of different cases. Lando argues in favour of monism that it gives clear and unambiguous criteria to decide what is a part and what is not a part. This is an advantage that pluralism, in which one accepts multiple mereological theories, does not have. Because pluralism accepts numerous ways to discriminate parthood, each different from the others, it offers no unified notion of part.

Chapter 3 elucidates the relationship between mereology and formalism. The fact that mereology aims at generality and must be characterized as neutral does not imply that mereology is a kind of logic. Mereology aims to describe parthood in the broadest way possible. In this sense, it must be understood as formal: mereology can be applied to every part-whole relationship, independently from what “part” means in the context. Consequently, Lando argues, CEM is the best candidate to achieve the ambition of generality.

Having described the overall requirements and goals of a mereological theory, Chapter 4 argues in favour of the axioms of CEM. Here, Lando expounds and justifies the axioms of Transitivity, Reflexivity, Antisymmetry, and the Proper-Parthood definition.

The second part, on “Extensionalism,” enters into fine-grained details in responding to examples against Extensionalism and the Uniqueness of Composition. Chapter 5 analyses why uniqueness of composition and extensionalism are not negotiable points of CEM, and how these two points are essential to a nominalist account of structures of parts. Lando claims that nominalism is necessary in order to have a general mereological theory that is independent of single structures. By “structure” Lando means the configuration and order of individual parts. If a mereological theory is case-sensitive regarding structures, then it would lose some degree of generality.

Chapter 6 clarifies the conceptual distinction between Extensionalism and Uniqueness of Composition: firstly, how they differ in their formalization; secondly, which tasks the quantifiers in the formulations cover.

Chapter 7 offers a concrete application of CEM in order to show its virtues. Taking the example of a mountain, Lando demonstrates that CEM is able to: a) distinguish parts (e.g. the trees on its surface) from the proper parts of the mountain; b) give a clear account of cases of counterparts; and c) settle the issue of overlapping objects, that is, the mountain and the “mountmatter” on it, such as rocks, forests, rivers, etc.

Chapter 8 faces the most difficult mereological cases, which relate to abstract objects. For Lando, a theory that aims for generality must also be able to explain parts of abstract entities, such as numbers and sets. But a problem for CEM arises when one allows for the stipulation of entities that the theory cannot accommodate, namely facts and propositions. In what sense does a fact have parts, or does a word share the same letters with other words? Lando solves the issue claiming that these sorts of objects do not belong to mereology: abstract entities have their own identity criteria, independent from those of CEM.

Chapter 9 examines alternatives to Extensionalism useful for fictional and controversial scenarios. These include, for instance, objects without clear boundaries among their parts (e.g. forms), or scenarios where it is no clear relationship involved (e.g. reciprocal parts). Nevertheless, non-extensional variants must be employed if and only if there are strong metaphysical motivations to apply them.

The third part of the book, “Unrestricted Composition,” is dedicated to defending the principle of Unrestricted Composition. Chapter 10 treats the notion of fusion and its relationship with ontological economy. Specifically, Lando settles the issue regarding how quantifiers in Fusion’s axiomatization have plural variables as domain. Chapter 11 refines further this formal definition of the concept of Fusion. Chapter 12 upholds the existence of counterintuitive fusions, like that of the Statue of Liberty and a chair. However, Lando stresses that CEM accepts the plurality of fusions only as long as the parts involved are actual existing parts.

Chapter 13 examines the problem of vague fusions. Unrestricted Composition could give rise to disquieting consequences like spatial or temporal disconnected fusions. However, the principle accommodates many of our standard intuitions, for instance, the case of spatially distributed things. A classic example is that of a fleet, in which the sum of the ships is not spatio-temporally contiguous. Despite this non-contiguity, on Unrestricted Composition, each ship counts as a part of the fleet.

Finally, Chapter 14 evaluates the consequences of Unrestricted Composition for meta-ontology. In particular, Lando examines how the principle interacts with Quinean meta-ontology, Meinongianism, Williamson’s conception of being, and Kit Fine’s meta-ontology. In the brief Appendix that closes the book, Lando argues against the equivalence between Composition and Identity in mereological monism.

Giorgio Lando’s book has the virtue of offering a clear introduction to mereology from CEM’s perspective. It explains what the methodology of the discipline is, and what is required for a theory of parthood. Every axiom of the theory is expressed and explained with clarity, and supported by a multitude of useful examples. Furthermore, it does this from the specific point of view of monism and CEM theory. In this sense, Lando covers an important gap in the literature: here we have a monograph that expounds a major topic and at the same time suggests to the reader a definite approach to follow.

This approach avoids a deficiency possessed by many other introductions. Quite often, they are merely compendia of positions and notions. In contrast, this book starts by immediately giving reasons why CEM is the best candidate among competitor mereological theories. This is helpful in two ways: on the one hand, it benefits newcomers by offering a precise way of facing mereological problems; on the other hand, it helps the expert reader evaluate from the beginning whether CEM is convincing or not.  Regarding the defence of CEM, Lando’s arguments are solid: he succeeds in defending the main principles of CEM from classic objections. His criticism regarding fusion and the unrestrictedness and uniqueness of composition — the most contentious points of CEM – is especially strong. The volume is also successful in upholding monism as respectable choice in meta-mereology: for example, by demonstrating why pluralism has problems in managing criteria of identity about parts and objects.  In this regard, Giorgio Lando has reached his goal.

Although the book is an extremely welcome addition to the study of mereology, it is not perfect. The first flaw is theoretical, while the second concerns the third part of the book, and the third regards some choices in the exposition. As already mentioned, Lando provides good arguments in favour of both monism and extensionalism. However, his account fails in its treatment of abstract objects. Lando’s justification of CEM is successful only in the case of spatio-temporal located entities. A mereological theory aspiring to be the single correct theory and the most general explanation does not have this luxury. Lando claims in Chapter 8 that CEM cannot treat stipulated cases violating its principles, or that abstract things such as numbers and words lack definite identity criteria. Thus, his argumentative strategy is to maintain that abstract objects are not in the scope of CEM. Nonetheless, on this issue he is not persuasive: CEM in conjunction with monism and the pretence of topic-neutrality cannot rule out abstract objects. Otherwise, CEM would lose its status of generality or one would be forced to admit that abstract entities require different mereological criteria. These are two unpleasant outcomes for a monist mereology. Excluding a class of entities from a theory is a respectable move, but it cannot be accepted as long as the goal of the theory is generality.

About the second flaw of the book: as mentioned earlier, most of the book is accessible; however, the third part becomes a bit complex for a beginner. In particular, from Chapter 13 to 15, the discussion presupposes knowledge of many metaphysical positions. Despite the fact that they are summarized briefly, this treatment is insufficient for understanding these positions. The non-expert reader or philosopher with a different background will have some difficulties in following the explanation. This renders the last part more appealing to a philosopher already engaged in the debate than to a student with no expertise in the subject. My last critical remark concerns the space given to the pluralistic arguments: the discussion would have gained even more from the confrontation of CEM with other types of theories and pluralistic options. A deeper comparison of CEM with the competing alternatives would have been beneficial for the introductory purposes of the monograph. But I suppose that precise editorial requirements might have led the author not to include material on these different perspectives.

To sum up, “Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction” is a fundamental addition to the extant literature on mereology: it describes systematically the basics of Classical Extensional Mereology, and the relevant arguments in its favour. It is the first introduction explicitly oriented to monism in the literature. Moreover, it addresses the classic objections to CEM; this makes the book valuable also for specialists interested in defending this approach. Moreover, the book discusses with completeness collateral issues like meta-ontological consequences, nominalism, etc. Nevertheless, it has some limits, theoretically speaking. Giorgio Lando is able to defend CEM in the case of spatio-temporal objects; however, it appears that there is a difficulty in treating abstract objects and defending CEM’s generality at the same time. Moreover, a confrontation with different theories would have been preferable for two reasons: it would have emphasized the strength of CEM in comparison and, simultaneously, would have informed the reader about opposing views in the field. An opinionated introduction does not mean that other positions must be excluded. Finally, the third part is sometimes too difficult for introductory purposes. Nevertheless, I warmly recommend the book, perhaps not to newcomers in metaphysics, but to a graduate student or philosopher with metaphysical commitments, who wants to deepen his or her understanding of CEM.

Bibliography

Burkhardt, H., Seibt, J., Imaguire, G., Gerogiorgakis, S. (Eds.), 2017. Handbook of Mereology, Analytica. Philosophia Verlag GmbH, Munich.

Calosi, C., Graziani, P. (Eds.), 2014. Mereology and the Sciences. Parts and Wholes in the Contemporary Scientific Context, Synthese Library. Springer, Cham Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London.

Goodman, N., 1956. A World of Individuals, in: Bochenski, J.M., Church, A., Goodman, N. (Eds.), The Problem of Universals. A Symposium. Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, pp. 13–31.

Kleinschmidt, S., 2014. Mereology and Location. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

Lewis, D., 1991. Parts of Classes. Blackwell, Oxford.

Lewis, D., 1986. On the Plurality of Worlds. Blackwell, Oxford.

Libardi, M., 1990. Teorie delle parti e dell’intero. Mereologie estensionali, Quaderni del Centro Studi per la Filosofia Mitteleuropea. Trento.

Moltmann, F., 1997. Parts and Whole in Semantics. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Simons, P., 2000. Parts. A Study in Ontology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Varzi, A., Casati, R., 1999. Parts and Places. The Structures of Spatial Representation. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, London.

Vittorio Hösle: A Short History of German Philosophy

A Short History of German Philosophy Book Cover A Short History of German Philosophy
Vittorio Hösle. Translated by Steven Rendall
Princeton University Press
2016
Hardback $35.00
304

Reviewed by: Chiu Yui Plato Tse (Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich)

Introduction

The task to write a short history of German philosophy is daunting. Hösle approaches this task with erudition, precision and admirable polemical style. Readers should note that Hösle’s account is not meant to be a neutral encyclopaedic one which narrates the entire history of philosophical ideas in the German-speaking world. While his selection and evaluation of certain figures might appear questionable, it would be unfair if one judges it with an expectation of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness. Indeed, it is a specific account representing the German Spirit in a specific way. He gives four criteria for his selection of German philosophers: 1. quality of the philosophical work, 2. influence on subsequent developments in the history of philosophy, 3. whether the work paradigmatically expresses the basic ideas of the time and of German culture and 4. whether the philosopher helps us make sense of the developmental logic of the process of development. Along with the use of the German language, these make up the formal necessary requirements of Hösle’s historiography of German philosophy. On this basis of selection, he identifies a set of material features that characterize the German Spirit, and they are: 1. rationalist theology; 2. a commitment to synthetic a priori knowledge (trust that God created the world in a rational way); 3. a penchant for system-building; 4. grounding ethics in reason not in sentiment and 5. a combination of philosophy and philology. This review consists of two main parts. I will first sum up the line of ideological development given by Hösle, and then I will critique Hösle’s account of the withering of German philosophy and its Spirit.

Part I

In Hösle’s account, which consists of 16 chapters arranged by chronological order, German philosophy first started with Meister Eckhart and reached its climax in German idealism. Eckhart is not only the first medieval philosopher who expresses his original philosophical ideas in vernacular German language, his rationalist theology and mystic idea of an unmediated relationship to God are characteristic traits of the German Spirit. Nicholas of Cusa, though he did not write philosophical treatises in German, was influenced by Eckhart’s rational theology and conceived the project of an a priori, theologically-grounded natural philosophy, which sees the universe (and human mind) as an image of the Trinitarian infinite God and critiques the Aristotelian geocentric worldview of finite cosmos. The reasons for Hösle to include him despite the fact that Nicholas did not write his works in German seem to be his use of the distinction between understanding and reason and his epistemological optimism about human mind’s approximation to divine infinity. Paracelsus is a natural philosopher in the Spiritualist tradition that was partly inspired by the Reformation and partly broke with the dogmas of orthodox Lutheranism and biblical authority. His polemic against traditional medicine called for founding medicine in chemistry and mineralogy and he sees the forces of nature as God’s manifestation and particular sciences as subordinated to theology.

But it is Jakob Böhme whom Hösle identifies as “the first epoch-making German philosopher of the modern period.” Böhme considered himself a pious Lutheran and his experience of mystical visions brought him to provide a deeper theosophic foundation for Lutheranism. In his contemplation on the problem of evil and suffering, Böhme recognizes in God three principles: the positive (the “Yes”), the negative (the “No”) and their synthesis. Devil and Hell are the expression of the negative divine principle, and it is through this opposition that God becomes knowable and apparent. The reunion of the Yes and the No was found in Christ.

Leibniz must be included in any historical account of the emergence of German philosophy. Not only did he contribute to raising German to the rank of a language suitable for academic purposes and founding the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (now the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities), his philosophical contributions also earned him a place among the greatest philosophers. Interestingly, Hösle understands modern philosophy as a competition between ontology-first and epistemology-first thinkers (or “ancientizers” and “modernizers” in Hösle’s own terms). The prime example of the former camp is Spinoza, and the leader of the latter is Descartes. Whereas Spinoza starts with an ontological proof of ​natura naturans with extension and thought being its two knowable attributes, Descartes starts from the undeniability of the cogito, with the physical and the mental being two different kinds of substances. Though Hösle did not clearly assign Leibniz to either side, Leibniz seems to be straddling both with a stronger sympathy for the modernizers. Despite Leibniz’s personal admiration for Spinoza and the partial agreement in their philosophical positions, Hösle is quite right in stressing their differences regarding the concept of necessity, the moral status of God and the notion of substance. The appropriation of possible worlds in Leibniz’s metaphysics is bound by the axiological view that the actual world must be the best possible world created by God if God exists, and Leibniz’s pluralistic view of substances is supplemented by the notion of pre-established harmony.

By tying God down to the actual world as the best possible world, Leibniz in effect exacerbated the theodicy problem. Not only did Kant uncover the problem by critically examining previous proofs of God and pointing out their implausibility, he is also a revolutionary in ethics because his practical philosophy detached the foundations of ethics entirely from any hopes of an after-world. The value of moral conduct no longer depends on God’s reward or on subjective feelings, but rather it lies within the act as an end in itself. Ethics so conceived is grounded on a categorical, unconditional imperative that is owed to practical reason’s self-determination and not to any heteronomous factors. This alignment with practical reason generates a stream of anti-eudaimonism in Kant’s ethics, in which human dignity consists in the capacity of sacrificing one’s own happiness for the fulfilment of obligation, and one’s relation to God is grounded internally through the compliance with moral obligation. Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm along with his epistemological distinction of the capacity of understanding and reason allow him to reserve a regulative role for the idea of God while restricting its objective validity in accordance with his criterion of significance for the phenomenal realm.

The development of a new human science is another important achievement of the German eighteenth century alongside Kant’s critical philosophy. The historical reliability of biblical narratives was challenged and the narrow-minded salvation history of Jews and Christians was discredited by the universalistic spirit of Enlightenment. But the Lutheran pathos of sincerity prevented the German intellectuals, many of whom came from a Lutheran parsonage, to adopt a detached attitude of irony. Instead, modern philology provided the means to reconstructing the meaning of the Scriptures in response to not just biblical criticism but also Enlightenment universalism. This led to the idea that understanding the word of God is not simply understanding the Bible (literally), but rather the whole history of the human spirit; and the establishment of human science became a religious duty. In this regard, Herder’s contribution to German philosophy is unmistakable, for he gave it a new focus in philosophy of language, history, aesthetics and anthropology. Schiller’s aesthetic theory attributes a moral function to the traditional aesthetic category of beauty, and aesthetic education was conceived as an apolitical alternative to political revolution for the realization of moral ideas and the unification of all spheres of life. Through the Schlegel brothers and Novalis philosophy and poetry achieved an integral and yet anti-systematic cohesion, which became an essential characteristic of early Romanticism. Schleiermacher’s theology of feeling granted religion an autonomous status within human sciences, making it accessible via rational standards for those who had detached themselves from the dogmatic authority of tradition. Humboldt’s linguistic works and his analysis of the relationship between thought and language constitute an important contribution to the German tradition of the philosophy of language. He also played a significant role in the institutionalization of human science in the modern blueprint of the research university.

German idealism is for Hösle the most ambitious philosophical school of thought in the history of German philosophy and he focuses on the three most prominent figures: Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. The philosophizing of each of the three philosophers manifests not just the essential character of religious seriousness that defines the German Spirit, but also the longing for a comprehensive metaphysical system that defies the current prevalent trend of specialization. Fichte’s ​Wissenschaftslehre ​is a reflexive transcendental philosophy that seeks to uncover (or “deduce”) the implicit presuppositions, or the fundamental principles (and their implications), of the faculties of the mind assumed by Kant’s philosophy. Fichte traces the foundation of the laws of logic (identity and contradiction) in the I’s self-positing and counter-positing act, and all theoretical knowledge is based on the mediation of the divisible I through the divisible not-I. His ethics, like Kant’s, not only recognizes autonomy as the necessary condition for moral acts, but it represents a view more radical than Kant’s in that it does not allow for morally neutral acts. The mutual recognition of the spheres of freedom among individuals is enacted by law; and it is with Fichte that intersubjectivity is deduced for the first time as a necessary condition of autonomous self-consciousness. Practical belief takes priority in his system, as it is the only way to avoid nihilism.

Schelling started out as a Fichtean philosopher but soon broke with Fichteanism by attributing to nature a much higher status than Fichte’s Wissnschaftslehre​ ​allowed. Instead of deducing nature as the field of ethical striving for rational beings, Schelling’s objective idealism sees nature and consciousness as manifestations of the Absolute, and the basic structures of reality are conceived as the results of the development of a polar structure. Built on a metaphysical view that seeks to accommodate the real and the ideal, Schelling took inspirations from the contemporary development of natural science and attributed metaphysical significance to its latest discovery. Schelling’s view on religion is closer to traditional Christianity in that he does not content himself with a negative philosophy that postulates God as a logical abstratum but demands a positive account that affirms the vitality of a personal God.

Hegel started his philosophical career as a loyal follower of Schelling’s absolute idealism, but he established it with much greater brilliance and systematic rigor than Schelling was ever able to do. His mature metaphysical system contains three parts: logic, nature and spirit. In contrast to what Hegel calls “the reflective philosophy of subjectivity,” the a priori categories in Hegel’s system are not to be understood as subjective concepts imposed on an objective reality. Instead, reality is conceptually structured, and the categorial structures of reality are not ​ens rationis from a transcendent realm, but dynamic moments in the teleological self-movement of the Absolute. Thus, the theological significance of Hegel’s Science of Logic is prominent, since the entire system can be taken as an ontological proof of God. Hegel also places intrinsic value on social institutions and intersubjectively shared ways of life.

Schopenhauer is an essential key to understanding the transition from German idealism to Nietzsche. Clearly, his epistemology was influenced by Kant’s subjectivism and the German idealists’ wish to bring the thing-in-itself to light, and he reacted to them with an alternative, pessimistic worldview that parallels Indian Buddhism. His epistemology adopts space, time and causality as our subjective constructions, and takes the will to live for the ultimate ground of reality. Prioritizing intuition over concept and the will over reason and understanding, Schopenhauer sees reality as a series of objectivizations of the will, which is fundamentally driven by unconscious biological drives for procreation and self-preservation. Reason is therefore nothing but a symptom of the will, and human knowing is in continuity with animal knowing. With great philosophical depth and eloquence Schopenhauer expressed Europe’s hangover after the gradual flickering out of Christianity, anticipating Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

In the wake of Schopenhauer, two Hegelian philosophers emerged and determined the history of European consciousness. Feuerbach’s investigation of the essence of Christianity uncovers contradictory ideas in Christian dogmas. He gives an anthropological explanation of religion, according to which God is the hypostatization of human understanding or moral experience. His critique of Christianity seeks to free humans from “religious alienation” which he sees detrimental to morality. Although Feuerbach was a member of Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, he was not a political activist and the influence of his revolt against Christian dogmatics remained within the intellectual circle. On the other hand, with the goal of changing the world, Marx and Engels left the domain of philosophy. Marx’s historical materialism is directed against German idealism and any metaphysical tradition in philosophy that stands on ideas. From a historical materialist point of view, morality, religion, metaphysics, and the rest of ideology are to be explained externally by social economic activities and conditions. Although Marx’s critique of the modern state and his analysis of the effects of alienation are pioneering, he underestimated the influence the “superstructure” can have on material conditions, leaving human capacity for grasping truth incomprehensible. His claim to be scientific was indefensible, not only because his prediction of communist society did not accord with our experience, but also because his emphasis on the primacy of the economic is one-sided and prejudiced.

The prominence of Nietzsche’s philosophy lies in its attempt to provide a philological explanation of the origin of Greek tragedy, in which he identifies and upholds the irrational element in ancient Greek culture represented by Dionysus. As the Antichrist in the history of German philosophy, Nietzsche is no less critical of metaphysics, morality, and Christianity. According to Hösle’s judgment, Nietzsche’s genealogical account of the emergence of religion and morality contributes to the “the German adventure of crushing the Christian order of values and the creation of an alternative value system that dripped with the desire to kill” (158). Against any universalist democratic ethics, Nietzsche demands a higher culture of the noble and the strong. His doctrine of the superman and his theory of the will to power replace all theological or religious grounding of values and express his rejection of transcendence.

Contrary to Nietzsche’s expressive language, Frege’s concept script was a precision instrument that achieved not only absolute clarity in inference, but it also brought about a logical revolution by attempting to ground arithmetic in logic. Although Frege’s new logic is incomplete and he was forced by Russell’s paradox to abandon his logicistic program, the new logic, compared to the traditional logic, was a much better candidate for providing a foundation for the new science and for accommodating its results and methods. This led to the very fruitful contributions to philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of physics made by the Viennese and Berlin Circles of logical positivism. Characteristic of this movement is its deflationary or anti-realist approach to metaphysical as well as moral statements, such that it recognizes no synthetic a priori judgments. The most prominent figure from this tradition is Wittgenstein, who once claimed that the limits of one’s language mean the limits of one’s world. The logical and mathematical structures underlying our languages reflect the structures of the world. The late Wittgenstein moved away from his early position, but the boundary of philosophy remained for him to be that of our language. His reflections on rule-following led him to conclude that meaning consists in the concrete use of language and not in any inner image, hence also his rejection of the possibility of private language and his reluctance to recognize any individualistic transcendental grounds of language.

Parallel to the development of logical positivism and Wittgenstein, the enterprise of grounding human and social sciences in reaction to the emergence and domination of natural sciences was undertaken by the Neo-Kantian philosophers, Dilthey, Husserl, and others. Hermann Cohen, founder of the Marburg School, gives a rationalistic interpretation of Judaism as a kind of universalist ethics that preserves its originality and at the same time rejects Zionism. Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert from the Baden School were concerned with the status of the knowledge in human and social sciences in contrast to natural sciences and they made important contributions to the investigation of the role of values. Wilhelm Dilthey tries to ground human sciences in an understanding of psychology and offers a critique of historical reason that objectivizes human mind and philosophical systems on an historical dimension without any idealistic commitment to the validity of any single system. Having lost the religious consciousness characteristic of the Protestantism of traditional German philosophy, Dilthey’s historical relativism loses at the same time the religious and ethical claim to absolute truth. Husserl is the most loyal defender of the traditional concept of reason in the 20th century. Having taken up the influences of Brentano’s and Frege’s realism, Husserl’s phenomenology is a scientific philosophy that seeks to determine the foundation of all the sciences without any theological ambitions. On this basis, his analysis of the phenomena of consciousness takes the relationship between meaning and expression seriously, investigates the dependency relation between contents and the laws that are the a priori conditions of meaningfulness. His phenomenology made not only advances in the investigation of the structure of subjectivity and intentionality, his concept of the life-world also offered a modern alternative to transcendental solipsism and a foundation for regional ontologies of essences. Although Husserl himself was not keen on building a comprehensive system, his phenomenology inspired some of his best students to apply it in new domains, e.g. aesthetics and practical philosophy.

Hösle then ponders in chapter 13 the question whether ideas in German philosophy play any role in the rise of National Socialism or in the hindrance of the opposition to it. He sees in the central figures of the German tradition (i.e. Luther and Kant) the lack of a plausible theory of resistance. The recess of universalist ethics brought about by Nietzsche and logical positivism, coupled with the rise of an anti-democratic right after the First World War in response to the threats of communism and British hegemony, contributes to the weakening of the binding power of an ethical order, paving the way to the emergence of a totalitarian regime. In this light, Hösle offers a critical assessment of Heidegger, whose philosophy redefines and undermines the traditional moral sense of terms such as conscience and guilt. His empty notion of resoluteness, even though it does not necessarily lead to National Socialism, is said to have encouraged the radicalization of irrational convictions.

For the Third Reich period, Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt are picked as the determining figures of German philosophy. Gehlen’s pragmatist anthropology, taking into account a broad range of results from various sciences as well as the influence of Fichte but without any transcendental reflection, centers on action and the stabilizing function of social institutions, which are necessary for the constitution of consciousness. However, Gehlen fails to ascribe any moral significance to questioning unjust institutions. Despite the moral repulsiveness of Schmitt’s refusal of denazification after the Second World War, the influence of his political philosophy has to be acknowledged. His competence of intellectual history is unusual for a jurist, which enables him to see the plausible continuity between legal and theological concepts. But Hösle points out that Schmitt’s reference to the absolute decision as the ultimate ground of law is as problematic as Heidegger’s “resoluteness.”

After the Second World War, Germany could no longer retain the special cultural status it enjoyed since Kant. Not only did several intellectuals leave the country, the occupation and integration the country underwent made it impossible to travel further with the especially German philosophical paths. Gadamer’s attempt at breaking out of the aporias of historicism increased confusion in human sciences. Despite his concept of the anticipation of completeness that re-established some hermeneutic sense of truthfulness and his attempt at constructing an equivalent of first philosophy, he inspired the deconstructivist undermining of human sciences. The first Frankfurt School, for which Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are the best representatives, reacts against the progress-oriented philosophy of history as well as the culture industry, but carries the Marxist ideal of eliminating concrete suffering through a cooperation with empirical sciences. Its lack of a normative foundation following from a rejection of Kantian ethics becomes the main concern of the second Frankfurt School represented by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. They seek to ground normativity by a theory of intersubjectivity influenced by American pragmatism. Though much originality can be found in the two Frankfurt Schools’ social critical stance and Hans Jonas’ environmental concern, it becomes clear to Hösle that up to this stage the Spirit of German philosophy has lost much of its earlier appeal.

Part II

Hösle’s account of the history of German philosophy shows an admirable intellectual capacity of synthesizing various materials and understanding them in a coherent, unifying manner that pieces together a pessimistic developmental picture. It is a pessimistic picture, because, as the title of the final chapter clearly suggests, it is likely that German philosophy will not exist in the future. Hösle points out sharply and accurately the current conditions of German philosophy that prevent it from having a bright future. The internet culture of our digital era has witnessed an explosion of information and it has become practically impossible to keep track of the works of all intellectuals. This phenomenon significantly dilutes the influence of any intellectual. The trend of specialization in the knowledge industry makes every attempt at system-building untimely and unattractive. And the institutional policy of German universities makes it hard for them to compete with Anglo-American universities, which in comparison offer much better financial support to junior researchers and systematically encourage the academic performance of professors. Given the global trend of technical specialization and the dominance of English as the lingua franca in the academic world, Germany has now become a “second-rate scientific power,” as Hösle put it. It sounds as if German philosophy has already sung its swan song, and what is left for researchers in German philosophy to do is only preservation of this repertoire of valuable ideas, so that these can be carried by the ark of culture “to the salvific shore of a new beginning” when environmental problems force human civilization to start anew.

The diagnosis in the final chapter that German philosophy has come to a dead end is disputable even if one accepts the preceding account of its historical development. One cannot help but suspect that this lament over the withering of German philosophy is rather a consequence of sticking to the letter (viz. the German language), and not the Spirit, of German philosophy. It is not necessary to restrict the domain of German philosophy to only those works written in German. Although most of the canonical works in German philosophy were written in German, making a logically necessary condition out of a genetic factor is a confusion. When the academic lingua franca in Europe was Latin and German philosophy was still in a nascent stage, tracking the intellectuals who first composed philosophical works in German is the philologically reasonable thing to do in recording how German philosophy came into existence. But over the course of development, it has gained worldwide attention and multilingual contributions. One might argue that contributions in foreign languages are not works in German philosophy, but about it. For instance, there are numerous careful and sophisticated exegeses on Kant and Hegel in English and although many of them are excellent scholarly works that are useful to readers of German philosophy, they do not extend the scope of German philosophy nor do they determine its course of further development by adding original insights. And when they do, they count as original works in foreign culture. British idealism and French phenomenology can be seen as prime examples of such cases. However, not every case is as clear. For example, as long as one cares not only about the historical genesis of Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy but also their validity, ignoring the related works of Peter Strawson, John McDowell, Robert Brandom and others on the ground that they are not German philosophers and their works are not written in German and hence fall outside of the relevant scope, is counterproductive for the prosperity of German idealism. Here we need not draw a rigid line to settle the question whether original, non-German works that take positive reference to German philosophy should be counted as canonical works in German philosophy. Hösle’s historical account informatively and polemically demonstrated what kind of Sonderweg the German spirit has travelled, but this path is not an isolated (abgesondert) one, instead it has many crosses and sometimes even merges with other paths. Perhaps it is not Hösle’s intention to announce the death of German philosophy when he warns of its extinction, and philosophers in this field should heed the warning; but Hösle gives no advice as to how the withering of German philosophy can be avoided (one even has the impression that it is not avoidable at all).

If Hösle were not so insistent on abstracting from his historiography all Anglophone and Francophone influences, he should observe that, in recent years, the porous spirit (now with a small “s”) of German philosophy has crossed other paths, from which it has found new inspirations and directions. Phenomenology and German idealism, two outstanding branches of German philosophy, have seen important transformations after encountering foreign influences. The encounter with speculative realism, neuroscience and cognitive psychology forced phenomenology to defend against naturalistic criticisms or to reconcile them by broadening its own conceptual space. The encounter with American pragmatism, contemporary philosophy of mind and analytic philosophy of language brought idealist philosophers to incorporate ideas from external sources in order to generate a broader and more cogent foundation that would require a conceptual reorientation in epistemology, philosophy of mind, as well as other fields of philosophy. But all these cannot happen without philosophers, who seek not only to study the past history of German philosophy but also to participate in its future course of development, writing and engaging others in English (or other non-German languages), even though it is reasonable to require from them a robust knowledge of the German language. More generally speaking, the institutional structures of philosophy faculties in Germany have become much more diversified, new chairs and institutes that encourage applied ethics and interdisciplinary co-operations on research have been established, to mention only a few; a focus on the interaction of contemporary philosophy of mind and language in Bochum; pioneering works on philosophy of mathematics and science in Munich; analytic German idealism in Leipzig; an interdisciplinary approach to mind and brain in Berlin, etc. Just as it is too early to register these occurrences in any account of the history of German philosophy, it would be premature, too, to say that they evidence its disappearance. German philosophy is no natural object, and as a cultural enterprise undertaken by finite rational beings who do not just think but also feel and will, its essence cannot be the same as that of natural entities.

Stefan Kristensen: La Machine sensible

La Machine sensible Book Cover La Machine sensible
Tuchè
Stefan Kristensen
Hermann
2017
Paperback 28,00 €
318

Reviewed by: Louis Schreel (Ghent University, Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences)

  1. Introduction

In his new book, La Machine sensible, Stefan Kristensen conceives the human mind as a sensible machine: a machine that seeks to stabilize incoming fluxes of sensory stimulation, before being rationally reflected. This opens up a thought-provoking discussion with contemporary phenomenological conceptions of the minimal self, which reappears as a technical invention, an artifact produced by the sensible machinery that works beyond our conscious grasp and reflective understanding. Like the technical object, the minimal self is for Kristensen an artifact produced to stabilize the relation between man and his environment. But in La Machine sensible technical invention does not amount to the application of a given system of knowledge. Machinic invention has its roots in the irrational and becomes rational ordering only after having fulfilled its primordial function: the organization of matter by life.

For the sake of brevity, this review will focus strictly on the theoretical issues that animate La Machine sensible. The true strength and originality of Kristensen’s book lies in combining a rich conceptual framework with detailed commentaries of empirical work both in psychopathology and in twentieth century art. Of the three parts that make up the book, I will discuss only the first (“The Self and the Machine”) and the third (“The Essence of the Machine”), the second (“The Machine and the Figuration of the Self”) being entirely devoted to the motive of the machine and the figuration of the self in art brut, James Tilly Matthews, Fernand Deligny, Victor Tausk, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Epstein and Jean-Luc Godard. Kristensen has a deep background both in the phenomenological and psychoanalytical traditions and his astute appreciation of their respective virtues does not make him any less perceptive of their respective weaknesses. Honest about its goals and the unresolved puzzles pertaining to its rather brief examination of phenomena of biological organization, the book is most sharp in its ability to set up a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Szondi, Maldiney and Deleuze & Guattari. With that in mind, La Machine sensible is highly recommendable for anyone interested in the crossovers between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, and the way these can open up an original reflection on contemporary visual art.

  1. Aisthesis Disturbed: Machinic Delusions

The first part of Kristensen’s book begins by turning to the literature on schizophrenia, in which the motif of an ‘influencing machine’ (une machine à influencer) represents a particular kind of delusion that is important for a good understanding of schizophrenia. The delusion of an influencing machine stands for an experience in which the patient is convinced to be manipulated through a machine, which itself remains beyond his or her grasp. Examining the subjective dimension of schizophrenia, Kristensen approaches this delusional experience as a particular kind of feeling. This avoids categorizing schizophrenia as a disturbance of either the psyche or the soma, since feeling usually involves both. Kristensen argues that whatever the person’s predominant schizophrenic symptoms, these can be regarded as instances, appearances, expressions of the same disturbance, the same fundamental kind of psychotic feeling of an influencing machine.

To situate the disturbance at the level of feeling is not to deny, however, the neurobiological basis of schizophrenia. Discussing the early clinical work of Viktor Tausk and Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault in the light of recent work of Alfred Kraus, Thomas Fuchs, Louis A. Sass and Josef Parnas’ phenomenological Examination of Anomalous Self-Experience (EASE), Kristensen acknowledges that neurally based cognitive dysfunctions often play an important role, and indeed that they may often play the causal role in terms of kicking off symptoms. This does not mean, however, that subjective experiential phenomena, together with subjective responses to these phenomena, may not also play a key role. Rather than proposing an either/or dichotomy between neurological explanation and phenomenological description, our author follows Parnas in the viewpoint that phenomenology may just as well offer an explanatory contribution for the understanding of psychotic delusions. Accordingly, ‘the investigation concerns here the sense of this experience of alterity, from the point of view of the subject undergoing it’ (29).

In the most general terms, it is for Kristensen a person’s most immediate and fundamental, affective relationship to self and to world, which is disturbed in schizophrenic psychosis. This disturbance is a feeling of losing contact and connectedness with the world, of withdrawing into a world of one’s own, and of sensing the world as a hostile otherness. In schizophrenia, patients lose their sense of ownership; they seem to have no sense of property, not of a world but also not of themselves, even to the point of owning their bodies. It is this alienating feeling, which the patient’s language is unable to articulate and make sense of, and which may lead to a breakdown of personality, a cleavage of several personalities, and to several kinds of corporeal symptoms.

The sense of losing possession or control, at once over the world and over oneself, implies that possession, power or control lie elsewhere. The delusion of the influencing machine involves ‘the experience of domination, of a relation of asymmetrical force, which the machine is a particularly emblematic image of’ (36). One may certainly have the feeling of great energy and feel compelled to use it, but one seems to have no power to control it. It is as though something else is exercising this control and the patient does not know what this other is: he or she feels it as a foreign power that is mechanically triggered by an external causality.

Whatever form these experiences take, their presence is for the subject always an ordeal that gives rise to different strategies to confront these impulsions, whose essential trait is that the subject cannot escape them. It is due to this experience of passivity and powerlessness on the noetic level that one can speak of a machinic phenomenon on the noematic level (taking up a Husserlian vocabulary here) (30).

In an important concluding passage of the first chapter, Kristensen argues that one shouldn’t understand the schizophrenic delusion only negatively, as the delusional construction of a threat. Following Kraus, Fuchs and the psychoanalyst Ludivine Beillard-Robbert, he argues the schizophrenic delusion is ‘a fundamentally ambiguous phenomenon’ (13, 23) that can be considered at once as a symptom of disturbance and as an act of resistance, offering a certain stabilization. Indeed, ‘the simple fact that a hallucination is produced, that an image be drawn, that a text be written, either in front of the psychiatrist or in the most intimate reclusion, means that the delusional subject is in a process of resistance in the experience that he goes through’ (36). Kristensen emphasizes this point to debut the idea that the delusion would be itself a phenomenon empty of meaning. One must distinguish the patient’s primordial experiences, which appear to him or her as meaningless, and the delusion, which is produced as an attempt to make sense of them. Without this distinction, one cannot account for the fact that the schizophrenic is still a self and that he or she maintains a perspective onto the world. Like the drowning man who cannot swim, the patient continues to struggle[1]:

The creation of an influencing machine in the psychic realm of the schizophrenic subject corresponds to a situation of complete powerlessness within which, nonetheless, the possibility of emancipation is given, although it is remote and inaccessible. This is exactly the paradoxical meaning of the delusion: to express the need of liberation by giving form to the confinement (38).

  1. The Bodily Self and the Sensible Machine

Kristensen’s understanding of the delusion of the influencing machine as at once a passive confrontation to something unknown and an active response to it, is central not only to his analysis of schizophrenia, but also to his philosophical understanding of selfhood (ipseity) in general. Against a conception of the self as characterized by full-fledged autonomy and self-reflective transparency, Kristensen argues the self is ‘structurally constituted by the internal tension between necessity and liberty’ (37). More precisely, Kristensen proposes a two-level model of the self, whereby the higher-level properties (the intentional, cognitive structure which has a degree of autonomy from the world) emerge from lower-level, sub-personal and non-conscious dynamical processes that act deterministically. The reflective, cognitive structure of the self, which is the mark of subjective autonomy, is for our author constituted by three fundamental, pre-reflective dimensions of experience: temporality, embodiment and self-differentiation inherent to pre-reflective experience. For Kristensen, these pre-reflective dimensions manifest dimensions of internal or intra-subjective alterity, which are never fully dominated and controlled by the subject. In Dan Zahavi’s terms, which Kristensen cites approvingly:

Subjectivity seems to be constituted in a way that allows it to relate to itself in an othering way. This self-alteration is something inherent in reflection. It is not something that reflection can ever overcome (Zahavi 2004: 150).

Although the pre-reflective, embodied level of the self is perpetually self-differing within the ‘diachronical’, egoless flow of time-consciousness, Kristensen agrees with Zahavi that one can speak already at this rudimentary level of a ‘minimal self’ (122).[2] However, he disagrees with Zahavi’s view that minimal self does not depend upon social interaction for its development and/or its sustenance. Following Matthew Ratcliffe, Kristensen argues the constitution of minimal self should be re-conceptualized in interpersonal terms: ‘the primitive level of self-experience is always already of an intersubjective nature’ (126).

Our author develops this reconceptualization around two ideas. The first is that minimal self and alterity construct each other reciprocally through a pre-reflective libidinal and social dimension of ‘body schema’ (47, 54, 64). Drawing on the late work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder (whose influence on Merleau-Ponty he reconstructs in detail), Kristensen conceives bodily ‘sensing itself’ (le sentir lui-même (49)) as a perceptual process that happens independently from conscious intentionality and reflection, and is interdependent on action. According to this account, sensing is a skillful bodily activity in which perception and action are constitutively interdependent, unlike at the personal level, where the action a perception leads to may depend on the agent’s intentions (105, 271). In Schilder’s sense, the body schema designates an integrated set of dynamic sensorimotor processes that organize perception and action in a sub-personal and non-conscious manner. As such, the body schema must be distinguished from what is sometimes called the ‘body-image’, which is the body as an intentional object of consciousness, i.e. the body as experienced as owned by the experiencing subject. For example, the body schema appropriates certain habitual postures and movements automatically. The body schema also incorporates certain significant parts of its environment into its own schema: the painter’s brush becomes an operative extension of her hand; the blind person’s cane becomes a sensing extension of the hand.

At this primordial level, a minimal self emerges from a libidinal, bodily relation to alterity. That is to say, the sensorimotor contribution of the body schema is actually constitutive of selfhood, rather than being merely causally implicated in experiences. But this dimension of embodiment is not of the order of personal ownership: the libidinal production of the bodily self through body schema precedes the constitution of an ego that distinguishes itself from its libidinal investments, and the primordial relation between self and alterity is characterized by a ‘fundamental polymorphism’ (52). This means that the libidinal body forms with the environment a system of reciprocal implication, stimulation and expression, a pre-personal, essentially ‘anonymous and general existence’ in which there is ‘confusion of an individual body schema with that of the other’ (53). Being essentially anonymous, non-personal and non-conscious, the body schema forms a ‘sensible machine’ that is not phenomenologically available to the reflective subject: it is neither the perception or imagination, nor the cognitive understanding, nor the emotional apprehension of ‘my’ body, but rather the libidinal drives that organize the body as it spontaneously interacts with its environment.

From this perspective, the unconscious is this libidinal dimension of my being in the world; if it remains inaccessible to consciousness and to explicit intersubjective sharing, this is not due to its radically intimate [psychic] character, but rather to its pre-reflective, corporeal generality (56).

As Henri Maldiney writes, paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, the bodily sensing itself forms the ‘untouchable’ side of the self, ‘that of the self which I will never touch [cela de moi que je ne toucherai jamais]’ (Maldiney 2007: 138).

The second idea is that human subjectivity, that is to say, full-fledged selfhood with a degree of ‘ontological depth’ (123), emerges from a cultural-reflective dimension of interpersonal relations and symbolical-cognitive structures, such as language. Our author is fully aware that this second idea, as well as the identification of the libidinal basis of embodiment with the impersonal, non-subjective order of the unconscious, brings him particularly close to the position of Lacan. In fact, one of the strengths of the second chapter of La Machine sensible lies in showing how – despite the different conceptions of the unconscious in the early Merleau-Ponty and Lacan– the late Merleau-Ponty’s identification of the unconscious with the anonymous ‘flesh’ (chair) of the world is compatible with Lacan’s views on the discontinuous, problematic relation between consciousness and the unconscious. Despite valuing this proximity, however, Kristensen is also critical of Lacan. In conceiving the developmental emancipation to the symbolical dimension of subjectivity, Lacan neglected the importance of the productive role of the libidinal body and of affectivity in the constitution of the self. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, Lacan’s conception of the symbolic led him into an ‘idealist deviation’ (58, 63), conceiving the emergence of subjectivity strictly in terms of the symbolic and conscious mediation of instinctually driven life. For the generative constitution of the self, a model which does not do right to its bodily, affective, emotional and temporal constitution remains incomplete indeed.

By contrast, the psychoanalytically inspired work of the phenomenologist Henri Maldiney and the schizo-analytical work of Félix Guattari (both with and without Gilles Deleuze), demonstrate for Kristensen the possibility of a constructive conversation between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, which is in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty’s late project of an ontology of the generativity of the flesh. Reading Guattari, Maldiney, Deleuze and Leopold Szondi in this light (whose influence on Deleuze & Guattari he also reconstructs in detail); our author’s goal is as follows:

… to construct a position from which to sketch a critique of the dominant reception of Merleau-Ponty in the domain of the theory of the self – a reception that draws mostly on the Phenomenology of Perception and leaves aside the objections and new perspectives in his seminars at the Collège de France and in the corpus of The Visible and the Invisible (47).

  1. The Minimal Life of the Self: Three Challenges

There are three general theoretical points that are key to Kristensen’s two-level model of the self that are helpful to see where his challenges lie. These points concern the emergence of self, the relational role of the environment, and the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

i). Emergence: In thinking about the productive character of the self-organizing dynamics of sensorimotor processes, Kristensen seeks to conceive of a sub-personal level at which the biological and the mental are fundamentally indistinct (108). Against Szondi, who still remained caught in a dualism between blind sub-personal biological processes and the autonomous, mental realm of the self (‘le moi pontifex’ (106)), Kristensen aims to show how minimal self emerges in development from repetitive cycles of sub-personal, ‘infra-subjective’ sensorimotor processes of perception and action (235). In a touching passage on the work of the Feldenkrais therapist and choreographer Mara Vinadia (178-181), Kristensen notes how higher level cognitive processes and symbolical, linguistic forms of communication can be entrapped by sensorimotor disorders; as in the case of an autistic girl of three years and nine months old who expressed herself only by crying and shouting, who didn’t allow any eye contact and who didn’t let anyone get closer to her than three meters.

Faced with any kind of frustration or transgression of these limits, she would respond with immediate violence, bending her body like an arc and hitting her head against the ground. The therapist approaches this situation as follows: keeping her distance from the patient, her face and body averted, she takes on a series of immobile bodily postures, holding each figure for a fixed time interval, followed by a few steps in the room. When Vinadia arrives at her sixth posture, she notices the child has risen and begins to imitate her accurately, step by step. Yet, the patient doesn’t imitate her last posture: rather, she begins with the first, forcing Vinadia to start over from zero, and maintaining a lag of six between her and Vinadia’s postures. Astonishingly, after a number of weeks of repetitive sequences the child allows for more and more proximity, imitating Vinadia’s with lags of 5, 4, 3… up to the point of allowing the therapist to face her, and moving in perfect unison with her, such that it becomes impossible to designate who is initiating and imitating. Eventually, the child allows for more people, even strangers, to approach and address her.

Kristensen emphasizes that the initial refusal to enter into relation is not a sign of indifference but of a hyper-sensibility to the presence of others – an interpretation confirmed by neuro-scientific approaches of autism. The therapist’s work has consisted in establishing a reciprocal relation between the child and herself, a corporeal relation of sensing reciprocity that restored the sensorimotor dynamics constitutive of minimal self. This does not mean, of course, that a sequence of physical gestures alone could implement a cognitive state or a sense of possessing a self. The main takeaway is rather, that aside from higher-level neural processes, sub-personal sensorimotor processes of perception and action make a special, constitutive contribution to the machinery of selfhood.

ii). Environment: The second issue is about the relational role of the biological and social/collective environment and concerns the idea that minimal self is not only intimately embodied, but also intimately embedded in its environment. How does attention to this environmental embedding contribute something important to an understanding of the emergence of minimal self? In this regard, Kristensen distinguishes the kinds of account that typically stress features of organic integration, unitary functioning and sense-making across different levels of bodily embeddedness, from the more radical dynamic viewpoint he finds in Guattari and Deleuze, which stresses features of instability, chaos and heterogeneity characteristic of the energetic dynamics constitutive of minimal self (244-255).

For Kristensen, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of our perceptible integrations with the world in Phenomenology of Perception is exemplary of the first kind of account, as he conceives these integrations as the emergence of one unified ‘flesh’ by means of a reversible ‘chiasmic’ relation between body and environment. This approach emphasizes there is a minimal ‘nucleus’ of stability that constrains and directs the ongoing dynamics, a self-organizing nucleus that enables meaningful interactions to take place between the system and its environment (254, 294). Kristensen refers in this regard to Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, which defines living ‘autopoietic machines’ by the self-referential organization of the causal interactions taking place in material systems, i.e. the self-referential, recursive organization of the causal loops that determine the particular dynamics within or between systems (254, 260). As the name suggests, autopoietic machines are essentially self-producing: the system produces ‘itself’ through the reciprocal causation between the components of the system and relations between them. One might say that from this viewpoint, one focuses on the product (minimal self) that emerges from dynamic processes: a composed, structured, organizationally closed system of self-production that to a certain extent determines the range and meaningfulness of its material interactions.

On the other hand, Guattari and Deleuze’s approach, which Kristensen is more sympathetic to, places emphasis on a system’s material, intensive dynamics, which are essentially driven by perturbations, ruptures in direction, breakdowns and failures, and which have no meaningfulness at all (they can acquire meaningfulness only for an eventual emergent system capable of controlling these dynamics). For Kristensen, the first, phenomenological point of view, tends to remain too one-sidedly focused upon the result: connections of meaning, autonomy and structure (254).The schizo-analytical viewpoint, however, stresses the primacy of dynamic material processes, and as such it emphasizes the heterogeneity underlying all constructed unity, the initial ‘chaosmos’ from which all order and stability emerge:

The point of view of the schizophrenic reveals the fact that the machinic assemblages [agencements machiniques] do not self-organize according to a meaningful order [selon un ordre sensé], but consist in the coexistence of heterogeneous elements whose mutual presence creates movements, displacements, production of novelty (245).

Within the phenomenological viewpoint, it is difficult to include the dimension of force or intensity. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible is a philosophy of the birth of meaning [la naissance du sens] and as such it tends to suspend or neglect the dimension of force. (…) The main merit of the notion of the machine within the perspective of a theory of subjectivity is that it allows for the articulation of these two dimensions and to make them appear as reciprocal conditions: the force of the machine is the condition of manifestation of meaningful forms, and the meaningful forms are conditions of apparition of the movements of the machine, which are heterogeneous to the register of meaning and which appear precisely as perturbations of meaningful structures (269).

iii). The relation between the personal and sub-personal: We have seen that instead of assuming minimal self as a kind of a priori form that is necessary for any kind of sensorimotor processing or cognition to take place, Kristensen argues that a better viewpoint on minimal self should help to understand how it might itself emerge from dynamic sensorimotor systems and the role of environmental embeddedness in such systems. These two points about emergence and the role of the environment naturally have consequences on how to view the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

One way of considering the relation between the sub-personal and the personal is to conceive sub-personal sensorimotor processes as a kind of primordial, mute intentionality of the animal body with regard to the world – a Merleau-Pontian ‘I can’. Again, this insistence on the necessity of a primordial kind of subjective structure that is formally present in organic processes of self-regulation and self-production points to a tension with Kristensen’s point of view. Drawing on the work of Guattari and Deleuze, he stresses that the regulatory structures constitutive of the organism are not only constraining, but are themselves also constrained by material processes of individuation. These are morphodynamic, structure-making processes which grow out of intrinsic physical (thermodynamic, chemical) properties of their material elements. Preceding the passage to functional life, which they organize, these structure-making processes form a kind of static life that is intermediary between inorganic reality and functional life properly speaking. This intermediary order between matter and life fully organized is not a property of a self-referential, organic machine (a homeostatic, autopoietic, or organizational whole), but rather of an inorganic machine (an ontogenetic system of individuation).

Kristensen points out that for Guattari and Deleuze as well the organizational closure of psychic systems manifests itself as the emergence of a minimal self, i.e. an ‘I sense’ (129-130). But this minimal self is always secondary with regard to material processes of individuation, which it emerges from. Unlike Varela, Guattari and Deleuze do not consider the organism’s unity to be derived from a particular type of minimal selfhood or internal unity that is essentially intrinsic to it, over and against the mere aggregates encountered in physical nature. What distinguishes them from the Varelian view of the organism as subjectivity is that they posit rather something like an inorganic machine, which ‘processualizes’ subjectivity. It is not minimal self which is the ground of the process of individuation, but rather it is individuation which grounds minimal self.

La Machine sensible makes a convincing case that in postulating the essence of minimal self is an irreducible first-personness, an intentionality or organizational closure, phenomenological viewpoints risk neglecting the material conditions within which minimal self is produced and meaningful interactions between the self and its environment take place. This is probably due to the fact that these approaches seek to refute reductionist approaches to consciousness, which would reduce the latter to its material basis. Although Kristensen shares this non-reductionist Husserlian spirit, he argues the opposite gesture is no less unfortunate as it risks disregarding the matter and keeping the organizational structure, emptied of all “ontic depth” (121). For Kristensen, psychic phenomena such as minimal self must also be conceived of in materialist terms, which means one must understand sub-personal, generative processes also in terms of specific, concrete mechanisms that are applicable to material elements. The challenge here is to define the continuity between the material, the living and the psychic, whilst acknowledging that material elements are ‘a-signifying’, i.e. heterogeneous to the semiotic domain in which the living and psychic create meaning (65-6, 74). This final challenge, then, is what allows Kristensen to inscribe Guattari’s ‘machinic phenomenology’ (80) into the phenomenological program as formulated by the late Merleau-Ponty:

The ultimate task of phenomenology as philosophy of consciousness is to understand its relationship to non-phenomenology. What resists phenomenology within us – natural being, the ‘barbarous’ source Schelling spoke of – cannot remain outside phenomenology and should have its place within it. The philosopher has his shadow, which is not simply the factual absence of future light (Merleau-Ponty 1960: 176).

References

Maldiney, Henri. 2007. Penser l’homme et la folie. Grenoble: Éditions Jérôme Millon.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1960. Signes. Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard.

Stein, Waltraut J. 1970. ‘De-Animation: The Sense of Becoming Psychotic’, p. 87 in: Straus, Erwin W., and Griffith, Richard M. (eds.). 1970. Aisthesis and Aesthetics. The Fourth Lexington Conference on Pure and Applied Phenomenology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Zahavi, Dan. 2004. ‘Alterity in Self’, p. 150 in: Gallagher, S., Watson, S. , Brun, Ph. and Romanski, Ph. (eds.). 2004. Ipseity and Alterity. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Rouen: Presses Universitaires de Rouen.


[1] This metaphor of drowning appears in an article by the phenomenologist Waltraut Stein. She writes: ‘Like the drowning man, the schizophrenic continues to struggle with surprising energy. He tries to “learn to swim” to come to terms with his psychosis in some way. Perhaps if he can go along with it for a time it will cease to disturb him so and he can find a way to overcome it, he thinks. But eventually he finds that it is too late and that there is no going along with it. Whatever he does, this power is always against him. Usually he finds that his efforts even increase his sense of being dispossessed’. (Stein, 1970: 99)

[2] In Zahavi’s characterization, the ‘minimal self’ designates the most fundamental sense of subjective ‘mineness’ or ‘first-personal givenness’ that accompanies all of our experiences and functions as a condition for the spatiotemporal structuring of experience. Cf., Dan Zahavi, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy and Shame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Hans Rainer Sepp: Philosophie der imaginären Dinge

Philosophie der imaginären Dinge Book Cover Philosophie der imaginären Dinge
Orbis Phaenomenologicus Studien, Bd. 40
Hans Rainer Sepp
Königshausen & Neumann
2018
Paperback 68.00 €
484

Reviewed by: Lona Gaikis (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna)

Hans Rainer Sepp’s book begins with the cultural crisis that spread with the age of industrialization and the evolvement of new analytic and mimetic tools that sparked a generation of Modernists, after 1900, who would explore the limits of the real. Quite alien and almost opposing to the high beliefs we have in contemporary sciences, their skepticism towards the means of technology—and those of humans—is striking, yet it is this caesura in the psychology of perception that would particularly seed phenomenology’s pursuit of an embodied perception (Philosophie der Leiblichkeit). Sepp’s introducing example and cover picture for the book of August Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) synthesizes therefore not only the birth of the discipline to which advance it contributes. It also outlines the genuine outset of his philosophy of imaginary things (Philosophie der Imaginären Dinge): It is a discussion of the real as factual blur between objectivity and subjectivity. According to the Swedish playwright Strindberg (1849-1912), who trusted neither the senses, nor technological instruments to display the true nature of things, the only way to truth was to omit the instruments and organs that were so prone of warping and distorting the real. He therefore set out to capture the starlight directly on the carrier medium of photographic plates. The immediacy of his technique and the process of chemical developing produced a rather diffused reflection of the night sky. Contributing less to science, Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) can be regarded as an important step in the history of abstract art and, in terms of Hans Rainer Sepp, show the need for non-signifying articulation that would represent a symbiosis of body, device and the image they produce. In between objectivity and subjectivity, its medium occurs at the borders of perception, respectively the imaginary. In the further course, the book unfolds from an analysis of imaginary things (imaginäre Dinge), to a philosophy of embodied cultural forms and epistemology.

Hans Rainer Sepp’s hypothesis of an external medium in the in-between of perception directs a critique towards mere introspection in phenomenology that even lead to an agenda of rather self-entangled discourses in twentieth century philosophy. For this reason, he hypothesizes a phenomenological pursuit that takes place in the space midst the body, its means and the event of engagement. Sepp conceptualizes this space in a three folded spanning from the body of limits (Grenzleib), over the body of direction (Richtungsleib) to the body of sense (Sinnleib). This segmentation of embodied perception enables an analysis of artworks that goes beyond conventional categorizations of cultural and artistic expression—respectively meaning—, genre or style, and treat examples from early human and ancient magical and ritualistic sites (the Paleolithic Chauvet Cave or Mesoamerican city Teotihuacan 1000 AD), as well as literary formats (Franz Kafka’s Beschreibung eines Kampfes, 1912) over film (Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, 1971) to surrealist painting (Yves Tanguy’s Le Palais aux rochers de fenêtres, 1942) and even anatomical studies (Gunther von Hagen’s Körperwelten, 1996) under equal review. This displays a truly heterogenic selection that seems rather behoove of the author’s subjective preferences, than contributing to a canon. But particularly this objection directs attention to examples outside usual curatorial guidelines (i.e. Mark Morrisroe’s Ramsey, Lake Oswego 1986 and CHEUNG Chan-Fai’s The Photographer. In Kyoto, 2006; Kelly Richardson’s Marnier 9, 2012; Dorothy Napangardi’s Salt on Mina Mina, 2012) or the comparative analysis of artworks, and it reflects newer disciplines such as performance art, collage, experimental photography, digital animation from a poly-ethnic heritage—on the whole, a very stimulating compilation.

The book “Philosophie der Imaginären Dinge” (Philosophy of Imaginary Things) appears as both phenomenological study and cultural analysis, yet Hans Rainer Sepp has no curatorial or art historical agenda. The hybridity of the book is owed to its composition of twenty chapters, each as autonomous essays that have been written over the course of 17 years. According to the author, each chapter is laid out as “experimental” case study, which he understands in a very literal sense of ex-periri: As an intellectual venture with no escape exit that, instead of being backed up beforehand by a well-trodden path of established theories, would scout to find multiple paths to engage and challenge theory itself.[i] This leaves the reader with a sense of indecisiveness, as it appears that the essays bundled in this book, must have been supplemented only in hindsight with a phenomenological framework. But this, due to the complexity of its articulation, is rather unlikely. To term it an “experiment” is therefore unfortunate and misguiding, as it almost tries to hide Hans Rainer Sepp’s adept phenomenological practice, which proves to be highly ingrained in the elaborate discussions of the artworks.

Two kinds of readers will be attracted by this book: Those phenomenologists committed to Husserl’s legacy of questioning the object, its medium and the meaning of embodiment—as well as with a pursuit to extend it—, and readers from the arts appealed by Hans Rainer Sepp’s detailed analysis beyond the arbitrary and often hollow rhetoric used in so many art reviews. In terms of aesthetics and the meaning of art, he aims to excavate more than meets the eye by conceptualizing the “imaginary thing” as something that brings to light what ontology fails. It is an attempt to unravel the “philosophical” sedimented in art’s medium as a space in between subject, object and context. The author provides us with several enlightening insights to human existence and disguised artistic or aesthetic intents. Besides giving an understanding to historical contexts and accounts, Sepp speculates the epistemological value of form and expression within the realm of his methodology. However, readers of the second kind are likely to feel discomfort with several specifically phenomenological terms and their distinct conception.

The appreciative reader acquainted with phenomenological treatises will likely find Hans Rainer Sepp’s attempt to a philosophy of imaginary things, even to go as far as suggesting a meta-philosophy from the meontic, as he states at the end of the book,[ii] as quite adventurous. What he tries to articulate is indeed bold, and his theoretical and formal methodology in leaving a secured path and abandoning the blueprint of a discursive structure leads to a meandering of concepts, hypothesis and—sometimes surprising—conclusions. However “experimental” in the execution of his philosophical method, Hans Rainer Sepp has a concrete conception of imaginary things, which runs through the text consistently. He drafts the definition of imaginary things from the idea of the consistent and perceptible thing, yet the imaginary would exhibit a complexity of several components that concentrate within a context, but simultaneously direct to a whole inventory of senses outside the thing itself.[iii] Sepp refers his ideas behind this rather obscuring definition to Heidegger’s famous example of the qualities in a hammer and elaborates it further. The wooden handle and the iron piece signify the hammer’s purpose for hammering, yet its components, as well, direct to further intended purposes or potentials, which the action of hammering is actually subordinate to: For example, making a birdhouse. A text, too, in the author’s sense, is an imaginary thing. It is made of sentences that are traced as lines on a piece of paper, but also project the intention of articulating and mediating information to others. The text’s elements have meanings (languages) or even values (numbers and currency). As art form, the text will evoke a sense of virtuality. On the other hand, a tree or other living form refers, in first sense, to nothing but itself. It is only in the form of a poem or other artificial articulation such things would receive any sense beyond their meaning as thing.[iv] Having rendered this roughly, the core problem of Hans Rainer Sepp’s philosophy reveals itself: Everything, in this sense, can at one point become an imaginary thing. Yet, he is interested in the truly meontic—neither ontic nor ontological—and diffused sense of imaginary things. They should produce an independent fiction from sensation. From this diffusion, the process of meaning is only induced by the formation of a space that is tied both to the subject and object’s corporeality. These kinds of imaginary things are embodied by artworks. Lending from the words of the author, those imaginary things with most potential for an autonomous sense, beyond mere significance of the object, are of highest interest in his genuine quest to excavate the “philosophical” (das Philosophische) from the imaginary.[v] What does this mean? Whatever is in the intermediate space of the imaginary contains an intellectual context that reflects and informs reality.[vi] The density of this reflexive mesh reveals namable and discursive aspects of the object. Sepp terms the process of excavating the philosophical as „con-creative“, as it involves both sides: the object and its analysis, respectively the analyzer, whereby Sepp emphasizes that this process should not be one of private concerns. The reciprocal and intermediate process of object and percipient reminds strongly of theories of perception and the attempt to integrate cultural forms in a semantic theory articulated by symbol theory in twentieth century philosophy. Also informed by Hegelian descent, Ernst Cassirer, for example, proposed a rather analytic conceptualization leading to a philosophy of art, which he unfortunately could not complete.[vii] Here the building up of sense data would supply the body with receptacles for meaning—capturing impressions in spatial substrata from where pre-rationative intellect and subsequently meaning would emerge. Yet, meaning making—and this is where Hans Rainer Sepp distinguishes his methodology from a genuinely hermeneutical approach—is not the purpose.[viii] He seeks the purely bodily and not yet articulated as that realm beyond being, but not non-existent. In this sense, the blurred and uneven monochrome in Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) embodies this possible realm of meontic articulation.

Hans Rainer Sepp’s philosophy of imaginary things is particular, for it seeks to bring to light—or let speak—that, which is not there, but exists. Even at the bottom of our flesh. In order to carve out its shape, the author proposes a triadic conception of bodily functions from which the imaginary whole emerges: The first instance is the body of limits (Grenzleib), which Sepp describes as basic entity limiting the inside from the outside: The real of corporeality is composed of the body’s organs and its factual materiality in acting out movement until it reaches an impermeable.[ix] The second is defined in the body of direction (Richtungsleib), which is determined by the limits of the impassable. Only in the experience of bodily limits emerge spatial conceptions: Perspective, orientation, positioning. This threefold localization of the body provides a sense for movement and stasis and a sense of being embedded or disconnect.[x] Thirdly, the body of sense (Sinnleib) is conceptualized as intersection of limit and direction, in which the making of sense comes into play. This body of non-ontological meaning emerges from its limitations and given or received direction, and will only be sensible when it either experiences a disruption in its expansion process or crisis—as being thrown back on itself. In this instance, force can play a particular role to construct and manipulate sense, even defend the space and direction of bodily expansion. Hans Rainer Sepp sincerely suggests the contrary, and this presents a surprising turnaround from his continental tradition in phenomenology to Far Eastern and Buddhist philosophy, respectively a genuine intension to withhold from assent in a practical implementation of Epoché.[xi]

Hans Rainer Sepp spans his philosophy of imaginary things from these three dimensions to an openly framed and embodied epistemology of art, and reveals a deep understanding of the humanly need to localize, force and relate the self, embed and orient in social coordinates, and contemplate ahead of the ontological. He unfolds the most intricate process of correlation in the functions of bodies outside the body.


[i] Cf. PID, p. 23.

[ii] Cf. PID, p. 447.

[iii] Original text: „Was aber genau sind imaginäre Dinge? Wenn Dinge sinnlich wahrnehmbar, in sich einheitliche Gebilde sind und als solche etwas Körperhaftes haben, so kann man unter imaginären Dingen allgemein solche Gebilde verstehen, die eine Komplexität aufweisen, d.h. aus mehreren Bestandteilen bestehen, und in denen sich ein Zusammenhang von Sinn konzentriert, der auf andere Sinnbestände, die außerhalb von ihm liegen, verweist.“ PID, p. 17.

[iv] Cf. PID, p. 18.

[v] Cf. PID, p. 18.

[vi] Original text: „Imaginäre Dinge mit einem hohen Grad an autarker Sinnbildung enthalten in ihren Sinnstrukturen einen gedanklichen Zusammenhang, in dem Wirkliches sich reflektiert und der so über dieses Aufschluss gibt.“ PID, p. 20.

[vii] Cassirer, Ernst, 1979. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935–1945. Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.

[viii] Original text: „Das Manko hermeneutischer Methoden besteht darin, dass sie gemeinhin auf ontologisch zugängliche Sinngehalte ausgerichtet sind und das nur meontisch Erreichbare verkennen, dass sie darüber hinaus nur auf Sinn gerichtet sind und folglich dasjenige vernachlässigen, worauf das Sinnbildungsgeschehen eines imaginären Dinges noch aufruht: auf seiner realen Körperlichkeit, die, wie angedeutet, mit Formen von Leiblichkeit derjenigen Subjekte korreliert, die in dem Umgang mit imaginären Dingen involviert sind.“ PID, p. 22.

[ix] Cf. PID, p. 25.

[x] Cf. PID, p. 30.

[xi] Cf. PID, p. 36.

Geoffrey Dierckxsens: Paul Ricœur’s Moral Anthropology

Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice Book Cover Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice
Geoffrey Dierckxsens
Lexington Books
2017
Hardback $100.00
266

Reviewed by: Alex de Campos Moura (University of São Paulo)

Ricoeur Between Moral and Anthropology

For researchers and readers accustomed to Ricœur’s thought, the book of Dierckxsens is full of remarkable surprises. Both for those who are habituated to the philosopher of the “word” and of the “poetry”, concerned with reflections about narrative and its multiple dimensions, and for those who are involved with his discussions about hermeneutic, historically and genetically conducted. In this sense, the investigations brought by the author reveal a new and largely unexplored field of Ricoeur’s philosophy.

The book by Geoffrey Dierckxsens, Paul Ricoeur’s moral anthropology: singularity, responsability and justice, undoubtedly brings a considerable contribution to studies in the area. Choosing Ricoeur’s reflection about what is here called his “moral anthropology” as the main theme of his investigation, Dierckxsens’ text is articulated around three main axes, that could be gathered, under the risk of a little extrapolation, as an “ethical” discussion, taken in its largest sense: the concepts of moral, anthropology and hermeneutic.

These three axes, as we will see, offer the author an original perspective to consider the philosopher’s thought, and, at the same time, allow him to propose an extension in the way we understand the recent conflicts faced by current moral discussions, in which they reveal their limits and their contradictions. This possibility is strongly affirmed by Dierckxsens, seeking to establish a cohesive triad where these three elements become inseparable.  The core of his thesis is the defense of this articulation, simultaneously complex and full of deep implications.

Through this preliminary delimitation, beginning with his first descriptions, Dieckxsens sets the context from which he builds his investigation. And here is the first remark to be made to his work: the clarity of the text, a characteristic that immediately appears to the reader. The author, in a careful and accurate construction, structures his text not only with extreme acuity, but also communicating this “architecture” to his readers, outlining its stages and its internal logic. The text systematically presents clear parts and objectives, progressing safely step by step in its main strategies. That accurate construction reveals the author’s full mastery over the direction of his investigation.

This is what can be noticed if we accompany the main center of his work, concentrating on the three main axes mentioned above. The first important observation to comprehend is exactly the idea of a “moral anthropology” itself.  About this, we would like to highlight two points.

The first, and most evident, is the choice of the philosopher who guides the discussion. This issue will be worked in the second part of this review, but it’s important to correctly introduce the theme to enhance some aspects of this option and the peculiar appropriation that it implies.  In a perspective that is now gaining strength, but which is still with a wide horizon remaining to be explored, the Ricoeur we see here is quite different from the one we are most accustomed with, especially considering his inescapable phenomenological accent. It is not that this “tradition” is absent from Dierckxsens’ debate, but his proposal seems to accomplish a certain dislocation, moving Ricoeur’s major themes – like narrative, singularity and alterity – to a new scenery, not one opposite to, but without a doubt different from the traditional comprehension of phenomenological and hermeneutical perspectives.

But where could we situate this new “place” where the philosopher can now be found? The Ricoeur presented by Dierckxsens study is, in many aspects, very close to the analytical philosophy. Yet this “proximity” involves a large spectrum of dimensions. It concerns not only the themes or the general issues here considered, but much more significantly, it refers to a kind of structural affinity that the book intends to reveal. It doesn’t mean, and this is an important strategy implicitly assumed by the author, to seek direct relations of affiliation or influence, but rather to develop a kind of confluence or an intersection zone in which Ricoeur’s thought and the main themes of analytical analysis would find their community.

The proposal is captivating, bringing new horizons to research and debate around Ricoeur’s philosophy. His approach to this strand of thought, despite an increasingly growing number of studies, remains a new zone of investigation, yet to be consolidated. Thus, two important points seem to guide the ongoing research, indeed offering significant prisms under which the philosopher is read in Dierckxsens’ text. On the one hand, we have Ricoeur as proponent of a „moral anthropology“, which, as we shall see, brings a new dimension not only to the notions of singularity, justice, and responsibility, but through them also retraces the understanding of the human condition and its limits of action. On the other hand, exactly because of this reconfiguration, the philosopher appears as someone capable of shedding new light on the current debates of analytical thinking, especially those related to morality and the implications of human performance. In other words, from the recognition of the proximity between Ricoeur and analytical thought, Dierckxsens defends the possibility of a reciprocal re-interpretation.

On the one hand, proximity, and on the other, reciprocal reading, the two prisms which in our view support the perspective assumed by Dierckxsens. Let us address each of them, always remembering the complexity of such a proposal that in principle requires strong mediations and a very careful construction, recognizing the impossibility of reconstructing them entirely here, given the limited space of a review.

An Anthropological Morality

As mentioned above, Dierckxsens clarifies, in an accurate and consistent way, the perspective under which he will develop his reading of Ricoeur. The main proposal is the description and the comprehension of the idea of “moral anthropology.” The subject — and the reunion of these two terms into “one-word”, into one unique concept — is, by itself, neither immediate nor free of difficulties. This observation seems to be shared by the author, as he is, from the start, concerned in carefully delimiting the sense in which this concept is to be understood. This circumscription is necessary since the articulation between morality and anthropology, as well as the possibilities of its effective achievement, remain the subject of intense debate, not only for analytical thought, but, in a larger sense, for contemporary reflection in general.

Full of implications by itself, this proposal gets even more complex, since another step is taken by the author and another term introduced to this “pair”. To the idea of an anthropological morality is added an element that is also intrinsic to Ricoeur’s thought, and also not peacefully comprehended by his researchers: the hermeneutic. According to Dierckxsens’ thesis, the moral anthropology proposed by Ricoeur only achieves its valid meaning when comprehended by a hermeneutical perspective. The question then gains in density and sophistication.

Let the author, then, speak in his own words: “By moral anthropology I understand the philosophical and hermeneutical approach to the ontological conditions of the moral existence of human beings” (VII). And, in the sequence, he complements: “By hermeneutics I mean the theory of the interpretation of concrete lived existence in relation to narratives.” (VII)

Once these axes are set, Dierckxsens is able to place his proposal and its originality in relation to other studies about Ricoeur that could be considered closer to his perspective. Following his delimitation, it’s possible to recognize two main lines of reading, in relation to which his work might be approached, even though without strictly converging with any of them. On the one hand, there is a tradition of studies on the philosopher — notably the most recent ones — that recognize and discuss the centrality of anthropology in his thought[i], dealing mainly with the problem of action and its implications. On the other hand, there is a number of researchers that work with the moral aspects of his philosophy and, simultaneously, propose a comparison between them and the current developments in morality studies, particularly those related to the ethics of care and to feminist theories.[ii]

There would be, therefore, a line of research specially occupied with the anthropology dimension of his reflections and, another, focused particularly on his arguments about morality. In fact, the articulation between these two aspects of his thought is not feasible without solid mediations. This is where an original mark of Dierckxsens’ work is inserted: the meeting of these two elements, not only recognizing them as closely related, but actually treating them as a single concept, in which the sense of morality is established by an anthropological view.

Following the author himself, however, the originality of his perspective only appears completely with the inclusion of the third axis mentioned above, the hermeneutic. According to him, “[…] few works so far examined the significance of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach to anthropology in light of contemporary moral theories in analytical philosophy” (VII). In other words, the originality of his proposal would be related to an effort to comprehend how a certain conception of contemporary morality could illuminate the way in which Ricoeur understands the approximation between hermeneutic and anthropology. It allows him to reveal a kind of “organic connection” — to use a term typical from another philosopher, to which Ricoeur also owes a large influence, Merleau-Ponty —, between these two axes, marking not only the originality of the philosopher’s reflection, but also of Dierckxsens’ own investigation. The discussion, then, gets even more focused: the project is to understand how an analytical moral view can shed new light on the philosopher’s thinking.

This makes more explicit the movement we are trying to highlight, accentuating the originality of his investigation. The point, defended by his thesis, is that it is not any moral that can fulfill this function. It is not any general discussion about the strong themes of the political and philosophy that is able to establish such connection to the philosopher’s reflections. The philosophical current most able to serve as a “clarifying” instrument of Ricoeur’s thought, especially in the way it’s presented here, is the analytical one. According to this, understanding the moral anthropology constructed by him demands this passage to a field nowadays mostly occupied by analytical studies.

But then a caveat is required. There would be a kind of one-side view if the author’s analysis were to dwell only on this perspective. There is a counterpart, and that brings some of the most interesting elements to the discussion. On the one hand, the analytical proposal about morality is able to illuminate the philosopher’s reflection, on the other hand, his reflection is capable of shedding new light and new horizons on this analytical thinking itself. In this sense, the importance of Ricoeur, rather than being re-read by this school of thought, is allowed a new understanding of the issues with which it operates, giving it the means to extend its spectrum. In the words of the author:

“This orientation toward reduction in moral invites to reflect on Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, which aims for a more cohesive, metaphysical-ontological account of human actions and responsibility. Whereas theories in analytical philosophy tend to naturalize our understanding of morals, Ricoeur, on the contrary, defends a hermeneutical approach to understanding what it means to be human and to be capable of responsibility and justice by living a concrete existence.” (VIII)

Against a reductionist appeal to the “data” and against a biological or neuro-scientific tendency that has crossed the current discussions on the moral, the philosopher’s thought brings a hermeneutical approach, in charge of understanding what is human and what is its capacity of responsibility and judgment, considering them in a concrete existence. Just as a parenthetical note, we can not fail to mention a similarity of this project assumed by Ricoeur, to a certain direction of contemporaneous thinking, expounded, among others, by Hannah Arendt. Even though in a completely different context, once she deals with a strong conception of politics and does not operate with this articulation between moral and anthropology, here enhanced by Dierckxsens, the problem concerning the human condition, its capacities and its ways to act and judge, is an extremely important issue for her. In fact, we believe the possible convergences between the two authors offer a subject to be thought trough and to be worked on.

Back to our main subject, one of the axes that is widely worked in the book — and that we, also, would like to emphasize as one of its most important contributions — is this idea that Ricoeur’s thought can bring an expansion to the conception of morality, in particular to that developed by analytical thinking, currently the subject of intense debates. The proposal brings these two main movements together, not independent but correlated. On the one hand, to argue that certain conceptions and perspectives present in analytical philosophy can contribute to thinking about the way Ricoeur approaches anthropology and hermeneutics, re-reading his reflection on moral action. And, on the other hand, to understand how Ricoeur allows the amplification of the current debates on morality, bringing new layers to the understanding of human existence. It is to satisfy the “gap” of this perspective in studies about the philosopher — that, even in their closer versions to the Dierckxsens’, oscillate between an approach from analytical theories or from morality, incapable to internally articulate them — that his work presents itself, emphasizing Ricoeur’s moral anthropology as a central and original contribution to the current discussions.

Notably, this becomes clear when we consider the debates in analytical philosophy about moral responsibility and justice. Faced with a kind of reductive tendency present in the most recent discussions, polarized between anthropology and psychology — taken in their more conventional sense —, moral anthropology emerges as an appeal to a more cohesive and inclusive view, inaugurating a new comprehension about justice and responsibility. It is as a refusal of the current “naturalism” that this moral perspective gains greater weight. Instead of explaining morality in terms of mechanical processes or through natural conceptions, the philosopher calls for a unified understanding of human capacities that constitute the ethical and moral life, remembering us that they must be comprehended, first of all, by a hermeneutical interpretation of the narratives and the concrete existence in which human lives take place. In other words, in contrast to mechanistic and naturalistic perspectives, Ricoeur appeals for a hermeneutical approach.

The Structure of the Text

In this movement, in this project of a hermeneutical “re-reading” of moral and anthropology, one notion will be especially mobilized by Dierckxsens to guide his analysis, the idea of singularity. It is based on this concept that he structures the book in three parts. Singularity, he argues, is one of the most adequate concepts to recognize the originality of the philosopher’s thought and its capacity to bring new elements to current moral discussions. The problematization of this notion is the way Dierckxsens finds to achieve a new understanding of the questions concerning responsibility and justice, establishing the three main topics on which the book is organized. Working on these ideas — singularity, justice and responsibility —, the text proposes increasingly closer links between the philosopher and analytical thinking. The internal connection between these elements is, in his view, almost organic:

“The case I will aim to make in the following pages is that the concept of singularity, which lies at the heart of Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, highlights the importance of hermeneutical phenomenology for understanding responsibility and justice in light of analytical moral theories. Singularity is without doubt an important concept in contemporary European philosophy in general, and in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics in particular.” (IX)

According to this perspective, the structure of the book, organized in three parts — ipseity, alterity and “evil and narrative” — establishes a way of discussing the notion of singularity, exploring in each part one of its different meanings. Dierckxsens argues that each step is an explanation of the “place” taken by this concept in Ricoeur’s moral anthropology. At the same time, through this path, it becomes possible for him to describe the meaning of hermeneutics for the notions of responsibility and justice, reconfiguring the general constellation in which they are inserted. This discussion allows the internal articulations between anthropology and the moral to become more evident, supporting his main thesis. Once again, it is important to emphasize the remarkable clarity and the careful organization in which all this argumentation is constructed. The reader can follow, step by step, the progress of the investigation, in an accurate and logical system that leaves little spaces for doubt. Ricoeur’s thought appears, progressively, each time closer to an analytical field.

But it is worth remembering yet another aspect of this proposal, that was mentioned before and that can now be adequately explained: the recognition that it is not only in its objectives that this intersection appears in the text, but, much more organically, in the very way Ricoeur is here read and presented. Unlike several other studies about the philosopher, here he appears as if he were, almost, an analytical thinker, or, if this affirmation sounds too strong, as if his thought could be structured on an analytical basis. The idea the author suggests is that they are not just close, but in some way and more importantly, that they are communing the same main lines, especially the ones here enhanced. Curiously, it seems to us that it is this element that provides more solidity to Dierckxsens’ thesis. The reader has no problem following his path because it seems, throughout all his exposure, that Ricoeur’s approach to this school of thought was drawn from the beginning, somehow inscribed in the philosopher’s writings and works. It is almost as if the philosopher were a precursor of the style of thought with which he would after be confronted.

Corroborate to this, as Dierckxsens reminds us, the philosopher’s own references to this school, variously recalled throughout the book. Yet, though frequent, they do not seem to us the central axis on which this approach can be sustained, nor its most solid point. The reference or the interest — and sometimes even the admiration — of a thinker by an author or by a current of thought, is not in itself capable of sustaining an affiliation or even an approximation in more strict terms. Moreover, such relations are being largely debated nowadays, and the approaches and distances among them are neither wholly clear nor entirely peaceful.

In our view, the strength of Dierckxsens’ work comes precisely from the way Ricoeur is, from the beginning and throughout all the argumentation, presented in terms of analytical thinking. We know that this interpretation is by no means consensual — and we know, at the same time, how this word loses force in philosophy, meditation and endless dialogue born from dissent and exchange. What seems more relevant to us is the recognition, implicit in Dierckxsens’ proposal, of the greatness of Ricoeur’s thought, capable of opening horizons such as the one defended here. As Merleau-Ponty argues in a commentary dedicated to Husserl, in his text The philosopher and his shadow, the greatness of a philosophy lies precisely in the Tradition he is capable of founding. Dierckxsens’ reading testifies, without any doubt, to this power of Ricoeur’s thought. Philosopher’s appropriation by the analytical thought, rather than instituting a divergence of interpretations, should be read as the establishment of one of the multiple dimensions his thought is capable of illuminating and, at the same time, under which it can be illuminated.

Following the author in his central proposal, the philosopher’s reflection allows us to bring new light to current ethical discussions, opening unsuspected horizons to analytical thinking, strained between explanations that place all its bets on the causes, or place them in cognitive processes, leaving aside the dimensions of “affection”, “empathy” and, in more general terms, all the knowledge and all the relations that involve the “other”. Ricoeur, on the contrary, would have been able to construct an ethic of responsibility structured precisely on notions such as affectivity, care, and solitude: “According to Ricoeur, ethical and moral interactions with others are motivated  by affection for others: compassion, conscience, neighbor love, or love for humanity and respect for other persons”.(167)

As we know, these sort of questions, concerning relational fields, alterity and affectivity, have always been essential to Ricoeur. These concepts — and this shouldn’t be forgotten — necessarily brings a phenomenological and existential support to the discussion. And that’s why we mentioned before that the work of Dierckxsens doesn’t properly present an “other” philosopher, but, more specifically, a “different” perspective of him, “dislocated” from his habitual context. Enhancing his greatness, a “unique” Ricoeur is able to bring together different directions of thought, different layers of understanding.

That’s why notions like singularity — without doubt, related to a phenomenological approach — can be here appropriated in moral debates without conflicts or contradictions. If the author operates a peculiar shift toward analytical thinking, inviting us to extend our ethical conception, an idea of singularity that does not exclude otherness will be particularly important for him. If the current discussions of analytical thinking seem to entrench ethic in the regime of a solipsism difficult to escape, Ricoeur’s thought appears as a crevice from which the relation — and all the dimensions brought by it, like affection, care and solitude — are able to figure, allowing us to rethink its limits and its deepest sense.

This is one of the main stakes of this book. And it is here that we rediscover the philosopher whose phenomenological and hermeneutic accents are clearly present, in charge of a reflection on responsibility articulated to the issues of care and relational affectivity inscribed in an existential field. That’s how, beyond approximations, Ricoeur is constructed, simultaneously, as a kind of precursor of analytical thought, and, curiously, as its antithesis or, even deeper, as its antidote, re-discussing and re-opening its frontiers. In this way, the question established by Dierckxsens is more complex than it may appear at first. Is it possible to think of the philosopher in these terms? The book, we saw, defends an affirmative answer, not only supporting the approach itself, but making it internal and organic.

However, sagaciously, at no time does the author refuse any of the other possible currents, or defend one against the others; there is no suggestion of a direct confrontation, which strengthens, once again, his description. That is one of the reasons that makes his work a significant contribution in a debate that concerns not only Ricoeur’s thought, but also his dialogues, exchanges and affiliations. As he implicitly assumes, there isn’t a unique answer to this problem; on the contrary, like we argued above, the strongest point of his work would be precisely the testimony of the openness and the inexhaustibility of Ricoeur’s thought. As the philosopher himself has taught us, the space to comprehend this kind of question should be searched for in some place that does not build walls or divided elements, instituting conflicts and separations, but, on the contrary, one that recognizes a more plastic, open and dialogical field, made of transitions and reversibilities, capable of sustaining the difference, without transforming it into conflict or separation. What is clear, in Dierckxsens’ work, is this recognition of Ricoeur’s strength and appeal towards a stronger, larger and more inclusive ethic[iii]; one solid enough to face the problems brought by contemporary issues. This extended ethical sense is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest teachings of Ricoeur’s philosophy.


[i] Dierckxsens himself enhances some examples: Richard Kearney (Ed.), Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action (London, SAGE, 1996); Jonathan Michel, Paul Ricoeur: une philosophie de l’agir humain (Paris: Cerf, 2006); Todd S. Mei and David Lewin (Eds.), From Ricoeur to Action. The Socio-Political significance of Ricoeur’s Thinking (London and New York: Bloomsburry, 2012).

[ii] The author enhances, particularly, two works: Nathalie Mailard, La vulnérabilité. Une nouvelle catégorie morale ? (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2011); Cyndie Sautereau, “Répondre à la vulnérabilité. Paul Ricoeur et les éthiques du care en dialogue”. Journal for French and Francophone Philosophie/Revue de la philosophie française et de la langue française, 23, n. 1, 2015, 1-20.

[iii] “In that respect, the task of hermeneutics is not so much to search for one universal objective truth about morality, like a blueprint of our ethico-moral constitution, but rather to understand what humans have in common along their differences, through dialogue and interpretation and across their singular lived experiences, in order to understand what motivates their ethical and moral actions.” (73)

Lenart Škof, Petri Berndtson (Eds.): Atmospheres of Breathing

Atmospheres of Breathing Book Cover Atmospheres of Breathing
Lenart Škof, Petri Berndtson (Eds.)
SUNY Press
2018
Paperback $27.95
326

Reviewed by: Victoria Wynne-Jones (The University of Auckland)

‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair.’
—Drew Leder (226)

There is a new genre in philosophy, it is one that is ‘respiratory.’ So argue Lenart Škof and Petri Berndtson in the introduction to the edited volume Atmospheres of Breathing. Citing Luce Irigaray’s dismissal of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy as ‘one forgetting the breath,’ Škof and Berndtson go on to argue that since Plato, Western traditions of philosophy have indeed been ‘oblivious to breath’ (ix). This narrative forms the impetus for their project, one in which they aim to present ‘an archaeology of breath’ from ‘respiratory philosophers as spiritual archaeologists excavating [the breath’s] hidden ontological, epistemological, ethical, religious and political layers.’ (ix)

Škof and Berndtson ask what kind of philosophy such a respiratory, breathing or breath-full philosophy might be? (x) How would it think and understand relations between thinking and breathing, between philosophy and respiration? And what might the start of such a philosophy be? According to Škof and Berndtson, the message from the ‘great breathers’ is that ‘it is not enough to think – one must also breathe’ (x-xi). Škof and Berndtson ponder whether the relationship between thinking and breathing is a parallel one or whether it is rather ‘a chiasmic relation in which the thinker and the experience of breathing somehow constantly intertwine in an essential manner, perpetually inspiring each other?’(xi). Their question then becomes how do breathing and thinking influence each other as well as whether ‘every thought, even those we barely notice, is at some fundamental level already in a hidden and latent manner a respiratory thought – that is, a thought somehow inspired by the breath?’

Ruminating upon Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan’s assertion that the ‘the fundamental error of philosophy is its constant “forgetting of breathing” (x) Škof and Berndtson argue that in Western philosophy such forgetfulness has ‘made it possible for the dangerous idea of dualism to become a paradigm of modern philosophy.’ (xiii) Perhaps inevitably the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of René Descartes and the third of his Meditations on First Philosophy. As summarised by Škof and Berndtson, in the relevant section Descartes seeks to ‘address only himself by looking deeper and deeper into himself’ so that he might be more better known and familiar to himself (xii). Such self-knowledge can only be achieved via a withdrawal from the so-called deceptive world of the senses. Škof and Berndtson point out that even though Descartes describes his withdrawal, from the visual by closing his eyes, from the auditory by blocking his ears, it is impossible for him to block his nostrils and mouth, as these are required to breathe. Descartes’ description is therefore erroneous, ‘as he forgets breathing he is not at all truthful in what he writes.’ Had his pursuit of obtaining ‘pure and indubitable self-knowledge’ lead to him blocking his respiratory openings he would have experienced, according to Škof and Berndtson ‘a dreadful experience of anxiety… his sole thought would have been I am feeling terrible. How long can I hold my breath? I really need to breathe.’ Had the philosopher experienced this train of thought, argue the editors of Atmospheres of Breath, Cartesian philosophy would have been absolutely different as would Western philosophy. Tying into Kahn’s proposition, Škof and Berndtson surmise that had Descartes been more aware of own breathing he never would have arrived at his dualistic philosophy (xiii). If the starting principle of philosophy is the experience of breathing, which ‘perpetually intertwines the self, the body and the world,’ then dualism becomes untenable.

A focus upon the breath means that such a philosophical project is resolutely embodied. This ties into Irigaray’s assertion included on the first page of the introduction, that awareness of the breath is in fact ‘essential for an embodied ethics of difference in our globalized, ecological age’ (ix). Daoist philosopher Zhangzi, considered by Škof and Berndtson to be ‘the philosopher for breathing,’ focuses upon fundamental difference of breathing as a way of theorising difference between people (xiv). Whereas a ‘The True Man’ breaths deeply, with his heels, from head to toe with an ‘expanded, cultivated breath,’ those who breathe merely with their throats cannot ‘experience the vastness of breath in all of its spiritual and ontological possibilities and atmospheres.’ Harking back to Descartes, Škof and Berndtson caution ‘it is not enough to think, one also has to breathe. Dangerous are the thinkers who have not breathed enough’ (xiv).

Further reinforcement of the overall thrust of this edited volume is provided by Khan, according to whom the only true error or fundamental wrongdoing in human life ‘is to let one breath go without being conscious of it’ (xiv-xv). For Khan, to be ‘unaware of the phenomenon of breathing’ which is ‘this most important thing in life’ is also to be oblivious to its ‘manifold mysteries’ (xv). Breath is a ‘vast current which goes through everything,’ this atmosphere of breath surrounds, intermediates and flows through everything, it comes from our very consciousness and extends to external being and the physical world. Škof and Berndtson contrast this with an average person’s experience of breathing which is superficial, hence completely missing the profound dimensions of its atmospheres and possibilities. There is a respiratory difference, which is the ‘difference between breathing consciously and freely’ and not doing so and between ‘thinking breathfully and not thinking breathfully’ as well as ‘cultivating and not cultivating breathing’ (xvi). For Irigaray such a cultivation of breathing is linked to ‘the cultivation of ethics in ourselves and in our intersubjective relations’ (xvii). Such difference is in fact a fundamental principle of this respiratory philosophy. For Škof and Berndtson breathing is ‘openness, respiratory openness, a perpetual opening to the atmosphere of air’ (xvi). In such respiratory and aerial openness ‘all questions, problems, and subjects of philosophy appear as questions, problems and subjects of respiratory philosophy. Their appearance takes place within this respiratory openness as the atmosphere of breathing.’

Yet the question remains, what could this new philosophy as respiratory philosophy be? One aspect is a revisionist project proposed by Škof and Berndtson which involves a re-reading of ‘the great thinkers in a respiratory key to examine their relation to the phenomenon of breath’(xiii). This respiratory philosophy aims to see the world in a respiratory way and within the atmospheres of breathing so that one might ‘re-experience all the questions of philosophy as questions concerning the atmospheres of breathing’ (xvi and xv). Such a revision of the world means that everything ‘be re-thought, re-examined, and re-experienced within these atmospheres of breathing’ (xviii) Thus, any ‘questions of life,’ indeed ‘all questions of philosophy become respiratory questions of philosophy’ that is ‘they are seen perpetually from the perspective of breathing’ (xvii). Therefore each chapter in this edited volume investigates philosophical questions from the perspective of breathing and in doing so ‘are transformed into respiratory questions’ (xvii).

The editors have divided the book into five sections: philosophical atmospheres of breathing, philosophical traditions of breathing, voices and media of breathing, breathful and breathless worlds and a postface. However another way of regarding the volume is to see that some of the essays engage in more post-human understandings of breath, others are concerned with philosophies of breath that originate from ancient Hebrew, east Asian or indigenous traditions of thought. A selection take their insights from the discipline of medical science and the domain of poetry. Finally, several chapters engage with what is considered to be classic phenomenology.

The most invigorating chapters in this edited volume focus more on ‘atmospheres,’ on creating a genealogy of matter or media that is breathed. Four in particular go some way in arguing that ‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair’ (226) John Durham Peters, a media theorist based at Yale University sets out a ‘deep history of breathing’ (182) beginning with a natural history of oxygen. Though now oxygen is a widespread element, this was not always the case. During its first three billion years the earth was a giant oxygen vacuum, its natural sinks quickly sucking up any available freestanding oxygen. Anaerobic forms of life went on to produce an overabundance of oxygen that could no longer be absorbed by natural sinks. Durham Peters writes of the way in which the earth itself breathes or participates in an exchange of other elements; mountains, oceans and forests acted as planetary lungs, carrying out their exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (183). The Great Oxidation Event which occurred around 2.3 billion years ago, meant that oxygen as a catastrophic toxin caused the biggest extinction in earth’s history. Organisms which adapted to the new habitat used oxygen as the basis for respiration became the new dominant organisms on earth.

A similar project is undertaken by political theorist Marijn Nieuwenhuis who is based at the University of Warwick. Nieuwenhuis’s project is to unfold a ‘a story of breath as an inspiring medium’ (200) one that has affected ‘metaphysicians, alchemists, chemists, physicians, military commanders, and contemporary law enforcers.’ Nieuwenhuis politicises air, arguing that knowledge about it and its relationship to the body informs processes of governance. Thus Nieuwenhuis’ narrative describes how, in a western context breath is entangled with ‘questions of life, health, biopolitics, death, killing and thanatopolitics.’ Nieuwenhuis’ narrative spans from the ancient Greek concept of pneuma or air as something that separates life from non-life to the Cartesian de-spiritualization of pneuma (201), slowly moving towards a secularization and materialization of air. By the nineteenth century the regulation of air became one of the central priorities of new biopolitical regimes of power (203). Oxygen, as an immediate requirement for human life meant that the quality and availability of breathable air became a crucial biopolitical medium in and through which power could be expressed. Pneumatic research lead to knowledge about gaseous compounds, so that ‘the medium of air could sustain breathing bodies as well as poison them’ (204). Combining chemical expertise with the power of the state, gases such as chlorine and phosgene were the primary agents in twentieth-century gas warfare (205). The aim of gassing, explains Nieuwenhuis was not to ‘kill the enemy, but, as pulmonary agents are designed to do, to take away their breath’ Suffocation of the air was designed to terrorize the enemy physiologically and psychologically rather than to kill.

Nieuwenhuis argues that the idea of gassing being morally superior over other forms of state violence continues to this day in the domestic deployment of ‘non-lethal’ lachrymators of tear gas by contemporary law-enforcement officers (206). Nieuwenhuis borrows Sloterdijk’s term ‘atmosterrorism’ or terrorism of the very atmosphere, to describe the way in which gassing propels the body’s vital respiratory mechanism to turn against itself. As part of ‘modern atmospheric governance,’ air become a medium by which to discipline and punish, it is an extraordinary weapon used to govern populations. As described by Nieuwenhuis, over the course of a century, gassing has transformed from an illegal means to wage war into a legitimate governmental technology to suppress and disrupt the movement of protesting bodies. Nieuwenhuis’ history speaks of bodies and their relationships to air and the atmospheric environment, such relationships have a collective and explicitly political dimension when the very atmosphere is used against the body (208).

Nieuwenhuis’ chapter with its description of how knowledges of respiration have been appropriated to serve ‘biopolitical and thanatopolitical purposes’ ties into arguments made by Durham Peters about techniques and technologies that make up ‘media of breathing’ (179). According to Durham Peters techniques need not take any lasting material form, whereas technologies always require a physical tool or device. Breathing techniques have been developed for activities as diverse as ‘giving birth, singing, yoga’ swimming and deep-sea diving’ whereas modern breathing technologies modify hostile atmospheres or supplement a lacking body with apparatuses (180). Durham Peters creates a four part outline to categorise the media of breathing: there are techniques that affect the breather; techniques that affect the atmosphere; technologies that affect the breather and technologies that affect the atmosphere. Within this matrix Durham Peters places human and animal techniques for holding and modulating the breath, manipulations of the atmosphere, medical enhancements of breathing capacities as well as systematic and intentional alterations of atmospheres through technologies such as those described by Nieuwenhuis.

Just as Durham Peters and Nieuwenhuis create politicised, atmosphere-centric narratives, in her chapter Magdalena Górska, a feminist theorist from Utrecht University, argues for a re-thinking of politics in relation to bodily actions of breathing (247). In terms of the way in which parts of this edited volume attempt to de-anthropocentrize the breath, the highlight is Durham Peters’ description of cetacean and dolphin breathing, with their radically different ear-nose-and-throat complex in which phonating and eating are completely separate (183-184). Durham Peters’ account serves to challenge the blithe assumption that all animals necessarily breathe in the same way. Connected to this is Górska’s account of breathing as a process shared across human and nonhuman life forms. Dynamic breathing is, Górska explains, a matter for ‘human-embodied subjects’ as well as for ‘other animals, over- and underwater beings, plants, soil and elements’ (247). Inspired by feminist physicist and theorist Karen Barad, Górska’s chapter seeks to create a non-reductive understanding of breath. For Górska, breathing is transformed according to which breathing actors, such as oxygen, diaphragm or tree one follows. Far from homogenous, even human breathing is enacted differently in relation to lung specificities, some might be partially collapsed with cancer or coal dust sediment, there are different sizes and different respiratory capacities (248). There are also different rhythms and flows of breathing across different bodies that vary according to age, constitution and size and breath can also be aided by respiratory aids and technologies.

Górska emphasises the diversity of breath as a ‘flow of worldly circulation’ (250). Troubling body-boundaries, breath problematizes distinctions such as inside and outside and ‘complications notions of self, other and environment.’ Lungs that breathe polluted air activate matters of environmental politics, and Górska draws attention to the way in which there is diversity within the breathability of life and air quality, breathing is therefore a deeply political matter: ‘the ability to take a breath and to breathe fresh air is a matter of intersectional situatedness in and enactment of local and global power relations.’ This is summarised in Górska’s point that ‘It matters if and how one can breathe and if and how one’s life is breathable’ (252). Another important point made by Górska is that social power relations or manifestations of oppressive structures such as ‘racism, classism, colonialism, heteronormativity, gender normativity , sexism and ableism’ might create dynamics that affect breathing causing anxiety, panic attacks and changes in breathing. Of crucial importance to Górska is a ‘literal enactment of the struggle for a breathable life’ or ‘nonhegemonic breathable life and existence’ (255).

Integral to the de-anthropocentric thrust within this publication is the postface written by David Abram, an eco-philosopher based in the foothills of the Southern Rockies. Abram posits that climate change is a consequence of taking the air we breathe for granted and ‘failing to respect or notice the elemental medium we’re immersed within’ (263). Although the atmosphere is ‘ungraspable, unmappable and hopelessly unpredictable’ it is indelibly tied to breath and is in fact a ‘ubiquitous and meaning-filled plenum’ (264). Abram writes of how awareness involves a ‘felt experience of earth’s atmosphere’ it is something we are ‘corporeally situated within’ (265) something that is continuous with what twists the grasses and lofts the crows, whether it is imbibed through nostrils or the stomata in leaves. Abram gently reminds that consciousness is not unique to our species, it is in fact a ‘property of the breathing biosphere.’ Abram describes how Inuit and Yupik peoples speak of a breath-soul that dwells in each living being, providing life and awareness to humans, animals and plants and how a person’s breath-soul is her part of the wider mind of the wind (266). Such concepts of a holy wind are subscribed to by Dineh and Navajo as well as Hopi and Zuni. Abram turns to the Hebrew tradition of ruah as a divine wind and rushing spirit (269). Abram points out the primacy of breath in oral traditions, an identification of awareness with the unseen air, the sacredness accorded to the invisible medium in which we are bodily immersed (270). Hence words are ‘nothing other than shaped breath,’ air is intermediary in all communication and is the very medium of meaning. In his chapter Abram writes of the ‘need for air’ for ‘a bit of breathing space, for a chance to breathe, a way to remember what is primary,’ a catching of one’s breath (272). One way in which to do so is through story-telling as this helps to engage with each other face-to-face in corporeal exchange as well as ‘re-new our participation in the more-than human community, in the breathing commons’ (273). It is through listening and the telling of tales, argues Abram that we might bringing our spinning minds ‘back into alignment with the broad intelligence of the biosphere’ and ‘reclaim our membership in the commonwealth of breath’ (274-275).

As mentioned earlier, many of the chapters in this edited volume seek to either enrich phenomenology with insights gleaned from Eastern or indigenous knowledges as is the case with Abram. Petri Berndtson from the University of Jvaäkylä reflects on whether breathing or respiration might teach us an ontology or shed light upon an investigative philosophical project of re-defining being. (26). With the aid of concepts of inspiration, expiration, inhalation and exhalation taken from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Berndtson posits that we are in fact ‘respiration within being’ so that, in respiratory terms, being-in-the-world might be re-phrased as ‘breathing-in-the-world’ (28). Berndtson re-vivifies his project of articulating a new ontology or philosophy with the aid of Japanese Zen teachings that focus on breathing as well as seated mediation or zazen (29). It is from these traditions that Berndtson comes to ‘an inspiration and expiration of being’ or an experience of participating in universal breathing as almost a feeling of being breathed. This idea of a world of nothing but breathing or the way in which we are ‘always already respiration within being’ (37) is encapsulated in a quotation from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki:

What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. (30)

Together with a Japanese concept of , or the atmosphere of air as open and empty space’ (34) Berndtson summarises that a ‘new atmospheric, respiratory ontology’ requires a ‘constant deepening of our essential respiratory openness to the world of nothing but breathing’ (42). An ontological method of respiratory philosophy is therefore ‘breathing as a fundamental openness to air’ and ‘to silently hearken breathing as mindfully as possible’ (37-38.)

Rolf Elberfeld, a philosopher based at the University of Hildesheim in Germany also explores aspects of the aesthetics of breathing in Japan as well as China. Elberfeld explains that ki in Japanese is a word that means breath as well as ‘a dense entanglement of sensory levels, feelings, physical sensations and moods’ something that transcend distinctions between subject and object’ (73). Ki is also examined by philosopher Tadashi Ogawa in another chapter. Ogawa translates ki as ‘wind’ and discusses it in relation to historical Japanese practices of preventive medicine. Ogawa gives an account of ki as a ‘phenomenology of wind’ similar to the way in which in English one is ‘winded’ when one’s breath is forcefully taken away. Processes of inhaling and exhaling involve breath as ‘air-wind’ moving from the interior to the exterior of one’s body (143). Ogawa adds that ki is associated with the movement and flow of life, it is vitality or ‘the energy of life’ (144).

According to Elberfeld, qi is an old Chinese word for breathing, weather, atmosphere as well as subtle phenomena like movement, relationships references and a ‘fundamental movement in life’ (71). Also included within this publication is a chapter by Jana Rosker, a scholar based at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, which examines the importance of qi for Chinese philosophy. Rosker argues that qi is connected to air and breathing, it is often something physically present, yet invisible (127). Linked to breath, Rosker explains that the word qi is of fundamental and vital significance for any organic existence. As an organic state qi ‘is internalized in the human body, but simultaneously it connects all existing beings in the universe that are endowed with life’ (128). Nothing can live without qi, it is a vital force underlying all forms of life, it is a ‘principle of vital creativity’ and ‘the cause of any change and transformation.’ Rosker gives a genealogical account of the various ways in which qi has been misinterpreted over time, however she concludes by arguing that according to Chinese philosophy qi is a ‘limitless source of all creation,’ an ‘omnipresent cosmic creative flow’ that is evident in human breath (136). It is Elberfield’s hope that in conceiving of breathing as an ‘aesthetic category,’ approaches and descriptions from Ancient China or Japan might prove enlightening for contemporary aesthetic practice (75). Looking at examples from painting, theatre and dance Elberfield introduces some intriguing ideas for example: that actors and audience members form a dense field of unity in breathing (74) and that breathing could be placed at the centre of aesthetic description so that ‘an aesthetic of breathing could develop the attention to the breathing processes in aesthetic processes’ (78).

Tamara Ditrich from the University of Sydney, a scholar in Sanskrit and Pāli creates a methodical account of the significance of breath in ancient Indian religious and philosophical milieu in order to describe how these provide a context for early Buddhist teachings (99). Ditrich examines the role of ‘mindfulness of breathing’ as a key method of mediation in many Buddhist contemplative practices. Ditrich explains that mindfulness, a concept that is currently gaining a lot of attention is an ‘ethical praxis within Buddhist teachings’ that ‘reflects on the intrinsic interrelation between ethics and breath’ (99). Mindfulness is described as an ‘ethical watchfulness,’ a ‘contemplative awareness of mental and physical phenomena arising in the present moment’ (102). Where Ditrich gives an account of breathing taken from her studies in ancient Indian and Buddhist teachings, James Morley, a clinical psychologist and student of yoga based in New Jersey gives an interpretation of the yoga practice of prānāyāma or breath control that is influenced by the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (115). Morley is particularly interested in elucidating the actual experience of breath control through Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the ‘lived-body.’ It is from Merleau-Ponty that Morely takes the idea that flesh, with its primordial, elemental character is in fact the substance of the world, a crossing point between subject and object, body and world. This has special relevance to yoga in which control of the body is equated with the mastery of external nature (117-118). According to Morley breath control is in fact the ‘master metaphor’ for the goal of yoga which is to achieve a ‘homology’ between body and world.’ For Morley, breath control, integral to the practice of yoga is in fact a ‘concrete experience of the body as a relation between inside and outside. To breathe is to pull external air into ourselves and to rhythmically release outward something of ourselves.’ Morely argues that yogic prānāyāma, as exemplified in the writings of the scholar-practitioner T.K.V. Desikachar resonate with Merleau-Ponty’s explication of interiority, exteriority and his thesis of reversibility. For Morley such accounts of breath control bring Western thought ‘down to earth’ by focusing on the lived human body as philosophical and psychological ground.

Writing at the intersection of eastern traditions, medicine and phenomenology, Drew Leder from Loyola College in Maryland also addresses spiritual practices relating to the breath. For Leder breath is ‘a theatre for the play of health and illness’ (219). From a western biological and medical perspective, together with a phenomenological approach focusing on the lived body Leder argues for breath as a hinge, ‘between many embodied levels, organs, and functions, and between the body and its lifeworld… between trajectories of personal health, illness, and treatment.’ (220). Leder’s hinge recalls the swinging door of Zen, it is defined as a ‘joint or flexible surface that holds together two parts, allowing them to swing relative to one another. Such a ‘living hinge’ is an interface between ‘the conscious and unconscious body;’ the ‘voluntary and involuntary;’ ‘physical dualities,’ ‘the local and expansive act;’ ‘movement and stillness;’ the ‘flow of receiving and returning’ and ‘visible and invisible realms’ (222.)

Breath, according to Leder is a ‘powerful health restorative’ (223) he points out that ‘Slow, deep breathing is probably the single best anti-stress medicine we have [. . .] heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms.’

On a similar note, Havi Carel a philosopher from the University in Bristol who also teaches medical students creates ‘a philosophical framework for the understanding of the experience of breathlessness’ (233). A phenomenological approach is crucial here as such experiences are ‘total and overwhelming to the sufferer, but also largely invisible to the outsider.’ Harking back to Górska’s approach to specificities of breath and panic attacks, Carel points out that ‘Whilst the physiology of breathlessness is well understood, the subjective experiences of breathing and breathlessness are understudied and our vocabulary and concepts with which to understand them are limited’ (234). Carel creates a ‘phenomenology of breathlessness’ in order to explore the tensions between ‘medical and cultural or intuitive understandings of breathing and breathlessness’ (235). Carel turns to Merleau-Ponty for whom ‘embodiment determines possibilities and existence is ‘being able to be.’ Accordingly, in breathlessness, possibilities seem to be truncated, curtailed, or altogether closed off’ (237).

As part of his contribution, Kevin Hart from the University of Virginia turns to the poetry as ‘thoughts that breathe,’ specifically in the poems of Mark Strand (153). For Hart, breath is the very ‘condition of possibility for poetry.’ Binding together phenomenology and poetry, Hart seeks to probe ‘how poems think, how poems breathe’ and ‘how new breath must be found’ (155). Hart mines through themes of breath in Strand’s poems, seeking out whispers, blows and dying breath. Quoting Strand, Hart writes ‘breath is a mirror clouded by words… our words appear only in breath’ and ‘we see ourselves in that cloud’ (157-158). Where Hart turned to poetry, Jones Irwin, a philosopher based in Dublin City University looks at the writing of dramatist Antonin Artaud and his understanding of breath as articulated via Jacques Derrida. For Artaud ‘the question of breathing is of prime importance,’ (169) in his prophetic writings there is a particular focus on breath, bodies and expression, making up what Irwin calls a ‘radicalizing’ and ‘existential perspective’ (168). In combat with the mind-body dualism Artaud stresses the importance of flesh, ‘the rawness of reality’ and a ‘re-inspiration of breath’ (169). As part of his Theatre of Cruelty project, cruelty stands in for the metaphysicians’ theft of breath and life-force. Artaud sought to reinstantiate a ‘body without organs’ that is ‘an authentic self’ who breathes for herself and can ‘inspire cultural and social revolution.’ In 1965 Derrida aligned his project of deconstruction with Artaud’s reinvocation of breath in his essay La Parole Soufflée (the breathed or stolen speech). According to Derrida breath and writing are crucial, however such writing must be a ‘nonphonetic’ and ‘hieroglyphic’ ‘writing of the body.’ Indeed Artaud’s physical theatre was made up of a ‘physical language of ‘shouts, gestures, expressions’ seeking to listen more closely to life and ‘return to sonority, intonation’ and ‘intensity’ (170). Once identities are lost or spirited away by the alienation of everyday existence, bodies must then be ‘inspired’ or ‘spritualised’ in order to be cured (171). Of importance to Irwin, Derrida, Artaud is a transformation of the relationship between art and body (172). The ‘machinery of breath’ must be at work as part of the concept of a ‘subjectile,’ part subject, part projectile, one that engages in ‘new bodily writing, being starts with movement, force before form’ and emphasising radical expression. What is traced is a movement, a process, life-force, existence and fragile, embodied breathing’ as part of a ‘theatre of breath’ (175).

Within his chapter, US-based philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin, like Berndtson seeks to combine insights gleaned from Eastern thought, specifically from Tibetan Buddhism with what could be considered classic phenomenology. Perhaps part of the justification for such an assembling of ideas is that breathing practices from such cultures provides more concrete addition to phenomenological theory which has a tendency to be highly abstract. For his exploration of a ‘hermeneutics of breathing’ Kleinberg-Levin brings together concepts from Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger with those from Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung and Lacan together with those of Heraclitus. As part of this project Kleinberg-Levin argues that breathing as psyche and the self as Psyche are closely related and involved with logos as articulation of being, speech and individuation (5-6). There can be no logos or speech without breath and according to Kleinberg-Levin it is only with language that one becomes truly human (6). For Kleinberg-Levin, meditative work with breathing can be a ‘source of transformative energy for process of self-development, fulfillment, individuation’ (5).

Although Kleinberg-Levin’s account is very general there is some acknowledgement of variations in atmospheres, respiratory systems as well as the way in which breathing is always-already spatialised and affected by ‘cultural norms, social interactions, our moods, states of mind’ (11). Like Górska and Carel, Kleinberg-Levin’s story about breathing includes an account of the way in which anxiety can be suffocating, making breathing extremely difficult or laboured. As pointed out in this hermeneutics, an openness is required in which to breathe, the very word anxiety is derived from ‘narrowness,’ a pertinent quotation from Kierkegaard is included: ‘without possibility, a man cannot, as it were, draw breath’ (12). Kleinberg-Levin applies his hermeneutics of breath to a broader argument about how speech is a development of breathing, prayer is a fulfillment of speech and that breathing is ‘essentially a mode of prayer’ (14). Earlier on in the chapter Kleinberg-Levin hints at how breath and the space it occurs within are ‘co-constituting’ (11) and later on, reflects on writings from a Tibetan scholar and the way in which ‘the space outside the body and the space that the body occupies are not really separate (15), they constitute a natural, dynamic unity. Breathing practices produce an ‘ontological body of breath’ one whose breathing is open to the energy fields of the cosmos, it is through the mindfulness of mediation that one might breathe away the ego (16).

In his chapter, Slovenian-based researcher and co-editor of this volume Lenart Škof examines philosophies that are deeply relational in particular theories of Luce Irigaray that consider the significance of dyadic encounters, what Škof refers to as ‘an ethically radicalized mode of between-two, based on the ontology of self-affection, sexual difference, and our mutual mesocosmical breathing’ (53). Škof highlights ideas taken from Irigaray about the way in which those within a couple ‘breathe the same air, but we breathe it differently’ (54). He emphasises the concept of self-affection a something which must be cultivated, embodied as well as centred upon the breath. As part of an ontology of the breath Škof examines Irigaray’s developmental story about the significance of the breath, its necessity for autonomy (56) as well as the importance of creating a ‘reserve of disposable breath.’ Such a reserve of breath is required for ‘keeping and maintaining ourselves in our self-affection, and then for having its share for others in our compassion’ (57). Škof argues that such conceptions of the breath have deeply theological implications.

Throughout Atmospheres of Breathing many of its authors turn to concepts taken from pre-Socratic thinkers. In the chapter by US-based philosopher Silvia Benso, Anaximenes’ conceptions of air are discussed in relation the writings of Emmanuel Levinas for whom it is important to note, phenomenology was considered to be too solipsistic a project. Benso’s chapter seeks to create a Levinasian reading of specific ancient ideas, to find resonances between the two in terms of the way in which they conceptualise air, inspiration and alterity. The crucial passage from Anaximenes, via Aetius is as follows: ‘As our soul [psyche], he says, being air [aer] holds us together and controls us, so does wind [or breath; pneuma] and air [aer] enclose the whole world’ (87-88). According to Benso, for Anaximenes air is substantial, it is a basic form of substance, one that has both material and spiritual features, and the psyche is simultaneously air and breath, it is ‘assimilated to a natural, physical principle’ that is seen at work in the entire universe so that there is, Benso explains, an analogy or structural coincidence between microcosm and macrocosm (88). Here air and breath are synonymous, and breath is something enlivening, a life-force that is ‘forceful, vital, organic,’ there is no breath, except in breathing, a lung-based or ‘pulmonary activity’ of ‘taking in and letting out, of inspiration and expiration.’ Breathing individualises and enables subjectivity, producing physiological, psychological, physical and spiritual life. It is with assurance that Benso delves into the intricacies of Levinas’ thought and its relationship to such ideas. Breath as something both material and spiritual that Benso ruminates in relation to a selection of Levinas’ writings. According to Levinas “An openness of the self to the other… breathing is transcendence in the form of opening up’ and ‘psychism’ is a ‘deep inspiration… an inspiring, breathing the other in as well as a being inspired, animated by the other’ (93). Hence breathing, inspiration and language have animating and ontological force on an embodied level.

On the whole this edited volume goes some way in helping one to re-learn to see the world in a respiratory way, offering various approaches to a ‘world in which ‘everything breathes again’ (xviii). The publication is successful in its proposition of a respiratory philosophy, each chapter ensures that breath cannot be forgotten. In the words of Nobel literature prize winner Elias Canetti the project evokes ‘thoughts that make it easier to breathe rather than thoughts that bite’ (xviii). Škof and Berndtson’s project is indeed a worthy one, particularly when it stresses the importance of the atmosphere which is breathed in, an entity that is too often taken for granted and consumed via processes that are more often than not unconscious.

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
2017
Hardback £34.99
370

Reviewed by: Diego D'Angelo (Universität Koblenz-Landau)

Thomas Fuchs is one of the leading scholars worldwide trying to merge psychopathology, phenomenology, and neurosciences. In the German-speaking part of the world his name is mostly connected to his book (published in 2007) Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan. Thanks to his latest publication, this reference book is now available in English with some updates and improvements. This edition is, in Fuchs own swords, “completely revised and extended” (v) and offers an overarching analysis of his approach.

For the purpose of this review, I will not go into details describing the differences between the two edition – this would be mostly interesting for the German speaking readership – and I will restrict myself to the philosophical content, setting aside analysis of and implications for psychotherapy, psychology, and neurosciences. Instead, I will focus on giving a broad introduction to the work, spelling out the reasons why I think that Fuchs‘ approach has to be taken very seriously in a wide array of contemporary debates, and what I think could profit from further refinement.

In order to properly sketch out the novelty and conspicuousness of Fuchs‘ analysis, it is necessary to pick out, from the international panorama, the antagonistic positions. Having Husserlian and Post-Husserlian phenomenology as carrying pillars of his approach, Fuchs builds up his theory against common assumptions put forward by, on the one hand, (I.) representationalism (as a leading theory in the phenomenology of mind) and, on the other hand, (II.) by the view of the brain as a computational machine or, more broadly, every version of neurobiological reductionism. Interestingly, Fuchs claims that both these views rest on the same unwarranted assumption: they both beg the question, since they want to explain the human subject and her experiences, but end up presupposing this very subject in order to make sense.

  1. As for representationalism, grasping something as a representation (a picture, a sign, a symbol…) of something else requires someone able to grasp this relationship. As in Charles Sanders Peirce’s triangular semiotic relationship, a sign can be a sign of something only for someone that interprets this relation as a semiotic relation. Representationalism conflates sign and interpreter and is therefore not viable for the construction of a full-fledged theory of subjectivity.
  2. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the view according to which subjectivity and mind stand to the brain like software to hardware is right. The argument of Fuchs is metatheoretical: “How is the brain supposed to know itself? How should a physically describable and localized mechanism be in a position to bring forth the world of scientific experience in which it emerges at tthe same time?” (xvii) In standard approaches, the brain is the starting point (as that which produces the mind viz. consciousness) and the result (namely the theoretical product of a series of scientific and methodological steps that lead us to explaining its functioning) at the same time. The brain, even if understood as hardware, presupposes something capable to look and study it (its software): but the subject is nowhere to be found in the brain. Surely there would be no consciousness without the brain, but it is also true that “without consciousness there would be no human brain.” (228) Indeed, according to Fuchs “the mind is not in the brain, for it is the overarching manifestation, the gestalt, and the ordered patterns of all relations that we have to our environment as animate beings, and as humans to our fellow humans.” (207) The neuroscientist that forgets this and takes the brain as the sole origin of the mind “loses sights […] of his own subjectivity“ (43) and thereby of his own brain. Any discourse about the brain clearly presupposes what the brain is alleged to bring forth: namely, “conscious human persons who exist to communicate with each other.” (xvii) This critique can be widened in order to encompass not only theories about the brain, but even the scientific practice as such, and a longer quote explains this: “My thesis reads as follows: the problems of the relationship between brain and mind, as they present themselves today, emerge from a short circuit between the level of natural scientific, in this case, especially neurobiological constructs, and the level of intersubjective, life-world experience, from which the neurobiological special practice has developed and with which it remains always bound.” (62) In a Husserlian fashion, Fuchs claims therefore that “Neurobiology is primarily a highly specialized form of common practice arising from the life-world.” (63)

His own positive theory proposes, as stated by the title, a completely different view of the brain, the body, the subject, and the surrounding world. “We are not figments of our brains, but human persons in the flesh.” (291) The non-reductionistic approach Fuchs puts forward claims that the human person must be ecologically regarded as an organism in its totality, avoiding thinking that, as the adagio goes, we are our brains. The brain is not the production place of the mind, but an organ of relation with the body and with the environment. The brain is a mediating organ: “it can only be adequately understood as an organ of the living being in its environment.” (67) This central claim is quickly said, but not as quickly understood. What does it exactly mean?

First of all, Fuchs questions the centrality of the notion of the mind as something separated from the body and the Umwelt. Following mostly Merleau-Pontian phenomenology, but also the German tradition of philosophical anthropology (mostly Plessner), Fuchs stresses the unity of the living being, a unity encompassing life (as opposed to mind), body, and world, and grounded in intentionality (36 f.). Subjectivity is not restricted to the mind as a “property” of the brain, but is coexstensive to life of the organism and is therefore, in the concepts of today’s 4E cognition, extended: “The peripheral and autonomic nervous system, the senses, the skin, the muscles, the heart, the viscera – all these are carriers of subjectivity too.” (19)

Even if this may seem like a bold statement, its consequence is clear: what we are looking for is therefore not the origin of the mind in the brain, but the function of the brain (and of the central nervous system) in the global life of the human person as a living organism. The starting point, for Fuchs, is indeed the concepts of life and experience (leben and erleben, cf. 31). He argues, along with the phenomenological tradition, that the world experienced in perception is the world we live in and not a mere illusion to be corrected by science. This would amount to what he calls “the idealistic legacy.” (5) Instead, according to Fuchs‘ phenomenological, embodied, and enactive paradigm, things are encountered as what they are, since “they are perceived as available for our interaction with them” (9) – they are at the disposal of our own body. This is an important point: the interrelatedness of brain, body, and world can only be stated if our perception of the world can be thought of as a genuine source of knowledge about the world itself and if, at the same time, our body is a part of it.

If the role of the brain is to connect and mediate, a crucial role in this process of mediation is played by the human body, which carries along a twofold structure: the body is both lived body (Leib) and living or objective body (Körper) (12-14). Following Thompson’s groundbreaking Mind in Life as well as Husserl’s Ideas II, the mind-body problem is rewritten as the “LeibKörper problem.” Consciousness is not “born in the brain,” but is an “enactment of life” (45) involving the whole living organism. The conception of embodied subjectivity put forward by Fuchs is thus ecological (whence the title of the book) thanks to the claim that the brain must be studied in conjunction with the whole body and the whole life of the organism, together with its surrounding world. Against the standard view, Fuchs stresses that “none of these emerges as a construct in the brain.” (75)

This rejection of the classical views of the mind-body problem (or of subjectivity as such) in no way amounts to a rejection of natural sciences, their experiments, or their results. One could suppose this to be the necessary conclusion drawn by Fuchs‘ account, since this aims to thematize interactions and, in his own words, “mediations” that would be difficult to measure quantitatively within current standard of, e.g., neurobiology, neuophysiology, or even empirical psychology. But this conclusion is actually unwarranted. Fuchs‘ approach does not claim for the life of the organism to be the unique object of philosophical, conceptual or phenomenological, reflection; instead, he claims that natural sciences and human sciences (in particular, philosophy and phenomenology) are both needed to achieve a description of the living organism because the living organism itself is two-sided. As stressed before, the dualism of living body and lived body requires two different ways of thinking about life, as instantiated by natural and human sciences. This, in turn, does not produce any kind of new dualism, since these aspects “are objectively distinct characteristics of one and the same living being” (80) – like the two sides of a coin (cf. ibidem). Another quotation helps understanding the full potential of undermining classical dualisms in favor of an “aspect dualism”: “[t]he lived body and life itself therefore become the bridge between the ‚mental‘ and the ‚physical.’” Even if this conception still implies duality, namely as the dual aspect which the living being shows, such a duality corresponds not to two essentially distinct domains of reality, but rather to “two opposing perspectives and attitudes, which we can adopt towards life, and which are not mutually transferable.” (213)

Fuchs himself gives some hints at how this separation of the fields of work could be achieved. On the one hand, he dedicates long analysis to the biology of the organism, claiming that under this point of view the organism is to be understood as an active self-organising and autopoietic system in the sense already sketched out by Varela and Marturana in a series of publications, among them the classical The Tree of Knowledge. Since self-organisation and autopoiesis are based on interaction with the environment, and since “directed behavior came before the brain,” (87) Fuchs is able to explain (at least in very general terms) the necessity and vantages of having a brain from an evolutionary perspective: “an organ of integration became necessary […]. The C[entral] N[ervous] S[ystem] mediates, selects, and facilitates organism-environment interactions.” (87) In order to explain the complex feedback structure that impinges on these interactions, Fuchs introduces the concept of “circular and integral causality,” (94) that describes the reciprocal relation between organism and environment.

On the other hand, he suggests new ways to discuss central problems in classical philosophy and phenomenology of mind. The concept of representation, as we have shown before, has been criticized by Fuchs, but he gives us also a positive proposal in order to substitute for it. Instead of talking about representation or information, he introduces the notion of “resonance”, for this concept is able to show, at the level of the lived body, the same feedback structure we found at the level of the living body. The relation between organism and environment has a two-way directedness that has to be accounted for, and this is something that both the concepts of representation and of information fail to achieve. Thus, “the purpose of the cognitive system is not to construct mental representations of external states, but to provide possibilities for embodied actions within the world,” (108) again in accordance with claims recently put forward by 4E cognition. The concept of “resonance” is particularly apt because it describes not only the relation between body and environment, but also between body and brain (cf. 119). Applied to sense perception, the concept of resonance can be further specified as “mediated immediacy” (a concept obviously mutuated from Hegel), insofar as perception always means a mediated “remembering present” or a “re-creation,” (153) which is, in turn, the only immediate access to reality we have – thereby stepping outside of every naive realism, favoring instead a “realism rooted in the life-world.” (171)

In order to describe the interconnectedness of the brain with the surrounding world, a chapter of the book is dedicated to the concept of the person in its intersubjective ramifications. The brain is a “social organ” (175) and research in social cognition needs, exactly in a similar way as the one discussed above, to free itself from representationalism and reductionisms of sort in order to locate intersubjectivity already at the level of intercorporeality. As an example, Fuchs criticizes the hype around mirror neurons since “it should first be remembered that neurons cannot mirror anything.” (187) This is surely true, but at this point Fuchs seems to be unfair to current debates on mirror neurons. The “mirroring” of neurons is just a metaphor (which can be dangerous if substantiated without warrant, for sure), for they fire under certain conditions which involve both the doing and the seeing of an action (for an balanced analysis of mirror neurons also in the context of phenomenology and philosophy of mind see Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, Mirrors in the Brain. How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience). But surely, Fuchs is right in pointing out that human sociality cannot be based alone on neural structure; for it to develop, “real intercorporeality and interaffectivity” (189) are required. Also in this case, Fuchs‘ concept of resonance is introduced in order to replace representational concepts: mirror neurons do not “mirror” actions, but resonate socially. They do not represent something, but are rather “specific carriers of embodied social perception.” (191)

In order to sum up, we can say with Fuchs that consciousness “is nothing else but the human organism that one is” (218) and that therefore its origin is not the be found in the brain alone. Conscious experience is “an enactment of life” and “is the superordinate process, which shapes the participating structures at the microlevel, and is thereby incorporated in form of lasting dispositions.” (225)

To conclude, let me point to one way Fuchs‘ positions could benefit from some refinement. As quoted above, the dual aspectivity of the lived and living body has the configuration of the two sides of coin – which is a usual metaphor and not at all problematic. But Fuchs further spins the metaphor, claiming that “no side of the coin impacts the other.” (233) Should this mean that the materiality of my objective body has no relation whatsoever to my experience? In this case, the claim would seem rather bold and rather implausible. But – clearly – this is not the claim: the claim is restricted to the absence of any direct, mechanistic psychophysical or psychosomatic causality. Three sets of problems arise here. Firstly, this claim is presented by Fuchs as the result of his analysis and is not defended in extenso. Secondly, I hold that the formulation “no side of the coin impacts the other” is too coarse and that a definition of “impacting” in this context would be required in order to falsify the first interpretation I gave of this claim. Thirdly, even if we restrict (in a charitable reading) the meaning of “impacting” to causal mechanisms, this seems hard to defend. Surely there is no 1:1 causality between the physical and the psychical, but when Fuchs states (as quoted above) that without brain there would be no consciousness (and also that without consciousness there would be no brain, for sure), then there seems to be some kind of direct causality in play. The brain is a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for consciousness, and it seems rather odd to claim that this relationship is in no way causal and in no way an impact. Even accepting his version of the emergence theory, claiming that material processes “facilitate or realize” functions of life, “initiate or trigger them as stimulus” and “disrupt and render them impossible” (248) seems different then claiming that there is no impact and no direct causality. Maybe I am missing something here, but since this certainly is a central piece of Fuchs‘ account and indeed of any thematization of the relation between brain and consciousness, it would be nice to have more details as to how strong exactly Fuchs means his claim. I think my critique would hold even if, according to Fuchs, we would be willing to accept the idea of the brain as an “organ of freedom” (242) instead as an organ of determinism. If the brain somehow brings about freedom – by way of mediating, integrating, resonating – then we can claim that at least the possibility of freedom is causally created by the brain.

But this critique is only meant to show how far Fuchs‘ approach can bring current discussions on these matters, more often than not swimming otherwise in really muddy waters. Understanding consciousnesses as embodied in an ecological way allows to avoid important impasses in current debates and opens new and astonishingly refreshing perspectives both for empirical and for philosophical research. Moreover, the book de facto bridges the long-standing and outdated divide between so-called analytic and so-called continental philosophy. By drawing from phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of mind, and neurophilosophy (just to mention philosophical disciplines without venturing in a list of natural sciences on which Fuchs draws), he shows performatively that there is only good and bad philosophy. And being a piece of good philosophy, Ecology of the brain is a recommended reading not only for everyone interested in psychology, neurosciences, psychopathology and so forth, but also for anyone interested in theoretical philosophy today.