Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh, Irene McMullin (Eds.): Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology

Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology Book Cover Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh, Irene McMullin (Eds.)
Routledge
2019
Hardback £120.00
358

Reviewed by: Veronica Cibotaru (Universite Paris-Sorbonne / Bergische Universitaet Wuppertal)

Introduction

The purpose of Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology is to study the way in which phenomenology addresses the multiple connections between normativity and meaning. The content of the book is based on a fundamental presupposition, namely, that the structure of meaning is normative. This thesis is grounded on the phenomenological studies started by Husserl and in this spirit the book explores from different points of view the structure of meaning and its conditions of possibility.

Since the authors of this book attribute this thesis directly to the views of Steven Crowell, all the articles present themselves as an explicit dialogue with Crowell’s work, to wit, Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths Toward Transcendental Phenomenology (2001), and Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (2013). The book includes then an afterword with Crowell’s with his comments and replies.

For this review, I focus on the direct objections to Crowell’s philosophical positions and his attempts at answering them. For doing so, I follow the order proposed by the editors of the book. The book is divided into five sections: (1) “Normativity, Meaning and the Limits of Phenomenology”, (2) “Sources of Normativity”, (3) “Normativity and Nature”, (4) “Attuned Agency”, and (5) “Epistemic Normativity”. At the beginning of each section in this review, I offer a brief summary of the main ideas in each section of the book and then a brief commentary on each single chapter.

I. Normativity, Meaning, and the Limits of Phenomenology

This section is focused on the link between the question of normativity and that of meaning as it is addressed in phenomenology. Thus, normativity of meaning appears to be one of the main questions of phenomenology. However, several questions remain open which the following articles try to solve. First of all, the concept of norm can be understood in different ways and opens thus the question to the possibility of different normative structures for different meaningful experiences. This question is raised by Sara Heinämaa in her article which opens this section. A second question is raised by Leslie MacAvoy regarding the legitimacy of considering the structure of meaning as fundamentally normative, arguing that this would go against Husserl’s virulent critique of psychologism. She thus distinguishes the validity of meaning from its eventual manifestation for us as an ought or as a claim. The third one is raised by Zahavi, Cerbone, and Kavka. They challenge the idea in itself that the normativity of meaning is one of the main concerns of phenomenology. Thus, some realms such as metaphysics (Zahavi), epistemology (Cerbone), or philosophy of religion (Kavka) seem to be out of reach for the phenomenological method understood as a “metaphysically-neutral reflective analysis of the normative space of meaning” (Burch, Marsh & McMullin, 2).

  1. Constitutive, Prescriptive, Technical, or Ideal? On the Ambiguity of the Term “Norm”, Sara Heinämaa

The starting point of this article is the claim that all intentionality, from a phenomenological point of view, has a normative structure, because all intentionality can be fulfilled or disappointed. Thus, every intentional object is a norm that can be fulfilled or disappointed. Heinämaa calls this type of norm a “standard”. However, following Husserl’s distinction between interested perception and thing-appearances, she shows that the intentional object as norm can have a second meaning, which is an unachievable goal and thus also an optimum. Indeed, thing-appearances can never be fully given to us in all their richness.

This polysemy of the notion of norm leads Heinämaa to analyze its different meanings by drawing on the work of the logician and philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright Norm and Action: A Logical Enquiry (1963). Wright himself takes over a distinction which he finds in the works of Max Scheler and Nicolai Hartmann, namely that between norm as actuality, which is at stake for what Husserl calls practical intentionality, and norm as ideality, which is essential for axiological intentionality. This distinction corresponds to Scheler’s distinctions between “Tunsollen” and “Seinsollen” and between “normative ought” (normatives Sollen) and “ideal ought” (ideales Sollen). The normativity of doing, which is a “normative ought”, is based on the concept of rule-following while the normativity of being, which is a “ideal ought” is based on the concept of seeking to achieve something. Both types of normativity should be kept strictly distinguished. Thus, although both types of normativity are goal-oriented, ideal norms “are not motivational causes for our actions but are conditions that define ways of being” (Heinämaa, 20).

Heinämaa applies this distinction to the question of the normativity of intentionality by arguing, against Crowell, that both Heidegger and Husserl, share the idea that norms of actions but also of thinking are founded in ideal norms. Thus, one of the roles of phenomenology is “to illuminate the fundamental role that ideal principles of being have in both epistemic and practical normativity” (Heinämaa, 23-24).

Steven Crowell insists, however, on the fact that the concept of ideales Sollen is not a proper “ought” but a “should” in order to preserve the clear distinction between normative and theoretical disciplines.

2. The Space of Meaning, Phenomenology, and the Normative Turn, Leslie MacAvoy

The leading question of this article concerns the proper object of phenomenology: is it meaning or normativity? First, Leslie MacAvoy shows how phenomenology, in its concern with meaning, takes over the neo-Kantian question of validity (Geltung). The neo-Kantians understand the validity of a logical law in terms of normativity, contrary to Husserl and Heidegger, and this explains the concern of this article.

Husserl argues in the Logical Investigations that logical laws are not normative because they are not prescriptive, and consequently that they are not practical rules but theoretical laws. Although these laws have normative power for our thought, normativity is not part of their content. In that way, what is opposed to the law of nature is not, contrary to what neo-Kantians thought, a normative law, but an ideal law. Therefore, contrary to Neo-Kantianism, phenomenology distinguishes validity from normativity. According to a phenomenological criticism, “the phenomenological critique of the neo-Kantian notion of validity as normativity transforms the space of validity into a space of meaning” (MacAvoy, 41). What is thus at stake are not the laws that “hold” but the intelligible structures of content. According to MacAvoy those structures are a priori and it is due to them that sense or meaning presents to us as valid. Here MacAvoy refers to Heidegger’s theory of the fore-structures of meaning as a model to understand this a priori, but she concludes, nevertheless, that phenomenology should investigate the sense of this a priori with more depth. All in all, while MacAvoy agrees with Crowell’s claim that phenomenology opens us the “space of meaning”, against Crowell’s Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, she disagrees with the idea that this space is normative.

3. Mind, Meaning, and Metaphysics, Another Look, Dan Zahavi

Zahavi’s concern in this article is the role of metaphysics in Husserl’s transcendental (and not early) phenomenology. Is his transcendental phenomenology metaphysically committed or does the epoché on the contrary entail metaphysical neutrality? By developing his argument, Zahavi critically assesses Crowell’s claim that Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is metaphysically neutral. Crowell’s argument is that phenomenology is not interested into metaphysics but into “understanding the sense of reality and objectivity” (Zahavi, 50).

To this argument Zahavi presents two counterarguments. First of all, the fact that phenomenology is not primarily interested into metaphysics does not entail the fact that it does not have metaphysically implications. Secondly, Zahavi puts forward texts of Husserl where he explicitly claims the metaphysical commitment of phenomenology. In the Cartesian Meditations Husserl states that “phenomenology indeed excludes every naïve metaphysics that operates with absurd things in themselves, but does not exclude metaphysics as such” (Husserl 1950, 38-39). In order to understand the meaning of this metaphysical commitment of phenomenology, Zahavi distinguishes between three definitions of metaphysics: (1) “a theoretical investigation of the fundamental building blocks, of the basic “stuff” of reality” (Zahavi, 51); (2) “a philosophical engagement with question of facticity, birth, death, fate immortality, the existence of God, etc.” (Zahavi, 52); (3) “a fundamental reflection on and concern with the status and being of reality. Is reality mind-dependent or not, and if yes, in what manner?” (ibid). Zahavi further argues, that it is the second and most of all the third definition of metaphysics that is of interest for Husserl’s phenomenology.

Zahavi’s argument, drawing on an argument presented already by Fink in an article from 1939, “The Problem of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl”, is that transcendental phenomenology does not investigate the structures and meaning of a mental realm, but of the “real world” and of its modes of givenness (Zahavi, 59). Similarly, Fink insists on the distinction between the psychological noema and the transcendental noema, which is “being itself” (Fink 1981, 117). The distinction between noema and the object itself is not valid anymore within the transcendental attitude, but makes sense only within the psychological one.

To Crowell’s argument that Husserl is not dealing with being or reality itself but with its meaning for us, Zahavi answers that transcendental phenomenology entails a metaphysical claim about the existence of consciousness. However, the question remains open regarding the metaphysical commitment to the existence of a being which is independent from our consciousness, and this question is raised for example in Quentin Meillassoux’ book After Finitude, in which the author claims that phenomenology is unable to think being itself, independent from its correlation to consciousness. Of course, one could argue that Husserl dismisses this question, which he identifies as the Kantian question about things in themselves, as being absurd. However, perhaps we should investigate more why this question is considered being absurd by Husserl: is it not precisely because, according to him, it makes no sense to consider a being without presupposing a consciousness for whom this being has a meaning? There is, according to me, something very intriguing about this argument, in that it cannot be classified neither as metaphysical, since it does not claim that being is ontologically dependent on our consciousness, nor as semantically epistemic, since it does not claim that there is something as a neutral being which is then given to us through meaning. It would be interesting to, first, identify what type of argument Husserl actually uses here in order to deepen the question regarding the metaphysical commitment of phenomenology.

Opposing Zahavi’s argument, Crowell maintains his position concerning the metaphysical neutrality of phenomenology, which is guaranteed, following him, by the distinction between the existence of some entities, which is mind-independent, and the access to their reality, which is possible only for a conscience. Accordingly, however, this distinction still leaves the question unanswered concerning the metaphysical status of this reality to which we have access, since it still does not say how far this reality, as we have access to it, is mind-dependent.

4. Ground, Background, and Rough Ground, Dreyfus, Wittgenstein, and Phenomenology, David R. Cerbone

The aim of this article is to challenge Dreyfus’ interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of background as the understanding of being. According to Dreyfus, there is something as a background for our understanding which is there and that we can reach. Or, Cerbone argues for a deflationary sense of background which entails that there is no something as an ultimate background for our understanding, but always a changing and indeterminate background that we can never reach as such. Every time we try to explicate this background we always remain in his space. Thus, this background has an “illusory depth” (Cerbone, 76), since we can never get at its bottom.

In order to argue this, the author is drawing on Wittgenstein’s concept of explanation of the Philosophical Investigations. According to Wittgenstein, there is no absolute explanation of the background of the understanding, for example of the meaning of a word, but it is always relative to one specific situation and to the specific knowledge of our interlocutor. In that sense, explanations respond to a specific question or problem. They end when they fulfill that purpose.

This reassessing of the concept of background opens according to Cerbone the possibility to reassess the idea of phenomenology as infinite task. Indeed, the infinite task of phenomenology is not that of explicating the background of every understanding but that of addressing “the ongoing ethical challenge of making sense of and to one another” (ibid).

Steven Crowell objects however that Cerbone’s argument “seems to conflate the transcendental project of clarifying meaning with the mundane project of explaining some meaning by making the background explicit” (Crowell, 336). Crowell further argues that this argument makes it impossible to determine what is the world, since it is a category. Categories however are not explicated by ““digging deeper” into some specific horizon … but by phenomenological reflection on the eidetic structure of being-in-the-world” (Crowell, 337).

5. Inauthentic Theologizing and Phenomenological Method, Martin Kavka

This article examines the possibility of an authentic phenomenology of religion, which would be based on the authentic thinking of God. Martin Kavka understands here the concept of authentic thinking in the Husserlian sense in the way it is presented in the Logical Investigations, i.e. as the fulfillment of claims made in statements through the intuition of states of affairs.

Drawing on Heidegger’s analysis of Husserl’s concept of categorial intuition, from his 1963 essay “My Way to Phenomenology”, Kavka comes to the conclusion that an authentic phenomenology of the ‘inapparent’ must be possible, since categorial intuition is the intuition of an inapparent, i.e. a senseless, being. However, Kavka does not consider that God could be the object of such a phenomenology, as it is for instance in the case of Marion’s phenomenology of revelation, since religious figures such as Jesus are not fully dissimilar from the horizon of human expectations. The criterion of the phenomenon of revelation according to Marion lies precisely in its radical heterogeneity “to any conceptual scheme and horizon” (Kavka, 93); and since we could argue here that Jesus cannot precisely be simply identified to God, the question of Marion’s revelations is left open to possibility.

Following the question which Heidegger inquires in On Being and Time, Kavka asks himself what is the ground of meaning, and implicitly, if this ground can be considered as being God. He argues, following Hannah Arendt, that in any case God cannot be considered as commanding to our consciousness since this would “not lead Dasein back to itself and its own-most potentiality-for-Being” (Kavka, 90). Indeed Dasein cannot be ruled by any predetermined norm but can only respond to the call of normativity by responding for norms and making them its own.

Finally Kavka endorses Crowell’s horizontal analysis of discourse[1] in order to explain the primacy of alterity in Levinas’ sense, suggesting perhaps that such an analysis could also be of use for an authentic phenomenology of God, but most of all, for a critical philosophy of religion.

Steven Crowell argues however that a theological phenomenology would not be a phenomenology anymore since it would go beyond the “askesis of transcendental phenomenology” (Crowell, 352) due to which phenomenological investigations cannot but remain the realm of the evidence. Ending on a Kantian note, Crowell writes: “We are finite creatures, and so meaning is finite. We can grasp the world as it is, though never as a whole; and if there is anything beyond that, it is a matter for faith, not philosophy” (ibid).

II. Sources of Normativity

This section explores the sources of normativity both from a phenomenological and from an analytical point of view. John Drummond argues, from a Husserlian perspective, that these sources lie in the teleological structure of intentionality, whereas Inga Römer highlights, from a Levinasian approach the role of the other. Finally, Irene McMullin is arguing for the plurality of these sources (first-, second-, and third-personal) highlighting an unexpected feature of normativity: gratitude.

  1. Intentionality and (Moral) Normativity, John Drummond

In this article John Drummond argues against Crowell’s Heideggerian approach of the sources of normativity as being pre-intentional, For John Drummond, the intentionality is a “’basic’ notion” (Drummond, 102) which can ground by itself normativity. First of all, against Crowell’s reading of Husserl according to which the pre-intentional flow of consciousness constitutes intentional acts, the author argues that this flow is also intentional but is structured by a type of intentionality which Husserl calls in On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time horizontal intentionality (Langsintentionalität), which has the specificity of not being oriented towards an object, contrary to the transverse intentionality (Querintentionalität). Thus, “intentionality … belongs primarily to mind ‘as a whole’” (Drummond, 105), whereby mind has first of all the meaning of a gerund: “mind is ‘minding’ things” (ibid).

Secondly, Drummond highlights the fact that mind pertains to a person, i.e. to a concrete social, historical, embodied subject, which is for him equivalent, just as for Crowell, to the transcendental ego. Thus normativity has to be understood as the telos of the intentional experiences of a personal subject, which is aiming to truthfulness. This truthfulness presupposes that the person is responsible for acting and leading his/her life in the light of this telos.

The author concludes that this telos governs our lives as individuals and communities. My question would be however: what allows the author to be so sure about the universality of this telos? Could we thus say that truthfulness is still the goal of a totalitarian society for instance?

Steven Crowell objects to Drummond’s argument that horizontal intentionality, although it belongs to the ground of reason, is not however “governed by a telos of reason” (Crowell, 338). He argues instead, along with Heidegger, that what clarifies intentionality is the categorial structure of “care”. Thus it is in this structure of care that normativity is ultimately grounded.

2. The Sources of Practical Normativity Reconsidered – With Kant and Levinas, Inga Römer

Just as Steven Crowell showed that there is a “line of continuity” (Römer, 120) between the phenomenology of Heidegger of Being and Time and the philosophy of Kant, Inga Römer argues in this article that there exists such a line of continuity between Levinas’ phenomenology and the thought of Kant.

First of all, she shows how Levinas’ reading of Kant evolves, from a very critical one (until the 1960s) to a positive one, especially regarding the second Critique, from the 1970s. Thus Levinas starts to consider Kantian philosophy of pure practical reason as a “philosophy of the sense beyond being, a sense that is essentially ethical” (Römer, 123). At the same time, Levinas transforms Kant’s idea of pure practical reason by anchoring pure practical reason in the desire for the infinite, by grounding the autonomy of the self in the ethically signifying call of the Other and finally by reinterpreting Kant’s idea of pure practical reason as an anarchic reason. This anarchic reason involves a tension between the claim of the Other and the claim of the third, and thus a “pure disturbance, confusion, restlessness, and refusal of synthesis.” (Römer, 125)

Secondly, Römer considers in details and criticizes Korsgaard’s and Crowell’s arguments for grounding ethics in a first-personal perspective, by arguing that Levinas’ perspective is more convincing because “it is impossible to generate ethical rationality within myself … without falling into a sort of ethical self-conceit” (Römer, 132) which would make us unable to feel obliged towards the Other. Perhaps it would have been interesting to develop this concept of “self-conceit” since it is essential for the author’s argument.

Thirdly, Römer shows how Levinas’ thought is closer to the argument of the second Critique than to that of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, because it is also based on the idea that ethical rationality, as a mere fact, institutes my autonomy. Levinas and the later Kant thus agree on one essential point: “it is impossible to generate ethical rationality by starting with my very own freedom and then extending it towards others” (Römer, 134). An important distinction remains however between these two thinkers, according to the author: contrary to Kant, ethical significance remains, following Levinas, threatened by nihilism, especially nowadays.

Steven Crowell answers to Römer’s critique by arguing that Levinas’s thought encounters the same problem as that of Heidegger, namely that the identity of the addresser of the call remains enigmatic and leads to metaphysics. On the contrary, the concept of categorial answerability for reasons, does not require metaphysics.

3. Resoluteness and Gratitude for the Good, Irene McMullin

In this article Irene McMullin’s aim is to understand deeper the original Heideggerian concept of resoluteness, which allows the agent to overcome Angst in order to act in a norm-responsive way. More precisely, she studies the affective dimension of resoluteness by studying what Heidegger calls “readiness for anxiety”. One of the main claims of this article is that this readiness is not a merely negative experience, because it implies also gratitude, which is “an essential affective component of resoluteness” (McMullin, 137).

First of all, McMullin nuances Heidegger’s idea according to which there are mainly two sources of normativity: the public conventions of the das Man and our private norms. She argues indeed that there is a third normativity source, which are second-person claims. She, then, insists on the importance of readiness for anxiety, which she interprets as a latent state of anxiety through which the Dasein takes into account the plural sources of normativity. This readiness is an affect and not a project, since the world matters to me through it. Finally the author insists on the dimension of joy which is essential for this readiness, since I experience gratitude when I consider the possibility of losing everything (for example a child), but which has not yet realized itself. We experience, thus, gratitude for the meaning of our life, because precisely we become conscious, through readiness for anxiety, of the contingency of this meaning. Thus, “gratitude is the orientation that responds to grace – meaning a manifestation of goodness over which we have no power, but to which we find ourselves gratefully indebted” (McMullin, 150). I remain however with one pending question: is it still possible to experience this gratitude when all meaning is lost, when we do not experience anymore the world as “overflowing with meanings that we do not create or control”? (ibid). Or is the absolute loss of meaning a necessary possibility following from the characterization of the meaning of our lives as being precisely contingent? Steven Crowell deduces from McMullin’s argument the interesting idea that “the phenomenological focus on meaning prior to reason does not lead to nihilism, then, but to fröhliche Wissenschaft” (Crowell, 342).

III. Normativity and Nature

This section investigates the relationship between phenomenology and naturalism, reinterpreted respectively as the relationship between the “space of meaning” and the “space of causes”, according to the expression used by Steven Crowell in his work Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths toward Transcendental Phenomenology. All authors of this section aim to bridge the gap between the natural and the normative realm whether by showing that there is no essential distinction between human and nonhuman animal “selves”, by arguing for a “relaxed naturalism” or by showing that human intentionality can be understood as a natural phenomenon.

  1. On Being a Human Self, Mark Okrent

Mark Okrent investigates in this article what constitutes the human self. He first examines the classical answers to this question, from Descartes to Kant, by showing finally that Kantian answer is problematic for two reasons: it is not able to explain why a human agent could have a specific reason to act; it has a restricted view on rationality, reducing it to its deductive aspect. Korsgaard’s concept of “practical identity” can offer a response to the second problem. One of the essential dimensions of this practical identity is the overcoming of a passive dimension that we share with other nonhuman agents, i.e. the goal of self-maintenance.[2] Thus, being a human agent entails overcoming the passive dimension that we share with nonhuman agents in order to become normative agents. However, according to Okrent, Korsgaard is not able to explain for which reasons one should adopt a certain practical identity.

Secondly, Okrent examines Heidegger’s idea according to which one does not represent oneself a certain practical identity in order to act according to it, since it could offer an answer to the problem mentioned above. However, this idea is unable, according to Okrent, to make clear how a certain identity is one’s own achievement. Crowell’s answer to this objection is that no practical identity is merely given to us, even when we are not in the mood of anxiety, but that we have on the contrary to strive constantly to achieve this identity. Thus, if animals respond instinctively to their identity, human beings inhabit an indefinite identity to whose norms they try to respond. However, as Okrent mentions it, recent animal studies have shown, that animal identities are not merely instinctive, but can evolve in function of environmental conditions.

Okrent attributes however another possible meaning to the concept of trying to achieve an identity which Crowell uses: it does not mean to “alter” it “in the direction of greater success”, but also to “justify” it with reasons (Okrent, 173). However, this interpretation is confronted with the aporia of the Wittgensteinian regress, which thus puts into question Crowell’s argument for the radical difference between human and animal identity as agents.

Steven Crowell responds to Okrent’s argument by arguing that it involves a deep pragmatic “reconstruction” of Heidegger’s text and that it would be thus more “elegant” to leave aside pragmatism (Crowell 344).

2. Normativity with a Human Face: Placing Intentional Norms and Intentional Agents Back in Nature, Glenda Satne and Bernardo Ainbinder

The aim of this article is to prolong McDowell’s attempt to replace norms in nature in order to avoid Sellar’s and Davidson’s separation of the space of causes from that of reasons, to which belongs, according to Sellar, intentionality. Crowell considers however that McDowell lacks the necessary phenomenological account of perception, in order to show that perception belongs to the space of norms, without being conceptual, and thus in order to achieve empiricism.

In order to achieve this project, Satne and Ainbinder argue that it is essential to place intentional agents in nature, even if Crowell denies the possibility of an account of rationality in natural terms. According to the authors, Husserlian genetic phenomenology can provide us with a method in order to describe this, because it can show how our normative capacities emerge from more basic capacities that we share with children and animals, and thus with other nature beings. They posit thus themselves against Crowell’s view according to which there is a radical gap between human intentionality, which is the proper intentionality and animal intentionality, or against Davidson’s view according to which we lack the proper vocabulary in order to describe the mental states of other animals. This is what allows them to give an evolutionary account for human intentionality.

In order to achieve this project, Satne and Ainbinder criticize what they call the uniformity thesis according to which intentionality is “the exclusive province of semantic content” (Satne & Ainbinder, 188). This requires showing how a phenomenological understanding of “life” allows to pluralize the “forms of life” and thus to pluralize intentionality. For this aim, the authors broaden the concept of nature so that it can include consciousness and so also intentionality. However, one question remains open: how is it possible, according to the authors’ projects, to reunite intentionality with the realm of nature understood in its mere biological sense, and thus with the neurological part which could correspond to intentionality?

Steven Crowell presents an objection to the argument presented in this article by advancing that it presupposes the use of genetic phenomenology and thus “a construction that transcends the kind of Evidenz to which transcendental phenomenology is committed” (Crowell 346-347).

3. World-Articulating Animals, Joseph Rouse

The aim of this article is to reunite, against Crowell’s and Heidegger’s views, our biological animality with our intentionality and normative accountability. Both Crowell and Heidegger insist on the incommensurability between animal environment and the openness to the world of the Dasein which creates a radical difference between animals and human beings. That is why it is not possible according to Crowell to ground normativity nor intentionality on the basis of “organismic teleology” (Rouse, 206). What allows us to attribute intelligibility to other animal forms of life is precisely the “transcendentally constituted space of meaning and reasons” (ibid).

In order to reject this argument, Rouse is arguing for a non-dualistic conception of normativity and nature. He thus proposes an “ecological-developmental conception of biological normativity” (Rouse, 207). which accounts for the development of normativity through social practices inside of which human beings grow up and live. These practices presuppose the essential interdependence of human being’s actions that is based on a mutual accountability of human being’s performances. Their normativity reside in this accountability and not in specific norms which would govern these practices.

This normativity without norms of social practices constitutes the specificity of human normativity, because it is two-dimensional: “whereas other organisms develop and evolve in ways whose only measure is whether life and lineage continue, our discursively articulated practices and their encompassing way of life introduce tradeoffs between whether they continue and what they ‘are’” (Rouse, 210). A question remains however unanswered: on the basis of which arguments can we be so sure that our normativity presupposes a biological dimension which urges us to continue life and is thus two-dimensional? What allows us to argue that the evolutionary development of our normativity did not on the contrary suppress this dimension?

Crowell’s reply to Rouse’ criticism is that he does not take the dualism between nature and normativity in a metaphysical but only in a methodological sense, since phenomenology is metaphysically neutral. Further, Crowell’s argues that we are led to deduce from Rouse’ account the problematic idea that phenomenological categories are contingent.

IV. Attuned Agency

This section investigates the affective dimension of normativity. The first article challenges the view that we are not responsible for our moods, while the second one nuances from a phenomenological point of view the traditional description of akrasia and its relationship to conscience. Finally, the third article investigates how normativity is intricate in the experience of erotic love.

  1. Moods as active, Joseph K. Schear

The aim of this article is to challenge the idea that moods are a mere expression of our passivity, by arguing that they are on the contrary “an expression of agency for which we are answerable” (Schear, 217). Here, Schear criticizes the classical interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of Befindlichkeit (as that of Dreyfus or Mulhall for example) as manifesting the “passive” dimension of our being-in-the world.

The objective of Schear is radical, since he does not simply try to show that we can act on our moods, but that the fact in itself of being in a mood is already an expression of our agency, and thus of our responsibility. First of all, the author elucidates the concept of being active as “being responsive to reasons” (Schear, 222). The fact that we can ask someone why he is in a certain mood displays already a piece of evidence for the fact that moods are active. We are thus expecting answerability for our moods.

The author distinguishes this answerability from moral responsibility. Answerability means here rather the possible “demand for intelligibility” (Schear, 225). Finally, this demand for intelligibility is not a demand for rationality, since what is at stake, is not asking for a reason which justifies the mood, but for “an account that makes manifest, that expresses, the shape or tenor of one’s situation as it shows from one’s perspective” (Schear, 228).

The author seems however to presuppose that someone has enough self-knowledge in order to answer this demand for intelligibility. However, it can happen that someone does not know oneself why he/she feels in a special mood (this can be the case for example when someone suffers from depression or anxiety) or that he /she does not understand rightly what makes him /her feel in a special mood. I can thus think that I am anxious because of my work whereas what makes me actually anxious is a certain heavy perfume I wear. Consequently, this understanding would not be immediately obvious to me, but would require an exercise of critical self-reflection.

2. Against our Better Judgment, Matthew Burch

The scope of this article is to show that what is usually called akrasia, meaning the fact of acting against our own judgment, regroups actually two distinct phenomena that Burch describes from a phenomenological point of view. He thus defines the first phenomenon as “intention-shift: action taken freely and intentionally against my explicit plan (or future intention) and with a clear conscience” (Burch, 233) and the second phenomenon as akrasia in its proper sense, or more precisely: “action taken freely and intentionally against my explicit plan (or future intention) and accompanied by some self-critical emotion (e.g. guilt, shame, self-directed anger) or a mixture of such emotions” (ibid). The fundamental difference between these two phenomena lies in the negative, self-critical feeling that accompanies the second phenomena. Remarkably, both phenomena presuppose the free and intentional action, against the classical understanding of akrasia, which interprets it as a “conflict between rational judgment and irrational desire” (Burch 240). Burch shows on the contrary that what is at stake is a conflict between two interests, that he understands as being self-reflexive and normative. This conflict is understood by the author as a shift from a specific interest to another one, due to “affective and circumstantial changes” (Burch 242). According to the author, our interests are self-reflexive, because they concern ourselves. In the case of the intention-shift there is no betrayal of ourselves but only of our “prior plan” (Burch, 243) contrary to the akrasia in its proper sense. Thus, in this second case, shifting to another interest means also betraying another interest (e.g. being faithful to my partner), and thus betraying myself.

The author seems to presuppose that in the case of akrasia there is an asymmetry between two interests, which presupposes that satisfying one interest can lead to a feeling of self-betrayal (e.g. when I cheat on my partner), while this is not the case for the another interest (e.g. meeting other erotic partners than my wife/husband). Could we however think that this second type of interest can also lead to a feeling of self-betrayal when it is not satisfied?

3. Everyday Eros: Toward a Phenomenology of Erotic Inception, Jack Marsh

This article focuses on the phenomenological account of the earliest stage of erotic experience, that Marsh calls erotic inception. The author distinguishes several moments inside of erotic inception. The first moment is what he calls the standing-out-among, when the other catches suddenly our eye through a particular detail. The second moment is the stepping-out-from, when I step out toward this other who caught my eye. Through this second moment the other as potential erotic partner steps into my world. According to the author, this second moment is a modification of the Heideggerian concept of “world-entry” (Welteingang).

The author deepens then the understanding of this concept as applied to erotic inception, by deepening its Heideggerian description as upswing (Überschwingende). Marsh characterizes this upswing as an “ ‘oscillation’ between my possibilities and my facticity, my abilities and limits, my possible futures and actual past” (Marsh 260) and thus as an “excess of possibility” (ibid) or as “an expansive opening upon the world that is empowering and enriching” (Marsh, 261). This expansive opening upon the world leads finally to a world-modification that characterizes the unfolding couple. However, the excess of possibilities that characterize erotic inception contains also the possibility of its own demise, or as the author puts it, of the “We-death” (Marsh, 264).

One question remains however open for me: what place does the author attribute to normativity inside the erotic inception? Could we thus say that the experience of erotic inception is characterized by certain norms, like for example the norm of what it is to be an erotic partner, and that each of us can be called to transform these norms through one’s own experience?

V. Epistemic Normativity

This final section investigates the specific modality of normativity involved in our epistemic practices. The first article challenges the view itself that normativity is involved in knowledge acquisition, while the second article analyzes how norms are intricate in our perceptual experience. Finally, the last article investigates the link between the natural and the transcendental attitude from a phenomenological point of view.

  1. Normativity and Knowledge, Walter Hopp

In this article Walter Hopp deepens Crowell’s view according to which intentionality can be exercised only inside of a “context of practices” (Hopp, 271). Thus, “the world is not the intentional correlate of a transcendental ego, but the environment of the embodied and socialized human person” (ibid). Hopp argues that this idea could have two possible interpretations: either intentionality can be carried out only by persons who act conform to a context of practices and thus of norms, or intentionality is constitutively normative. Hopp is arguing for the first interpretation, by advancing that if intentionality were constitutively normative, then this would be the case for knowledge as well. He aims to show in this article that knowledge is not precisely constitutively normative, and so nor intentionality.

Hopp’s argument is based on Husserl’s theory of normative science from the Logical Investigations. A normative science according to Husserl is always based on one or several non-normative, theoretical sciences, like for instance medicine that is based on biology, chemistry, etc. Consequently, sciences that do no rest on other non-normative disciplines, like for example logic, cannot be normative. Non-normative scientific propositions can however endorse the role of norms, without being normative in their content. Hopp applies this argument to epistemology, by showing that its content does not indicate what we ought to believe but what can be hold as being true; or, truth can endorse the role of a norm but is not normative by its content. Here, Hopp specifies Crowell’s characterization of truth as a “normative notion” (Crowell 2013, 239) which is, according to him, ambiguous. The author is thus arguing clearly for a clear distinction between ethics and epistemology against Terence Cuneo for example.[3]

Nevertheless, Husserl defines noetics as the “theory of norms of knowledge” (Husserl 2008, 132) whereas evidence as self-givenness is characterized by him as the “ultimate norm … that lends sense to knowledge” (Husserl 1999, 45). Here however Hopp uses Husserl’s own criterion of normative science by asking on which non-normative discipline Husserl’s most fundamental concepts of his epistemology, i.e. truth and evidence do rest, in order to show that these concepts do not have normative content. This allows Hopp to define epistemology as an ideal science in the Husserlian sense.

Steven Crowell agrees with Hopp’s argument, but he points to the fact Husserl’s analysis of truth cannot be reduced to the Logical Investigations, which are essential for Hopp’s argument. According to Crowell, there is however a sense of normativity in Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology which “eludes Husserl’s distinction between normative and theoretical disciplines” (Crowell, 332) because transcendental phenomenology is not considered as an explanatory theory but as a method of clarification.

2. Appearance, Judgment, and Norms, Charles Siewert

The aim of this paper is to argue, by using the phenomenological approach, that our perceptual experiences are “subject to norms of its own” (Siewert 290). In order to show this, Siewert starts by analyzing the case of visual agnosia, by arguing that it does not involve a deficit of visual appearance but rather of capacity of recognition. Visual appearance is thus conceptually distinct from visual recognition, or recognitional appearance, which is on its turn distinct from judgment. Indeed, I can withhold judgment when I recognize two persons as looking the same, i.e. when I recognize that they look alike but in two different tokens. Visual recognitions “take thing as” (Siewert, 299) whereas judgments “represent things to be” (ibid). Contrary to Travis, Siewert does distinguish however altogether visual experience from accuracy, and thus does not attribute accuracy exclusively to judgment. Thus, I can accurately recognize a sign as an arrow, while it actually represents an alligator. In this case I made a “creative use of the appearance” (Siewert, 301). Siewert draws here a parallel with the Kantian scheme, since just as the scheme makes both theoretical judgment and aesthetic imagination possible, the recognitional appearance can support both a judgment and a creative use.

On the basis of this distinction between visual recognitional experience and judging experience, the author argues that these two types of experiences are governed by two different kinds of normativity. He agrees on this point with Susanna Siegel, but not on the specific form of normativity that characterizes visual recognition. Indeed, Siewert identifies visual recognition with a “looking-as-act” (Siewert, 303) which he understands as the active experience of looking, contrary to the “looking-as-appearance”, and which thus can be done well or badly, or which can be improved. Perceptual experiences can be thus subject to normative assessment because visual recognitions can be an activity.

3. Husserl’s and Heidegger’s Transcendental Projects, Dermot Moran

In this article Dermot Moran aims at understanding the meaning of phenomenology as transcendental philosophy. Inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Philosopher and His Shadow”, he investigates how the transcendental and the natural attitude are intertwined and how the idea of such an intertwining relates to Husserl’s and Heidegger’s phenomenology.

Based on a very detailed studied of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s texts, Moran shows first how Husserl’s view on the natural and transcendental attitude evolves from the Ideas I until the Crisis, as well as how Heidegger criticizes the Husserlian concept of natural attitude, which according to him is a comportment (Verhalten) and not an attitude as such. At the same time, the author points to ambiguous points in Husserl’s thought, like the relationship between the natural attitude and naturalism, which leads to the reification of the world. Despite this ambiguity, Husserl is clear on the distinction between transcendental and natural attitude, which is relative to the first attitude as the only absolute attitude, because of its “self-awareness and self-grounding character” (Moran, 313). One can become aware of the natural attitude as such only through a “shift in the ego’s mode of inspectio sui” (Moran, 314) which is the transcendental reduction though which we can adopt the transcendental attitude. Thus one of the key roles of transcendental phenomenology is that of allowing us “to investigate attitudes” (ibid) such as the theoretical attitude which masks the original position of the transcendental subject.

Moran further reflects on the meaning of transcendental phenomenology with the aid of Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Husserl’s texts according to which the natural and the transcendental attitudes are deeply intertwined. This reading could explain why Husserl calls in the § 49 of the Ideas II the transcendental attitude as being natural.

Merleau-Ponty finds such an intertwining in Husserl’s idea of a passive pregiveness of the world which underlies all intentional acts and which is not the object of act intentionality but of what Husserl calls in Formal and Transcendental Logic fungierende Intentionalität and that Merleau-Ponty translates in the Phenomenology of Perception as operative intentionality (intentionnalité opérante), a concept which is equivalent according to Merleau-Ponty with the Heideggerian concept of transcendence.

Moran identifies this operative intentionality with what Husserl calls, also in § 94 of Formal and Transcendental Logic living intentionality. He further reflects on this concept of living intentionality, by arguing, based on a thorough study of Husserl’s texts, that the task of transcendental phenomenology is to aim towards a living not in the world but within the life of consciousness, which Moran interprets, following Husserl’s expression in Formal and Transcendental Logic as the realm of our internality (Innerlichkeit), a concept for which Moran discerns a Heideggerian resonance. Only transcendental reduction, and the transcendental attitude it leads to, can give us access to this internality, and not the natural reflection that is proper to the natural attitude. Thus, “the aim of transcendental phenomenology” is “to uncover this life of functioning consciousness underlying the natural attitude” (Crowell, 320).

In conclusion, this book allows us to have a renewed reading of one of the main problems of phenomenology, i.e. the problem of meaning. Particularly, the problem of meaning is treated in the light of the question of normativity. At the same time it links in multiple ways the phenomenological question of meaning with various contemporary compelling questions like that of naturalism. This makes this book particularly interesting. Yet, the question of meaning is unfortunately not always on the foreground, leaving sometimes the task of making the explicit link between the problem of meaning and the content of the articles to the reader. Perhaps however it is a mere consequence of the richness of its various perspectives on this topic.

Bibliography:

Crowell, Steven. 2002. “Authentic Thinking and Phenomenological Method.” In: The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 2: 23-37

Crowell, Steven. 2013. Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cuneo, Terence. 2007. The Normative Web. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fink, Eugen. 1981. “The Problem of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.” Translated by R.M. Harlan. In: Apriori and World: European Contributions to Husserlian Phenomenology, edited by W. McKenna, R.M. Harlan, and L.E. Winters, 21-55. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Husserl, Edmund. 1950. Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge. Edited by S. Strasser, Husserliana 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1999. The Idea of Phenomenology. Translated by Lee Hardy. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.


[1] Steven Crowell, 2002.

[2] See Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996 and also Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[3] Cuneo 2007. Cuneo is arguing that just as there are no “moral facts”, there are no “epistemic facts” either. (113)

Richard Westerman: Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued

Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued Book Cover Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued
Political Philosophy and Public Purpose
Richard Westerman
Palgrave Macmillan
2019
Hardback 80,24 €
XVII, 308

Reviewed by: Clémence Saintemarie
(University College Dublin)

By offering a reinterpretation of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher’s 1922 essays ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’, ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, and ‘Towards A Methodology of the Problem of Organization’, Richard Westerman’s first monograph sheds a welcome new light on György Lukács’s theory of reification in History and Class Consciousness. While Lukács’s ‘Reification’ essay characterizes reification as the distinct and totalizing form of alienation in modern and post-modern capitalist societies, in a close reading of Karl Marx’s theory of class consciousness, alienation, reification, and commodity fetishism, and through G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectical understanding of history, Westerman’s monograph stands out for exploring, and stressing the importance of, the under-acknowledged and multifarious influences of Lukács’s aesthetic manuscripts at Heidelberg (1912-1918), in the years leading to the redaction of his first explicitly Marxist opus. Among these influences, the reader gains deeper insight about and discovers Lukács’s early project of a phenomenological aesthetics and his engagement with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations via the neo-kantian formalist aesthetics of Emil Lask, the art history of Alois Riegl and Konrad Fiedler, not to mention Lukács’s uptake of the social theories of his mentors: Georg Simmel and Max Weber.

Westerman proceeds by way of a phenomenological reappraisal of reification and a historicization of Lukács’s understanding of the proletariat’s role, and indeed its failure, as the supposedly preeminent revolutionary agent for the overcoming of capitalist social reality. His addition to the scholarship on Lukács is timely since 2019 marks the centenary of the unsuccessful German Spartacist and Hungarian revolutions that took place in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War in 1918, both of which motivated his reflections in History and Class Consciousness. Most urgently, ours is a political and social context that witnesses the resurgence of fascism and authoritarianism in its populist guises in the US, Europe and Brazil; not least, it is Westerman’s contention, as well as that of many Marxian thinkers, due to the 2008 economic and financial crisis, which has undermined trust in the (neo)liberal policies pursued by Democrats and Conservatives, Tories and New Labor, alike. Chapters 5 and 6 specifically address the relevance of Lukács for these contemporary issues. Therefore Westerman’s original and minute reconstruction of the impact of Lukács’s Heidelberg philosophical aesthetics on his critique of capitalism contributes to, and supplements, the renewed contemporary interest in Lukács before and since 2008, from Frederic Jameson to Andrew Feenberg and regretted Mark Fischer. The relevance of, and contemporary engagement with, Lukács is furthermore manifested in recent or forthcoming conferences dedicated to his legacy: one held by Historical Materialism in June 2019, and an upcoming conference in Paris, in November 2019.

Beyond the fact that it comprises a welcome reappraisal of the philosophy of history and proletarian revolutionary consciousness developed in the ‘Reification’ essay, the originality and value of Westerman’s monograph lie in its meticulous historical and philosophical reconstitution of the influence of Lukács’s Heidelberg aesthetic manuscripts on his phenomenology of reification. The famously influential essay from History and Class Consciousness characterizes reification as the transformation, typical of the bourgeois capitalist model of production and exchange, of human and social features, actions and relations into independent and autonomous thing-like entities abstracted from their human and social origin, rationalized into their quantifiable exchange value. It is the aim of Westerman’s reinterpretation that reification is the very fact and mode of social and personal experience in capitalism, rather than an ideological camera obscura obfuscating an underlying social reality that would be truer or more authentic to it. Referring to the Werke and using his own translation of the ‘Reification’ essay and Heidelberg manuscripts, Westerman reformulates Lukács’s key concepts of social totality, reification, class consciousness, the proletariat, and the party. This allows him to convincingly respond to Lukács’s detractors and critics in the Marxist, Marxian and Critical Theoretical tradition via, by his own admission, more or less successful parallels and speculations drawn from his close reading and exegesis of Lukács’s Heidelberg years.

Within 300 pages, Westerman takes his readers on a journey that brings us back to Lukács’s aesthetic works at Heidelberg from 1912 until 1918 and his conversion to Bolshevism. As soon as the preface and the introductory first chapter, Westerman frames the terms of the ‘Lukács Debate’ in Critical Theory and lays out the main criticisms and misunderstanding of Lukács that his monograph aims at dispelling or nuancing, namely: the suspicion of neo-romantic anti-capitalism that allegedly permeates his earlier work and informs his concept of labor and the proletariat as mythical agents of historical development; his philosophy of reification which would relaunch a Fichtean philosophy of freedom and its bourgeois antinomy of the subject and object; last but not least, a theory of social totality and a theory of the party, qua the instance of representation of proletarian interests, which would lend itself to the accusation of Stalinism and totalitarianism.

The book comprises three parts, which progress from the precise and detailed historical presentation of Lukács’s works around those years and justifies the genealogical weight of his phenomenological aesthetics on the 1922 essays of History and Class Consciousness (chapters 2 and 3). The second part proposes a ‘phenomenology of capitalism’ from the ‘Forms of Social Reality’ (chapter 4), in which reified subjectivity is described as a ‘split consciousness’, and which poses the problem of the proletariat’s ‘interpellation’ as a subject and its historical agency (chapter 5), while requiring the re-evaluation of its self-understanding as a class and the party as its organizational form (chapter 6). The third and final part seeks to highlight the influence and relevance of a phenomenological reading of Lukács beyond the implications, for proletarian revolution, of the ‘Reification’ essay.

Part I takes us on ‘The Road to Reification’, offering an intellectual history of Lukács’s development at Heidelberg as well as a justification of Westerman’s phenomenological reading of History and Class Consciousness in Lukács’s own terms. Lukács’s aesthetics, Westerman tells us, was concerned with the artwork as a subject-independent and self-enclosed meaningful totality. In his Phänomenologische Skizze des schöpferischen und receptiven Verhaltens, or ‘Phenomenological Sketch of Creative and Receptive Attitudes,’ Lukács philosophically systematized the non-representational and depersonalized theories of Fiedler and Riegl through a neo-Kantian reading of Husserl’s concept of intentionality that was emulated by his friend and mentor Emil Lask.

Chapter 2 deals specifically with Lukács’s neo-Kantian and phenomenological systematization of Fiedler and Riegl towards his own theory of the autonomy of Art. Supplementing Fiedler with Riegl, the artwork is a non-representational social activity giving form and meaning to the shapeless and incoherent sensory reality of one socio-historical epoch’s relation to its environment. The artwork thus produces its own reality rather than representing and referring to an objective external world. In Lukács’s reading of Riegl’s art history, the meaningful coherence of the artwork is neither provided by the creator or the receiver’s external point of view, but from a depersonalized, non-psychological standpoint that is incorporated into the work’s formal organization, and which produces the disinterested aesthetic experience we have of it.

According to Westerman, Lukács supports this artwork-centered account of aesthetic experience with a phenomenological aesthetics largely influenced by Lask and his neo-Kantian reading of Husserl’s Logical Investigations and Ideas. Lask’s interest in Husserlian intentionality focused on the intended object, or noema, rather than the noesis, the subjective pole of mental acts. In his and Lukács’s idiosyncratic reading of Husserl, it is intentionality as sense-bestowing, and the meaning of the noema detached from any thesis of existence or reference to an external reality, which matters. Following the Logical Investigations, intendings are described and analyzed in their semantic and logical structure, and the meaning-validity of artworks stems from their own internal formal-semantic logic and the cohesive relations of parts and whole; not from their representational consistency with an external reality, nor from the universal validity-form of aesthetic judgments.

It is worth-noting that this noematic reading of Husserl does not eliminate the subject altogether, but gives it a minor and auxiliary role in the constitution of the artwork and in aesthetic experience. Having recourse to Husserl in Heidelberg and in the ‘Reification’ essay, Lukács also seeks to overcome the antinomic separations of form and content and of subject and object: artworks are a case in point where the formal meaning of the whole cannot be entirely detached from its parts and where the artwork’s inner formal standpoint invites the subject in its sphere of meaning. Because of this, Lukács argues that, grasped from this standpoint, not only artworks achieve utopian perfection, but they also offer a unique instance where subject and object are brought together. The artwork is thus not fully autonomous. Furthermore, by striving to account for artwork’s intrinsic meaningfulness, Lukács moves away from a subjective and neo-romantic conception of the artist as a genial creator and the main source of the artwork’s meaning.

Granted that Lukács’s theory of the autonomy of Art is at odds with his later historicization of artworks within socio-historical wholes, Westerman contends that Heidelberg manuscripts are concerned with aesthetic experience and the logical possibility of subject-independent artworks that are not entirely incompatible with socio-historical interpretations. Rather, they prefigure and form the basis of Lukács’s analysis of social relations and of social being as a realm unto itself, analogous to art insofar as it, too, is governed by its own immanent logic and types of subject-object relation. Furthermore, Lukács’s conception of the ‘artwork as totality’ does not exclude its being part of a larger whole. Totality and reality are here synonymous with one another and with logically valid coherent wholes which posit their own meaning, rather than with an all-including totality. Last but not least, reification operates precisely against the unity of form and content, and of subject and object, reducing particular, and thusly deemed irrational contents, to the rationalized form of the commodity.

Westerman convincingly shows how the Heidelberg drafts contextualize Lukács’s Marxist essays. To the extent that, in the former, Lukács progressively realizes the impossibility of the total autonomy and isolation of Art such that it could actualize its promise of utopian perfection, as a fully self-enclosed meaningful totality, the latter turns to practical social change in the aftermath of the 1919 revolutions. Chapter 3 expounds Lukács’s return to the 1912-1918 manuscripts in the three 1922 essays of History and Class Consciousness, which further justifies Westerman’s reappraisal of Lukács’s social theory and his concepts of social totality, (class) consciousness, and organization, in light of his Heidelberg phenomenological aesthetics.

Chapter 3 traces the intellectual and political evolution of Lukács from Heidelberg and his conversion to Bolshevism, in 1918, to 1923 and the publication of History and Class Consciousness. Lukács’s turn to Bolshevism is described as a leap-of-faith that can be explained by his earlier romantic anti-capitalism, as well as the critique, common among the intelligentsia, of modernity and bourgeois capitalist values. Westerman focuses on the Heidelberg drafts to locate the philosophical origin of this conversion, marked by a messianic eschatology inspired by Kierkegaard and his work on Dostoevsky (see chapter 5).

Most note-worthy, 1922 marks a significant return to Heidelberg as Lukács tries to explain why the proletariat did not join in the 1919 revolutions, and how a revolutionary consciousness can nonetheless arise in the future to overthrow capitalist domination. Here, consciousness does not amount to epistemological knowledge, but to a meaningfully structured realm of being. Fundamental to achieving this definition, notwithstanding his phenomenology of reification, is his critique of the antinomy of subject and object in bourgeois society. If subject-object relations define society as a totality, and if reification—as the single explanatory principle of capitalism—turns human activity into objects independent of it, not only does capitalist reality appear as fragmented, but consciousness itself is reified.

Reification is thus a total social phenomenon, extending beyond the economy to all social institutions and relations, which reduce subjects to an abstract universal form, and isolate them as passive spectators, granting them only limited participation in society. Philosophically, Lukács identifies the roots of the problem in German Idealism, which starts with the subject constituting the world around it and assumes its separation from the object from the outset, a separation in which the subject is isolated from the object and can only retrieve it by subsuming it under abstract universal categories, without remainder. For Lukács, however, the proletarian standpoint eschews this a priori separation: its situation in social totality and reality is not isolated and it can come together to change society by changing social relations and practices. Proletarian consciousness is not simply the ‘true’ or ‘false’ epistemological standpoint on its real social situation in the system of production: it is meaningful and appropriate, be it true or false, in relation to the reality of this coherent and self-validating social system.

Epistemological inaccuracy and ‘false consciousness’, therefore, are not primary to causally explaining the lack of proletarian participation in the 1919 revolutions. Consciousness is first and foremost a social activity, and the form of that activity depends on the organization of its practices, which only partially depend on a more or less accurate knowledge and understanding of capitalism. In Lukács’s view, the ‘Party’ is one such organization of proletarian social practices and one possible source of epistemological correction (see chapter 6). ‘Consciousness’ is used to describe society’s own immanent structure: reification is a structure of consciousness since capitalism’s total structuration of society produces the structure of consciousness. It follows that consciousness is reified and the subject is defined as a reified subject in terms of the structure of consciousness, which governs its orientation and relation to objects.

The second part proposes a ‘phenomenology of capitalism’ building on and refining the dense conceptual apparatus revisited in part I. Taking the later Lukács’s self-critique at face-value, Westerman repudiates the charges that Lukács’s ‘Reification’ essay upholds the proletariat as the transhistorical and preeminent agent of social change, able to overcome capitalism from without thanks to the free exercise of its subjective will.

Chapter 4 focuses on the ‘Forms of Social Reality’, which, on the contrary, locate the proletarian standpoint within the social totality, as immanent to it. Freely borrowing from Martin Heidegger’s terminology, Westerman identifies three levels at which, for Lukács, reification operates: phenomenological, ontic and ontological. Phenomenologically, the structure of consciousness mirrors that of the commodity: the latter divorces the object’s exchange-value from its origin in labor and its practical value; the former is a ‘split intentionality’ in which the forms of social reality are divorced from their content. The problem of capitalism lies not only in commodity fetishism’s reification of human labor but also in the reification of consciousness, and therefore of social reality as a whole. Ontically, the reified forms of social reality, determined by the relative value of commodities, separate the social existence of the subject, and its product’s, from its material existence. Since the commodity form governs social reality, holding together heterogeneous social elements only in formal rational and quantitative relations, the working subjects, and any social relations not subsumed under the commodity form, are excluded from this rational formal system.

Ontologically then, reification is the single organizing principle of the total social reality, it does not mask the social reality productive activity, it is its very form: commodity becomes the only imaginable form of being and reification the only imaginable coherently integrated whole, the only possible reality. Like the work of art, social reality is a totality organized by a standpoint, in this case: the ‘split intentionality’ of the proletariat; i.e., the self-enclosed social totality needs the rationalized labor of the proletariat for the production of commodities which in turn demand the exclusion of its personal, irrational, subjective, and practical input and needs. Social reality is made in the image of the commodity.

The immanence of the split standpoint to social reality crucially informs Lukács’s theory of inertia and social change, and chapter 5 poses the problem of the proletariat’s historical agency within this reified totality. Westerman responds to the skepticism of Critical Theorists Adorno and Horkheimer—who undermined Lukács’s alleged faith in the self-liberating action of the proletariat in the face its passivity towards Nazism and his totalitarian embrace of the Stalinist Communist Party—by reformulating his theory of subjectivity, the party, and history. First and foremost, Westerman dispels the accusation of ‘Fichteanism’, according to which social reality would be at once the projection, and what is overcome, by the proletariat as an omnipotent subject. Revisiting Lask and Lukács’s reading of the later Fichte, he aptly demonstrates that neither of them thinks of the subject outside of its relationship with particular objects, themselves recalcitrant to the superimposition of a universalizing category, be it labor.

In fact, Lukács expresses little concern with labor, and his analysis of the subject-object relationship is once again formal and informed by his reading of Husserl’s phenomenology at Heidelberg: if stances have both an objective and subjective pole, subject and object were never separated in the first place; rather, the formal structure of the objects organizes the type of stances that can be had on them and, in turn, various stances produce different noema. It follows that the relationship of the two poles depends neither on the knowledge of the object, nor on their intrinsic properties. Lukács’s subject is thus primordially relational and the standpoint in relation to which parts of the object are disclosed. In the same way that the formal structure (size, details…) of an artwork requires that the subject adopts an adequate standpoint towards it (taking a closer look, stepping back to embrace the whole…), the subject is interpellated by the forms of social reality.

Westerman’s description of this ‘interpellation of the subject’, a term controversially borrowed from Louis Althusser – a fervent opponent of Lukács, refers to the intentional attitudes that the subject is summoned to adopt by the formal structure of social reality, the commodity structure, if, as the organizing standpoint of that totality, social reality is to function as a valid, meaningful and coherent whole. Yet, if the ‘janus face’ of the commodity (i.e. its irrational and private use value versus its rational and public exchange value) produces the ‘split consciousness’ of the proletariat, such formal interpellation of the subject can misfire, and meet contradiction and dissatisfaction.

It is from this formal contradiction and fracture that the proletariat’s self-consciousness and self-awareness as an agent of social change arise, and not from the contradiction of antagonist class interests. Agency is thus thinkable as ‘a structural component of social forms’. This eventually leads Westerman to discuss Lukács’s theory of the party as a bottom up, inclusive social form which, against the commodity principle’s warranting of the internal cohesion of capitalist social reality, purports to dissolve the ‘split intentionality’ by producing an external cohesion, one which does not exclude the ‘irrational’, ‘personal’ or ‘subjective’ of social being. The party is thus not deemed exogenous to the proletariat, instructing it or commending its strategic actions from without. Westerman stresses that Lukács indeed warns against the bureaucratic or strategic tendencies of instances, such as the party, which focus on expertise and organization at the cost of the exclusion and consequent passivity of the proletariat. In this light, he offers a rapid but incisive explanatory comment on the defeat of the Democratic Party in the 2016 US elections.

Nonetheless, neither the proletariat’s contradicted position, nor its achievement of self-consciousness in its formal and practical organization as a party, provides the moral or historical grounds on which reification or capitalism should be overthrown. Westerman illuminates Kierkegaard’s influence on Lukács’s response, further highlighting the fact that the revolutionary situation opens unexpected future possibilities which compels revolutionary subjects to take responsibility for them. The necessity of a decision stems from the social configuration of the revolutionary moment, but also from the formal requirement, for the organizing standpoint, to transform it, in order to maintain a continuous meaningful, coherent social whole. Lukács’s philosophy of historical agency is thus attuned to the moment and accommodates the fluidity and plasticity of social norms that may command historical decisions towards emancipatory change. At the same time, he maintains that change is demanded and triggered by the formal requirement for a self-validating meaningful whole.

While Westerman does not find Lukács’s appeal to the above-outlined ‘imperatives of history’ convincing, these normative demands are further evaluated, in chapter 6, in terms of the concrete identity and self-understanding of the proletariat as a class and collective subjectivity; and in terms of the party as its shared consciousness and collective identity. The core normative issue of Lukács, hence perhaps his insistence on art and social reality having to be meaningful self-validating coherent wholes on their own terms, is the meaninglessness of experience under capitalism. Turning to Lukács’s view of the individual consciousness which, like the Husserlian Ego, transcends the momentary acts of consciousness in the temporal continuity of retentions (past), just now (present) and protensions (future), meaningfulness is approached from a personal perspective rather than that of a depersonalized standpoint. Personal experience is reified to the extent that it is divided in fragmented and discrete, isolated experiences. The structure of experience thus mirrors the fragmented reality of capitalism. The experiential alienation, in which the seamless temporal continuity of the Ego’s experience is divided and split, is crucially manifest in the rationalization of labor, where time itself is a measurable and monetizable standard.

Westerman thus re-introduces Lukács’s theory of the subject-object relationship from the individual’s perspective to make sense of the experience of alienation implicated by reification. The very cracks and fractures of individual identity induced by reification would be, still following Lukács, the site wherin reification as a structure itself starts to crack. However, if this important take is consistent with Lukács’s definition of consciousness as social reality, it appears less plausible, when scrutinizing individual consciousnesses. The fracture and disconnection experienced in wide-spread and all-too-common workplace depressions, burn-outs, bore-outs, or suicides, while they can certainly be construed as indirect and passive forms of sabotage of current productivism, hardly produce the impetus for strikes, or any potent forms of collective actions against it.

This is why Westerman reassesses the necessity, for Lukács, that individual discontent take shape in the ‘party’, neither as a formal requirement for organizational form, nor, with critical comparisons to Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘revolutionary spontaneity of masses’, as an organic process. Westerman reasserts that the party, contra the Marxist-Leninist ‘vanguard’, is not the extraneous cause of class consciousness but is that very consciousness, i.e. the collective manifestation, in practice and everyday experience, of “the situation and position of the proletariat” (226). The party is class consciousness to the extent that it is self-organization without representation, thus eschewing over-optimist reliance on the spontaneity of the masses.

One the most important lessons, drawn by Westerman, is that class, as a group identity, is fluid and open to revision. Moreover, thus reinterpreted, Lukács’s theory can and should encompass collective struggles intersecting class identity and other social forms that he over-looked—like gender, race, and religion—in his quest for a single governing principle of capitalism as a social totality. For this purpose, the third and final part of Westerman’s monograph seeks to highlight the influence and relevance of a phenomenological reading of Lukács beyond the ‘Reification’ essay and proletarian revolution.

Responding to Lukács’s critics within and outside Marxism and Critical Theory, chapter 7 reconsiders Lukács’s alleged neo-romantic divide between the social and the natural, and social and extra-social realities. The problem of the subject-object relationship is brought to its climax, in an analysis which spans Lukács’s entire oeuvre. In dialogue with Andrew Feenberg, Westerman contrasts History and Class Consciousness with The Ontology of Social Being, in which the category of labor is critically used against capitalist, and, incidentally, early Marxist tendencies, to see nature as an exploitable resource. Thus, the domination and exploitation of nature is problematized, not in line with a romantic and ‘Rousseauist’ celebration of its difference to social reality, but as one shaped by labor in its alienated and reified as well as reifying guise. This significantly echoes motifs in Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences, but also Heidegger’s critique of the techno-scientific Gestell in The Question Concerning Technology. In turn, Lukács is also concerned with how social phenomena are legitimized and reified as ‘natural’. Finally, and in agreement with Feenberg, Westerman accepts Lukács’s ‘consciousness’ as a conceptual avatar of ‘culture’ or ‘nurture’, that is not antinomic with ‘nature’, but, as in Art, stands in a non-coercive relation to it.’

In Chapter 8, Westerman concludes with self-critical remarks on his reassessment of Lukács’s fluid social and phenomenological categories and stresses the value of these revisited concepts for a better understanding of our postmodernist and late-capitalist condition. As for the latter, he gives credence to Jameson’s critical analysis of postmodernism in art and is consistent in his Lukácsian understanding of Postmodernism not only as the Kunstwollen of late capitalism, but also as one consistent with the vagueness of our social reality’s signifiers. Correspondingly, he provides further grounds for his interpretative recourse to, and focus on, the Heidelberg drafts—over and against a Hegelian or Marxian re-reading—for his revaluation of Lukács’s reification. Most importantly, he enthusiastically argues for the complementariness of Lukács’s social theory for political and social theorists and phenomenologists working with the important insights of Alfred Schütz, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, particularly as far as the study of habituation and the sedimentation of social meanings are concerned.

One should not shy away from characterizing Westerman’s monograph as a remarkable historical demonstration of and phenomenological reinterpretation of Lukács. His monograph displays the author’s sensitivity to the practice of closely reading Lukács’s texts and Critical Theoretical debates in their contexts of production and reception. Nonetheless, his pedagogical and scholarly attention to a progressive and methodological reinterpretation of Lukács’s 1922 Marxist essays—through the lens of his aesthetics—addresses audiences beyond the tradition of Critical Theory: from scholars with an interest in the complicated but complementary dialogue between phenomenology and Critical Theory, to anyone interested in the historical and philosophical relationship between aesthetics and politics, art theory and social theory.

Phenomenologists will find the progressive elaboration of Lukács’s engagement with Husserl—through an idiosyncratic neo-Kantian lens—particularly interesting, as well as its impact on the former’s theory of the artwork as a self-enclosed totality different but comparable to the self-enclosed and rational totality of capitalism. Moreover, phenomenologists and Critical Theorists alike should take heed in Westerman’s invitation to combine the insight of Lukács’s social theory with the social phenomenology of Schütz, Berger, and Luckmann.

Notwithstanding the virtuosity of Westerman’s reconstruction of Lukács’s phenomenological aesthetics and his novel approach to Lukács’s theory of reification, this monograph is also an invitation to relaunch a phenomenological inquiry into social alienation. It allows us to see phenomenology’s potential for understanding our contemporary situation, alongside, why not, contemporary Critical Theory.

James Mensch: Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining

Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining Book Cover Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, Volume: 17
James Mensch
Brill
2018
Hardback €157.00
X, 342

Reviewed by: Jakub Kowalewski

The scope of James Mensch’s new book is truly impressive. On the one hand, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining does not shy away from the rather unfashionable task of proposing a systemic account of human existence. In a manner reminiscent of some of the most exciting works in the history of philosophy, Selfhood and Appearing intervenes in an array of philosophical, political, and religious debates, which, in turn, allow it to propose a unified model of human reality: from subjectivity, through science and politics, to the divine. On the other hand, Mensch’s engagement with wide-ranging and diverse sources relies on insights afforded by one tradition of philosophy in particular – phenomenology. It is on the basis of his close reading of various phenomenologists (perhaps most importantly, Patočka and Merleau-Ponty), that Mensch is able to develop an interpretative key capable of unlocking hidden possibilities of diverse theoretical debates. In other words, the ‘macroscopic’ account of human existence proposed in Selfhood and Appearing presupposes a ‘microscopic’ argument grounded in phenomenological literature.

One of the undeniable achievements of Mensch’s book, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates the continuous importance of phenomenology, not only for questions which remain unsolved (or, at least, remain solved insufficiently) in other traditions and disciplines, but also for a more consistent understanding of our multifaceted existence – on Mensch’s reading, phenomenology is a force to be reckoned with.

In consequence, Selfhood and Appearing can be read in three ways (simultaneously): as a comprehensive analysis of the various levels of human reality; as an interpretative intervention in contemporary phenomenological studies; and, finally, as a love letter to phenomenology.

Selfhood and Appearing is divided into four parts: Part One examines the role of intertwining in subjective experiences; Part Two deals with intertwining and intersubjectivity; Part Three continues the analysis of the previous sections by exploring intertwining in the context of political violence; and Part Four focuses on intertwining and religion.

Since it is the notion of intertwining which allows Mensch to successfully navigate through diverse theoretical landscapes, in this review I will focus primarily on the role intertwining plays in the main argument of the book. As I hope to show, although extracted from the works of other philosophers, intertwining is a specifically ‘Menschean’ notion, which in Selfhood and Appearing is endowed with a double function: firstly, intertwining characterises human experience as a whole, and as such, it is the unifying thread which weaves together the various levels of human reality, which from a traditional perspective are in opposition to one another. Secondly, intertwining enables Mensch to re-interpret and bring together otherwise dispersed philosophical arguments, debates, and traditions; the concept of intertwining is formed on the basis of a phenomenological analysis, and because of that it can be found (for the most part implicitly) in any philosophy attentive to this fundamental structure of human experience.

I will conclude this review by alluding to a tension between two effects of intertwining. Throughout Selfhood and Appearing, intertwining reveals human existence to be chiefly harmonious: the traditionally opposing terms—for instance, self and other, self and the world, the world and divinity—are shown to be intertwined and thus essentially compatible with one another. Likewise, the history of philosophy appears to be interwoven and unified due to a shared attentiveness to the concept of intertwining. In short, the main effect of intertwining is a reconciliatory vision of existence and philosophy, in which antagonisms between divergent elements are dissolved in a more fundamental interlacing. However, occasionally, Mensch allows us to glimpse a different effect of his concept: some phenomena and philosophies are excluded from the reconciliatory work of intertwining. In such cases, a phenomenon or a philosophy is so radically antagonistic that it becomes separated from the otherwise all-encompassing intertwining. As a result, Selfhood and Appearing—in addition to demonstrating the possibility of a harmonious existence and theory—invites us to think the irreducibility of antagonisms in both experience and philosophy, and with it, to conceptualise notions like separation and exclusion opposed to, yet effected by Mensch’s intertwining.

The definition of the concept of intertwining finds its first expression in the Introduction. In the section devoted to Merleau-Ponty, Mensch discusses our natural belief that my perception of external objects is an internal process which takes place “in me,” and that I also count myself as one of the external objects, out there in the world. Our natural belief, therefore, is that ‘I am in the world and the world is in me’ – the “natural” person:

‘lives in a paradox, undisturbed by it. He thinks both that he grasps external objects and their apprehension is within him. The basic tenet of such belief is that our relation to world is that of a double being-in. We are inside that which is in us.’[1]

The paradigmatic example of intertwining, therefore, is our double position as perceivers of objects and—by virtue of our embodiment—as objects to be perceived. These two perspectives, according to Mensch, reveal something ‘more than the fact that our embodiment places us in the world, which we internalize through perception. At issue here is the appearing of the world.’[2] In other words, the fact that my perception of objects is “in me,” while I am “out there” with the objects, is not an inconsequential paradox, which philosophers may try to resolve in their free time. On the contrary, the intertwining between the “inside” and the “outside” found in our embodied perception, is a condition of possibility for any manifestation: I reveal myself and the world which I inhabit thanks to the “double being-in” of the world in me and of me in the world as embodied. Intertwining, therefore, has a transcendental function of making possible the appearing of subjects and objects.

Mensch extends his definition of intertwining in the next section devoted to Patočka. Intertwining, and the manifestation it makes possible, should not be understood as an essentially subjectivity category; nor can it be reduced simply to an objective structure:

‘Appearing as such, however, can be derived neither from consciousness nor the realities that appear to it. Considered in itself, it is a “world-structure”… Prior to subjects and objects, it informs both.’[3]

Whereas Merleau-Ponty enables Mensch to posit intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance, Patočka helps Mensch to argue that intertwining cannot be categorised as simply subjective or objective. Since intertwining makes possible disclosure as such, it is the structure which underlies the manifestation of both subjectivity and objectivity.

Importantly, Patočka contributes a further insight: intertwining is not a static function of appearance. Rather, ‘appearing… is to be understood in terms of motion.’

‘As Patočka expresses this, “movement… first makes this or that being apparent, causes it to manifest itself in its own original manner.” The moving entity does this through affecting what surrounds it… Without this ability through motion to affect what surrounds it, an entity cannot distinguish itself from its environment. But without this, it has no presence either to inanimate or anime beings. In living sentient creatures, this manifests itself as experience. It forms the subjective component of appearing. The objective component is simply the physical presence that the entity has through its action. It is, for example, the depression on the pillow left by an object pressing on it.’[4]

The engagement with Merleau-Ponty and Patočka in the Introduction provides the basic definition of intertwining: it is a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. In the remainder of the book, Mensch demonstrates the way in which intertwining is effective in various aspects of our existence. It is precisely here that the concept becomes ‘Menschean’: intertwining enables Mensch to offer a coherent re-interpretation of the writings of figures in the history of philosophy; these re-interpretations, in turn, allow him to propose a unified account of human existence in its various guises.

In the first part of the book, in addition to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and other phenomenologists, Mensch engages at length with Aristotle, who helps him to conceptualise space and time in terms of intertwining. The discussion of Aristotle is exemplary since it illustrates well the trajectory of Mensch’s argument as a whole. Selfhood and Appearing takes up notions theorised by other thinkers and reframes them by demonstrating their reliance on intertwining. Aristotle offers resources which enable Mensch to identify the effects of intertwining on the appearance of subjects and objects in space and time.

According to Mensch, the notion of space described by Aristotle, is a space produced by the motion of entities. The particular movement of a subject, for instance, determines its “first unmoved boundary” and with it, the space it occupies and in which it moves. Furthermore, as Mensch points out, these Aristotelian conclusions can be applied beyond a simple physical presence – space can be constituted by a practical motion of a teacher who teaches, or a builder who builds. Importantly, on Mensch’s reading, space depends on embodied entities which produce it by their motion. [5] Furthermore, since motion is a structural feature of intertwining, it is, in fact, the latter which, indirectly, gives rise to space.

Likewise time can no longer be thought of as independent from the movements of embodied entities, and thus from intertwining. The constant presence of the body to itself (e.g. my continuous embodiment) constitutes the now: ‘This present “corresponds” to the body by virtue of being part of the body’s continuous self-manifestation.’ The flow of time, by contrast, ‘corresponds to the body’s movement insofar as it manifests the body’s shifting relation to its environment.’ [6] Time, therefore, depends on the permanent yet moving body, producing a temporality responsive to the entity’s motion: the flow of time is effected by the body’s movement, whereas the persistence of the present (the fact that I am always in the now) results from the uninterrupted presence of the body to itself.

Both space and time, therefore, are the effects of embodied entities and their motions; as such, space and time presuppose intertwining as the structure which makes possible the appearance of embodied entities in motion.

A similar argument can be found in Part Two of Selfhood and Appearing. In this section of the book, Mensch re-examines Hannah Arendt’s discussion of public space, which, he says, ‘should be understood in terms of our embodied motion in the world… To think public space in terms of this embodiment is to understand how the intertwining of self and world shapes the public space we share.’[7] Interestingly, in his engagement with Arendt, Mensch makes more explicit the distinction between intertwining as a fundamental structure of appearance, and intertwining as an interpretative key useful for the re-reading of other philosophers. When Mensch takes up Arendt’s categories of labour, work, and action, in order to demonstrate their intertwining, he uses the latter primarily as a concept enabling him to bring together the otherwise separate aspects of human activity theorised by Arendt. Here, intertwining designates a conceptual structure in which category A manifests within itself external categories B and C, while itself remaining one of the external categories. ‘To claim in this context that labor, work, and action are intertwined is to claim that they achieve their presence through embodying one another. Doing so, they serve as a place of disclosure for each other’.

Naturally, the demonstration of the intertwining of different aspects of human activity – that is to say, intertwining as a theoretical tool – presupposes the intertwining of embodied entities in motion (i.e., the intertwining as the transcendental structure of appearance). The intertwined manifestation of labour, work, and action, ‘occurs in conjunction with our disclosure of the world… The public space we share is, in fact, the result of both forms of disclosure.’[8]

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between intertwining as a conceptual tool and intertwining as the condition of experience – whereas the former is derived from the latter, the two notions are endowed with different functions. Intertwining as a transcendental structure allows for the manifestation of entities; intertwining as an interpretative key enables Mensch to re-read the writings of other philosophers.

This distinction between the two functions of intertwining was already operative in Mensch’s interpretation of Aristotle, however, it becomes more explicit when Mensch first presents Arendt’s categories as intertwined, and only then links them with intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance. Of course, Mensch could not re-interpret Arendt without identifying intertwining as a fundamental structure of experience; however, the fact that he is then able to free intertwining from its original context in order to apply it to the discussion of other philosophers, makes intertwining an effective (and genuinely interesting) theoretical notion.

The efficacy of the concept of intertwining is explored further in Part Four of the book. There, intertwining is used to examine questions related to religious life, and, specifically, to unravel a paradox which, according to Mensch, lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions:

‘Thus, on the one hand, we have the binding insistence on justice, on the punishment of the offender, on the payment of the transgressor’s debts to God and society. On the other hand, we have an equally insistent emphasis on the unbinding of mercy, on the forgiveness of all debts. How can these two perspectives be combined? How are we to grasp this binding that is also an unbinding?’[9]

The problem which motivates Part Four echoes the paradox of our natural belief in Part One (that the world is both “in us” and we are “out there in the world”) with which Mensch introduces intertwining as transcendental structure of appearance. However, the respective questions of Part One and Part Four remain distinct – what interests Mensch towards the end of this book is not, for the most part, the intertwining between embodied perceiver and the world; rather, his focus turns to a theoretical problem inherent in the biblical concept of religion, which can be solved by means of intertwining.

Importantly, intertwining as the solution to the paradox of religion is only analogous to the intertwining found at the bottom of appearance: ‘For Merleau-Ponty, the intertwining concerns our relation to the world… The religious analogue of this intertwining places God and the world inside each other.’[10] In other words, in part four intertwining becomes a device used to solve theoretical problems, with only an analogical relationship to the intertwining of experience of oneself in the world.

Of course, this is not say that the two notions of intertwining—as a theoretical tool and as a foundational experience—are separate. On the contrary, the latter continues to inform the former. However, the fact that, despite the change of conceptuality (from phenomenological terms to religious vocabulary), intertwining remains effective, attests to the theoretical efficacy of intertwining outside of a strictly phenomenological analysis of experience. This flexibility of the concept of intertwining enables Mensch to solve the “religious paradox” of part four in a manner reminiscent of the book’s previous arguments – that is to say, by arguing for the religious structure of intertwining: ‘…in the Mosaic tradition, religious selfhood is constituted through intertwining of binding and unbinding. This selfhood is such that the binding and unbinding provide for each other a place of disclosure.’[11]

I have attempted to decouple the two functions of intertwining (as a theoretical tool and as a fundamental structure of appearing) because it strikes me that they are able to generate distinct effects, which are in tension with one another.

This tension is most apparent in Part Three, where Mensch discusses the relationship between violence and politics. There, Mensch engages with the thoughts of Schmitt and Heidegger. Mensch does not attempt to hide his intentions – in contrast to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka, Aristotle, and even Arendt, all of whom contributed something positive to the argument of Selfhood and Appearing, the two Nazi-sympathisers are shown to be wrong, and only wrong (and rightly so, I should add).

From a perspective of the history of phenomenology, one of the ingenious aspects of Mensch’s reading of Heidegger is that he finds him “in” Schmitt. As a result he is able to disclose the Heideggerian basis of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, which invalidates Schmitt and Heidegger as appropriated by Schmitt. This way, Mensch is able to please both the anti-Heideggerian readers (who will be satisfied with the demonstration of the explicit relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt), and the pro-Heideggerian readers (who will point out that the relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt is possible on the basis of partial convergence of their respective thoughts). Take, for instance, these two passages, which follow one another in the text:

‘… we can say that Schmitt’s use of the “extreme situation” to define our collective identity is based on a specific notion of human existence, one that he shares with Heidegger… Given the essential lack of content of our existence, seriousness means taking responsibility or the decisions that shape it and, hence, affirming our identity through such responsibility. For Heidegger and Schmitt, what forces us to do this is the enemy that confronts us. For both, then seriousness involves a readiness for conflict, a need to seek out the enemy.’

‘Heidegger takes our confrontation with death as primarily individual. For Schmitt, by contrast, both death and the enemy that threatens it are thought in terms of the collective.[12]

Mensch then skillfully demonstrates how Schmitt’s understanding of the collective (that is to say, the point at which he differs from Heidegger) helps the jurist to elaborate his concept of sovereignty – thus creating a distance between Heideggerian ontology and Schmitt’s theory of the sovereign.

Almost immediately afterwards, Mensch returns to the similarities between Schmitt and Heidegger – the decision of Schmitt’s sovereign is ungrounded, and the ‘nothingness that is its source is, in fact, the political equivalent of the nothingness of death.’[13] Nevertheless, despite the equivalence of their concepts, the reader is reminded that is Schmitt who contributes the more explicitly problematic dimension to the discussion of decisionism.

The most interesting aspect of the discussion of Heidegger and Schmitt, in my opinion, is their uneasy position in relation to the concept of intertwining.

Schmitt’s (Heidegger-inspired) sovereign escapes the intertwining which constitutes legitimate politics, and in which the subject is free to act in the world while being limited by its norms and values. The sovereign does act in the world, however, he or she is not constrained by the world’s values.[14] The sovereign constitutes a “liminal” figure: ‘this liminality signifies that the sovereign has complete authority with regard to the legal system, being himself unconstrained by it.’[15]

Interestingly, the concept of liminality (embodied by the figure of the sovereign) is used by Mensch to identify phenomena which sit uncomfortably on the border of intertwining and its beyond. These phenomena are dangerous, because they act in the world from the position external to the world’s norms. This is why liminality should be eliminated by ‘the inclusion of the [liminal] agents into the world in which they act. It can only come through the reestablishment of the intertwining that joins the self and its Others in a world of shared senses.’[16]

Intertwining, therefore, functions as a way to reintegrate liminal figures – such as the sovereign – back into the shared world of values and norms, and thus to eliminate the threat of senseless violence which liminality makes possible.

However, despite the call for the inclusion of liminal figures, the works of Schmitt (and to a lesser extent, Heidegger) are excluded from Mensch’s theoretical enterprise. After finishing Part Three of Selfhood and Appearing, the reader has no doubt that there is no place for Schmitt (and Schmitt’s Heidegger) amongst the thinkers of intertwining. This is a result which speaks favourably about Mensch’s project as a whole – we can safely assume that Mensch does not want to have Nazi-sympathisers on his side. However, this exclusion of Schmitt seems to be at odds with the inclusive work of intertwining attested to by Mensch in his demand for the reintegration of liminal figures.

My hypothesis is that the tension between, on the one hand, the exclusion of Schmitt, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of liminal figures, can be explained by the distinction between the two types of intertwining identified above.

As a transcendental condition of manifestation, intertwining aims to reconcile oppositional terms (e.g. subjectivity and objectivity, or the world and divnity). As a theoretical tool, however, intertwining can be used to separate and exclude philosophies which are irreconcilable with the ultimately harmonising and inclusive project of Selfhood and Appearing.

This suggests, in turn, that at least on the theoretical level antagonism is irreducible: philosophy attentive to intertwining cannot be reconciled with philosophies which pay no attention to this fundamental structure.

It remains an open question, however, if a similar antagonism can be located on the level of experience: is there anything which intertwining as a transcendental condition of manifestation is incompatible with?

Mensch’s discussion of liminality hints on such a possibility. The liminal figure is both within the structure of intertwining, and external to it. Furthermore, as the possibility of sovereign violence demonstrates, this sphere external to intertwining is an effective and dangerous dimension, with real consequences for the intertwined existence. Thus, ultimately, we might find an irreducible antagonism also in experience – the external dimension attested to by liminal figures is fundamentally opposed to the harmonising structure of intertwining and the manifestation it produces.

If we were to continue our hypothetical musings, we can ask: how is this dangerous dimension external to intertwining constituted?

Perhaps it is produced by intertwining itself, which separates and excludes elements which cannot be integrated in its structure. Intertwining is defined as a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. Does this definition not imply the separation and exclusion of elements which are static, purely subjective or purely objective, and as such invisible from the perspective of intertwining? Would these non-integrated elements, in turn, constitute the hostile dimension external to intertwining, threatening the harmonising work of its “enemy”?

In addition to all its other achievements, the fact that Selfhood and Appearing invites us to pose such questions, and to consider the irreducible antagonism between intertwining and the dimension external to it, shows clearly that Mensch’s new book truly has an impressive scope.


[1] J. Mensch, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill 2018, p. 16

[2] Ibid., p. 16

[3] Ibid., p.19

[4] Ibid., p. 20

[5] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[6] Ibid., p. 89

[7] Ibid., p. 168

[8] Ibid., p. 171

[9] Ibid., p, 283

[10] Ibid., p. 288

[11] Ibid., p. 288

[12] Ibid., p. 265

[13] Ibid., p. 268

[14] Ibid., p. 253

[15] Ibid., p. 250

[16] Ibid., p. 254

Jacques Derrida: La vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)

La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976) Book Cover La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)
Bibliothèque Derrida
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf
Seuil
2019
Paperback 24.00 €
372

Reviewed by: Mauro Senatore (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Santiago de Chile)

“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.

By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.

§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.

From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).

Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).

In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.

In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.

§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).

§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.

In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.

In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.

The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.

Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.

References

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

 

Natalie Depraz, Anthony J. Steinbock (Eds.): Surprise: An Emotion?

Surprise: An Emotion? Book Cover Surprise: An Emotion?
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 97
Natalie Depraz, Anthony J. Steinbock (Eds.)
Springer
2018
Hardback 88,39 €
X, 189

Reviewed by: Andrew Bevan (Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, London)

What is it to define an emotion? Or to categorise an experience as an emotion? This is the aim of this collection of essays, the result of a conference of 2013 with the same name that discussed ‘surprise’ and attempted to categorise it as emotion, feeling, affect or otherwise. The editors identify two main theoretical frameworks with which to approach the question: psychology and philosophy. They argue that, whereas psychology treats surprise as a primary emotion, philosophy relates surprise to passions which are then opposed to reason. With this split in place, they seek to question these frameworks: is surprise not also cognitive? Is it not embedded in language? And how is it to be related to personhood and the interpersonal and moral emotions? Already we see that the exercise of defining an experience as an emotion takes place within the traditional binaries of philosophical psychology: passion/reason, emotion/cognition, etc. Yet throughout this volume, perhaps the most surprising aspect of surprise is just how inadequate these traditional categories are and how the phenomenon under discussion will exceed and trouble these traditional binaries.

One immediate difficulty the volume is faced with is what to call that which is to be defined or categorized: what is this realm of undefined or uncategorised? What most general word can refer to it: ‘surprise’? At some level, all authors can speak to this uncategorised experience called ‘surprise’; there is some binding of word and experience such that all authors can write on its vagaries and varieties. Yet how is this to be disambiguated from similar terms like wonder, startle, glance, etc. as well as the translation of these terms from other languages, most notably that of wonder (thaumaston) which, as Plato argued in Theaetetus, ‘is the only beginning of philosophy’ (155d). This is the very problem the volume engages with and thus, in so doing can be read as continuing this long tradition of surprise as the beginning of philosophy.

Three main themes occur in all the authors’ discussions. The most commonly invoked criteria for surprise that all authors mention in some form or another is the frustration of expectations. For example, Steinbock delineates surprise not only as ‘an experience of unexpected givenness’ but as ‘the accommodation of us to the situation by being the acceptance of what I cannot accept’ (10). These expectations can be implicit or explicit and not merely cognitive: they are discussed through concepts like habit or bodily adaptation to an environment. It is then in the frustration of expectations, or the difference between expectation and actuality, that surprise arises. Authors use many concepts to characterise these expectations (dispositions, integrations, entanglements and habit) and their frustration (startle, rupture, punctuation, anxiety, novelty and reconfigurations).  But there is also room for concepts that convey a lack of surprise when expectations meet actuality (affinity, affordance).

The second commonality is the question of temporality: while most agree surprise involves a spontaneous, sudden, ‘rupture’ this is merely the first part of a temporal dynamic. Desmidt, for example argues ‘surprise is the structure of the temporal dynamic of emotional emergence’ (62).

The third point of agreement between most authors is that surprise is ambiguously valenced: surprise can be positive or negative and so appears to transcend any simple division into positive/negative valence.

But, whereas the authors tend to agree on these three main points, there is then much divergence in their characterisation of surprise. The main problem in comparing positions to agree any consensus and the possibility of answering the question of the volume is that the difference between the authors’ positions in part stems from different understandings of the terms being used to categorize ‘surprise’. For instance, if surprise is to be an emotion, there is little discussion or agreement of what an emotion is, nor its difference or identity to affect, passion, feeling etc. is. Some treat affect and emotion as synonymous, others as strictly different but few reflect on what they might mean nor what categorising surprise as one or the other would entail.

The authors who give most attention to this question are the two editors of the volume, Steinbock and Depraz and both invoke Kant to define emotions. Steinbock foregrounds Kant’s use of temporality to differentiate affect and passion: affect is sudden and rash in contrast to the duration of passions (12-13).  Steinbock then, despite the suddenness of surprise, argues surprise is part of a process of much longer duration. But he concludes not that surprise is a passion but that surprise ‘belongs to the sphere of emotions (and is not a mere affect)’ (13). Steinbock thus seems to equate passion with emotion. Furthermore, whereas affects are ‘feeling-states and pertain to who we are as psychophysical beings, where we would find experiences like pleasure or pain, being ill at ease, tickling and arousal,’ emotions – such as ‘regret, remorse, fear, longing and surprise’ (14-15) – are emotions because ‘they can occur without any essential relation to personal ‘otherness’ in that experience’. But ‘genuine’ emotions are those which ‘presuppose an “order” or even “disorder” of the heart – to use a phrase from Pascal – and are lived in some way toward some other as bearer of value in a ‘creative’ or personal manner’ (15). Here we see that the divisions of psycho-physical to ‘personhood’ are played out to differentiate affect from emotion.

Meanwhile, Depraz argues that in psychology, surprise is treated as an emotion. She again cites Kant but, unlike Steinbock, identifies emotion with affect (‘emotion, here as Affekt’, 26). This identification of emotion with the German Affekt has a psychological precedence perhaps beginning with William James in his Principles of Psychology. For Depraz, surprise ‘is not an emotion in the sense of a basic feeling like fear, anger, disgust, jor or sadness.’ Her main argument is that ‘surprise involves an emotional and cognitive component but results in a more encompassing and integrative circular (time, bodily, expressive-descriptive) phenomena’ (39). Depraz then invokes the concept of valence to undermine the idea that surprise is an emotion: valence characterizes more precisely the ‘affective dynamic of the surprise rather than emotion as such, which always remains a partial and static state’ (40). Although surprise is linked to emotional valence when associated with these emotions, it may also appear as ‘a neutral, mixed or epistemic emotion, i.e. as a violated expectation that affects both action and cognitive processing.’ (39).

Other authors tend to reflect less on the problem, focusing their attention purely on emotion (Desmidt, Brizard) or tending to identify emotion with affect (Livet mentions ‘affective attitudes’ (109), ‘affects or affective bursts (111), ‘emotional or affective attitude’ (112)). Although Brizard does state that startle, that can be used to assess emotional reactivity which can be ‘modulated by affective states’ (78). Sheets-Johnstone in insisting the body is not ahistorical or living, speaks of ‘affective dynamics that move through bodies and move them to move’ (83). Yet, quoting Jung, she seems to elide any difference between affect and emotion (85).  Emotions/affects are then qualitatively different: they have their own ‘distinctive qualitative kinetic dynamics’ (85).

At least three different approaches can be identified then: affect equals emotions; emotion is a type of affect; or affects and emotions are different. A fourth approach, however, is to avoid the whole problem by mentioning neither affect nor emotion – such is Casey’s singular approach: he instead likens surprise to glance, something that is perhaps less contentious and more familiar.

This difference in understanding and use of terms then makes the guiding question ‘Surprise: An Emotion?’ difficult to answer: it of course depends on what an emotion is. So when Steinbock argues surprise is an emotion, and Depraz that it is not, they are working with slightly different understandings of what emotion is. For Depraz, emotion is an affect, for Steinbock it is not. Yet both agree that the aspect that differentiates surprise as one or the other is temporality: surprise is not sudden but part of a more involved process.

Perhaps some attention to the terms being used (affect, passion, feeling, emotion) might yield a more productive discussion. The terms affect and passion in particular have a long and rich philosophical heritage and perhaps most significantly enter the philosophical discourse through its use by Cicero, Augustine and others to translate the Greek pathos. Now, whilst passiones is a transliteration of the Greek pathos with similar meanings, affectio already existed in Latin and is comprised of the prefix ad- + facio. Ad- usually adds a movement to or against something whilst facio has a very broad signification including to make, build, construct or produce. Passiones is also the root of our passive and thus this choice of translation would foreground an essential passivity to this realm of experience. Whereas, with the choice of affect, which can be active or passive voiced (‘to affect or be affected’ will become central to interpretations of Spinoza), it is the binary of active/passive that is paramount in discussions of Greek pathos.

However, Cicero, in Tusculan Disputations, chooses neither affect nor passion but uses perturbatio to translate πάθος. He prefers this to morbus, meaning ‘diseases’ because the Greeks also used πάθος for exaltation and joy which we cannot consider disease. Thus, already we see the problem of valence when it comes to choosing a term to characterize these experiences – the term itself cannot be valenced. Furthermore, by choosing pertubatio, Cicero makes a philosophical intervention in the reception of Greek philosophy by replacing medical metaphors with metaphors of movement and reintroducing into Latin a model of mind in Plato and Pythagoras who divided the soul into two: one of peacefulness that shares in reason and another that doesn’t, the seat of stormy emotions, motus turbidosPerturbatio captures this metaphorical domain as it is comprised of the prefix per- meaning ‘thoroughly, to completion’ and turbāre from turbo ‘to disturb’ and implicitly contains a sense of a passive initiation of something that must run its course which means that, for Cicero, it becomes imperative to avoid perturbations in the first place as once initiated they cannot be stopped but must flow to completion.

On a purely etymological level, this understanding of perturbation resembles that of emotion which derives from the Latin ēmovēre to move out, drive away or banish, for example, pain. In this choice of concepts it is an implicit negatively valenced motion (as turbo or moveo) that is foregrounded . However, from a wider perspective than mere etymology, Thomas Dixon’s From Passions to Emotions claims that by 1850, the category of emotion had subsumed ‘passions,’ ‘affections’ and ‘sentiments’ in most English-language psychological theorists such as Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). The increase in popularity of emotion arose from the 17th century consolidation of philosophies of individualism as well as a secularisation that sought to avoid the associations of passion and affection with the biblical and theological preferring emotion for its alternative network of relations to psychology, law, observation, evolution, etc. This resulted in differing causal explanations for the phenomena: whilst Christian philosophers assumed passions were the soul acting on the body, emotions then became the brain acting on the body. The scientific brain replaces the theological soul as agent.

This analysis of concepts reveals at root two alternative approaches adequately described by affect/passion and emotion. Whether separated or identified, however, they nevertheless share an implicit foundation in activity and passivity and in the metaphorical domains of theology, medicine and physics. The question as to whether surprise is an emotion, affect or other is therefore not philosophically, historically or politically neutral. And this question continues to haunt the pages of this volume: for the question of valence appears regularly as well as the question of active/passive. And the metaphorical domain continues to oscillate between a philosophical approach (mainly that of phenomenology) and a more scientific one of psychology and linguistics. Indeed, the sheer diversity of disciplines included in this volume (without any one dominating) – medical (depression), philosophy (phenomenology), science (psychology), theological (in the discussion of Paul) or language and literature – continues the question over which metaphorical domain to place the concepts in. Such a complex and multi-faceted problem does indeed touch on everything from language, linguistics, phenomenology, science and theology and it is therefore refreshing that this volume features accounts from all these differing approaches.

Moreover, the volume is enhanced through combinations of these disciplines: the introduction states the multidisciplinary approaches as ‘philosophy, psychophysiology, psychiatry and linguistics’ (vi) and mention early attempts at the interface of philosophy and linguistics, phenomenology and psycho-neuro-physiology or philosophy-phenomenology. Phenomenology, neuroscience, physiology, is an interesting and productive binding.

If this short history of the concepts used to describe this realm of experience reveals anything, it is perhaps how implicated in past metaphysics this whole discourse is. Thus, it might be productive to uncover how implicitly the authors depend on such a past metaphysics (notably that of a past metaphysics of coupled opposites derived from Greek philosophy) in approaching the central question posed by the book. Furthermore, perhaps the value of this book lies in its manifestation of a tension relating to how surprise appears to depend on and yet transcend these categories and conceptual histories of philosophy.

Sheets-Johnstone speaks directly to this question of past metaphysics when she complains of a ‘metaphysics of absence’ that leads to an ‘absence of the body below the neck’ (84). The traditional body/mind division is that which leads to this critique. But the influence of a past metaphysics of coupled opposites is felt most concretely with the numerous oppositions that continue to structure the problem field: positive/negative, approach/avoidance, and sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous systems not to mention emotion/cognition and emotion/volition. Such a metaphysics enables the very analysis Livet proposes in his concluding paragraph where he walks through eight possible combinations based on oppositional pairings of explicit/implicit, emotion/volition and the transition between the two. This then requires also that emotion be opposed to cognition and the whole realm of complexity is perhaps reduced to slotting aspects into a neat, three dimensional grid of implicit/explicit, emotion/volition, affect/cognition.

But perhaps the main oppositional pair that governs all these other pairs is the active/passive which features prominently in many authors’ discussions and may stem from the translation of the Greek pathos into a discourse of passivity. For example, Steinbock asks whether surprise is active or passive given that startle must be passive (10). For Livet, the active/passive is applied to the difference between emotions (passive) and volitions (active) and Livet argues both can actually be active either in an explicit, conscious or implicit way. But ultimately, Livet and Steinbock both demonstrate just how futile and inadequate conceiving something like emotions as passive or active is. Steinbock notes that the active/passive cannot adequately be applied to surprise for it cannot be purely passive but indicates transition from a more passive to a more active awakening (12). Often what is passive is said to be also active leading to them being active and passive at the same time and the whole point of the distinction to disappear.

The centrality of the active/passive together with the alternate history of mostly disturbing movements gives rise to a conception of affects as quantitative flows and is evidenced in the repeated mentions of intensity and valence. For example, in Depraz’s brief history of the concept of valence that began with Kurt Lewin in 1935. He proposed valence as a double-opposed movement of attraction and repulsion in reference to his force-field analysis of social situations. It defines the intrinsic attractiveness of an event, object or situation and, by extension, also the attractiveness of the emotion itself. This concept then became ‘an operative concept to define the very structural dynamics of emotions in psychology’ (41). Perhaps we could say more generally it is a metaphysics of coupled opposites that defines the structural dynamics of emotion implicit to psychology?

Given the privileging of their disturbing character, passions, affects or emotions are then treated as (or have to be differentiated from) external impositions disrupting purely self-present subjects that produces philosophies of defence that privilege sameness over difference. This approach would then consider surprise as negative or, at least, somewhat out of our control.

Furthermore, if surprise is based very much on this difference between world and self, the question of what is surprising – prominent mostly in the linguistics section – is problematised as it will vary from individual to individual. Philosophies might then seek to ‘master’ affects: because one could not know in advance whether a surprise would be negative or positive, it is better to resist them all together. This question of individuality presents a challenge to those papers that try to elicit surprise in experimental settings. Can surprise be identified in the absence of the experiencer and their expectations that are often implicit? This is perhaps why Steinbock differentiates surprise from startle – one could agree we could all be startled by a loud interruption but whether one is surprised by some of the examples might depend on one’s experience in the world, particularly in the case of police interactions (9). Perhaps this question underlies the difficulty inherent to the project of deciding whether surprise is an emotion.

Bloechl is perhaps most explicit in addressing this question. He writes that, if surprise depends on some difference between a subject’s expectation and actuality, ‘the intelligibility of the experience depends in some important measure on the condition of the subject and its relation to the world in which it lives’. He thus argues we can differentiate among surprises by attending to the context in which they occur (historical, cultural, personal-psychological, etc.). But, he adds, ‘without surrendering the possibility of grasping their inner unity in some irreducible essence (eidos)’ (119). What is it that remains the same across all differences in surprise, different expectations, different subjectivities? The experience of difference?

An important point to mention on this question of individuality and whether emotions like surprise can be said to be universal is the focus Ekman’s paradigm of ‘basic emotions’ based on facial expressions receives in Depraz, Brizard, Goutéraux, Celle et al. Although Ekman receives criticism in Sheets-Johnstone for ‘“the absence of the body below the neck”’ (84), his paradigm as a whole continues to pervade the psychological discourse of emotions despite major methodological criticisms coming from within and without psychology. Ekman’s paradigm has been coherently critiqued, particularly over its claims to cross-cultural comparison, most notably by Ruth Leys in her The Ascent of Affect.

So is there an alternative to this approach to affects and to surprise? Could we uncover such an alternative, manifest them in the same way surprise acts to manifest a difference between implicit expectations and actuality? Can a focus on surprise yield the very surprises needed to reveal implicit foundations? Perhaps surprise best offers such a path with its ambiguous valence problematizes any neat ascription to either positive or negative. Furthermore, whilst we may know surprise in itself, the details of its surprise is unique to each occurrence. And, in the surprise, we can learn the difference between our habitual, implicit being as it becomes manifested in the difference to the actual. Thus, affects here become a potential for individual growth and becoming rather than something to be defended against whilst retaining some universality for comparison and intersubjective understanding.

One such alternative is being drawn out by the work of Depraz for instance in her rejection of opposites for circularity (39). She argues, refreshingly, that ‘integrated emotions [like love, submission, etc.] show that we have to deal here with a three-dimensional dynamic model and not with a linear list of emotions opposed one to the other’ (29). She notes how phenomenology is uniquely positioned to enable such a synthetic integration of of cognitive, physiological, evolutionary and other aspects and her proposal is for a cardiophenomenology that places the emphasis not on the brain but on the heart partly because the heart-system is an integrative system and better recognizes the ‘unique dynamic circular living rythmic of such a system’ (48). The heart self-organizes ‘as soon as the embryo develops spontaneous contractions independently of the brain’ and integrates the nervous and brain system as well as performing a control function (48-49). The heart is both physio-organic and uniquely lived. You can’t feel your neurons but you can feel your heart and thus is ‘self-feelable’, an auto-affection. Thus the heart becomes, ‘the matrix of the person as both lived (affection) and organic (muscle), or again, the core of the weaving between the first- and the third-person experience of the subject’ (48).

Such an approach allows for physiological measures to get third-person perspectives on surprise as startle yet also allows for comparison with first-person perspectives on the feeling of those physiological measures. It also allows the experiential aspect not just a theoretical-textual approach so that individual differences in singular surprising events can be acknowledged. Surprise is thus the core-experience of a heart-centred, cardiophenomenology for Depraz.

This focus on the heart and its rhythmicity gives a more interactive circular dynamic than the perhaps active/passive transmissions of the brain from input to muscular output.  Instead of causal, sequential flows of neuronal pathways, of flowing out of movements that must be expended, which always eventually leads to the active and passive (the brain as active sending out of passive sensations or movements), Depraz enables a focus on integration and circularity.

Desmidt also mentions cardiac psychology as ‘an integrative dynamic that includes the systems of the context, the body (and the heart and brain within the body), and the lived experience that dynamically interact according to the three phases to produce an emotional experience’ (64). He quotes Craig’s model of emotion in which an emotional experience ‘is produced by the sequential integration in the insular cortex of five types of information according to a spatial gradient’ (66).

Yet is this a move that repeats the debate between Galen and Aristotle – Aristotle seeing the heart as the centre, Galen the brain? For the nervous system is also seen as integrative. Perhaps the ultimate issue here is not whether it is the brain or the heart that is central but the challenge to the dominance of the active/passive ‘sending out’ for one that is more about circular dynamics.

Livet also acknowledges there should be a focus on ‘the entanglements between the different aspects of motivation experience […] without taking for granted restrictive definitions that overestimate their oppositions and underestimate their intimate relations. He urges a study of the ‘entanglements between different aspects of motivational experience without taking for granted restrictive definitions that overestimate their oppositions and underestimate their intimate relations’ (114). As to the active/passive, Livet recognizes that emotions are usually considered passive whilst volitions active but proposes they be considered as two kinds ‘that belong to a more inclusive category, namely the category of motivational dynamics’ (105).

It is then a question, not of oppositions but of entanglements, bindings, integrations that cannot be reduced to couplings of opposites or mechanical linear flows of active and passive but instead opens to the question of what bindings might enable and sustain our flourishing. Bloechl can perhaps be read as providing how an affect such as surprise could lead to our becoming and not be something to be defended against, mastered or known in advance through the example of Paul. Notably, Bloechl attends both to Paul’s state such that he experienced the surprise of a conversion (which depended on Paul’s ‘disposition’) as well as how he then integrated the experience. He looks for evidence for the former by attending to Paul’s Judaism prior to the experience and the latter through the Christianity in Paul’s letters.

What Bloechl concludes is that in Paul’s experience, and perhaps the experience of surprise more generally, there is a passage from inward and personal experience to an outward and universal discourse. He adds, ‘unless there is an affinity […] between that which surprises and that which is interpreted as the surprise, the event itself is literally unintelligible’ (127-128). This ‘affinity’ could also be called a context and it is surprise which can alter the entirety of a context, it comes, he adds, with ‘its own horizon of meaning’. Yet ‘unless at least some of this new meaning can be fused with the meaning of what it may challenge and transform, it remains strictly alien. The nature and limits of that fusion are open to interpretation and call for concepts that do not obscure the experience in question’ (128). Surprise and affects not so individual as to be incomparable across individuals or cultures but not so universal as to preclude the first-person perspective. Somewhere between reductive binaries and trivializing infinities.

Such an individual/universal approach is demonstrated in the volume applied to depression which is conceptualized in terms of an inability to anticipate pleasure in a situation even when they do then feel pleasure in its actualisation. Yet, it is a pity this account did not take into account the individual histories of expectation/actuality that is so paramount to surprise – if someone is depressed and cannot anticipate pleasure in a situation perhaps it is because of so many failed expectations? Although the authors suggest ‘hyporeactivity in depression may be characterized by an imparied cardiac physiology, especially during the anticipation phase’ (67). Here the question of individual history and ahistorical biology rears its head and the benefit should surely be in their mutual cooperation.

Perhaps if there is one key theme emerging from all these discussions it is the question of difference; difference between emotion and cognition, a difference encountered in an organism’s interaction with itself and its world that leads to differentiations, splits, retreats or avoidance and it extending or protending itself into its past/future. This focus on difference also helps against one discipline dominating: where is the organism’s self-difference? In the neurons? The gap between neurons? Any criticism of a cognitive privilege could then be countered by the fact that these expectations are often implicit and, moreover, manifested in the difference experienced and thus prior to any split between mind and body, this split coming after the fact as an attempt to integrate the experience. Indeed, it could be through a historical series of surprises that we find ourselves in this problem of mind/body dualism split. Is the feeling of oneself then arising from a unity with oneself or difference to oneself?

There are several mentions of the entangled nature of emotions and surprise. Can these be best understood within a metaphysics of opposites such as of active/passive, of cause/effect any longer? Or is the domain emotions try to capture one more of contingency, of expectations meeting actuality where these are not opposites but in their unfolding produce each other. Just like Picasso’s quote ‘je ne cherche pas, je trouve’ cited in this volume: it is only in finding, in the difference between expectation and actuality, that one knows one was searching.

It is in the unfolding of the entanglement this collection of essays resides in rather than the entanglement itself where surprise and emotion surely lie. Otherwise, we cannot truly find the alternative to the dominance of cognitive and computational so many authors descry. It seems if universality is not acceptable, and definitions vary, the experience of defining affects is the very experience of individuating, growing and self-differentiation, this self-differentiation that is the universal. Is this not a more adequate account of the affect surprise? Such would be the performative and not merely textual effect of reading this volume. Today, perhaps it is not wonder but surprise that is the beginning of philosophy.

Michael Marder: Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts

Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts Book Cover Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts
Michael Marder
Columbia University Press
2019
Paperback $30.00 £25.00
272

Reviewed by: Mees van Hulzen (Leipzig University)

Sometimes we come across a book that makes us feel uneasy, causes a degree of uncertainty and poses more questions than it answers. This does not have to be a bad thing, and it certainly is not in the case of Michael Marder’s latest book: Political Categories, with the telling subtitle: Thinking Beyond Concepts. In it he unfolds an ambitious project of developing a theory of political categories, based on a phenomenological reading of Aristotle’s Categories and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Not only does Marder wants to demonstrate how these classical categories can be translated to political philosophy, but he also aims to show that the constitution of the categories themselves is already political, as he elaborates in the two appendixes the book has. The boldness of this undertaking makes it an exciting book, filled with unexpected turns, and rich with various philosophical insights; only, one cannot help to feel a little lost at the end of it. In what follows I will give a commented summary of the book and a brief critical reflection at the end.

Marder has over the last years, in a rapid pace, published a great number of books. Not least of all on plants. Marder is probably one of the few experts on the planet when it comes to philosophy and plants. Most well-known is his book Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). Clearly his interest in the being of plants resonates in his other philosophical work where he writes about phenomenology, ecology and politics, such as in his book on Heidegger: Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology and Politics (2017). In it he tries to demonstrate how some of Heidegger’s major ideas support an ecological and leftist politics; a conclusion that Heidegger infamously failed to draw. Another noteworthy book is that on Carl Schmitt’s idea of the political: Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010). Many of the themes Marder discusses in his previous work reoccur in Political Categories. However, it is not to be thought of as a synthesis of his previous work, but rather a continuation of Marder’s explorative thinking, devoted to the project of developing from a phenomenological methodology, a critical political theory, that is directed at the political things themselves (xi).

I.

Marder begins chapter 1 of Political Categories by positioning himself in contrast to two extremes in the political landscape, who, according to him, both suffer from the same problem. The first extreme goes by many different names, such as ‘economicism’ (7), ‘neoliberalism’ (8), ‘progressivism’ (9) or ‘capitalism’ (1). The other extreme is that of ‘ultranationalism’ (98) or ‘reactionary modernism’ (7). Marder’s critique in the book is mainly directed at the former, partly because he holds the conviction that the latter is a consequence of the former. Hence, the predicate ‘reactionary’. The problem with both positions – that make up for the two evils that plague many societies today – is that they both represent a type of thinking that limits itself to one particular category, and reduces the whole of political reality to it. In the case of neoliberalism everything is reduced to that what is calculable and quantifiable. In the case of ultranationalism it is the exclusive and distorted application of the category of quality that poisons social relations by reducing social reality to different homogenous sorts.

By broadening the political categories, the theory of political categories provides, according to Marder, a solution to both extremes of the political spectrum. First of all, because the multiplicity of perspectives that the theory presents offers a better and more thorough understanding of political entities. Second, it would also lead to better politics, in so far as it would more adequately fit politics to the plurality of political reality (8). The idea that a theory of political categories can help to oppose neoliberalism and ultranationalism is promising, but how does Marder exactly substantiate this claim?

Key for understanding the theory of political categories is the Husserlian adage: ‘Zu den Sachen selbst!’ We should also in the case of political theory return to the things themselves, according to Marder, not merely by directing our attention to things that are political, but first of all by perceiving politics as a thing. Not only does politics revolves around a public thing (res publica) but the constitution of things in general is a public affair. (12). Things are not just simply there, but as Marder repeatedly phrases it: they ‘present’ themselves or ‘give’ themselves. He warns us not to think of things as objects. The thing does not stand in front of me as a complete alien entity, but rather I unfold myself in my perception of the thing: ‘The categories and self-consciousness do not lay siege of things, walling them behind freestanding conceptual structures. From the outset, they take the side of things, sometimes with such fanaticism that they do not longer recall who takes this side’ (15).

Categories are according to Marder crucial for the way in which a thing is interpreted by us. The role the categories play in our understanding of a thing should not be confused with classification. In classification a thing is ascribed certain fixed properties and is classified accordingly. Categories do not seek to do away with something but are directed at maintaining the borders of that which they categorize (21). They enable us to form judgments and help us to distinguish one from the other.

What does this have to do with politics? What makes the categories of quantity, relation, quality, substance etc. political? There is no political sphere for Marder per se, since he, on the one hand considers politics as a thing, and on the other hand thinks that the interpretation of things is political. However, for him this does not result in the meaningless expression: ‘everything is political’. Everything is only political in so far as everything is potentially political or ‘politicizable’ (24). That things are constantly politicized follows from the way in which Marder equates the ‘mobilization of the categories’ to politicization (22). ‘Political categories’ is in this sense a misnomer: there are no political categories but categories themselves are inherently political. They politicize the non-political by enabling the accusation of ‘this’ as ‘that’, without reducing the thing to one particular category. Categorization is not a static process, like classification, but rather it is the interplay of highlighting different modes of being of the thing that is given.

II.

After having introduced the political dimension of his theory, Marder gives in chapter 2, on the basis of Aristotle’s table of categories, a first description of the political workings of various categories. Aristotle distinguishes 10 categories, Marder however limits his discussion to 6 of them: ousia (beingness), quantity, space, relation, positionality and quality. He distances his own phenomenological position from that of Aristotle, by siding with Husserl. For Aristotle the categories belong to the things themselves, they are always of something. However, from the perspective of phenomenology the categories are always to something, according to the axiom of intentionality. Marder’s phenomenological critique of Aristotle remains unfortunately only limited to a few comments.

The most significant paragraph of this chapter is the first one: ‘Ousia-beingness-presence’ which can be read as the blueprint of Marder’s project.  In it he discusses the first category of Aristotle’s table of categories, that of ousia, beingness or substance (44). It is a special category and is different from the others, since in it the passage from the non-political to the political takes place. Marder describes the way in which a thing presents itself to us as the passage of ‘this’ singular being that presents itself ‘as that’. This passage he defines as the passage of the first to the second ousia. The undifferentiated singular being that presents itself as ‘this’ has to be interpreted ‘as that’, for example: this singular being presents itself to me as human. And it is in this passage from the first to the second ousia, that the other categories play a crucial role: ‘Other categories must be in place for us to make a hermeneutical leap bridging the divide between this and that, which is why, by itself, ousia eludes identification and is a category on the verge of the uncategorizable.’ (46). Because ousia is primary to interpretation, the possibility of various interpretations is inherent to it. The other categories are an actualization of the possibility to interpret this singular being in a particular way.

The passage from the first ousia to the second is primarily how Marder understands politics. This means that he primarily understands politics as politicization (122). But politicization can also be hindered or obstructed. He gives the example of someone who is denied interpretation as a human being based on her racial, ethnic, religious, sexual or gender identity (45).

Marder further argues that the passage from the first to the second ousia can help us to confront some of the most fundamental social problems of modernity. First of all, he argues that ousia holds the possibility of peace, in so far as it ensures the ‘equality of the incommensurables’, by which he means that no thing ‘is’ more than another thing, and also in the access they provide to political presence they are equal (51). Second, the category of ousia does not merely reveal the sameness between things, but in the transition from the first to second ousia also their differences. This corresponds to the idea that in this transition the gap between the singular to the universal is bridged, without reducing the one to the other. Something that is a necessary condition for the creation of political solidarity according to Marder (78).

The rest of the chapter consists of a discussion of other Aristotelian categories: how they help us to understand politics as a thing, how they complement each other, and how they become destructive when taken in isolation from each other. The tension between the category of quantity and quality is most noteworthy. In line with his general critique of the technocratic way in which neoliberalism reduces everything to quantifiable entities he points us to the inherent lack of meaning in the category of quantity. Like the category of ousia, the category of quantity does not have contraries (a square is for example not the contrary of a triangle, nor is 1 the contrary of 0), but whereas ousia, in the transition from the first to the second ousia, allows for differences, quantity remains on the level of a limitless sameness: unable to recognize real differences. This is why the reduction of political reality to the category of quantity proves to be most disastrous for politics. The focus on numbers in the census of representative democracies, for example, tends to neutralize and depoliticize the whole political spectrum to a form of ‘procedurally democratic bookkeeping’ (60).

The category of quality, in contrast to that of quantity, brings forward the differences within politics by asking: ‘what sort?’. The contrast with the category of quantity is that the category of quality reveals the differences of particular political orders and enables us to think of them as alternatives to each other. The quality, the sort, of one thing determines its limits in respect to the limits of others. This is why Marder emphasizes repeatedly that categories constitute the boundaries between things. The quality of a political order is reenacted and repeated in certain habits, such as democratic practices, but also the spatial embeddedness of a political order in a particular climate determines its quality. The reason why he probably wants to think of the spatiality of a political order as quality, is that it enables him to link it to his philosophy of ecology. However, it is also a dangerous move to take up the category of quality and spatial embeddedness within political theory, since it runs the risk of getting dangerously close the regressive parochial politics of ‘belonging to’ (82). Marder seeks to avoid this risk, by emphasizing that the categories form together one whole which forms a synthesis between the particular and the universal, as mentioned before in reference to the category of ousia. It is however questionable and in need of a more elaborate argument, if and in how far, the universality of being can form a counterbalance to nationalistic concepts of belonging.

III.

The third chapter on Kant, undoubtedly presents the biggest challenge to the reader who cannot directly reproduce the ins and outs of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. However, it never becomes a real Kant exegesis, and the parts that deal with the details of the Kantian categories are clearly subordinate to Marder’s attempt of developing a theory of political categories. One might wonder why it is at all necessary for Marder to invoke the Kantian apparatus after having developed a first understanding of political categories on the basis of the Aristotelian framework. The reason for this can be found in the different orientations of both chapters. In the second chapter he discusses the Aristotelian categories in relation to politics as a thing. However, in the third chapter he redirects his attention from politics as a thing to the experience of politics, using thereby Kant’s framework of the categories. Where one might have the impression at the end of the second chapter that Marder fails to stay loyal to his phenomenological method, this is adequately reestablished when he shifts his focus to political experience.

The third chapter he begins with the dramatic statement: ‘We have forfeited, or perhaps never had access, to, the experience of politics’ (91). By this he does not mean that politics today takes place far removed from everyday life, but that we, in the first place, have lost the capacity for political experiences. The reason for this is that we have lost the form that provides the conditions for political experiences (92). Without form, the content of experiences, such as voting or resistance, becomes empty and meaningless. For Marder this is also the reason for the impossibility of the constitution of a political ‘we’ under the conditions of neoliberalism (97). This is one of the central claims of the book.

The way in which categories form the condition for political experience, should not be understood as taking up different categories at various occasions. Marder uses the Kantian conception of synthesis to explain the interplay between, and the mutual dependence of, various categories in experience. He uses the unity of the various categories and experience as an important normative benchmark: below the experiential threshold of the categories, things can no longer be interpreted, and all appear the same in their singularity. Above the experiential threshold we have the well-known problem of rigidity and abstract conceptualism (96 -97).

However, Kant does not hold all the answers Marder is looking for. The major problem of Kant’s epistemology for Marder is its hierarchical structure based on the divide between the transcendental and the empirical. Political categorial reason is according to Marder ‘transtranscendental’. He introduces this neologism to describe that political categories go beyond ‘the beyond’. They do this on the one hand by helping us to understand the political make-up of the categories (which is worked out in the two appendixes of the book), and on the other hand by going beyond the political themselves, like he shows in reference to the nonpolitical stage of first ousia. With the term transtranscendental he attempts to put Kant upside-down, denying the hierarchical order of the transcendental and the empirical. As exciting as his suggestions are for those who like to annul the subject-object divide, it is unlikely that it will convince devoted Kant scholars.

IV.

After having set up the theoretical framework in chapters 2 and 3, he puts it to full use in chapter 4, as the title of the chapter already indicates: ‘Categories at Work’. Here he discusses four political themes: state, revolution, power and sovereignty, thereby using and mixing up both the Aristotelian and the Kantian categories. In the case of the state for example he explains how people that view it merely from the perspective of its territorial boundaries, limit themselves to the Aristotelian category of quantity. This perspective is inherently imperialistic since the only way it can be improved is through expansion (148). Kant, however, points out that boundaries are not given by quantitative but by qualitative categories. Marder implies here that taking up the category of quality impedes imperialistic tendencies: ‘limits give the thing its particular qualities, and, in exchange for this service, it gives up its drive towards a potentially infinite expansion in a general atmosphere of indeterminacy’ (149). Not only in reference to the state, but limits and borders play overall a prominent role in this last chapter, and forms a welcome critique of meaningless popular expressions like ‘everything is political’ or ‘everything is connected’.

Take for example the section on power in which he develops a critique on Michel Foucault’s conception of power. Although his critique becomes at this point a bit repetitive, it is interesting that his theory of political categories is not only directed against the proponents of neoliberal politics, but also at various other continental (leftists) philosophers, such as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri et al. Like the other positions criticized in the book he also criticizes Foucault for reducing social reality to one particular category within his conception of power, namely that of relation. According to Marder power is not merely relational but simultaneously ‘substantive, (…) qualitative and quantitative, active and passive, (…) potential and actual’ (169). It is especially the category of substance, ousia, to which Marder pays most attention in relation to power. What Foucault fails to see is that in the interpretation of ‘this’ as ‘that’, there already is a pregiven, concrete subject (174). Marder’s claim here, in line with his interpretation of ousia, is that Foucault denies the non-political reality of being. This is of crucial importance for him since his whole theoretical framework rests on the non-political being of a thing, or its political potentiality, that offers the possibility of politicization and thereby of politics.

To conclude, Political Categories is undoubtedly one of the most interesting books today for a new phenomenological approach to political theory. The central theme of developing a theory of political categories is highly original and inventive, but also somewhat problematic. Especially when it comes to the normative horizon that Marder believes is offered by them. The difficulty for him is not to convince the reader that they offer an alternative to neoliberalism. The descriptions of the ways in which the political categories unfold the plurality and the singularity of particular beings, make up for to the most convincing parts of the book. More problematic, is the way in which he believes that a theory of political categories also gives an answer to regressive anti-modern nationalism. His answer that the political categories form a synthesis of sameness and difference, that includes the universality of the incommensurable sameness of the first being of things, seems to be too far removed from political experience, and needs at the very least extensive elaboration. This last point is a general structural weakness of the book: due to its programmatic character, it touches upon many different themes and authors, without discussing any of them at length. When he puts the categories ‘to work’ in the last chapter this is not any different. However, it sparks the curiosity of the reader to see what the political categories bring to the surface when they are really put to work, maybe, and hopefully, in a follow-up to this thought-provoking book.

Helmuth Plessner: Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961

Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961 Book Cover Philosophische Anthropologie: Göttinger Vorlesung vom Sommersemester 1961
suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 2268
Helmuth Plessner. Edited by Julia Gruevska, Hans-Ulrich Lessing, Kevin Liggieri
Suhrkamp Verlag
2019
Paperback 20,00 €
256

Reviewed by: Julien Kloeg (Erasmus University College)

Helmuth Plessner’s work has been subject to renewed interest for a few years, as evidenced by recent translations into English of his Die Stufen des Organischen und der Mensch (1928) and Macht und Menschliche Natur (1931). While the second edition of the former work was issued only on the occasion of Plessner’s 80th birthday (the fact that Scheler and Heidegger released key work in the same year is often cited), it is today an important source for scholars working in philosophical anthropology, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of technology. This has been the case for several decades, with the release of Plessner’s completed works serving as an important event in the ‘second’ reception of his work in philosophical anthropology. Plessner also has much to offer as a political philosopher, with not only the aforementioned Macht, which most consider a political supplement to the Stufen, but also Grenzen der Gemeinschaft (1924) and Die verspätete Nation (1934), as well as earlier political writings figuring in his sociological rather than anthropological work. Plessner’s work is multifaceted to say the least, and a considerable Nachlass remains to be explored which consists of writings in many fields, from aesthetics to biology. His work can be hard to penetrate not only because of its multifacted nature but also, as the editors of Plessner’s lectures note, because of its sometimes “forbidding” (sperrige) terminology (252)[1]. The eighteen lectures contained in this edition (supplemented by Plessner’s notes for a later lecture series) are the only full introduction into philosophical anthropology provided by Plessner, and also provide a type of final summary of Plessner’s own position within the discipline as relayed to his students in Göttingen (251), right before formally retiring and taking on the role of professor emeritus. The lectures are the only currently available source from which we can gain insight into Plessner as educator (ibid), and the style of his lectures are indeed characterized by “freshness and clarity” (252). Two factors enable this style to come across: Plessner’s own ease in using examples and weaving different themes together, and the editorial work undertaken on the present edition. The edition was based on two identical transcripts kept in the University Library at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, with handwritten notes by Plessner himself and the unknown secretary who produced the transcripts suggesting minor corrections (252-253). Subsequent changes made for the purpose of this edition are clearly marked in the text, most often through footnotes, while sometimes a word or two is added to increase the readability of the text – likewise clearly indicated. The first half of the very first lecture and the first part of the fifteenth lecture are not available: in place of the former Plessner’s lecture notes have been supplied.

The lectures date from 1961, the ninth of the ten years Plessner spent in Göttingen and the final time he lectured on philosophical anthropology there. They are titled simply Lecture: Philosophical Anthropology (Vorlesung: Philosophische Anthropologie, 250). While this may seem like an overly general theme, Plessner does his best to deliver on the apparent promise to cover the entire field in a single lecture series. The first three lectures and the final one reflect on the nature of philosophical anthropology as a field of study. Lectures four to six concern ‘the problem of language’; lectures seven to nine introduce the themes of Welt/Umwelt/Umfeld. Lecture ten then uses the shape of philosophical anthropology that has emerged during the first half of the series to discredit a particular way of thinking about human nature. Lectures eleven to fourteen connect the more biological themes of the first half to sociological themes of personhood, roles and role-playing. The biological and sociological aspects of Plessner’s philosophical anthropology are brought together in the three lectures preceding the final one, which concern laughing and crying as aspects of iterative «personification» (Verkörperung) and then death as «depersonification» (Entkörperung) (197). The final lecture, as mentioned above, is a reflection on philosophical anthropology. However, rather than the considerations on proper subject matter and role vis-à-vis the human sciences featured in the first three lectures, Plessner here insists on the contemporary relevance of philosophical anthropology by connecting it to the world of 1961. For Plessner himself, the Göttingen years marked a homecoming of sorts. Having become a professor by special appoint at Cologne in 1926, he was subsequently relieved of his duties in 1933 because of the Jewish heritage of his father. He fled to Turkey and subsequently to the Netherlands, where he lectured at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen on themes in sociology and philosophy. Following the invasion of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany in 1940, Plessner was again relieved of his duties in 1943, going into hiding until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Having declined to resume his professorship in Cologne, Plessner became a philosophy professor in Groningen in 1946 and then became professor at the newly founded Institut für Soziologie in Göttingen in 1952, remaining in the post until his formal retirement in 1962. The Plessner we encounter in the lectures is thus in an optimal position to reflect on his own young and mature works, the tradition of philosophical anthropology more broadly, but also the cultural and political outburst of totalitarianism. As I will discuss below, in lectures one to three and eighteen Plessner manages to combine all three of these points of reflection, and that is surely not only a highlight of this particular edition but also a succinct statement of the importance of philosophical anthropology that is still capable of making an impression today.

One of the virtues that characterizes the edition as an introduction to philosophical anthropology is its gradual logical mode of progression, which finds man as prehistoric tool wielder and expands into language, culture and sociological analyses. Plessner makes sure to ease the transition into each new topic broached by explaining the connection between old and new topics twice: at the end of a concluding lecture on a first theme, and once more at the beginning of a lecture introducing a second theme. This systematic approach makes it perhaps harder than it should be to stomach the fact that half of the very first hour was not recorded (“At the top of the page in Plessner’s handwriting: ‘second half of the first hour since machine did not work’. On three (appended) pages, Plessner noted keywords that were «apparently «(offensichtlich) at the basis of the first lecture”). The keywords give only a general thematic impression of the first lecture. The first lecture as recorded starts at a consideration of the problem of the double nature of man (the first theme in the notes is the ‘exceptional position of man as organism’) (9). Plessner immediately proceeds to give a historic reference for the problematic status of this double nature with the rise of the independent science of psychology. Psychology was able to give an account of man’s ‘internal world’, and with the rising complexity of the science it became increasingly vexing that it could not be connected to the outside world of concrete objects. Such an attempt, Plessner notes, was made by Gustav Theodor Fechner, “by the way a contemporary of Darwin”, in the form of the science of psychophysics (10). Plessner notes he is only interested in the attempt as a historical example, and adds the further, not historical but purely explanatory, example of taste. A taste experience is related to an external stimulus, and ideally science would be able to exactly measure the relationship between the two. This way of proceeding stresses two separate points that are relevant throughout the edition: first, Plessner goes to great length to supply historical illustrations and intuitively plausible examples, sometimes one at a time but often in the same breath, to support a single argument or point. Second, related more directly to the content of the lectures, Plessner is primarily interested in defining philosophical anthropology with reference to the independent human sciences. Plessner does go into Descartes, but only after noting that Fechner-style attempts to unify internal and external world have the tendency to produce a single entity with two substantial aspects (e.g. body and mind), which has an interesting prehistory in pure philosophy. Plessner thus elegantly steers philosophical anthropology in between a scientistic reduction on the one hand and a philosophically-minded neglect of science on the other hand, thus keeping an open perspective with respect to the “multiplicity of reality” that is represented by the development of many separate sciences (30); in particular through the onset of biology, psychology and physiology, historical science, and sociology (32-35), all of which presuppose a knowledge of what is human. Inquiring after these presuppositions is a matter of “epistemological and methodological questioning” (erkenntnistheoretische und methodologische Fragestellung) (35). Philosophical anthropology positions itself in terms of such questioning, which varies because of the different starting views on mankind that different human sciences offer. But Plessner observes that said starting points produce problems that cannot be resolved within the human sciences themselves. For instance: in evolutionary biology, when specifically can we say that mankind has evolved? (37) In order to do that the biologist must go beyond biology in its determination of external characteristics and inquire into specifically human “monopolies” that point towards a “metabasis”, a shift towards another dimension. For instance, what is it that constitutes specifically human use of instruments or language? (37) These are the philosophical-anthropological questions Plessner develops in the remainder of the first half of his lectures, as discussed above. They in fact offer Plessner’s own set of answers in response to the epistemological and methodological questioning connected to the foundations of the various human sciences.

One aspect of these answers that is striking, and one that is not explicitly mentioned in the present edition, is that each individual approach to problems as diverse as language and role-playing is seen as essentially continuous with a concept that was central to the Stufen: excentric positionality. Plessner does mention it in the lectures without really explaining it, seemingly using it synonymously with “distance” and “apartness” (e.g. 196), as well as referring to the “broken unity” of human nature (e.g. 221). Yet even in such terms, the theme of excentric positionality is only developed as an illustration of the themes under discussion, while in fact the discussion itself is structured almost in its entirety by a sequence of considerations on extrinsic positionality in various domains of human existence. Plessner’s discussion of language illustrates this well. “While the ‘production of sound’ (Lautproduktion) is an important condition of ‘language’ (das Sprechen), it nevertheless seems to be a merely external prerequisite” (52). Sound is as yet the domain of animals, and hence of the biological sciences. Yet at the same time it points beyond itself: determining where sound ends and language or speech begins necessitates the drawing of a boundary between animal and human being, which in turn raises the question what it means to be human. So what is it that distinguishes language from sound, and hence, in the linguistic dimension, the human from the animal? It consists in the removal of specificity from sound: absolution from the «situation at hand»(Situationsentbindung), which permits variation and recombination of sounds to form «word formations» (Wortgebilde) (53). Absolution from the situation at hand in turn requires «objectification» (Versachlichung), in this case of sounds; “and in this sense language and speech stand on exactly the same level as (…) toolmaking”; “objectification, namely, of objects (Sachverhalten)” (59). In these and other cases, what is at stake is the uniquely human ability to relate to oneself, which is given by excentric positionality. For instance, the ability to “separate (one’s own) expressed sound as a There from a Here, as an object, is a fundamental precondition for its instrumental manipulation and imitation in fixated formations, which (the human being) makes use of and has at its disposal as with things” (63). In an edition such as this one, it would seem useful to add an introduction that would note the importance, even if implicit, of excentric positionality to the lectures. It is at least a crucial question to the interpretation of the lectures how Plessner’s use of terms like ‘distance’ and ‘broken unity’ fits with the use of the language of positionality in earlier written work. While the lectures are welcome invitations to further scholarship on Plessner’s philosophical anthropology and its development, the edition does not equip its readers with the tools to understand the lectures in that wider context. In that sense, it is an open question to both Plessner himself (to be asked of the content of the lectures themselves) and the editors (with respect to the decision not to provide an introduction) why an introduction to Plessner’s philosophical anthropology would make so little explicit reference to perhaps its most crucial concept, without reflecting on the implications of its relative absence.

As with language and toolmaking (and the invention of tools), so it is with man’s relationship with his world (as Umwelt) – at a certain point in the development of children, we can see that “the objectification of surroundings has (…) begun and continues, following the lead of increasing linguistic articulation” (am Leitfaden der wachsenden sprachlichen Artikulation) (91). Plessner develops different aspects of a specific theme for each of his ‘triads’ of lectures in almost dialectical fashion: for the theme of Umwelt, the theme is developed first at the problem of how mankind relates to his surroundings, then, second, as an articulation of what is specific about mankind’s relationship with his world, and finally, third, as a reflection on the necessarily limited character or “horizon structure” of any such world (102). This is an interesting consideration of the limits that accompany human existence, which offers a restatement of Plessner’s thought on this matter in written works. The analysis of objectification as the distinguishing feature of the human is in essence continued on another level.

In the tenth lecture, “On the utopia of a lost primeval form of mankind” (Zur Utopie des verlorenen Wildform des Menschen), Plessner uses the notion of horizon against those who would postulate a ‘true’ and ‘original’ form of human existence that was subsequently lost. This turn to the lifeworld, as Odo Marquard would put it, is arguably one of the highlights of the lecture series. The stakes of Plessner’s consistent, tightly argued, but seemingly ‘merely’ theoretical inquiries into the human in the first nine lectures come into full view for the first time. Plessner harks back to “Husserl’s famous pencil” (114) discussed in the previous lecture to describe the simultaneous availability and unavailability of things (to put it simply: we can never see all sides of the pencil at once). Plessner now adds: “There exists a correlativity between thing-structure and self-structure, a strict correspondence” (ibid). The ‘I’ is something that is one the one hand identical with oneself, but also something that is, on the other hand, removed from oneself (115): as we do not see a thing in its entirety, so we do not fully, but only partially, coincide with ourselves. Referring to Ernst Bloch, Plessner uses the phrase: I am, but I do not have myself (ibid). This correspondence of self-structure to thing-structure is evident to us in our «needs» (Bedürfnisse), Plessner continues (117). In addition to the biological needs we share with animals, human beings that have satisfied this first ‘layer’ of needs add a second one, and so on, with each new layer opening up a new world: for instance, of goods, clothing, dwellings, weapons, to name a few. It is up to us whether to stabilize this process or to allow ourselves to be handed over to ever-new phases of new needs. This, Plessner says, is Marx’ insight in a nutshell (118). The ensuing situation is only possible because we are not in fact consigned to a biological cycle of enforced needs and ends. We are too “biologically underprivileged” for such a consignment, and more specifically, too “weak in instinct” (119). Plessner intelligently uses this insight to argue that the tropes of “Overman”, “post-historical man”, “natural man” as well as the accompanying critiques of the “decadence” of the “degenerate” (entartet) and “domesticated” man of the present all belong together (124). And they all fail for the same reason, as none of them is able to recognize the “structural brokenness in the relation of man towards himself and the world” (ibid). Plessner’s analysis shows that this brokenness, which utopians of natural man associate with some exit from paradise (123, 125), applies to mankind as such and is in fact its distinguishing characteristic. What then of “the creature of power, the creature of war, the creature of domination”? Plessner adds considerable rhetorical flourish to this culmination point of the analysis so far: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, the Blonde Beast stands in the stables!” (126) This is of course a critique of national socialism and its aims, but it equally discredits, as Plessner also notes, followers of Rousseau and Marx in stipulating a perfect and thus self-identical (non-broken) human being at either the beginning or end of history. In bringing home the argument more explicitly when reflecting on it in the next lecture, Plessner comes even closer to saying ‘excentric positionality’: “Mankind has never been natural anyway. His naturalness has always been a secondary naturalness, which was provided for him thanks to his «artificial capabilities» (künstliche Fähigkeiten)” (128). This seems a clear restatement of the first anthropological law from the final chapter of the Stufen: the law of natural artificiality. (The law of mediated immediacy is mentioned explicitly one page further on: “(…) its characteristic excentricity, in this ‘mediated immediacy’ (vermittelten Unmittelbarkeit) of its form of life” (129).

In the second half of the lecture series, Plessner applies the theme of domestication, but not in the vein of the misplaced cultural pessimism cum utopian optimism that had justified National Socialism. Instead, he follows it up in the context of continuing his inquiry after the separation between human and animal. Plessner here considers the question of personhood, which in his analysis is tied up with role-playing: our name designates our first role rather than the ‘I’ (135). For instance, our name declares that we possess a certain heritage or have specific attributes: it connects us to something beyond ourselves, in a real sense. This is in its essence what personhood is, and lays the foundation for the creation of institutions: both the person and the institution bring a specific structure to the «shared social world» (sozialer Mit-welt) (137). Plessner understands both types of structure as «personification» (Verkörperung)(146). The distinction between the functional and anthropological notion of role-playing is familiar from the aforementioned Grenzen der Gemeinschaft and once again turns on the absence or presence of the ability of the human being (as role-player) to reflect on her own activity (role-playing) – the presence of said ability distinguishes the anthropological notion of role-playing.

The fifteenth and sixteenth lecture illustrate a different aspect of personification (161), namely laughing, crying and smiling. These lectures essentially provide a succinct and clear introduction to Plessner’s Lachen und Weinen (1941), in which he sets forth these themes as extreme possibilities of being human. More specifically, as Plessner puts it in the present edition, they are “witnesses of man’s personificatory relationship with himself (Verkörperungsverhältnis des Menschen zu sich)” (194). In the seventeenth and second to last lecture, Plessner considers that «depersonification» (Entkörperung) or death is, specifically within human existence, given with the experience of life. The simultaneity of both experiences “once populated the human world with magical powers and mythical creatures, practices and rites” that through the onset of a “mechanical understanding of nature and the society of laborers carried through by the former” is no longer accessible to us (207). Yet the stubborn avoidance of death in our time cannot entirely hide the fundamental human «motivation» (Ansatz) for the production of a «counterworld, however conceived» (Gegenwelt, wie immer auch geartet) (208).

From the advent of speech to the continued need for a counterworld in industrial society, Plessner’s lectures have unfolded for us his perspective on the story of the human, insofar as it is human. In the final lecture, Plessner makes clear that he has taken us exactly to 1961. He reads a long quote – the first time this has occurred in the lecture series – from a reputable biologist who comments on the success of artificial «selection» (Auslese) in domestic animals and suggests that we owe it to ourselves (my paraphrase) as “friend(s) of mankind” to apply the same insight to the perfection of mankind itself, and we would need a type of world government in order to enable the experiment (210). When the quote ends, Plessner immediately remarks that this suggestion surfaces “after a time which has thought about this in exactly the same way and which has brought the greatest misery upon our country. Exactly with the same kind of idealism in the background that also speaks through these words. You see then, ladies in gentlemen, that the past in Germany has not been overcome, and (this is the case) for the greatest minds of our science. That should give one pause” (211). Plessner also compares the biologist’s proposal to the atom bomb, since both “rob mankind of the possibility of existing and being human” – yet while the atom bomb continues to be hotly debated, Plessner says the proposal has not given rise to discussion (212). After commenting on Darwinism, social Darwinism, and Nietzsche as well as picking apart the political conditions of the proposal, Plessner confronts the latter with key insights from the lecture series: the necessarily “broken unity” as the “specific position of man” (218). And here we see how far we are from Descartes: he too saw a break, but only as a “conjunctum”, whereas Plessner emphasizes the element of broken unity (219). The biologist and the “biological politicians of the nineteenth century and their students in the Third Reich” share the theme of domestication, although they travel in the opposite direction (221) – national socialism operates under the idea that the domestication of mankind needs to be undone, whereas the biologist’s proposal is that we should finally face up to the responsibility of domesticating ourselves. Plessner’s final comments are the densest part of his lectures and are certainly deserving of close study. He seems to say that the drive to evil itself is a function of our brokenness, in other words, of the fact that there is no primeval or completed human being. Whereas both the biologist under consideration and the proponent of the blonde beast call on us to overcome certain (“ethical or moral or other”) «inhibitions» (Hemmungen) (ibid), it is ourselves and these very inhibitions of ours we should call on in overcoming our own “criminal disequilibrium” (kriminelle Ungleichgewichtigkeit) (ibid). Plessner finishes on this “moral apotheosis” to which he says he is not normally disposed, and hopes that it was not so abstract after all – that it shows how these theoretical observations of his are truly topical (222).

The appendix contains notes taken at the occasion of Plessner’s lectures on the history of anthropology from 1956. These provide useful focal points for the 1961 lecture series, as well as significant variations. These are all presented in highly condensed and aphoristic form. A notable example of variation is provided by the sustained and interesting reflections on aesthetics (“Kandinsky’s thought of playing music in colors has its limits”, 238), which is not part of the 1961 lecture series. Consider also the following: “Existential philosophy does not know of nature, nor of the world (Die Existenzphilosophie ist naturfremd und weltfremd)” (226).

As an introduction to Plessner’s work, this edition is a great success and a valuable addition, with the qualification of the understated organizing principle of excentric positionality raised above. In a similar vein, it would seem useful to point out (dis)similarities between the content of the lectures and Plessner’s written work more consistently than is the case in the edition. Footnotes of this kind are limited in number and mostly concern Plessner’s introduction on Conditio humana (1961), for which the lecture series served as the “material basis” (251) according to the editors. As it stands, the edition calls out for and has certainly prepared the way for additional scholarly work to make these lectures into an integrated part of Plessner’s oeuvre, albeit with the additional task of taking seriously the specific quality of these lectures qua lectures. They show the capabilities of Plessner during a pivotal time in his life, displaying in particular both his theoretical prowess and his ability to connect philosophical anthropology to the needs of his time. The combination of these aspects of his work, as brought out by this edition, make Plessner an important thinker for his time and ours.


[1] Page numbers refer to the reviewed edition of Plessner’s lectures. All translations from German are my own.

F. W. J. Schelling: The Ages of the World (1811)

The Ages of the World (1811) Book Cover The Ages of the World (1811)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
F. W. J. Schelling. Translated and with an introduction by Joseph P. Lawrence
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
275

Reviewed by: Dennis Vanden Auweele  (Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven)

Schelling published his masterful essay Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Human Freedom in the same year that he lost his wife Caroline (1809). One might speculate that the latter event provoked Schelling’s own descent into the abyss of being, a journey that he would try to articulate for over two decades afterwards. Up until 1833, Schelling would namely lecture and draw up drafts for a work entitled The Ages of the World (Weltalter). Most of these drafts, along with Schelling’s unpublished manuscripts, were regrettably lost when the Munich archive was bombed during World War II (1944).

Horst Fuhrmans reports there were about twenty drafts of this work, most extensively developing the first part of the work dealing with “the past.” Schelling never published any of these drafts in his lifetime. Though, he did prepare the first draft in 1811 for publication, he decided to rescind his agreement for publication after the reception of the proofs. The same happened to a second draft in 1813. Shortly after his father’s death, Schelling’s son published the most extensive draft in 1815 with some extant editorial revisions. It is this last draft that is most well-known and has been translated into English several times, most notably by Jason Wirth in 2000.

In his introduction to that work, Wirth calls for the urgent translation of the 1811 draft. The drafts of 1811 and 1813 differ in a particular way from the one of 1815. While the last draft was heavily edited by Schelling’s son—with several omissions, the inclusion of section headings and some extant corrections—the two earlier drafts were only published much later by Manfred Schröter with less of an editorial impact and thus appear, on the whole, more reliable. But it is very hard to judge the editorial reach of Schelling’s son. Because of the abovementioned destruction of the Munich archive, Schröter could not attend to publishing the drafts written between 1815 and 1833. The draft of 1813 appeared in English translation by Judith Norman in 1997 and was accompanied by a tantalizing essay by the contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. In the English-speaking world, Žižek’s essay is seminal for the interpretation of Schelling’s Weltalter. Scholars had to wait a long time for an English translation of the 1811, the urgency of which should be apparent. This is now provided for a first time by Joseph Lawrence.

The present works contain the translation of Schelling’s 1811 draft of The Ages of the World. The translator, Joseph Lawrence, offers an extensive introduction which situates the work historically and thematically, as well as justifies some of his choices when translating Schelling’s often peculiar use of German into English. Alongside the text for which Schelling rescinded publication permission , the book also contains Schelling’s extensive notes and fragments for this draft and its second chapter. Lawrence is upfront about the impact of his own Schelling-interpretation on his activity as a translator. This impact is not limited to certain choices of translation as next to these, Lawrence decided to include several section and division headings, but also adds thirty-five clarifying footnotes. These notes most often provide extra information about Schelling’s meaning and sources, but occasionally engage the existing literature on the proper interpretation of Schelling’s text.

I will not judge whether this is appropriate when translating a text—at the very least, Lawrence is entirely upfront about the matter (see 47 ff.). Rather, I found Lawrence’s editorial work helpful and the sectional division unproblematic and even helpful in manifesting a textual hidden structure. The English translation reads as Schelling would have intended: engaging, penetrating, provocative and occasionally mystifying. In his translation, Lawrence succeeded in capturing something of the enigmatic spirit of the work.

The actual text is preceded by an extensive introduction (some fifty pages). There, Lawrence provides historical context about the different drafts of The Ages of the World and their academic reception. Missing from this extensive introduction are an overview of Schelling’s argument (Lawrence takes this for granted), contextualization within Schelling’s thought (between early and later), and western philosophy (transitioning between modern and postmodern paradigms of thought). The period in which Schelling wrote his drafts for The Ages of the World coincides with his own transitioning from his earlier thought—usually called the philosophy of identity and the nature-philosophy—towards his later philosophy, where he engaged mostly with positive philosophy, revelation and metaphysical empiricism. For a very long time, Schelling was known only through his earlier work. This was due to that Schelling’s later philosophy was only available in lecture form and that those who had eagerly attended his Berlin lectures (1841 and onwards) were thoroughly disappointed. The same Schelling who boldly divinized humanity and nature, who defended pantheism, and spoke so lyrically about the abyss of reason, now sang the praises of what appears to be a relatively orthodox Christian philosophy. It is not hard to imagine how Schelling’s failure to complete The Ages of the World provoked his move from his earlier to his later paradigm. As such, the decisive locus of failure in that work offers a window into Schelling’s philosophical development.

It would have been very interesting to read Lawrence’s take on the ideological place of The Ages of the World in Schelling’s development, and to gain some insight into why Schelling abandoned the project. This remains unclear to scholars, though most agree that Schelling failed to conceptualize a transition from “the past” to “the present” through an act of freedom. This is where the three known drafts were arrested in their deveopment, and where there is an ample sum of diversity. The 1811 draft was a first attempt at thinking this through, though Schelling ultimately abandoned the answer provided here; an answer that is, compared to the other known drafts, the closest to his views in Freiheitsschrift (1809).

Lawrence does give a cogent defense of the more general philosophical relevance of Schelling’s The Ages of the World. He does this not primarily from a historical angle, but from the perspective of its unique contribution to various contentious areas in contemporary philosophical discourse. Taking issue with Žižek’s influential reading of Schelling’s work, Lawrence provides a deliberately non-psychological reading of Schelling’s Weltalter. First and foremost, Schelling would look for “a compelling alternative to the mechanical conception of time as something stretched out into infinity, with neither beginning nor end” (5). Indeed, central to Schelling’s pre-occupation at the time of writing Weltalter was the concern to do full justice to a new, non-reductive sense of time. Lawrence’s emphasis on this topic of time is undeniably correct, but it might overshadow some of the equally important ontological and theological questions that Schelling engages at that time.

When he conecptualized The Ages of the World, Schelling was convinced that it was paramount for philosophy to think of God as an entity more than in its modern configuration, namely a rationalized and abstract idea. Schelling then provocatively suggests that God must become God; a position that can only do justice to a robust sense of time and to the vast panoply of horror and suffering that scars the world. Lawrence turns to the topic of God towards the end of his introduction (30-38), but seems mostly invested in showing how Schelling’s nature-philosophy is not atheist but a renewal of Christianity. Implicit in Lawrence’s reading of Schelling’s critique of atheism would be the attempt to transition more smoothly from the nature-philosophy towards the more overtly Christian Spätphilosophie of mythology and revelation. This might be true, but not because Schelling feared atheism; rather, he feared a kind of theology that sapped the life out of God.

What is interesting is how Lawrence connects Schelling’s work to innovations in modern science, such as those of Einstein and Heisenberg (17-20), and his reflection on the trajectory of human history and its relationship to capitalism and communism (20-30). These reflections can get preachy at times—lamenting the influence of capitalism on the university—but serve as an honest and provoking attempt at making Schelling’s abstract thought more palatable to contemporary concerns.

Schelling was namely concerned with a number of basic questions that remain unsolved to this day. One of the central points of argument in The Ages of the World is that there can be nothing outside primordial matter, because it is a dense singularity, disabling anyone form explaining the emergence of life from any outside influence. There can be no external agent that impacts primordial life in such a matter that life, time and intelligence come to be. This immediately invalidates the traditional Christian understanding of creation. Life must be self-creative. Especially in the 1811 draft, Schelling follows the metaphor of pregnancy very closely, thinking of the self-fertilization of the divine substance in moments of contraction. This parthenogenesis was his first attempt to explain how a primordial matter could give birth to itself.

To summarize, Schelling wrote an introduction for The Ages of the World which stays almost entirely unchanged throughout the drafts of 1811, 1813, and 1815. The well-known but enigmatic opening sentence of this introduction is, “the past becomes known, the present recognized, and the future divined” (55), which at the very least signals that the three “ages” are known in distinct ways. Schelling intended to write three parts which respectively deal with the eternal past, the eternal present and the eternal future, but never managed to write a substantial part beyond the first age of the world. In that part, the question is asked what happened before God became God in the act of the creation. Schelling’s argument—to many a scandalous one—was that God must become himself from the Lauterkeit (translated by Lawrence as lucid purity) of a pre-temporal, pre-conscious existence. Almost all of the material known of the Weltalter attempts to investigate, on the one hand, what was going on in the pure being of God before creation and, on the other hand, how and why God would abandon that position. It is this second issue upon which the various drafts of Weltalter dramatically differ. Schelling seemed thoroughly dissatisfied with his answer to the how and why of creation.

The mood is set by the introduction. Schelling aims for a science that is “the development of a living, actual being” (56), which has at that time finally become possible because a sense of spirit (Geist) has been brought back to philosophy. There, Schelling calls attention to the dialectical turn in philosophy, most overtly in his own nature-philosophy and Hegel’s idealism. Dialectical philosophy allows for the subject to recognize himself as part of a larger process, where it can then find within his own soul the different steps of the protohistorical process in which the universe came to be. It is clear that Schelling is still mulling over Hegel’s powerful critique in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Yet, Hegel claimed that Schelling’s philosophy starts as if “by the shot of a gun” out of “the night in which all cows are black.” In other words, Hegel indicted Schelling with arguing that we move from absolute unknowing to absolute knowing without much of a real, timely transition.

Taking Hegel’s criticism seriously, Schelling became more interested in conceptualizing a proper sense of time and history. For instance, Schelling emphasizes that our knowledge is piecemeal, in a stage of becoming, and never complete (e.g. 61). Time must come to be and it must have an absolute beginning. If one would entertain a more mechanical conception of time—of an infinite series—there would be no such things as novelty or unicity because everything is caught within that infinite series. For something to have a past, a real past, it has to come to be through an act of separation or division (Scheidung). There is a point of beginning, the moment where the present starts and the past ends, but the question then becomes what precedes the moment of beginning. This is what Schelling would call the relative and absolute prius in his positive philosophy.

This beginning before the beginning must be an original purity, Lauterkeit. This lucid purity is conceptualized by Schelling in more or less blissful and simple terms. There is a peaceful self-rumination in the original state (which would change drastically in later drafts of Weltalter, especially the 1815 one). This stage of purity is somehow lost through a movement within God before he is God himself, namely a desire to intuit or represent himself. This can only happen via a contraction of himself, a contracting of being and becoming determinate. This brings out a duality of willing in God, namely purity and contraction. Unlike the future drafts, Schelling does not figure this duality in strongly dialectical terms (more in dualistic terms). For instance, he uses the following image: “Heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool” (79). Rather, this is seen as the quite peaceful interplay between two different wills which results in a spiritualized sense of matter, a so-called golden age.

Only later would Schelling discuss how this interplay leads to frustration, namely when these two wills start to strive for independence. This leads to an inner antagonism in the primal being: “This is the dire fate of all life, that to become comprehensible to itself, it seeks constriction, demanding narrowness over breadth. But after constricting itself and discovering what it feels like to be, it demands once again to return into openness” (93). Schelling is attentive to a number of objections that could be made to this view, namely that it would involve a deification of nature, whether this can be taken as a systematic representation of being and whether this does not regard matter too highly. Schelling’s response is unapologetic and emphasizes that such a pantheist self-rumination is the repressed past of the world. It seems that Schelling moved away from this point of view in his Spätphilosophie.

This leads Schelling to what Schröter and Lawrence view to be the second part of this draft, namely the move beyond the past. This cannot happen through a force from the outside, since there is no outside to the original pantheist unity. The move beyond the past happens through the Father begetting the Son (contraction, giving birth), the other through which the Father can come to know himself. While there is opposition—the Son is not the Father—their opposition is not absolute, but actually paves the way for a higher, now cognized, unity: “They are brought to a higher unity precisely by that which tears them apart, insofar as, once they have been divided from one another, they are able to embrace anew, mutually dissolving into one another with the entire wealth of their content” (126). That unity is not fixed at any point, but is in a constant state of becoming. This was put forward by all religions—or so claims Schelling—and especially in the Christian understanding of the trinity: three personalities in one person. Yet, this point is something that reason finds difficult grappling and might have been complete unable to reach without the light of revelation: “Without the light of revelation a scholarly researcher would never be in the position to follow with natural ease the inner going forth of the first divine actions, guided by concepts that are as straightforward and human as they need to be” (130). Philosophers that close off from revelation will “simply become more and more entangled in their own thoughts, losing themselves in the end in what is vacuous and sterile” (ibid.).

For Schelling, this introduces a new sense of time into philosophy, in opposition to three previous understandings of time. First, the mechanical sense of time where time constitutes an actual infinity (without beginning or end). Second, the idea that time is not needed to understand the becoming of the world or that all happens in “one fell swoop.” Third, a partial subjectification of time while allowing something of an objective time (Kant’s position). Schelling believes that there is no objective time, only the subjective time of the thing itself. Time exists because God slows down his revelation; he does not force things to happen instantly. Things develop organically becomes God holds back his self-exposure. This second part ends with a number of disparate and largely unfinished reflections on the relationship between pantheism and dualism (in dialogue with Schlegel); the freedom that enables the world to be, which happens not for the Father but for the Son; the limitations of knowledge, a point of self-professed ignorance, where philosophy runs up against the boundaries of what is can legitimately say.

After this translation of the draft, Lawrence included just under one-hundred of pages of notes and fragments belonging to this draft. Schelling never intended these to be published and their German editor, Schröter, admits that his work on these notes was hasty. Due to their destruction, he did not have the opportunity to check his work. These notes can offer a helpful view into the process through which Schelling composed this first draft of The Ages of the World.

For the most part, this is a matter of wording rather than content. Joseph Lawrence provided as service to Schelling-studies by supplying a well-structured, readable translation of the 1811 draft of Weltalter. The fluent translation reflects the spirit and content of the original text, while some of his choices are slightly infelicitous. For instance, Schelling’s confounding use of Sein and Seiendes is rendered by Lawrence respectively as “being” and “that which is.” While this translation is correct, it loses the simplicity of Schelling’s terms. Elsewhere, this couple is rendered respectively as “being” and “existing being.” The English language has no simple word pair as the German does. The choice to translate Scheidung as scission should be applauded. It is more conventional than the usage of “cision” and keeps the connection with the German Entscheidung (de-cision). For Schelling, separation happens through a free decision, not through a natural sense of decay. This is one term he uses that distances himself from his erstwhile roommate, Hegel.

On a whole, Lawrence’s translation is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of Schelling studies. For the first time, English readers of Schelling can now read and compare the three remaining drafts of The Ages of the World.

 

Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh, Irene McMullin (Eds.): Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology

Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology Book Cover Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh, Irene McMullin (Eds.)
Routledge
2019
Hardback £120.00
358

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Old Member, Christ Church, University of Oxford)

On one common telling of the history, phenomenology originates as a philosophical movement incubated in professional jealousy, personal rivalry, and intrigue. If someone as Emmanuel Falque has called the recent work among phenomenologists in France a “loving struggle,” the same cannot be said for phenomenology’s earliest beginnings in Germany. Surrounded initially by a burgeoning cadre of students whom he hoped would be heirs to a research program united in its philosophical vision, Edmund Husserl, father of transcendental phenomenology, instead found his aspirations increasingly disappointed as the years passed. As he was to remark in a note towards the end of his career, the general sentiment of his time, one against which he never ceased to struggle, took a dismissively dim view of the systemiticity he so favored: “Philosophy as science, as serious, rigorous, indeed apodictically rigorous science—the dream is over” (Husserl 1970, 389). At the end of his life, he stood alone in his unflagging zeal for the cause of philosophy as science. One after another, Husserl’s former disciples with rare exception had deserted that vision of phenomenology and its future. Among the most notable of those to go their own way rather than following Husserl’s was Heidegger of course, who, beginning with 1927’s publication of Being and Time, broke publically with his mentor’s view of philosophy as a rigorous science, abandoning phenomenology as a science of trancendental consciousness for fundamental ontology’s Seinsfrage.

Expansive and sometimes rather convoluted, the details of this acriminous yet vibrant phenomenological milieu’s institutional reception (first across Europe then on to the Anglophone world and beyond) is far too complex to summarize here fully. Entire books have been written on such matters. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that there has for many decades existed a tendency on the part of commentators to reinforce the feud between Husserl and Heidegger. Rather than looking for any deep common ground between their philosophies, focus instead has been payed to highlighting the differences thought to separate them. This is particularly true in the North American context. For instance, when Hubert Dreyfus upon developing his criticisms of Artificial Intelligence at MIT brought Heidegger’s philosophy to students at Berkeley (William Blattner, Taylor Carman, John Haugeland, Sean Kelly, Iain Thomson, and Mark Wrathall among them), his presentation of phenomenology, which became a commonplace in many publishing circles, relegated Husserl to a piñata for Heidegger. From the 1970s on, Dreyfus’s reading dominated considerable portions of the Anglophone phenomenology world as orthodoxy. The picture it presented was tidy. Husserl was the antiquated cartesian who had underestimated the importance of matters like embodiment and intersubjectivity, while Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, representatives of a so-called “existential phenomenology,” were pioneers whose innovative emphasis on being-in-the-world freed phenomenology from the history of philosophy’s misleading assumptions. In the rush to accentuate what it believed makes Heidegger’s philosophy captivating, Husserl unfairly became something of a footnote to the story, a sort of hors d’oeuvre before the main philosophical dish.

A notable exception to this trend is Dan Zahavi, whose work has done bright things to vindicate the continued importance of Husserl’s legacy. But perhaps the one who above all is responsible for snatching Husserl from the jaws of misunderstanding is Steven G. Crowell, who, in books as Husserl, Heidegger, and the Space of Meaning: Paths towards Transcendental Phenomenology (Northwestern: 2001) and Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger (Cambridge: 2013) as well as in numerous essays has developed an iconoclastic and sophisticated account of the relation between Husserl and Heidegger. Crowell’s position is one which maintains, against Dreyfus and much of the received wisdom in Anglophone Heidegger studies, that in fact Husserl and Heidegger are collaborators in the shared undertaking of what Crowell himself characterizes as transcendental phenomenology’s distinctive project: namely, its preoccupation with the normative structure of intentional meaning (Sinn). Thus, at stake in the collection of essays contained in Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology is the very status of phenomenological philosophy as Crowell proposes it be understood, as a transcendental “clarification of meaning” (Crowell, 336). Naturally, continual reference throughout is made to the interface between Husserl and Heidegger, but not, note well, for the purposes of mere exegesis, but instead as a wellspring of inspiration for a philosophical legacy whose unique approach to phenomenology is animating the continued work of thinkers carrying on its tradition. Many of the essays are accordingly not the typical kind of banal laudatory pieces one is accustomed to finding in a Festschrift. For, in paying homage to Crowell’s vision of transcendental phenomenology, they aim to return to the “things themselves,” precisely as Crowell himself has for many years urged others to do. In short, this is an excellent volume whose aim is not so much to read Husserl and Heidegger, but to think with, and, where necessary, against them.

This transcendental approach—or, a “critique of meaning”—is exemplified in Crowell’s own contribution to the volume. In an “Afterword” that closes the discussion by answering the essays preceding it, Crowell begins his response by noting how the grand language Husserl himself frequently employed when trying to convey the discovery of transcendental phenomenology’s significance may lead to some puzzlement. As Crowell recognizes, Husserl’s personal enthusiasm at first could seem a touch overstated.

With his turn to transcendental phenomenology, Husserl increasingly spoke of his work in the most exalted terms. He was Moses taking the first tentative steps toward the “promised land” whose riches he would not exhaust had he the years allotted Methuselah (Husserl 1989, 429); he was the explorer of “the trackless wilderness of a new continent” (1989, 422) where “no meaningful question” is left “unanswered” (Husserl 1970a, 168); he was Saul on the way to Damascus, the discovery of phenomenology affecting him like a “religious conversion” (Husserl 1970a, 137); he was the redeemer of “the secret yearning of all modern philosophy” (Husserl 1983, 142). What could motivate such language? (Crowell, 329).

According to Crowell, Husserl’s exuberance becomes understandable when the latter’s fundamental philosophical insight is appreciated properly. Husserl’s phenomenological breakthrough, says Crowell, lies not so much in the thesis that “intentionality is the mark of the mental” (as Franz Brentano had noted already), but rather in its distinctive concern with (to borrow the Heideggerian phrase) a kind of “ontological difference”: philosophy is seen to thematize not entities, but meaning. Further, the focus is not just on meaning but specifically the fact that such meaning is normative: “Phenomenology’s promise land, meaning, has a normative structure” (Crowell, 330). Hence, for Crowell, modern philosophy’s transcendental turn (as represented by Husserlian phenomenology) is at once a “normative turn” (MacAvoy, 29). It is in this context that the phenomenological reduction should be understood.

“[T]his method,” says Crowell, “requires askesis, suspending worldly commitments. I ‘put out of action the general positing which belongs to the essence of the natural attitude’ and ‘make no use’ of any science that depends on it (Husserl 1983, 61) so as to thematize the inconspicuous phenomenon of meaning, where the world and everything in it is available to us as it in truth is. This askesis characterizes all phenomenological philosophy” (Crowell, 329).

With this “reduction” to meaning, a new field of inquiry opens, one Husserl in works like Cartesian Meditations characterizes as “an infinite realm of being of a new kind, as the sphere of a new kind of experience: transcendental experience” (Husserl 1973, 66). And as Crowell contends, it is this reduction to meaning that unifies those thinkers belonging to the tradition of transcendental phenomenology. Moreover, it is the normative approach’s distinctive clarification of meaning that holds out the promise for re-establishing today the kind of research program Husserl had sought for his own. An approach calling for collaborative effort, not only does it promote the open exchange of ideas through critical argument, it does so while always remaining oriented by a methodological commitment to phenomenological Evidenz, the distinctive warrant of what shows itself intuitively in first-person self-givenness.

Husserl insists that phenomenology is not a “system” deriving from the head of a single “genius” (Husserl 1965, 75), but a communal practice, a “research program” in the loose sense that analytic philosophy might be considered one. What unites this program—including Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and even Derrida—is a “reduction” from our ordinary concern with entities, beings, the “world,” to the meaning at issue in such concern. Of course, these and other practitioners interrogate both the reduction and the meaning it brings into view, and so we who take up the promise of phenomenology must assess, by our own lights, the legitimacy of such “heresies,” revisions, and revolutions. And while criticism of arguments is always in place, assessing the legitimacy of phenomenological claims finally requires Evidenz, what one can warrant for oneself in the intuitive self-givenness of the “things themselves.” As a kind of empiricism, phenomenology embraces the responsibility of first-person experience (Crowell, 330-31).

However, if transcendental phenomenology’s concern is meaning, and such meaning in turn concerns the normative, what is a norm? As Crowell recounts, a form of that question has long vexed philosophy’s effort to comprehend the realm of “ideality”: it led Plato to his theory of Forms, just as it later motivated nineteenth-century thinkers including Emil Lask and Hermann Lotze to their respective accounts of Geltung (validity), of a “third realm” where the “categories” in question do not exist, but rather “hold” or “obtain.” Accordingly, the basic question concering the ontological status of the ideal (or normative) serves as the volume’s point of departure with Sara Heinämaa’s essay, “Constitutive, Prescriptive, Technical or Ideal? On the Ambiguity of the Term ‘Norm.” In contemporary phenomenology, as Heinämaa says, “the terms ‘norm’ and ‘normative’ are used in several contexts. One dominant argument is that the structure of intentionality is teleological and as such normative” (Heinämaa, 9). Using the examples of being a teacher or a soldier, Heinämaa highlights a difference between two norms. Following a distinction originating in Max Scheler, she notes how there is Tunsollen (“normative ought”), which “implies the concept of rule-following” (Heinämaa, 20) exhibited in customs or social habits. On the other hand, there is Seinsollen (“ideal ought”), a kind of “ideal principle” supplying a constitutive norm involving a “striving for something” (Ibid.) Ideal principles, as Heinämaa observes, “have a constitutive and enabling character: they are not motivational causes for our actions but are conditions that define ways of being” (Ibid.). Crowell further underscores this distinction when, in his reply, he observes that the ideal principles Heinämaa mentions are equivalent to what he means by the term “practical identity” or what Heidegger called a “for-the-sake-of-which” or “ability-to-be” (Seinkönnen); the norm at issue involves a way of understanding oneself, a standard of success or failure exemplified in a felt sensitivity to what is best (or good) given what one is trying to be. Whether we consider being a teacher or a solider, the general point, says Crowell, is that “knowing is something we do in a way possible only for a being who can be guided by a Seinsollen or ideal norm, a ‘minded’ being” (Crowell, 334). Drawing a point that later will become important in the context of Crowell’s understanding of transcendental phenomenology’s relation to metaphysics, he states how, as our knowledge of such ideals is always existential, so it therefore is unsettled and fundamentally unspecifiable. That is just what it means for them to be at issue or at stake in Heidegger’s sense: “Because the ideal that guides what I am trying to be cannot be grounded in truth (fulfillment through Evidenz), it cannot be the topic of a purely theoretical discipline” (Crowell, 333). In doing whatever it is in terms of what one in turn is striving to be, the very ideal of the practical identity itself is at stake, insofar as one’s doing what one does is to work out its meaning, of what it means to live up to it (or not). This is what makes the ideal a measure, and, in the relevant sense, accordingly normative.

Leslie MacAvoy’s essay “The Space of Meaning, Phenomenology, and the Normative Turn,” further clarifies Crowell’s position regarding the normative before going on to criticize the claim that such normativity is imperative to the constitution of meaning. Explaining how the normative turn situates the topic of meaning and validity in relation to the practical norms “for what one ought to do or be” (MacAvoy, 29), she recounts how such an approach thereby characterizes the space of meaning’s purported normativity “in terms of the experience of obligation or binding force” (Ibid.). This normative claim said to underpin meaning, as Crowell has explained elsewhere, amounts to the existential or ontological commitment explaining intentionality and reason: in acting as I do, I always already am implicitly responsible for taking over those “factic grounds” as my reasons. According to MacAvoy, however, phenomenology’s concern with meaning does not entail that such normativity truly plays the role in the formation of meaning that Crowell has argued it does: “While there is a normativity to meaning, it does not consist in the understanding of normativity that has to do with a binding force or claim” (Ibid.). In effect, MacAvoy claims that the phenomenological thesis about the logical, categorial “space of meaning” does not extend to the domain of normativity, as Crowell understands that domain. The binding force of the “ought” does not “capture the normativity of meaning” (MacAvoy, 33). In summarizing the three aspects of Crowell’s characterization of the normative,[1] MacAvoy notes how, for the former, “the norms for whether something can be something are established relative to the norms for doing something” (MacAvoy, 35). By now this will sound familiar. For as Heinämaa had made clear earlier, the very skills and practices in terms of which a thing shows up as what it is are themselves grounded in a practical identity (an “ideal principle”) itself said to be assessible in terms of success or failure. Hence, as MacAvoy says, on the view Crowell defends and which Heinämaa summarizes, the space of meaning bottoms out “in a norm for being a certain type of agent” (Ibid.). This raises the question of the practical identity’s validity, of how such an ideal can be binding, that is to say, of how it can exert a “normative force.” Her main objection is that Crowell’s answer to that question reintroduces the specter of psychologism. Just as psychologism in logic distorts the validity of logic’s content, so interpreting the space of meaning as normative does too, she says. In summarizing MacAvoy’s objection to his position, Crowell writes, “If the normative turn means that phenomenology is a normative discipline, it cannot be fundamental since, on Husserl’s view, all normative disciplines presuppose a theoretical discipline that rationally grounds their prescriptions” (Crowell, 331). If transcendental phenomenology is to be a rigorous science as Husserl envisioned, this appears to entail that it cannot take the normative turn Crowell implies it should, since if it did, so the argument continues, to do so would be to undermine phenomenology’s very claim to theoretical fundamentality to which Husserl took it to be entitled. Before unpacking Crowell’s answer to this concern, it is necessary to further explicate the charge.

To do so, we turn to the question of logic. For if MacAvoy is skeptical as to whether meaning’s categorality is best understood in terms of the bindingness characterizing the existential commitment of practical identity, Walter Hopp’s later essay “Normativity and Knowledge” likewise questions whether the theoretic domain of ideal truth and its connection to knowledge can be understood normatively.[2] Husserl’s phenomenological approach certainly agrees with neo-Kantianism that logical laws cannot be understood empirically, as if they are mere descriptions of how our minds happen to think. The laws of logic are necessary, and hence they are irreducible to descriptive generalizations. And yet at the same time, as Hopp says, for Husserl the laws of logic are not primarily prescriptive judgments regarding how we ought to think, but instead objective in their ideal content and therefore theoretical. Owing to their objective validity, logical laws do have regulative implications for how we ought to think. But that is not their essence. Validity is not the same as normativity.

These disputes concerning the connection between normativity and meaning implicate a more general one that will recur throughout the volume: namely, concern over the relation between transcendental phenomenology and metaphysics. Taking up this metaphilosophical question in “Mind, Meaning, and Metaphysics: Another Look,” Dan Zahavi asks, “Did [Husserl’s] turn to transcendental philosophy, did his endorsement of transcendental idealism, entail some kind of metaphysical commitment, as was certainly believed by his realist adversaries, or did Husserl’s employment of the epoché and phenomenological reduction on the contrary entail a suspension of metaphysical commitments?” (Zahavi, 47).  In Zahavi’s estimation, Husserl’s transcendental turn does not entail the mode of metaphysical neutrality that Crowell contends. As Zahavi concedes, this admittedly is not the dominant view:

“Many interpreters have taken Husserl’s methodology, his employment of the epoché and the reduction, to involve an abstention of positings, a bracketing of questions related to existence and being, and have for that very reason also denied that phenomenology has metaphysical implications” (Zahavi, 51).

Call this widespread reading the “quietist” one. Popular though it is, Zahavi claims that it cannot be correct. Were it true, he suggests, we would be unable to explain why, for instance, Husserl rejected the Kantian Ding an sich and phenomenalism, and why he would obviously have rejected contemporary eliminativism about experience. Even more basically, Zahavi finds the quietist interpretation of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology as “[running] counter to Husserl’s ambitions” (Zahavi, 50): transcendental phenomenology, says Husserl, as Zahavi notes, is such that there is “no conceivable problem of being at all, that could not be arrived at by transcendental phenomenology at some point along its way” (Ibid.). If transcendental phenomenology’s reduction to meaning involves the kind of radical askesis Crowell maintains, how could Husserl have seen it as being equal to the task of answering every philosophical question we might have? In support of his thesis, Zahavi produces a striking passage from the Cartesian Meditations: “Finally, lest any misunderstanding arise, I would point out that, as already stated, phenomenology indeed excludes every naïve metaphysics that operates with absurd things in themselves, but does not exclude metaphysics as such” (Ibid.) Now as Zahavi acknowledges, passages as these are decisive only to the extent that we clarify the term “metaphysics,” which notoriously is ambiguous. He proposes at least three senses it can mean in Husserl: first, a theoretical investigation of fundamental reality (Zahavi, 51); second, philosophical engagement with questions as “facticity, birth, death, fate, immortality, and the existence of God” (Zahavi, 52); third, reflection on the status of “being and reality” (Ibid.). But here, the crucial caveat Crowell rightly mentions in reply must be noted: although Husserl claims that so-called metaphysical questions retain their sense, that is so only “insofar as they have possible sense in the first place” (Zahavi, 51). Accordingly, then, the task becomes one of determining the limits of sense, of what is open to phenomenological Evidenz, and what is not.

If Crowell on one front must defend his conception of radical askesis from the charge that it neglects the metaphysical implications of phenomenology, he must also on the other face challenges from a series of articles by Mark Okrent, Glenda Satne and Bernado Ainbinder, and Joseph Rouse, which, taken together, aim to undermine the transcendental thesis that meaning and normativity are irreducible to nature. As for Okrent, he levels two objections, the first of which, amounting to a reformulated version of the infamous “decisionist objection” to Heidegger’s conception of Angst, Crowell dispatches quickly. As for the second, it contends that there is no way of truly understanding the human mode of being-oneself as a normative achievement whose form is different from “our animal cousins” (Okrent, 173). But as Crowell responds, even if one grants that animals do in some relevant sense act in accord with norms, they do not act in light of them—not only do they lack language so as to be answerable to others for their actions as we are for ours, they also are unable to measure themselves in a non-representational way that is responsive to an intelligible sense of what is best. Even in the simplest forms of perception, the domain of sens sauvage Charles Siewert calls “recognitional appearance,” there is an element of normativity at work marking the experience as distinctively human. In seeing as we do, experience as Siewert notes is “as much in the service of imagination as of judgment, and integral to the activity of looking, which is subject to norms of its own” (Siewert, 290). That this distinctively human richness to experience is lacking in other creatures is evident in that, just as they do not dwell in a “world” wherein things are inflected by the claim of a “good beyond being” (a claim concerning how things ought to be), so they only inhabit an “environment,” a surrounding in which beings are what they are, and nothing more. Satne’s and Ainbinder’s proposal—to “put agents back into nature”—which in turn aims to rehabilitate a “relaxed naturalism,” accordingly takes issue with this conclusion. Contrary to Crowell’s transcendental approach, the aim is to ground normativity in the contingent features of life “shared with other animals.” Joseph Rouse’s essay which contends for a “radical naturalism” joins the cause, seeking to explain our normative capacities in terms of our biology. In defending what he sees as a methodological gap between transcendental phenomenology and empirical science, Crowell reverts to a powerful strategy: according to him, these kinds of attempts to naturalize meaning and normativity require a construction—in this case, “life” —that “transcends the kind of Evidenz to which transcendental phenomenology is committed” (Crowell, 347). Further, because such accounts make use of empirical beings, they are “ontic” and therefore metaphysical in precisely the sense Crowell’s notion of reductive askesis forbids.

Presuming Crowell is correct that transcendental phenomenology establishes why nature cannot explain normativity and thereby fails to ground meaning, what then is the source of normativity? In reply, here one might to choose follow Husserl’s path as John Drummond does, maintaining that intentionality as such (and hence normativity along with it) is governed by a rational telos. As he says, “Husserl believed that in all three rational domains—the theoretical, the axiological, and the practical—the aim of experiential life is the same: to live a life of intuitive evidence, to live the life of a truthful, rational agent” (Drummond, 110). Just as intentionality is structured by the norm of intuitive fulfilment, so we are beings whose form of life involves a kind of rational self-responsibility that remains inexplicable on naturalistic terms. Drummond’s essay concludes by stressing what he takes to be a great merit of his account’s view of self-responsible convictions, namely its easy ability to also account for moral—or ethical—normativity. The issue of practical normativity with which Drummond’s contribution ends is taken up through the lens of Levinas’s relation to Kant in the volume’s next essay, Inga Römer’s “The Sources of Practical Normativity Reconsidered—With Kant and Levinas.” Contrary to what a reading limited only to Levinas’s early thinking may suggest, Levinas finds Kant’s philosophy of practical reason congenial to his own mission of exploring the ethical implications of a good beyond being. As Römer comments, Kant’s notion of disinclination can be seen as a relative to what Levinas himself characterizes as the an-archic and rational desire for the infinite. To see the two’s similarities, however, is not to deny their important differences. Römer lists three, the most significant perhaps of which is that, while it is not entirely misleading to name Levinas’s thinking “a philosophy of heteronomy,” there is a sense in which the self becomes truly autonomous due to “the signifying call of the Other” (Römer, 123). After further unpacking the Kantian position through an analysis of Christine Korsgaard’s notion of practical normativity, Römer then recounts Crowell’s Heideggerian criticism of it, finally to formulate an objection against Crowell’s view of reason-giving as constitutive of the second-personal ethical stance. The concern is that a trace of egoism still remains: “Even if I am required to give an account of my reasons to others, does such an account not tend toward a certain ethical self-conceit? If I am the ultimate source of measure, even if I need to defend this measure with respect to others in order to not contradict myself by taking my reasons to be private ones, does this view not place the self at the center of ethics?” (Römer, 131). Concern that the Heideggerian approach to practical normativity cannot eliminate all residue of self-conceit is well-founded. But while Römer takes Levinas’s own approach to avoid such a pitfall, one may wonder whether it does. When she remarks, for example, that in Levinas’s view there is “no God beyond ethical significance that would be the source of ethical normativity” (Römer, 126), does not the threat of self-conceit arise once again? Even if the asymmetry said to define one’s encounter with the other suffices to annihilate a kind of egoism, does it purge the least trace of it? For the total annihilation of self-love Levinas claims to be seeking, one might argue that only an encounter before God is truly sufficient.

Returning to the question of meaning’s source left hanging in the debate between Drummond and Crowell, Irene McMullin for her own part leans towards a view closer to the latter’s own, preferring a Heideggerian approach in which both meaning and the normative are said to be ungrounded—ultimately, says McMullin, there is no forthcoming answer as to how we find ourselves immersed in a meaningful world. We simply do, and that we find ourselves so situated is a reason for gratitude. Thus, as she says, although “resolute Dasein” experiences the “dizzying, disorienting sense of panicked terror” (McMullin, 149) accompanying the felt realization of meaning’s groundlessness, that realization is followed by another, the “incredible sense of relief and gratitude”(Ibid.) that there is any meaning at all, however ungrounded and contingent it is. This gratitude in turn resolves us to “love better, to strive more fully, to treat the goods in our lives more tenderly” (McMullin, 150). If McMullin’s analysis of the role of receptivity in resoluteness is a welcome corrective to the tendency to see authenticity in overly heroic or active terms, Joseph K. Schear’s essay, “Moods as Active,” does well to correct for an error arising from the opposing tendency of viewing moods as purely passive. Not only are moods an expression of agency, says Schear, they are structured normatively insofar as they are responsive to intelligible interrogation (by others and ourselves). As he notes, it is far from committing a category mistake for someone to ask of us why we are feeling as we are. Interrogating a mood is fair game. While we cannot choose our moods as we choose to make up our minds about what to believe, neither are moods always experiences in which we are just passive. Against a consensus that sees moods as “closer to sensations than judgments” (Schear, 220), he notes that moods do not arrive like “a hurricane, or the fog” (Ibid.). They are episodes in which we may intervene. A mood is an item we can manage, whether by trying to escape it through replacing it with another one, distracting ourselves from it, or by conspiring with it so as to feed and prolong it. However, ultimately the kind of agency interesting Schear is not the preceding kind of “agency over our moods” (Schear, 221), but the expression of agency in it. This second sense of agency is present in moods, he argues, precisely to the extent that we are able to answer intelligibly to the mood-question: “Why are you anxious?” or “Why are you joyful?” Such answerability, so he concludes, is due to being in a mood’s involving one’s living it out as a “responsive orientation to one’s situation.” In a contribution complementing Schear’s well, Matthew Burch in “Against our Better Judgment” explores the phenomenon of akrasia. There is much to be said for this very rich and thoughtful selection, but perhaps most noteworthy is its phenomenological clarification of the notion of “interest,” a middle category between brute desire and explicit judgment or commitment. Interests, hence, are meaningful affections, “things we care about” and things “in which we have a stake” (Burch, 233). Though Burch goes on to develop the notion of interest into a wider account of how a Heideggerian conception of authenticity answers to how norms bind us, with an eye toward concluding the review, here I should like to take Burch’s discussion in a slightly different direction: what is our interest in doing phenomenology? What exactly calls us to it, and what guides and sustains its commitment?

To answer these questions is to return to Crowell’s understanding of phenomenological philosophy’s role in the task of clarifying meaning—here, specifically the task becomes making sense of the very one who philosophizes in the way its normative turn proscribes. As has become clear in assessing Crowell’s response to his critics, the notion of askesis is the cornerstone to his approach. According to him, the reduction to meaning entails that transcendental phenomenology neither demands (Heidegger) nor entails (Husserl) a metaphysics to complete itself. Thus, his own position parts ways with both Husserl and Heidegger. As he observes in his concluding essay, as the question of transcendental phenomenology’s relation to metaphysics “constitutes the horizon of transcendental phenomenology, so I will conclude by considering it under three closely related headings: naturalism, metaphysics, and theology” (Crowell, 345).

Taking the measure of things (we ourselves above all not excepted) in its distinctive fashion, Crowell’s notion of transcendental phenomenology is a philosophy of enigma. What can be intuited in the light of Evidenz is clear and distinct, while anything beyond is consigned to antinomy. The situation accordingly comes to one of deciding how to understand where transcendental phenomenology draws the limits of intuitable meaning. Where precisely does the threshold lie? And what about the meaning, if any, lying beyond the threshold separating what is given in genuine first-person evidence from what is not? Is such meaning to be set to the side, or must not it somehow be integrated into the existence of the one who encounters it? If it must be integrated, how is that task of existential incorporation to be coordinated in terms of the norm of reductive askesis which, qua phenomenologist, entails bracketing such meaning? There looms, so it would seem, a fissure in the being of the one thinking phenomenologically. To begin with, as just noted, there is the difficulty of deciding what does (and thus does not) lie within the bounds of intelligibility. To decide with Crowell that we ought to refrain from taking a phenomenological stand on anything beyond the intuitable is a mark of intellecutal humility, to be sure. Nobody should deny that it is advisable to suspend judgment when things are sufficiently ambiguous. Yet such a suggestion remains formalistic; it cannot resolve how we are to apply it. How, then, are we to determine when not making a commitment in the face of the meaning at issue is truly the humble and rationally reponsible thing to do? To be confident in a given situation that we are doing what humility dictates implies that we are entitled in judging that what before us seems less than self-evident is in fact as obscure as it appears. How, however, are we to know that we are correct, that we are justified in that stance?

It is not an uncommon experience in life to come to learn that something we initially thought was unclear actually was not; the unclarity resided in our vision and not the thing. It is was not that the thing was veiled, just that we were failing to see. Hence, while it is good to be duly skeptical of claims that make genuiniely ungrounded claims of metaphysical speculative excess (“Everything is illusion, for we are in a quantum simulation!”), we should be mindful that determining when that is so can itself be fraught; something could in principle be grounded in evidence even if, or when, it does not yet seem so to us. Anyone who is honest will admit that there are reasons for thinking that the judgments we reach based on what we believe is humility can turn out instead to have been motivated by a subtle pride or stubborness. It is important to note, for instance, that this strand of epistemic humility is for all its virtues only partial; it essentially is an intellectual askesis. Or more exactly, insofar as it is it supposed to be an effort of epistemic self-discipline, it begins to undermine its own spirit of modesty the moment it slips into more than that by coming to resemble more so a general posture toward the whole of existence. When that happens, one important norm governing our trafficking in meaning is elevated to something instead approaching an absolute. And it is not difficult to see how, in doing so, it can propel the one who treats it in that way along his own path of error and blindness. This becomes more apparent when we consider another of humility’s aspects: namely, humility’s willingness to yield to things by accepting something for what it is, thereby submitting to the disclosed. Crowell’s reductive askesis, along with its norm of epistemic humility, arguably threatens to imperil an authentic encounter with meaning so interesting it if absolutized to trump all else. A commitment to the norm of truth-seeking, for example, may at times require passing beyond what presently appears to be grounded in evidence. Life presents us with these situations constantly. We resolve the indeterminateness by commiting to a course of judgment or action despite the ambiguity. Just as the meaning of some situations becomes clear only in retrospect years later or in an unanticipated flash of insight, so some truths become evident after a period in which they had not been. To refuse to commit to taking a stand on something that remains less than intuitively clear means what might have crystalized never will. If, then, humility is not synthesized with other considerations (including trust, hope, patience, wisdom, or courage), it threatens to constrict rather than expand meaning.

Insofar as the reductive askesis of Crowell’s position ends with enigma, it has been my suggestion that such enigma potentially implicates more than what that methodological stance admits. Meaning by its nature implicates our having to take a stand on what lies on the margins of intentionality, what at any moment makes itself felt as an unspecifiable more. To ignore this surplus of sense in the name of a humility that does not take a stand on what it sees as undecidable is to neglect precisely what puts our existence at stake and at risk in the first place. The respective imperatives of the transcendental (epistemic askesis) and the ontological (existential commitment) appear to be tugging in opposite directions. As a philosophy of meaning, transcendental philosophy can attempt to delimit the things whose meaning we are said to be justified in taking a stand on philosophically. In refusing to take a stand on what it considers the metaphysical, however, this gesture of refusal only implicates the omnipresence of that something more—that excess—with which we all must grapple existentially. Thus, while we may have reached the limits of what a certain mode of intuitive thought can decrypt, it does not follow that it has thereby established the bounds of the meaningful as such. Could not more remain to be given?

Here a detail concerning the earlier debate between Zahavi and Crowell over transcendental phenomenology’s relation to metaphysics will be recalled. Zahavi mentions that, taken in its second sense, metaphysics for Husserl deals with matters of birth, death, fate, immortality, and the existence of God. Do these metaphysical questions have a possible sense? What is their relation to transcendental phenomenology, as Crowell understands it? For his own part, Crowell states that while a “phenomenology of faith” is possible, it does not disrupt any of the essential metholodological commitments of transcendental phenomenology. For Crowell, that means rejecting a traditional commonplace according to which revelation is said to complete what reason cannot. Whatever room it leaves for faith, it must not interfere with the autonomy of a presuppositionless phenomenological reason.

This expulsion of faith from the project of transcendental phenomenology is, in a way, simply a specific application of the general reduction from entities to meaning. As Crowell says, “Transcendental phenomenology is not concerned with entities at all” (Crowell, 337). But if transcendental phenomenology is not concerned with entities, what about the entities that we ourselves are? How does the normative turn handle la question du sujet? Because such an approach seemingly comes up lacking, it calls for another inquiry to accomplish what it cannot. Transcendental phenomenology, after all, can trace the general contours of existence, telling us that we should live a self-responsible existence in light of the rational norm of evidence. It can clarify what it most generally means to be in the space of meaning. But it cannot decide where the limits between sense and nonsense lie in a given case, nor what precisely living up to the norm of evidence entails in any or every particular instance. We can reflect on the general normative structures of existence and how those structures make an encounter with entities possible, yet ultimately life still must be lived. For Crowell, perhaps much of what we take at a first-order level to be meaningful is not. Or at least the meaning in question falls short of Evidenz, in the transcendental sense. The things we take ourselves to know, on closer inspection, really are a matter of antinomy. This would be true for the theological, for in giving a name to what it takes to have addressed it, it does so without sufficient evidence. As Martin Kavka says in characterizing banal theologizing, “This argument entails the claim that the problem with any and all theologization of phenomenology is that theology determines” (Kavka, 92). Or as Crowell puts it, by trying to give a name to the anonymous claim that has addressed it, such a response crosses into antinomy.

Antinomy is also the figure which best describes the third horizon of transcendental phenomenology, the “theological turn,” in which phenomenology abandons reductive askesis to posit a prior condition of correlation, variously called “event,” Erscheinung als solches, “givenness,” “phenomenality,” or “revelation” (Crowell, 349).

Where, then, does this leave man’s search for meaning, and the question of his destiny? Concluding with a provocative but basic question does well to underscore the exigency of the methodological situation’s existential import. What, in short, are we to make phenomenologically of the claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Does the claim fall within phenomenology’s remit? Outside it? Is it essential to phenomenology’s venerable aim of putting oneself in question, or orthogonal to that attempt? Is to affirm such a claim consistent (or not) with the promise of meaning, as Crowell understands that promise? One must make the decision to leap—or not. Either way, a decision is made. Seen strictly from the perspective of a transcendental critique of meaning, what faith claims to see—namely, that because Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, he is the absolute measure by which our own individual existences are to be measured—probably will be viewed as an affirmation having succumbed to “metaphysical” tempation. It views faith as epistemic folly. But assuming this is what a transcendental phenomenology’s critique of meaning entails, why not then see it as a reductio of that position?

To succeed in its aim of clarifying meaning, cannot it be suggested that transcendental phenomenology must be understood not as deeming what faith sees as inscrutable, but rather as itself calling for it?[3] To rest content with phenomenological askesis is to leave ourselves in a state of unnecessary indeterminateness. As it does not countenance the mysteries of God, so for it the enigmas of human existence find no solution.[4] It is thus left to face a potential incoherence of its own approach. The latent incoherence is manifest methodologically insofar as it fails to make intelligble what could be made so were it to complement its vision with what its own commitment to the imperative of self-givenness implicates. By not doing so, it ends in a failure of sense-making. For this reason, arguably it can be considered a failure relative to its own internal aim of trying to clarify meaning. The lack of success is most evident when seeing its inability to make adequate sense of ourselves.

We are finite creatures, and so meaning is finite. We can grasp the world as it is, though never as a whole; and if there is anything beyond that, it is a matter of faith, not philosophy. A phenomenology of faith is certainly possible, but transcendental phenomenology cannot be said to be exceeded by something that escapes it and yet grounds it, such that a “theological”—or “naturalistic” or “speculative” or “metaphysical”—turn is required. One who nevertheless wishes to make such a turn must show why it does not end in antinomy, the “euthanasia of pure reason” (Kant 1998, 460). Take your pick: deus sive natura; mereological universalism or nihilism; “neutral monism”; panpsychism; flesh, life, desire. In the face of antinomy, the askesis of transcendental phenomenology is not egoism but modesty, not a “theory of everything” but a clarification of what matters. Its claim on our “ultimate philosophical self-responsibility” (Husserl) is irrevocable if we are committed to having evidence for what we say. Just this defines the normative turn from entities to meaning, the promised land, “the secret yearning of all modern philosophy” (Crowell, 352).

By addressing the “question of the subject” in a way that entails no answer is ever forthcoming, reductive askesis renders the need for putting ourselves into question otiose, even futile. The misunderstanding at work in its approach to the entities that we ourselves are is seen precisely in its failing to live up to its own impulse to truly make sense of our existence. Here, in short, would be a philosophy concerned with explicating the meaning of things while simultaneously failing to ground its own existence in any firm meaning. If, in fact, there ultimately was no true meaning to existence because there were no answers to life’s ultimate questions, why then should a philosophy about meaning try to make sense of that meaning? To be sure, doing so could still serve as an idle pursuit perhaps, as a way for those so inclined to pass the time. But philosophy must be more than intellectual tiddlywinks. For were it not more than that, what reasons do others have for caring about what such a philosophy says? Philosophy would not just lose its exigency, but its universality too. In the last analysis, any philosophy of meaning stifling the yearning for the absolute does so on pain of compromising the coherence of its express aim. In restless pursuit of a meaning it cannot find, its is a critique of meaning that renders human existence as if it ultimately had none. Reaching only a mirage of the true promised land, as with Dathan it dies in the wilderness.

Bibliography

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Translated by Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Martin Nijhoff, 1973.

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated and introduction by David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.


[1] With Crowell, MacAvoy notes, first, the distinction originating in Husserl’s Phenomenology as Rigorous Science between the empirical and transcendental (that is, between the natural and normative); transcendental consciousness, MacAvoy explains, is governed by a lawfulness other than the causality of the psychical and physical. Second, and relatedly, the intentional experience of an object involves a command over its “implications,” the inner and outer horizons of sense in terms of which the object itself can be taken as what it is, the paradigmatic example being the perceptual object, since, say, in perceiving a cube, I must “co-intend” its sides that are not directly seen but are nevertheless implicated. Perceptual intentionality accordingly has a “motivational” logic: If I were to move here, then the cube’s other sides should come into view.

[2] In this way, Hopp’s essay follows in the footsteps of his mentor, the late Dallas Willard, whose early works on Husserl’s view of logic, ideality, and the possibility of knowledge remain exemplary. See, for example, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge: A Study in Husserl’s Philosophy (Ohio University Press, 1984).

[3] For a comprehensive analysis of God’s role in Husserl’s transcendental philosophy, see Emmanuel Housset’s Husserl et l’idée de Dieu (Paris: Cerf, 2010). For a critical appraisal of Husserl’s attempt to incorporate God into his transcendental approach, see John Drummond’s draft paper, “Phenomenology, Ontology, Metaphysics,” The Boston Phenomenology Circle, Accessed September 18, 2019.

[4] If this language is recognizably Blondelian, it is because Maurice Blondel’s own thought systematically explored the reciprocal interface between reason and revelation, philosophy and faith. For an explanation of how philosophy’s concern over the enigma of existence implicates a fulfillment in the mysteries of God, see Jean Lacroix’s short study Maurice Blondel: An Introduction to His Philosophy, trans. John C. Guiness (Sheed and Ward: New York, 1968), 64-66.

J.L. Chretien: Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature

Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature Book Cover Spacious Joy: An Essay in Phenomenology and Literature
J.L. Chretien. Translated by Anne Ashley Davenport
Rowman & Littlefield International
2019
Paperback £29.95
208

Reviewed by: Paul Downes (Dublin City University)

Seeds of a Primordial Spatial Phenomenology: Chrétien’s Spacious Joy

A dual, entwined argument takes place throughout this book. These arguments require disaggregation. One layer of argument is a concern with foreground phenomenological content in experience. The second layer pertains to background phenomenological structure. The foreground argument is a highly distilled one that concentrates its focus on a specific term, dilation (dilatatio), as a content of experience. This experiential content is sensitively explored through multifarious dimensions across predominantly Christian thinkers and mystics, though with a range of poets also embraced, such as Whitman, Rimbaud and Rilke. Chrétien explicitly states that his focus is on ‘spiritual authors’ such as poets and mystics where ‘the Christian tradition predominates’ (2) rather than on philosophers,

This phenomenological content of experience goes beyond simply Husserlian intentionality, in terms of both scope and claimed source; it also interrogates the precognitive in experience and invokes experience of a Christian God. The range of texts chosen for interrogation in terms of experiential dilation is quite limited, while Chrétien largely resists the temptation to invite obvious resonances with wider philosophical sources for these accounts of experiential content in relation to dilation.

The background argument is somewhat more surreptitiously expressed and unfolded. It is in terms of a spatial structure or system of experience. Dilation is irredeemably spatial, resting on background spatial suppositions. The contours of this spatial background for experiencing, underpinning experience of dilation, is adverted to in a sustained way throughout the book, though not in terms of a systematic argument or overarching conclusion as to the features and trajectories of these spaces of experience in experience. The structural features of these spaces tend to remain for Chrétien as illustrative, though his claim at the outset of the book is that these spaces are primordial and are prior to metaphor.

Chrétien seeks to retrieve a space for experience that has been glossed over in much of the Western tradition. Significantly, Aquinas is viewed by Chrétien as taking ‘the fatal step of splitting the concept of dilation into two, namely, into a physical meaning and a metaphorical meaning’ (7). He seeks to challenge this Aristotelian construction between the literal and metaphorical for space, upon which Aquinas built this cleavage. Chrétien raises the pivotal question, ‘Is there not a more primordial sense of dilation, anterior to the split ?’ (7), a split that reduces space to mere metaphor or bodily experience. Chrétien explicitly states that he draws on authors in this book that ‘do not treat the dilation of the heart as a mere metaphor’ (7). He seeks a more primordial space than the metaphorical and possibly also prior to the metaphysical. In doing so, he assails the Cartesian definition of matter that ‘implies that spiritual substances such as Gods, angels, or our own mind cannot be extended’ (9). Moreover, given that Descartes treated space as an empty non-entity,[1] Chrétien is challenging this whole Aristotelian-Cartesian edifice for space.

With explicit search for ‘their phenomenological basis’ (47), the accounts of the content of dilation as lived experience of the various thinkers offer some common threads pertaining to space. However, the broad range of experiences invoked for dilation raises the question as to whether, grasp all, lose all ? Do the wide domains of dilation dilute its meanings ? It is purportedly both an extremity of experience and yet, available naturally in the everyday; ‘dilation is found at every level of experience, including at the highest level of mystical moments’ so that the ‘supernatural is not necessarily the supra-sensible’ (96). Dilation is and brings both love and joy, as well as renewal (100). Though for St. Theresa of Avila, it is a passage to a higher spacious mode of experience, dilatatio invades the senses of sight, sound, smell, as an expansion of perception, as a ‘transformation of all the senses’ (128); it is proposed to infiltrate action, emotion, memory and thought, while emanating from a level of soul prior to the heart. As a spatial movement, ‘dilation is an act and a motion; it cannot form a perpetual state’ (175). It is an experiential process of movement.

Dilation is portrayed as including cognition within its ambit, both as intellect and volition (117), while also accommodating contemplation as dilation. Thus, dilation as a mode of experience appears to stretch into terrains of both the Dionysian as a prerepresentative experience of rapture in early Nietszche, and the Apollonian as self-conscious condensing into form as a process of cognition, without being reducible to either or all aspects of the Dionysian or Apollonian in Nietszschean terms.  A powerful final chapter 9 on the breath in terms of expansion/contraction, as a mode of dilation, offers a prior site of experience to sheer sensuality.

The retort that Chrétien would give to this risk of dilution of understanding of dilation is that it is part of an inner unification process (71) and unity is not totality of experience, ‘the very act of dilation unifies the self’ (16). Yes, the scope of dilation is ambitious on Chrétien’s account. His spatial search via dilation is not merely the phenomenology of space as perception, as that of Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard acknowledges his spatial concerns are in the miniature and not at the extremes of experiential and conceptual depths, ‘Such formulas as being-in-the-world […] are too majestic for me and I do not succeed in experiencing them […] I feel more at home in miniature worlds’ of space (1964: 161). In contrast, Chrétien is entering the caverns of experience to extract a unifying pulse of principle as dilated spatial movement.

This quest is for a spatial system of dilation as ‘porous boundaries, or boundaries with holes, allowing it to open itself to the infinite and incorporate it’ (169), which can be juxtaposed with the ‘heart…as thick as grease’ (v.69 Bible of Jerusalem), cited by Chrétien (63) and implicitly echoed by Schopenhauer’s ‘thick partition’ (211) between self and other in the person lacking compassion. Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological concern is with boundaries for experience, not only as constraints but as the opening process of dilation; ‘dilation is an opening up’ (31), a ‘joy that opens space up’ as ‘the gift of space’ (42). This opening ‘does not denote a simple expansion of space. It denotes a space that is different from the old space’ (42).

Dilation operates as a counterpole to compression with both as spatial movements, as Chrétien invokes St. Gregory’s words, ‘compressed by pain and torments’ (48), for ‘the theme of dilation of love, joy, and hope in the very midst of tribulations’ (49). Dilation serves as a directional counterpoint to the relative closure of compression of experiential space, ‘If we are assigned a boundary that cannot in any way be pushed back or overtaken, we are filled with dread at the thought of a definitive imprisonment, of a constriction that diminishes us and stifles us’ (155). Where existentialist dread dwells in the awareness of the constricted space of sealed boundaries, resistant to the expanse of dilation in their firmness of closure, dilation is the possibility of an opening of space, a capacity for spacious experience that lives in a precise correlation to this dread, as a directional opposition. Angst may offer the awareness of the capacity for this directional movement between these Siamese twins, namely, the relatively more closed and open spaces of dread and dilation.

This spatial phenomenological questioning of background structure shaping lived experiential contents offers a key insight regarding a spatial expansion of experience that is not simply a blank space removal of all boundaries, ‘another kind of dread would take hold of me, characteristic of dilation, namely the dread of self-loss and self-dissolution. Since the joy of dilation does not desire or aim at self-loss, it requires that I remain at all times the self that dilates’ (155). He continues, distinguishing the opening of dilation from a frantic obliterative opening, ‘Otherwise, what is involved would be more like an explosion than a dilation’ (156). A spatial structure is needed to distinguish the relative opening of dilation that retains a sense of assumed connection to self from a monistic fusion with background stimuli that surrenders all sense of personal identity. The spatial expansion of dilation is not simply empty space, it is not space as the nonentity of limitlessness.

He emphasises that capacity to receive experience of divinity is a spatial concern, tracing the etymology of capacity to the Latin capax, with spatial connotations. In his account of St. Augustine, Chrétien appears to accept the traditional Christian framework of grace that would treat dilation as a gift outside the control of the subjective ego, of the conscious mind. If so, a precognitive dimension to dilation as an expansion of space requires amplification, one that does not simply rest in a stale selfconsciousness or state of reflection as contemplation, though Chrétien also subsequently includes these modes within the ambit of dilation processes. Augustine’s cogitatio as thought is also treated as being infiltrated with dilation. The vacillation here between the precognitive and cognitive for dilation may be that Chrétien is more concerned with revealing the positions of the various thinkers whose texts he explores than with exploring in detail clashes between their various positions or emphases.

Chrétien highlights that St. Gregory ‘ties wicked dilation to power’ (47). An unexplored implication of Chretien’s acknowledgment of ‘evil dilation’ (48), envisaged also to include pride, is that it suggests an active spatial force propounding evil that appears prima facie to challenge the traditional Thomist doctrine of evil as privatio boni. An implication of dilation as a spatial movement also pertaining to evil is undernourished in Chrétien’s book. This implication is that as a spatial movement, evil is not simply a negation of good, as a kind of non-being as privation, but an active force in some way. Much may depend here on the level of description, as for example, what may be initially a negation may gain momentum as an active movement in space; causal and ontological levels of description may also import different characterisations of evil as lack or active force. Going further, this could be construed as seeking spatial movements prior to the diametric opposition of absence/presence that melds together a framework of evil as negation of good rather than as a spatial movement. However, this book is less concerned with theological implications of the spatial analysis of the phenomenology of dilation, whether as joy, love or even evil, than with describing the specific experiential unfolding of dilation as a spatial movement, across a range of thinkers.

Much of Chrétien’s concerns with dilation and space is to characterise them in terms of a prior judgment as good or bad, as life giving or pathological. Yet this is itself a space, a diametric spatial projection. Moreover, Chrétien’s exploration of Pierre Corneille’s experiential accounts ‘with an open heart’ (99) invites what Chrétien describes in diametric oppositional terms as where the heart ‘must win the struggle against what blocks it’ (99). This diametric oppositional space lurks in the background without any explicit analysis in his spatial structural questioning.

Like Wordsworth who crossed the Alps without knowing it, Chrétien has arguably discovered a whole spatial system of experience. A pervasive aspect of these spaces in this book is that they express expansion and contraction, as a spatial movement, as a rhythm where both the expansion of dilation and the narrowing of contraction are in mutual tension and interaction; dilation is part of a unified rhythm in spatial-structural terms for experience, as ‘a set of rhythmic and palpitating systems’ (169). This experience is treated as a cosmic spatial system affecting experience though not reducible simply to experience as subjectivity; it is ‘a process of cosmic widening’ (150). The relative openness of the expansion in dilation as a space of experience and a spatial ‘capacity’ for experience is frequently characterised by Chrétien’s selected thinkers and writers as being circular in movement, as part of a circular widening, where ‘the furthest circumference preexists already in the center’ (160); it is a ‘radiant’ (145) circular movement ‘spreading out in waves and circles’ (115).

Portrayed at the level of imagery in terms of fluidity, as ‘heavenly liqueur’ (p. 88), citing Claudel’s ‘liquid breathing’ (178), this can be further construed in spatial structural terms, where, by way of contrast, desiccation is a feature of contraction, a drying up as a loss of dilation. Moreover, this fluidity of the breathing experience as part of experiential dilation offers a fluid space to be distinguished structurally from monistic fusion and empty space, ‘Airy or liquid respiration, together with its dilation, forms the place where we are related to the limitless, but not to a limitlessness that loses itself in emptiness; to a limitlessness, rather, that is a totality’ (178). Chrétien thus invokes and quests for a space that is a fluid unity or unifying process for an experiential opening. He contrasts this space not only with contraction but also with the empty space of monistic fusion as a totality. This is first cousin of a recognition that truth unity claims are to be distinguished from truth totality ones.

Another argument made, albeit en passant, is that thought is structured like the structure of our breathing, and needs to reflect this interplay between systole and diastole. Spatialisation of experience moves into a terrain of impact upon thought, as a spatialisation of thought. This is a different embedded structure for thought than one simply resting on bodily analogy, such as that employed by Freud for oral, anal and phallic stages of development. The breath gains force as an animating space underlying thought. This is a promising argument left largely in the shadows in this book, though hovering at its edges. The inhalation/exhalation superstructure for thought may offer a counterpoint, as a different mode of interactive polarity to the Gestalt figure/ground focus on foreground and background in thought. If ‘the rhythm of breathing characterizes all living things’, where ‘the general laws of respiration…are the laws of dilation’ (168), this invites treatment of thought as a living thing giving expression to this breath rhythm of dilation, of spatial movement as expansion and contraction, in the very structure of thought itself.

The discussion of dilation as pathology offers rich resources for interpretation, resonant with recognition in a Jungian tradition that mystics and schizophrenics find themselves in the same ocean, where the mystics swim and the schizophrenics drown. Dilation of space in experience offers an account of this ocean, pertinent also to the oceanic feeling recognised by Freud through his friend Romain Rolland. This oceanic feeling contrasts with ‘the airless dungeons we have built for ourselves’ (20), in Chrétien’s memorable phrase.

Chrétien’s challenge to treatment of space as a mere metaphor is stated at the outset of his book. While it is developed through examples of dilation, he does not seek to amplify this argument in detailed philosophical terms. Nevertheless, his argument for a realm of spatial experience that is irreducible neither to mere metaphor nor to the body offers a rapprochement with concerns of Paul Ricoeur in La métaphore vive. Ricoeur seeks to suspend primary reference of truth as correspondence to an external world in science and to invoke a split reference to encompass another referential domain for metaphor in discourse, a ‘world’ or state of affairs of poetic reference. Chrétien can be understood as taking a further expansive step through a concern with a phenomenological reference to a state of experience of dilation in its multidimensional forms expressed in language.

Spatial understandings pervade much of Ricœur’s discussion of metaphor in terms of proximity and distance, tension, substitution, displacement, change of location, image, the ‘open’ structure of words, closure, transparency and opaqueness. Yet this is usually where space is discussed within metaphor, and as a metaphor itself, rather than as a precondition or prior spatial system of experience interacting with language.[2] Chrétien also invokes language in terms of a poetics of dilation though again he leaves reservoirs in his text to explore a conception of a spatial system of experience, for unifying experience that is prior to metaphor and language. He reaches this threshold in this book, but does not carve out this pathway in detailed, sustained terms as part of a structural spatial phenomenological argument. He offers seeds of a primordial spatial phenomenology.

Viewed in contrast with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age that explored temporality as a horizon of experience taken for granted in the social imaginary, in a distinct socio-historical set of contexts across Europe with implications for a secularist Zeitgeist, Chrétien’s scope of works are more confined. However, they can be construed as overcoming a key caesura in Taylor’s work with regard to spatial conditions or horizons underpinning religious and mystical experience. Moreover, Chrétien is not pitting space against time, he incorporates a temporal dimension into the rhythm of the dilation as openness interacting with the compressed, contraction process of closure. This temporal dimension is of space as a movement, of spatial capacity for movement.

A key strength of this book is its opening of a series of promissory notes to a more primordial spatial phenomenological structural questioning, regarding dilation, its interplay with contraction, the structural features of this spatial movement, its embedding in the breath, the circular expansive movement in what is tantamount to concentric spatial terms of infinite dilation sustained as a series of extended concentric spatial movements. This important contribution of Chrétien is allied with the pulse of vitality that runs through the sensitive interpretation of the accounts of the various thinkers regarding dilation, to embed dilation as a major feature of mystical experience, with dilation arguably offering as much of an Archimedean point for these experiences as does Angst for existential-phenomenological concerns.

It can be inferred that four modes of space, not necessarily all distinct from each other, emerge from Chrétien’s spatial phenomenological account. A fluid open and opening concentric circular space of dilation, a contracting, compressed, desiccated space, and an empty space of monistic fusion, as mere limitless totality through obliteration and explosion of all boundaries. The other space is that of diametric spatial opposition, whether between good and evil, openness and closure, as oppositional directions in mutual tension. This is a diametric space not only as structure and position, but as direction. Chrétien does not directly address the interplay between these spaces of experience.[3]

Though the argument for a spatial system of experience as dilation and contraction is as part of a claim for a primordial space prior to metaphor, it is this key argument that merits much more expansion, dare it be said, dilation, in this work. What is the ontological status of dilation as a mode of space, as a spatial system in rhythm with contraction, as a dynamic interactive spatial movement ? This pivotal question is only addressed indirectly by Chrétien, with hints and fragrances, in Spacious Joy.

References: 

Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964/1994.

Descartes, R. Descartes: Philosophical Writings. Trans. E. Anscombe & P.T. Geach. London: Nelson, 1954.

Downes, P. The Primordial Dance: Diametric and Concentric Spaces in the Unconscious World. Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2012.

——– At the Threshold of Ricoeur’s Concerns in La Métaphore Vive: A Spatial Discourse of Diametric and Concentric Structures of Relation Building on Lévi-Strauss. Ricoeur Studies/Etudes Ricoeuriennes, 2016, 7 (2): 146-163.

——–Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other. New York/London/New Delhi: Routledge, 2019.

Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy, trans. D. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1872/2000).

Ricœur, P. La Métaphore Vive. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. R. Czerny, with K. McLoughlin & J. Costello London: Routledge, 1978.

Schopenhauer, A. On the Basis of Morality. Trans. E. F. J. Payne. Providence: Berghahn Books, (1839/1995).

Taylor, C.  A Secular Age. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.


[1] Descartes referred to ‘empty space, which almost everyone is convinced is mere nonentity’ (1954: 200).

[2] Downes, P. At the Threshold of Ricoeur’s Concerns in La Métaphore Vive: A Spatial Discourse of Diametric and Concentric Structures of Relation Building on Lévi-Strauss. Ricoeur Studies/Etudes Ricoeuriennes, 2016, 7 (2): 146-163.

[3] For detailed examination of these modes of spatial experience as a spatial phenomenological questioning not only of space but through space, distinguishing concentric and diametric spaces from monistic fusion, see Downes, The Primordial Dance: Diametric and Concentric Spaces in the Unconscious World. Oxford/Bern: Peter Lang, 2012 and Downes, Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other. New York/London/New Delhi: Routledge, 2019.