Maria Gyemant: Husserl et Freud, un héritage commun

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

Reviewed by: Rayyan Dabbous (University of Toronto)

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

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

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

I. Freud and Husserl, a question of generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Freud, defending the unconscious

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Husserl, defending truth

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

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

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

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

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

IV. The notion of trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. Freud, Husserl… philosophers?

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

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


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

Constantin Noica: The Romanian Sentiment of Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not to be (n-a fost să fie)

It was about to be (era să fie)

It may well be to be (va fi fiind)

It would be to be (ar fi să fie)

It is to be (este să fie)

It was to be (a fost sa fie)

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, come my one and only love,

Thy world behind leave, dear!

I am the evening star above,

Be thou my bride sincere.

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

What do thou care, oh, face of clay,

If it’s me or some other…

In narrow circle you relive,

Your luck is daily master,

But I, in my world, always live

Immortal and cold aster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gioia Laura Iannilli: L’estetico e il quotidiano

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

Reviewed by: Asia Brunetti (University of Bologna)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Sallis: On Beauty and Measure

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

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

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

I. Sallis’s Method of Reading Plato

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Symposium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Statesman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith: Correspondence: 1919–1973

Correspondence: 1919–1973 Book Cover Correspondence: 1919–1973
New Heidegger Research
Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith. Translated by J. Goesser Assaiante, S. Montgomery Ewegen
Rowman & Littlefield
Hardback $125.00 • £96.00

Reviewed by: Taylor J. Green (Carleton University)

A fifty-four-year correspondence between teacher and student is what Correspondence: 1919-1973: Martin Heidegger and Karl Löwith brings to English readers. Part of a larger series of The Collected Letters of Martin Heidegger, Correspondence 1919-1973 is a compiled set of one hundred and twenty-four letters, postcards, and telegrams, seventy-six from Martin Heidegger and forty-eight by Karl Löwith, published with helpful annotations, supplementary material, and biographical information. The relationship of Heidegger and Löwith is, certainly, marked by Heidegger’s actions in 1933, but also by an enduring and distinguished bond between two philosophical giants of the twentieth century. The final two letters in 1973 of these compiled correspondences are not sent to Karl Löwith but to his wife after his passing. Heidegger, outliving his former student by three years to the exact day, remarks to Frau Löwith, “may the mercifulness of your husband’s death diminish the pain of his departure, and with time transform it into thoughtful remembrance…The circle of those awakened for thinking during the 1920s grows ever smaller. Soon, at the very most, they will only live on in the memory of a few individuals” (156).

The warmth, trust, erudition, and philosophical conversion that Heidegger and Löwith share in these correspondence exposes a past philosophical era of the previous century, one of which thinking was the central tenet. Translators Assaiante and Ewegen capture the keen philosophical wit of a young Karl Löwith navigating early adulthood through philosophical discourse with one of the greatest German philosophers. In the translation, they also capture the essence of Heidegger’s mentorship and strict academically centric mind. As the translators state upfront, references to lost letters not compiled in this edition “are not in the possession of the estate” (ix). Any shortcomings in compilation does not mean, however, that these letters, as they stand, are nothing short of enlightening for scholars to gain insight into two excellent minds of our contemporary age. The explanatory annotations, the careful translation, unabridged correspondence, and the thoughtful editor’s forward and afterward provides a book easily recommendable to those interested in either or both philosophical minds, in their own written words, as they matured through the early twentieth century.

The language of the letters is “causal and friendly” and lacks the “specialized language” of Heidegger’s lecture courses. Yet there are times when Heidegger prioritizes supervising and guiding the young Löwith by engaging in dense philosophical discourse. Löwith more than obliges and, eventually, extends Heidegger’s existential thinking to-be-with-others in his 1928 habilitation. Captured correctly in the translation is Heidegger’s radicality, his growing disregard for Husserl, his dissonance with the arid bureaucratic structure of the university, and his prescient formulation of the arguments of Being and Time (1927). The translators, attempting the difficult task of uncovering Heidegger’s own self-references, convey the meaning of Eigendestruction in English as destructuring, self-destructuring, or destructing one’s own. This concept is important as Heidegger refers to the term often in the years leading up to the publication of his first major work.

In the “Editor’s Afterward”, it is stated that the letters represent four distinct periods in the relationship between Heidegger and Löwith (288). Classifying the letters in this way is helpful: (1) 1919-1925, Löwith is a student of Heidegger’s until the time he leaves for Italy. This period by far contains the most letters between them. (2) 1925-1929, Heidegger has become a proper professor, as Löwith prepares for his habilitation (successfully habilitated in 1928). (3) In the 1930s, notably, Heidegger becomes rector of University of Freiburg. On page 165, the translators provide an “Excerpt from Karl Löwith’s Italian Diary (1934-1936)”, detailing the last encounter Löwith had with his mentor prior to the war, where Heidegger does not take off the party insignia on his lapel, translated unabridged and with a different tone from what is printed in Richard Wolin’s The Heidegger Controversy. The last phase (4) is a “reconciliation” between Heidegger and Löwith. The impact of Heidegger embracing the rectorship of Freiburg in 1933 does not heal for Löwith, as evidence in Löwith’s documentation of their last encounter and in the salient lack of correspondence. This period contains the least exchanges. One is a birthday wish to Heidegger for his sixtieth birthday in 1949. Another is Heidegger consoling Löwith on his deathbed. Heidegger attaches a poem, or rather, “a series of Thoughts”, entitled Pathways, that reads “Pathways, footsteps loosening up, echoing a humble fate. And once again the distress of dusk, hesitant, in the waiting light” (156).

I review and reconstruct much of the conflating narratives and major themes throughout the work. I analyze the letters in each phase in the chronological structure the editors have provided. In this way, we gain the most detailed insight into the correspondence, as each period builds on the previous. A distinct relation between the two thinkers further defines each period of exchange. Thematically, we read the correspondence initially as two intellectuals yearning for philosophical discourse and influencing each other in the early days of the 1920s. This relationship is strengthened through the habilitation period but is abolished and forever ruptured by 1933. As Heidegger’s later work, post-denazification trials, became as important as his early work, essays such as “The Question Concerning Technology” and “A Letter on Humanism” for example, Löwith would take up the theme of Heidegger’s political decision deriving from his philosophy in such works as “The Political Implications of Heidegger’s Existentialism” and “Heidegger: Thinker in a Destitute Time”. Although the centrepiece of this volume is the teacher-student relationship, 1933 perhaps persistently looms as a shadow cast over the dialogue, as we read into the historicity of the exchange knowledge of the present.

Period 1: 1919-1925

From 1919-1922, Löwith studies with Heidegger and Husserl in Freiburg. Although Löwith received his Ph.D. in 1923 under Moritz Geiger, already in 1920, Löwith is writing to Heidegger that “I am not merely being polite when I admit to you quite readily that it is solely your lectures that I miss” (13). Löwith, in 1922, writes to Heidegger that “Geiger is familiar with every last bit of hastily published modern shit, but with nothing decent. He is interested in my dissertation. A few days ago, I gave him a fully corrected and typed copy. He is somewhat amazed by the fact that one can learn quite a bit more in Freiburg than here” (53). The four letters we have from 1919 suggest that Heidegger has an intellectual interest in the gifted student but, initially, maintains formal relations. In early 1920, Heidegger shows gratitude to Löwith for “that excellent presentation of yours, in which I detected actual intellectual spirit without adherence to a specific scholarly dogmatism (which is the death of all philosophy)” (4). From 1920 onwards, the letters grow long with philosophical discourse, criticisms of academia, criticisms of Husserl, academic gossip, and book suggestions. Heidegger often uses Löwith as a springboard for lecture course topics to pursue. According to a 1920 letter, Heidegger asserts, “I have nixed the entire summer lecture course and am now reworking it anew…Perhaps I will dare to try this experiment in the coming semesters after all. Even we in philosophy are so weighed down by tradition, so unhistorical {unhistorisch}, that we no longer know ourselves. I have again thought about the Hegel seminar, and must say that there is no way he [Jonas Cohn] could have chosen a more inappropriate text than the Encyclopedia of Logic; it is evidence of the absolute innocuousness of everything when compared to Hegel, and also of the sort of dallying with philosophy that is so often practiced here” (5).

During this period Heidegger is a Privatdozent, a lecturer, and not the “secret king of thought” he would become after 1927’s publication of Being and Time. From 1919-1923, Heidegger is an assistant to Edmund Husserl at the University of Freiburg. In the letters of 1920, Heidegger often advises his student on many matters of the state of philosophy in Weimar Germany, and what Löwith can do to combat this pervasive philosophical shallowness. In Document 7, Heidegger elucidates to the young Löwith that “Spenglerizing seems to be subsiding, and it is now finally time for one to engage these ideas philosophically…You are still in those pleasant years during which one has time to read; only rarely do I have occasion to do so, and when I do read, it is always ‘with a particular purpose’…for we do not practice philosophy in order to stockpile bits of knowledge and propositions, but rather to shape life” (6). We also find quips in Documents 9 and 10 where Heidegger warns “against making relativism into a standpoint”; or muses “to become a Hegelian is only half as bad as becoming a Kierkegaardian”; or advises that “chattering on about the religious based on what one has read in an encyclopedia”; or imparts that “one should not desire to create proselytizers” (7-10). Around this time of exchange, the letters become intellectually dense and engaging. Heidegger writes to Husserl about taking on Löwith as a student, where Husserl is in “heartfelt agreement” (9). Heidegger, however, hesitates soon after by saying he is overworked and that he “is too poor at the moment to buy books” (9) and that “I myself am not even seen as a ‘philosopher’ anymore, for I am in fact only still a theologian” (12).

Löwith responds a month later in a moving letter demonstrating the student’s intellectual gifts. “For as much as I agree with you,” Löwith suggests, “about the separation of philosophy and scholarship, the problem nevertheless remains unsolved, given that today one cannot allow oneself to posit philosophical claims in the manner of Schelling or even Hegel” (14). He further claims that Max Weber comes close to “lifting such a heavy burden” for philosophy as at one time Hegel did (15). But after some skepticism, matched, in the previous letter, by Heidegger’s doubts on German philosophy, Löwith affirms, “given such doubts and such hesitancies regarding scholarly activity, it is difficult to justify making philosophy into a career” (15). To comment on Heidegger’s growing disinterest but incredible academic powers, Löwith ends the letter by requesting of Heidegger if he can speak truthfully. In describing his soon-to-be mentor, Löwith boldly expounds that he understands Heidegger on a spiritual level: “One senses a certain unease and humane insecurity within you, whose consequence is a slightly overcomposed acerbity and mistrust, and one seeks in you that indefinable inner freedom and ability to be in control of oneself. I am sure you yourself are suffering the most from this, and I would never mention it if I myself were not able to empathize all too well” (15).

Due to such statements and lengthy philosophical discourse, throughout the 1920s, Heidegger’s trusts his pupil immensely. Heidegger, for example, says to Löwith that the new volume of Kant Studien is worthless in its entirety (16). Löwith frequently criticizes Husserl attempting, I believe, to impress Heidegger, and Löwith appears to approach philosophy more in line with Heidegger than any other major German philosopher. In a 1923 letter, Heidegger asserts, “never in his life, not even for a second, was Husserl a philosopher. He is becoming increasingly ridiculous” (63). One can only imagine the substantial content of their in-person philosophical diatribes, as many of the letters confirm dates to meet in various German cities, while roaming the state for invited talks and conferences. Heidegger, on occasion, invites Löwith to his hut in the Black Forest. In Supplement 5, the editors include Karl Löwith’s written entry at the Heidegger family hut in Todtnauberg (1924). Although on that day, “philosophy of language came to expression in such a way that philosophy was not discussed” (169). “And now you have a letter full of gossip,” Heidegger writes in 1922, “but this is the only way that one can write about one’s situation; to speak of other matters in between would be a shame, it’s better to do that in person” (57). During these exchanges, Heidegger must have shown his increasing irritation with Plato philosophically and Husserl personally, although still dedicating Being and Time to the latter. Löwith convinces Heidegger that he is able to “strip off all of that rationalistic Platonism” (17). Later on, Löwith cites an encounter where during his second semester he voiced to Heidegger that he had a “vehement resistance to [Husserl’s] philosophical cast of mind. Today it is absolutely clear to me that Husserl, on the deepest level, is not a great philosopher, and that it is a massive delusion to put him on the same pedestal as Kant; his whole disposition is infinitely far removed from reality—it is without life and is doctrinally logical” (21).

Aside from a shared criticism of Husserl, which persists through the decade, Heidegger’s predisposition towards a pedagogy guided by philosophy shines forth from the text. Whatever can be said about Heidegger, these letters expose Heidegger’s devotion to teaching philosophy. In Document 25, there are ambivalent statements for Löwith to unpack, such as Heidegger’s ideal of “one’s mastery of things [which] arises out of the clearest and most stringent expertise—but in the philosophy itself, one should not notice this. These days, it is particularly difficult to advance toward a vibrant and enlivened philosophizing and to accomplish what it demands. And that is why you must not work at half strength, but must rather fuse reflection into, and with, philosophizing. Philosophy is not fun—one can be destroyed by it; and he who does not risk this will never come to it” (20). Although Heidegger desires an ambitious philosophical career, he does not wish to “make the world better—even less so university philosophers; everyone should say what they want to say, and then apply themselves accordingly” (20). Moreover, in a particularly chasten letter addressed to him, Löwith, on his teacher’s request, must take philosophy more seriously. Almost challenging Löwith forward into the path of higher learning, Heidegger evaluates, “you must become more disciplined in your work—not in regard to quantity, but in regard to quality. The meaning and sense of philosophizing is itself historical {historisch}, and what matters is to find one’s own—and to leave aside all the yardsticks of earlier philosophers…One should not unduly hasten the formation of one’s thoughts” (20).

The translators have correctly captured Heidegger’s incisive play on the word existence by leaving the term existentiell untranslated. Heidegger changes the word for existence in his later works to distinguish from conventional notions of the term. Engaging with Löwith on interpretations of his work, Heidegger seeks to charm the young scholar into following “the existentell interpretation of facticity” (37). We find the use of the term Dasein (again, correctly untranslated) as early as 1921, in perhaps a set of letters that provides the deepest philosophical dialectic between the interlocutors. In Document 25, Heidegger denies a definition of philosophy proposed by Löwith in a previous letter by stating philosophy is pointless in isolation. Philosophy only matters as belonging to existentell facticity. By claiming he does not follow Kierkegaard, Heidegger notes that tailoring one’s philosophical work to suit the “cultural tasks” of the “common man” is absurd (37). Instead, university philosophers must be tied essentially to factical-existentell life; however, Heidegger is “not hereby asserting that philosophy only exists within the university, but rather that philosophizing, precisely because of its foundational purpose at the university (understood in an existentiell way), therein has the facticity of its own enactment, and with that, its own limits and restrictions” (37). Löwith’s rebuke of this claim concerning inherent limitations in facticity would become the foundation of his thought for the rest of his philosophical career.

These early letters are filled with advice for Löwith to become a scholar in his own right. Admitting that he does not wish his time as a student upon anyone, Heidegger acknowledges he is today a great thinker because of his resolve as a student (39). What Löwith shows in Document 24, his most extensive and erudite letter, is extraordinary. He receives the lessons of his mentor’s pedagogy, proving so by claiming that one cannot “exist in the proper sense within just any and all sorts of scholarly philosophical questioning…One can only exist in a true and complete way when asking questions about existence, and existence does not coincide with scholarly fanaticism” (32). The self-discovery process through philosophical rigor is the quality, it appears, Heidegger holds in the highest regard, not only for himself, but also for his most promising pupil. From these letters preceding Being and Time, we can conclude that Heidegger’s early pedagogy is one of existentiell authenticity for himself and his student.

Period 2: 1925-1929

Löwith stays in Italy in 1924-1925. In summer 1923, Heidegger informs Löwith that he has “obtained an appointment in Marburg with the rights and status of an Ordinarius Professor beginning on October 1st” (73). In the following letter, Document 74, Löwith’s warm adoration of the good news presupposes that he and Heidegger, by this point, are close friends and philosophical confidants. As early as 1922, a year before the Beer Hall Putsch, Löwith writes to Heidegger, “frighteningly, hidebound nationalism and anti-Semitism (fueled by Bavarian beer) are spreading. Campaign posters are being hung in the lecture halls…They demand, for example, that the university should only be allowed to have 1 percent Jewish professors, because this correlates to the percentage of the population at large” (57). Löwith’s letters, from 1923 forward, reflect an anxiety about a career in philosophy, an existential concern voiced in previous letters. This time, however, the reason of concern is material subsistence. Löwith writes, “the little bit of money that [I] earn here doesn’t go very far given this ever-rising inflation. There won’t be many other opportunities for money in a small city like Marburg…Please excuse these tiresome financial matters, but unfortunately, nothing is possible without them” (75). Weimar inflation, Heidegger’s new position, lack of employment opportunity, anxiety about material goods, and growing anti-Semitism in Germany are the reasons we gain by reading the correspondence for why Löwith accepts a job to work at a bookstore in Rome (87).

Indeed, despite his student residing in Italy, Heidegger accepts Löwith to habilitate under him. In Document 56, Heidegger lays out his demands, should Löwith have plans to habilitate, “then the only thing that matters is to submit a solid work; apart from that do not let the intention become explicit in any way. On this occasion, I must tell you once again that the prospects of a position as a professor in the next decades are poorer than ever, owing to the fact that chairs in philosophy will most likely be reduced…The career track is a matter of luck. If you put effort into it, you will have my help. However, beyond that, I don’t want the aggravation of having to lead you by the hand” (85).

Despite his location, Löwith wishes for the prospect of habilitation. Habilitating only depends on “(1) if I produce a work that meets your expectations and that leads you to advocate for me, and (2) on the faculty…If you share my view, I would be very happy if you could send me this in your reply…” (86). “Naturally,” Löwith continues, “I am not in good spirits right now, but I am also not without hope…for I believe myself not to be in error when I take the two weeks…to be a sign that nothing was in vain, that I have not been given a burden too heavy to shoulder, and that my philosophical—scholarly abilities have continued to grow silently along with me, despite, and because of everything” (87). Heidegger confers his student to keep his head high as things are not so bad (126), despite Löwith’s sick father and the turmoil surrounding lack of career prospects. Heidegger responds, “I come from a very poor family—all that my parents scrimped and saved, without ever understanding what I was studying or what I planned to do—all of that was still so meager that I had to endure my time as a student with far greater privation than is the case today among ‘poor’ students. And it worked out because I never gave up…You will not starve to death, but life is not pleasant; not even when one is an Ordinarius Professor” (89). In a 1928 letter, Heidegger writes that every semester he started with nothing in his pockets. He had to go into debt and go hungry; he implores Löwith to persist through the adversity (126).

After his time in Italy, Löwith interprets Heidegger’s Being and Time for his habilitation thesis. In 1927, Löwith asks Heidegger to think back to his time under Husserl in Freiburg to “recognize the thankfulness within my unevenly matched assault” (111). Löwith is now thirty years old, and ready to defend his habilitation. In his own work, he has tried to present what he understands to be a problem of Heidegger’s thought (111). Whereas Heidegger’s Being and Time is about the authenticity of the ontological against the ontic of the das Mann or the they, the inauthentic crowd, Löwith’s central focus of his thesis is that Dasein is a being-with-others [Miteinanderseins] that “lies on the same plane of conflict as one’s authentic existence, and through ‘nature’ (sensibility) it does not become unproblematic but rather concretely and specifically problematic” (117).

Heidegger accepts Löwith’s habilitation thesis. Document 77 is a technical response from Heidegger to many of Löwith’s charges that Dasein must be-with-others. Defending his own work against Löwith’s interpretation, Heidegger is unwavering in his conviction that ontology is only founded ontically, and that he is the first person to have fully articulated this claim (121). The interlocutors write back and forth for the rest of 1927 and part of 1928 about the faculty process of passing Löwith.

In Supplement 2, the editors have printed in full “Martin Heidegger’s Assessment of Karl Löwith’s Habilitation Thesis (1928).” The thesis is entitled Der Individuum in der Rolle des Mitmenchen. The assessment outlines a shared world from being-with-others, another concept that has remained untranslated in English, Miteinanderseins, where subjects create relations of “personae” playing roles for others in a shared world (162). Out of this shared world, individuals determine their existential subjectivity by the world of things belonging before that of people (162). The adoption of a shared world is limited by the individual, as each shares a responsibility to individuality as such so that others maintain this existential process. In his assessment, Heidegger calls this the “I-You” relationship (162). Heidegger admits in prior letters that psychoanalysis and anthropology are irrelevant to crucial issues and not of much interest to him. But in the evaluation of the thesis, Heidegger praises the work as it shows “a scholarly independence that exceeds what is typical of habilitation theses in philosophy” (163).

Period 3: 1930s

In a letter dated April 29, 1928, Heidegger writes to Löwith that the committee “stands in agreement; thus your work can be disseminated to the faculty as quickly as possible” (127). After the habilitation period, Löwith searches for academic positions. Löwith becomes a Privatedozent in Marburg—from 1928 until Hitler’s ascension in 1933—where Heidegger advises him to “hold at least a three-hour a week lecture concerning the history of modern philosophy since Descartes. You have to immerse yourself and take from it what you can get…In the future, do not be too surprised if you come to experience more, and more powerfully, the demoralization of the university” (130-131).

In 1929, Löwith marries Elisabeth Ada Kremmer. Heidegger sends his best. Then, the relationship of the decade-long pen mates turns tense. Document 96 displays Heidegger’s disregard for superficiality, especially among the university elites, as he is thankful to Fate that he is “truly made of stuff that cannot be harmed by all this whispering and whining. Despite the inner necessity of the creative process, I would rather choose to remain in utter silence than have my work be dependent on this profession” (136). He criticizes the fact that Löwith cannot get away “from Dilthey, Nietzsche, and psychoanalysis”, which was proven “during your first semester when you did not follow my advice to study a wide range of historical lectures, which would have forced you into other matters. But how could I blame you for such things! Then, I could have quite easily and effortlessly prevented your habilitation” (136). As a lecturing academic, and no longer a student, Löwith defends the claims of his habilitation thesis against the charges. According to Löwith, “for then it would indeed be tautological to say that the human only ‘is’ the human on the basis of the Dasein within him…in reality it is neither tautological nor self-evident; and a justification for why this is so was lacking from Being and Time, a jettisoning of the ‘neutrality’ of essential ontological claims, and I see the first signs of such an attempt on pages 17 and 18 of your lecture [What is Metaphysics], where this purity of Dasein is proven on the basis of the one…who experiences anxiety, and where you say that anxiety ‘transforms’ the human into pure Dasein” (138). Nevertheless, Löwith confesses to Heidegger that “an astonishing number of students have learned an unconditional respect for philosophy through you, and you have probably experienced more joy with some of them than you did with me” (141).

1931 and 1932 hold many of the same previous themes of going over lecture topics and explication of philosophical concepts, besides the fact that now Löwith is asking for Heidegger’s advice on lecture topics. Just before the new year in 1932, Heidegger sends his sincere condolences for the loss of Löwith’s father. In the tumultuous year for the relationship when Heidegger embraces the Nazi party, we have three letters and one telegram from 1933, all from Heidegger. We are missing at least two because Heidegger thanks Löwith for letters mid-1933, which is after the April date of Heidegger’s rectorship of Freiburg University. Also, Heidegger congratulates Löwith on a stipend in July. One of the omissions is Löwith asking if he could dedicate his book to Heidegger (the editors suggest the book in question is Löwith’s Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, or the Philosophical and Theological Overcoming of Nihilism). Heidegger responds, “in reality I know well how you feel about me, even when your work goes in other directions. Also, with an eye toward possible situations in which I might be asked to render a judgement about you, I suggest that you omit the dedication” (149). Two letters appear from Heidegger in 1936-1937. Löwith emigrates to Japan in 1936, as living in Europe grows calamitous.

Period 4: Reconciliation

Löwith would ride out the war in America, teaching at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut (1941-1949) and at the New School for Social Research (1949-1952). In 1952, he moves back to Germany to become an Ordinarius Professor at Heidelberg. From New York, Löwith sends a telegram in 1949 giving Heidegger best wishes on his sixtieth birthday. In Document 113 Löwith writes Heidegger from his new position at Heidelberg. After almost two decades of silence, interrupted only by the birthday telegram, Löwith discusses academic conferences and interpretations of Nietzsche. While 1966 is the year Heidegger claims that “only a god can save us now” in the famous Der Spiegel interview, a year later Heidegger and Löwith reconnect when Löwith is in Freiburg for a two-day colloquium on “Modern Atheism and Morality” (277). The return letter from Heidegger indicates that they did plan to visit each other. Unclear is how close the relationship is immediately afterwards. In the 1970s, nothing of substance is exchanged in letters. Heidegger writes Löwith in 1973 when he learns from Gadamer about his illness. During time of sickness, Heidegger writes, “the world contracts and withdraws into the simple. In our old age, we think of the end—but also of the beginning—of our paths” (155). This remark undoubtedly draws attention to the good moments they had discussing philosophy and gossiping about Husserl in the early 1920s. After Löwith’s death, we draw the correspondence to a close when Heidegger receives a photo of the departed from Frau Löwith to which Heidegger says shows him “in a state of calm and collected contemplation” (156).

What Correspondence 1919-1973 brings to English readers is indispensable. It uncovers a foregone age of thinking between two monumental figures. The major linchpin thematically is the year Heidegger becomes a figurehead for National Socialism. Before then, in the correspondence, Löwith is an astute student, and after, the relationship fragments. While Löwith would finally embrace a professional career in philosophy, after all his written anxiety about the pursuit, his insight into 1933 becomes a topic of an autobiography originally published as an essay for a competition at Harvard in 1939 “My Life in Germany Before and After 1933”. Indeed, many of Löwith’s later writings find Heidegger’s existentell analytic a reason for his political involvement with National Socialism. Undoubtedly due to Heidegger’s unique philosophical pedagogy in early 1920s, Löwith would make a laudable philosophical career searching for limits in a time when society removes traditional constraints. What these exchange of letters makes known with clarity is that Löwith, while habilitating under Heidegger, already finds the concepts of authenticity and facticity problematic for their lack of ground for being-with-others. The translators of this volume capture all the necessary components to make sense of Heidegger’s early thinking, while the editors carefully provide more than enough supplementary material to contextualize and situate the often-perplexing references. By providing English readers with Heidegger and Löwith’s erudite relationship, in their own written words, Correspondence 1919-1973 is essential reading for anyone interested in twentieth-century continental thought.

Andreea Smaranda Aldea, David Carr, Sara Heinämaa (Eds.): Phenomenology as Critique: Why Method Matters

Phenomenology as Critique: Why Method Matters Book Cover Phenomenology as Critique: Why Method Matters
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Andreea Smaranda Aldea, David Carr, Sara Heinämaa (Eds.)

Reviewed by: Matt Burch, Niclas Rautenberg, and Diego Martínez-Zarazúa

Routledge Research in Phenomenology promises cutting-edge, historically informed phenomenological research that enlivens contemporary debates. Phenomenology as Critique: Why Method Matters—edited by Andreea Smaranda Aldea, David Carr, and Sara Heinämaa—delivers on that promise. After a helpful introduction, its 15 original chapters showcase phenomenology’s critical potential across diverse domains, with special emphasis on the tradition’s rich methodological resources.

The volume is a timely contribution with treasures in store for everyone from the verdant novice to the veteran phenomenological researcher. Since we cannot capture its full content in the space available here, we try something else. Dividing the chapters evenly between us (Burch: 2–6; Rautenberg 7–11; and Martínez-Zarazúa 12–16), each of us briefly summarizes their respective section and then explores an important theme, problem, or debate engaged therein. While far from comprehensive, we hope the approach reflects the volume’s potential to enrich, recast, and transform contemporary debates both within and beyond the borders of phenomenological research.

Chapters 2–6: Classical Phenomenology and the Problem(s) of History

Although chapters 2–6 raise many important issues, I will focus on how they contribute to the longstanding debate about the problems history poses for phenomenological research. But first, a brief summary of their contents: David Carr kicks things off in chapter 2 with a characteristically clear and scholarly case that phenomenology is best understood as a critical method designed to answer not the question of metaphysics (What exists?), nor the question of epistemology (How can we know what exists?), but rather a distinctive question staked out by Husserl, namely, Of what exists, or may exist, how is it given, and what are the conditions of the possibility of its being so given? In chapter 3, Michela Summa explores the important and under-researched topic of the epistemic function of exemplarity in critical philosophy, highlighting important parallels between Kant and Husserl’s respective approaches. Julia Jansen follows this up in chapter 4 with a lucid account of Husserl’s phenomenological method, showing how it enables four fundamental types of critique, which, she argues, could enrich an array of critical and normative projects. In chapter 5, Andreea Smaranda Aldea makes the case that Husserl’s mature phenomenology is radically critical, and she endeavors to clarify the conditions for the possibility of its distinctive critical character, namely, a “self-reflexive thinking of a specific kind: imagining reflection” (62).  Finally, in chapter 6, Mirja Hartimo argues that, with the practice of Besinnung, Husserl furnishes us with a hermeneutic method that we can use in conjunction with transcendental phenomenology to critique contemporary practices.

So, what is the debate about history to which these chapters contribute? In truth, it’s a cluster of related debates. Critics have argued that history throws up a host of problems that classical phenomenological methods cannot handle or, in many cases, even detect. For a non-exhaustive but representative list of such problems, critics argue that classical phenomenology:

  • Is blind to the socio-historical preconditions of its own activity (Horkheimer 1972 [1937], 190).
  • Lacks resources to criticize historical practices and “world-disclosures” (Tugendhat 2011 [1970]).
  • Fails to appreciate how inquirers find themselves “in medias res,” caught in history’s sway, interpreting phenomena, rather than grasping them in complete evidential fulfillment (Ricoeur 1975, 91).
  • Tends to elide the material, empirical, and historical conditions of experience (Alcoff 2000, 39).
  • Often illegitimately assumes that “we can separate out what is empirical from what is transcendental in the mixture of experience” (Al-Saji 2017, 146).
  • Fails to tackle the “quasi-transcendental, historically-grounded study of particular lifeworlds” (Guenther 2021, 5).
  • Cannot reliably bring deep-seated historical biases into view (Cerbone 2022).

Since most of these criticisms target Husserl’s phenomenology, a reader who took them at face value would be forgiven for believing that phenomenology’s inventor was borderline oblivious to the challenges posed by history.

Dispelling that belief is one of the major goals of Phenomenology as Critique. According to its editors, the belief that Husserl’s phenomenology is fundamentally ahistorical is one of several “widespread misconceptions” that “classical- and existential-phenomenological authors have already discussed in detail and patiently corrected” (7). Husserl was profoundly preoccupied with the problems history posed for phenomenological research. If meaning is historically transmitted, he worried, then reflecting on the pre-given world with the epoché and reduction would never deliver a complete account of meaning-constitution, because our reflective standpoint is saturated with sedimented historical meanings that rarely come to explicit awareness. Thus, as scholars have discussed for decades now (e.g., see Aguirre 1970; Carr 1974; Welton 1983), in his writings from 1917–1921, Husserl distinguished between “static” and “genetic” methods: static phenomenology consisted of synchronic constitutive analyses of how phenomena are given, while genetic phenomenology studied individual subjectivity’s concrete diachronic self-temporalization by analyzing developmental, associative phenomena like habit formation. What’s more, in the 1930s, Husserl pioneered another methodological approach that Anthony Steinbock (1995a; 1995b; 2017) has dubbed “generative phenomenology.” The method is “generative” in the sense that it studies the “constitution of normatively significant lifeworlds” over the course of generations, thereby uncovering “the dimension of sense-constitution which takes place historically, geologically and intersubjectively” (Steinbock 1995b, 59).

For the editors’ of Phenomenology as Critique, then, the apparent problems mentioned above stem not from Husserl’s failure to come to terms with history, but rather from his critics’ failure to appreciate the historical development of his thought in depth and detail. Of course, many of Husserl’s critics have studied this dimension of his work closely; they just think it lacks critical import in some important respect(s). Thus, the volume aims to challenge that belief too.

Carr’s contribution helps undercut the belief that Husserl’s phenomenology is fundamentally ahistorical. Towards the end of chapter 2, he notes a fundamental ambiguity in the Crisis’s portrayal of Galileo’s impact: on the one hand, Husserl maintains that, although Galileo changed the way we think about the world, we still live in the same world as our forebears; on the other hand, Husserl implies that Galileo’s thought in fact changed the pre-given world, and so we are not in the exact same world as our forebears. In other words, the “lifeworld varies historically” (Carr 23). “So,” Carr writes, “if phenomenology is a critique of everyday experience […] then it would seem appropriate to ask: whose ordinary experience, and when? That is, in what historical context?” (ibid.; Carr’s emphasis). From this perspective, the belief that Husserl was insensitive to the historical dimension of meaning-constitution loses credibility.

What about the second belief, namely, that the way Husserl handles history lacks critical bite? In the chapters I covered, Aldea and Hartimo do the most to challenge this belief. Building on some of their earlier work (Aldea 2016; Hartimo 2018), they argue that Husserl’s method of Besinnung makes classical phenomenology capable of radical historical critique. I cannot cover every aspect of their complex accounts here; nor can I trace the parallels between their work and the wider scholarly literature on Husserl’s genetic and generative methods; instead, I try to synthesize what I see as the compatible aspects of their accounts into a rough picture of Husserl’s method for historical critique.

In that picture, Besinnung is a method designed to reflect on, critically evaluate, and revise our practices. Hartimo recommends that we think of Besinnung as one of the various attitudes identified by Husserl. Just as the naturalistic and personalistic attitudes enable us to see the world from a determinate cognitive standpoint, Besinnung gives us access to “a teleological-historical world” (Hartimo 80). In this attitude, the inquirer begins with a target practice in its “present-day form,” and then looks “back at its development,” moving “forward and backward in a zigzag pattern” (Hua VI 59/58 cited by Aldea 57). The “zigzag” here refers to the method’s recursive character. Looking back to the beginnings of the practice, the inquirer attempts to discern its original goals and purposes, not just as a matter of intellectual history but also through an act of empathy with its original practitioners; then the inquirer considers their interpretations of the practice’s past against the reality of its present; and they repeat this process recursively across the practice’s historical development. In this way, the inquirer works through the “layers of sedimented meanings, values, norms, commitments, and goals […] that condition our experience of the lifeworld as well as our own theoretical work” (Aldea 57).

This teleological-historical inquiry becomes radically critical in conjunction with transcendental phenomenology. Besinnung reveals the goals and purposes of a practice that typically remain sedimented in consciousness as habitual beliefs; and transcendental phenomenology allows us to evaluate the “genuineness” of “the normative commitments, goals, and values […] inherited from the previous generations” (Hartimo 91). Thus, the approach puts the phenomenologist in position to recommend revisions to contemporary practice.

Although it paints a promising picture of classical phenomenology’s resources for historical critique, it would be premature, I think, to say that this line of research can defuse the diverse criticisms highlighted above. What’s more, in addition to disagreements with classical phenomenology’s critics, I think Aldea and Hartimo should expect pushback from phenomenologists who find Husserl’s historical methods unappealing. Specifically, although Aldea assures us that the “self-reflective reflection [of Besinnung] […] remains transcendental-eidetic through and through” (62), and Hartimo concurs (81), others might demur.

Is Besinnung consistent with Husserl’s claim that the epoché rules out speculation, construction, and guesswork? Can it satisfy his demand that every phenomenological claim rest on evidence that the inquirer and their interlocutors can redeem for themselves from the first person-perspective? Can the phenomenologist first-personally grasp the sub-psychic genesis of sedimented meanings and the cultural-historical transmission of generational meaning, or do such analyses invariably rely on conjecture?

Perhaps more importantly, is Besinnung consistent with what contemporary practitioners think phenomenology ought to be? Some phenomenologists might think Besinnung sounds too much like armchair social science. And rather than speculating about the historical development of social practices and sedimented generational meaning, they might prefer to collaborate with researchers in the human sciences, or at least to draw heavily on their work. In other words, they might prefer to tackle the tasks identified by Aldea and Hartimo with a division of labor more like the one Jansen describes in her contribution. Building on a distinction I draw between core phenomenology and applied phenomenology (Burch 2021), Jansen describes critical phenomenological work as “a mode of applied phenomenology that focuses on problems that require interdisciplinary research (mostly, but not exclusively, in the human sciences)” (54). Why prefer Besinnung to this kind of interdisciplinary approach?

Although Steinbock’s contribution does not occur in my section, he offers a powerful answer to this question that should be mentioned here. Phenomenologists should prefer Besinnung, because “phenomenology—as Selbstbesinnung (first-person singular or plural) and as generative—takes subjective and intersubjective experience as the touchstone for clarifying the meaning of social praxis and the norms generated within that human activity”; thus, it “describe[s] human crises critically in terms of political, cultural, psychic, sub-psychic, emotional, and aesthetic relations, etc., as they are lived through and not only as externally generated in a particular domain” (157, Steinbock’s emphasis). If true, this is indeed an excellent reason to prefer a thoroughgoingly phenomenological approach.

But is it true? Some will argue that Husserl’s historical methods target phenomena that lie beyond the reach of first-person reflection, and so they run afoul of his own demand for first-person evidence, morphing instead into a kind of a quasi-Hegelian project of rational reconstruction.

I will not pretend to settle such complicated matters here; instead, I will simply conclude by saying that this volume offers rich resources to help us think them through. It will no doubt enliven and enrich the ongoing debates about these issues for years to come.

Chapters 7–11: Critical Phenomenology vs. Classical Phenomenology: Between Redundancy and Revolution

The second section—as drawn by us in this review—follows naturally from the first. The authors pick up the discussion on phenomenology’s capacity to critically address the socio-historical and political dimension of the lifeworld. Connected to this matter, though chapters 7–11 also discuss topics that merit their own discussion, we find a common thread uniting all of them: i.e., an exciting—and fruitful—dialogue on the merits and distinct features of “critical phenomenology” (CrP hereafter) compared to “classical phenomenology” (ClP).

While a consensus definition of CrP is still missing (see discussion below), we can identify some core commitments of the project: (1) it signals dissatisfaction with ClP’s transcendental techniques of inquiry and (2) champions a move to a quasi-transcendental analysis of particular lifeworlds situated in malleable, but relatively stable socio-historical structures; (3) its target are structures of power and oppression (e.g., white supremacy, heteronormativity, capitalism); and (4) it has the political impetus to dismantle these structures (e.g., Guenther 2021; Weiss, Murphy & Salamon 2020). In a recent paper, Lisa Guenther argues that these features, among others, render CrP a distinct enterprise (Guenther 2021, 5–6). In chapters 7–11, we see this claim of CrP’s status critically addressed in various ways. In the following, I will reiterate them not in the order they appear in the book, but along a spectrum that leads from a more reserved attitude towards CrP to a more assertive one.

In chapter 7, Lanei M. Rodemeyer argues that CrP is distinct neither in method nor in content from ClP. On the former, albeit targeting the quasi-transcendental instead of the transcendental, CrP still applies a method starting out from experience and revealing the structures that enable that experience (Rodemeyer 103). Regarding its subject matter, Rodemeyer holds that classical phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger, or Merleau-Ponty were already invested in revealing the ego’s socio-historical embeddedness and employed these inquiries to effect social change (103–5). Rodemeyer closes her chapter with a historical analysis of Husserl reception, which she deems to fall prey to misconceptions thwarting a clearer view on the critical potential of Husserlian phenomenology (106ff.).

In a similar vein, Steinbock’s chapter 10 highlights the transformative aspects already operative in ClP. In understanding the ego as a sense-maker that takes part in the constitution of meaning, ClP reveals the inherent responsibility of the self in this social process (Steinbock 155–6). Following this insight, Steinbock sketches the motivation to move beyond the natural attitude and towards phenomenological critique, locating it in a (qualified) free thinking founded in a “mindful discernment of the heart” (162–6). Phenomenological investigation is here not understood as concerned with static objects, but as generative, engaged in an “attentive reflexion within experiencing, while this experience is ongoing” (165).

Alice Pugliese’s chapter 11 marks a transition from “pure” phenomenological debate towards dialogue with other schools of thought and methodologies. Debunking the common prejudice that Husserl’s oeuvre lacks the resources to tackle ethical and socio-political issues (Pugliese 170–1), she provides an interesting reading of phenomenology that could serve as a complementary position in ethics and political theory alongside the likes of deontology, utilitarianism, and critical theory. Introducing a “critical phenomenological public ethics,” she demonstrates how noetic and genetic analysis can contribute to the understanding of trust in the public sphere.

Chapter 8 presents a noticeable shift; instead of arguing for the superfluousness of CrP, Sara Heinämaa defends the tools of ClP—the epoché, eidetic and phenomenological-transcendental reduction, and the first-person approach—from critique by CrP and post-phenomenology. Heinämaa identifies two interpretations of this criticism (Heinämaa 115–6): either they mean to say that we need to move beyond (some of) ClP’s techniques in individual investigations; or these techniques are dispensable tout court. Leaving aside—and somewhat accepting—the first reading (116), Heinämaa provides a brief but informative recap on the debate on (particularly Husserlian and Merleau-Pontian) theories of embodiment, in which she convincingly argues for the value and necessity of “traditional” forms of phenomenological inquiry.

Finally, in chapter 9, Depraz sketches a view that is arguably furthest away from Rodemeyer’s, claiming that phenomenology should be subject to constant transformation. She distinguishes a conservative, “archivistic” self-understanding of phenomenology that merely maintains secured knowledge, from a “creative-constructive” attitude that moves towards the new and risky, at the cost of the researcher’s vulnerability and the provisionality of findings (Depraz 148). Claiming that phenomenology could only be neutral, unsituated, and apolitical in the “mythical mind of a child” (ibid.), she urges phenomenologists to embrace this circumstance and consider new avenues of thought. Two of these are CrP and micro-phenomenology, i.e., the analysis of the experience of specific subjects in a given moment in time and space (141), with Depraz arguing that both in conjunction provide a fruitful progression from ClP.

If there is one conclusion we can draw from this discussion, it is this: CrP’s project is yet to be determined.[1] Chapters 7–11 provide nuanced and varied positions on a debate that is at the time of this review still riddled with mutual misconceptions and, at times, staunchly extreme positions. One such misconception seems to rest on the role of transcendental phenomenology in CrP: while many critical phenomenologists do not deny its value (e.g., Guenther 2018, 49; 2021, 10, 20; Salamon 2018), much of the current debate seems to suggest that the quasi-transcendental is the only or true center of its methodology. I already noted that Heinämaa’s contribution to this volume presents a powerful antidote to this misconstrual. Similarly, Rodemeyer shows that the work of ClP can provide a valuable methodological foundation for critical investigations (Rodemeyer 105–6). Yet, when it comes to the target of CrP, i.e., the quasi-transcendental, socio-historical structures forming and formed by praxes of power, we might want to ask, pace Rodemeyer, if these nonetheless constitute a feature rendering CrP methodologically distinct from ClP?

In this vein, we can also ask what the status of CrP is or will be in the philosophical and wider academic landscape; will it be an updated and modified phenomenology (reparative reading); a decided break from phenomenology (abolitionist reading);[2] will it prove to be superfluous (conservative reading); or will it in fact be recognized as an inter­-disciplinary project (collaborative reading)?[3] The latter seems particularly enticing, as it offers venues for mutual critique and stimulation, without thereby questioning the raison d’être of either side. Hence, phenomenology would not only support other disciplines, as Steinbock suggests (Steinbock 157); it would remain open to be interrogated by them, challenged, as Depraz notes in her chapter (Depraz 142). For instance, other disciplines can put phenomenology to the test whether its formulation of a structure really is universal, or only a situated and incomplete description.[4] This image does away with phenomenology’s old aspiration, as we can find it in Husserl’s Crisis, of grounding all other sciences. Rather, it champions a pluralist view that regards phenomenology as part of a horizontal academic fabric geared towards understanding the human condition.[5]

Another question surrounds the meaning of critique that CrP envisions.[6] Is ClP really critical enough? We might ask, for instance, if Husserl’s goal to change the sciences, Heidegger’s remarks on historicity, or Merleau-Ponty’s interventions in psychology and psychiatry, as listed by Rodemeyer (104), reach the ramifications of social critique that is integral to CrP—expressed in an activist and emancipatory impetus to wholesale dismantle systemic injustice? (In a way, Rodemeyer answers this question herself when she, for instance, talks of Husserl’s quite patriarchal discussion of the family [106].) Or does this way of thinking rest on a conflation of the political and the methodological—despite critical theory’s insistence on the impossibility of such a separation?

Finally, what about the works of authors such as Simone de Beauvoir? Are these really exemplary of ClP, as Rodemeyer writes (104), or rather testimony to a CrP avant la lettre? Depraz’s discussion of Beauvoir’s work on gender (145)—one would also have to mention Fanon’s work on racism and colonialism—suggests the latter.

While these questions can be settled neither by this review nor by the volume it discusses, the chapters I had the pleasure to read provide valuable impulses to this debate and beyond.

Chapters 12–16: Phenomenology in Dialogue with Social Philosophy

In this last set of chapters, all but one (that of Timo Miettinen, who concentrates exclusively on Husserl) attempt to open a dialogue between the Husserlian figure of phenomenology and two authors not often associated with it, but prevalent in the critical discourse of social philosophies: Marx (or Marxian-inspired thinkers) and Foucault.

In chapter 12, Nicolas de Warren directs our attention to how much—or rather how little—criticism actually assumes worldliness and thus “a common horizon with that which it seeks to critique” (de Warren 189), all the more so when the current situation is defined by what might be referred to as a loss of worldliness (Weltverlust), which results from what, following Guy Debord, he calls the society of the spectacle. De Warren thus expounds the societal conditions upon which critique would have to be developed in the first place (or, rather, where it might have just become impossible), drawing from a wide range of sources and examples, from Edgar Madison Welch’s notorious case of paranoia and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men to the Marxian dialectics of the commodity-form. Then comes Christian Lotz in chapter 13 with an inquiry into the best hermeneutical strategy to approach Marx’s oeuvre, especially Capital. Lotz claims to find such a strategy in the phenomenological approach, rather than in the Hegelian interpretations of Marx, which he in turn subjects to a thorough critical assessment. He concludes that “critique,” in Marx’s project of a Critique of Political Economy, must be understood in the Kantian or phenomenological—and thus non-Hegelian—sense of defining the inner limits of its object, in this case the capitalist society.

Next, we have Timo Miettinen’s chapter; as I mentioned, the only one in this set of chapters that discusses Husserlian thought exclusively. In his piece Miettinen describes the later Husserl’s dealings with tradition, and how phenomenological reflection must grasp its historical belonging if it is to become radical, rather than trying to overcome or eliminate it. Miettinen thus describes the “transition from the critique of the present moment to a teleological understanding of philosophy” (Miettinen 225), a shift that doubtlessly influenced generations of phenomenologists and post-phenomenological thinkers alike.

Finally, the book closes with two chapters that deal in their own way with questions concerning Foucault’s relation to phenomenology and its critical potential. Chapter 15, by Sophie Loidolt, outlines different forms of critique and shows how these are prevalent in both Foucault and a handful of representatives of phenomenology, especially Husserl, but also Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Arendt. She does this by taking as a point of departure three paradigmatic forms of critique: the “presupposition/justification” model (traditionally exemplified by Plato or Kant, as well as by Husserl), the “immanent tensions” model (Hegel-type, but later also present in French existentialism), and the “genealogical” model (as developed by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault). The closing chapter of the book, by Maren Wehrle, consists of a comparative reading of Husserl and Foucault that seeks to underscore their shared goal: “to strengthen the human capacity for reason as a critical means of theoretical and practical reflection” (Wehrle 252). Wehrle convincingly presents some interesting parallels between the two philosophers, who are often seen to pursue conflicting goals. But Husserl and Foucault, Wehrle argues, fundamentally target the same issue, albeit from opposite but complementary perspectives: “the problem of subjectivity, which is both constituting,” as Husserl stresses, “and constituted,” as Foucault does for his part (Wehrle 259).

It is to some of the issues touched upon in the chapters of Miettinen, de Warren, and Lotz that I would like to devote the remaining lines of our book review.

As I mentioned, Miettinen’s chapter sets out to understand Husserl’s relation to history and tradition. In the later stages of his thinking, Husserl subscribed to the idea that radical phenomenological reflection, rather than attempting to do away with historical embeddedness—as though it were a burden one would do well to leave behind in favor of an absolute beginning, as it appears to have been for the early Husserl—must instead, if it is to be truly radical, gain its ground by “taking possession of the whole of the tradition” through a “critical ‘questioning back’ (rückfragen) of the present moment” (Miettinen 228–229). Miettinen thus shows us the itinerary through which Husserl passes, if I may use philosophical clichés, from being a philosopher of Cartesian inspiration to being one of Diltheyan inspiration. The author does so by pointing to a shift in Husserl’s own intentions, namely, from establishing a starting point free of presuppositions (Voraussetzungslosigkeit) to assuming presuppositions (i.e., tradition and history) as the inescapable task for a radical philosophy. It would be the itinerary, I am inclined to think, through which Husserl blazed the trail for the philosophical generation to come—the names of Heidegger and Gadamer come forcibly to mind—very much in keeping with his idea of philosophy as a generational undertaking. Miettinen’s chapter thus contributes to the understanding of the more general relationship between phenomenology (certainly not only in its Husserlian figure) with history and tradition.

Now, if Miettinen’s suggestion is that philosophical thought must take root in the historical lifeworld, Nicolas de Warren’s piece would show why such an effort is bound to fail given the current societal condition of spectacle. The spectacle is defined as “the commodity form of the image” (de Warren 192). And nothing is real, de Warren writes, “until it has become commodified into an image, which, as the original form of objectivity, not only structures the interaction between objects and subjects but also subjects in relation to each other” (de Warren 193). However, submitting to the conditions of “the spectacle” comes at a cost. I would say it is precisely the cost that Marx had already described as the contradiction in the commodity-form, that is, the fact that the real is denied because (abstract) exchange value always comes at the expense of a (concrete) use value. Likewise, the spectacle would consist in a farce and is therefore something unreal (much like the value-form, “a phantom-like objectivity”). However, in a society of the spectacle, all that is is precisely as spectacle, which means that it attains its being insofar as it falsifies itself. Thus, the social dynamics described by de Warren work in such a way that—similarly to the dialectical negation of use value by exchange value—real and phenomenological experience “becomes displaced by the anti-phenomenology of the spectacle” (de Warren 192). Hence the “loss of worldliness” that de Warren mentions, which elsewhere I have referred to as “the impoverishment of the lifeworld” (Martínez-Zarazúa 2022).

It seems to me that some of the issues addressed in Miettinen’s and de Warren’s chapters illustrate well why a phenomenological interpretation of Capital is called for. And that is precisely what Christian Lotz, here as elsewhere (2022, 2013), has set out to do, indeed, as have several scholars in recent years (to name just a few: Angus 2022, 2021; Martínez-Zarazúa 2022; Westerman 2019; Martínez-Marzoa 2018; Martínez-Matías 2014. It would appear that we Martínez are prone to this line of questioning). Lotz intends to show that, according to his own words, “a renewed, thorough, and sober phenomenological reading of Marx’s philosophy […] can be done best through 1) moving Marx away from a Hegelian framework, 2) understanding the concept of critique as an attempt to de-naturalize social phenomena and as disclosure, and 3) showing that Marx’s concept of philosophy, his method, as well as his understanding of technology, are forms of ‘disclosure’” (Lotz 208). I believe that Lotz makes a convincing case for all three points—moreover, the idea of Marx’s philosophy as a form of disclosure is a key finding that goes rather unnoticed in English-speaking scholarship—but I disagree somewhat with the first point.

Lotz seeks to disengage his reading of Marx from Hegel because of what he takes to be Hegel’s attempt to transcend finitude. In turn, he appears to find Kantian sobriety more promising when interpreting Marx’s work, as Marx himself pursued his scientific endeavors with such an attitude. And so Lotz seems to believe that associating Marx with Hegel would make Marxian thought as unrestrained as Hegel’s, something that would certainly contravene the very limits Marx imposed on his analyses in Capital as well as the phenomenological tenets by which Lotz wants to interpret that work. However, dismissing Hegel outright strikes me as a bit excessive. To approach Marx from a Hegelian standpoint does not necessarily mean raising Marxian thought to an absolute standpoint. One may recognize, for example, the influence of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in the theory of value presented in Capital, and even resort to the former to offer new perspectives on the latter—especially with regard to the type of sociality involved by the presence of the commodity-thing (cfr. Martínez-Marzoa 2018)—, without having to take on the task of transcending finitude, as Hegel does, for example, in the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Science of Logic. That would be my only reservation about Lotz’s otherwise sound text and his contribution to the project of a phenomenological Marxism.


As we said at the outset, this volume has more to offer than we could cover in a review of this length. We sketched its rich contributions to debates about 1) the problems history poses for phenomenology, 2) the contested status and prospects of critical phenomenology, and 3) the relationship between phenomenology and Foucauldian and Marxist social philosophy; but this really only scratches the surface of its contents. For anyone interested in classical phenomenology’s critical resources, Phenomenology as Critique is required reading.


Aguirre, A. F. 1970. Genetische Phänomenologie Und Reduktion: Zur Letztbegründung Der Wissenschaft Aus Der Radikalen Skepsis Im Denken E. Husserls. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Alcoff, L. M. 2000. “Phenomenology, Post-Structuralism, and Feminist Theory on the Concept of Experience.” In Feminist Phenomenology, ed. by L. Fisher and L. Embree, 39–56. Contributions to Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Aldea, A. S. 2016. “Phenomenology as Critique: Teleological-Historical Reflection and Husserl’s Transcendental Eidetics”. Husserl Studies 32 (1): 21–46.

Aldea, A. S., D. Carr & S. Heinämaa. 2022. Phenomenology as Critique. Why Method Matters. Milton: Routledge.

Al-Saji, A. 2017. “Feminist Phenomenology.” In The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy, ed. by S. Khader, A. Garry, and A. Stone, 143–54. New York: Routledge.

Angus, I. 2021. Groundwork of Phenomenological Marxism. Lanham: Lexington Books.

———. 2022. “The Problem of the Form: Recovery of the Concrete in Contemporary Phenomenological Marxism.” In Marxism and Phenomenology, ed. by B. Smyth and R. Westerman. Lanham: Lexington Books: 31–52.

Burch, M. 2021. “Make Applied Phenomenology What It Needs to Be: An Interdisciplinary Research Program”. Continental Philosophy Review 54: 275–93.

Carr, D. 1974. Phenomenology and the Problem of History: A Study of Husserl’s Transcendental Philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Cerbone, D. R. 2022. “Feckless Prisoners of Their Times: Historicism and Moral Reflection.” In Contemporary Phenomenologies of Normativity, ed, by S. Heinämaa, M. Hartimo, and I. Hirvonen, 183–98. London: Routledge.

Guenther, L. 2018. “Critical Phenomenology of Solidarity and Resistance in the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strikes.” In BODY/SELF/OTHER: The Phenomenology of Social Encounters., ed. by L. Dolezal and D. Petherbridge, 47–73. New York: SUNY Press.

———. 2021. “Six Senses of Critique for Critical Phenomenology.” Puncta 4 (2): 5–23.

———. 2022. ‘Abolish the World as We Know It: Notes for a Praxis of Phenomenology Beyond Critique’. Puncta 5 (2): 28–44.

Hartimo, M. 2018. “Radical Besinnung in Formale Und Transzendentale Logik (1929)”. Husserl Studies 34 (3): 247–66.

Horkheimer, M. 1972. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Trans. by M.J. O’Connell. New York: Herder and Herder.

Husserl, E. Hua VI. 1954. Die Krisis de Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie, edited by Walter Biemel. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, translated by David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

Lotz, C. 2013. “Reification through Commodity Form or Technology? From Honneth Back to Heidegger and Marx.” Rethinking Marxism 25 (2): 184–200.

———. 2022. “Capital as Enframing: On Marx and Heidegger.” In Marxism and Phenomenology, ed. by B. Smyth and R. Westerman. Lanham: Lexington Books: 151–170.

Martínez-Marzoa, F. (1983) 2018. La filosofía de “El capital”. Madrid: Abada.

Martínez-Matías, P. 2014. “Producto y mercancía: sobre la constitución ontológica de la modernidad a partir de Heidegger y Marx.” Logos. Anales Del Seminario De Metafísica 47: 199–225.

Martínez-Zarazúa, D. 2022. “When Things Impoverish: An Approach to Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism in Conjunction with Heidegger’s Concern over Technology.” Rethinking Marxism 34 (1): 6–24.

Ricoeur, P. 1975. “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics.” Noûs 9 (1): 85–102.

Salamon, G. 2018. “What’s Critical about Critical Phenomenology?” Journal of Critical Phenomenology 1 (1): 8–17.

Steinbock, A. J. 1995a. Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

———. 1995b. “Generativity and Generative Phenomenology.” Husserl Studies 12 (1): 55–79.

———. 2017. Limit-Phenomena and Phenomenology in Husserl. USA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Tugendhat, E. 2011. Der Wahrheitsbegriff bei Husserl und Heidegger. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Waldenfels, B. 1985. In den Netzen der Lebenswelt. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Weiss, G., A. V. Murphy, and G. Salamon. 2020. “Introduction: Transformative Descriptions.” In 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology, ed. by G. Weiss, A. V. Murphy, and G. Salamon, xiii–xiv. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Welton, D. 1983. The Origins of Meaning: A Critical Study of the Thresholds of Husserlian Phenomenology. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Westerman, R. 2019. Lukács’s Phenomenology of Capitalism: Reification Revalued. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] CrP agrees; e.g., see Weiss, Murphy, and Salamon 2020, xiv.

[2] Both interpretations are discussed in Guenther (2022).

[3] It is in the latter sense—i.e., in the interdisciplinary wedding of phenomenology and critical theory—that Gayle Salamon’s claim that “what is critical about critical phenomenology turns out to have been there all along,” should be understood. In other words, she does not argue that ClP already harnesses all that CrP purports to add to the debate. See Salamon 2018, 12; see also 13.

[4] As already mentioned in Matt Burch’s section above, Jansen argues in this volume that this would render CrP a variant of applied phenomenology (54).

[5] E.g., see Waldenfels 1985.

[6] For a detailed discussion, see Guenther 2021.

Frantz Brentano: The Teaching of Jesus and Its Enduring Significance

The Teaching of Jesus and Its Enduring Significance. With an Appendix: 'A Brief Description of the Christian Doctrine' Book Cover The Teaching of Jesus and Its Enduring Significance. With an Appendix: 'A Brief Description of the Christian Doctrine'
Primary Sources in Phenomenology
Frantz Brentano. Translated by Richard Schaefer
Springer Cham
eBook 58.84 €
VIII, 122

Reviewed by: Elodie Boublil, Ph.D. (University of Paris XII; Alexander von Humboldt Fellow (2018-2020)

The Teaching of Jesus and its Enduring Significance brings together a set of texts written by Frantz Brentano at the end of his life and deals with the Christian doctrine of Revelation, the relationship between faith and reason, the teaching of Jesus reported in the Gospels, and the authority of the Church, as an institution, to define Catholic dogmas. This volume represents a valuable historical, biographical, and philosophical document that allows us to contextualize the genesis of Brentano’s reflection on natural knowledge and the limits of human understanding, and better understand the roots of his rejection of dogmatic theology.

Indeed, these texts reveal how much Brentano was affected by his tumultuous relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as he suffered exclusion and critiques in the aftermath of his opposition to the First Vatican Council. Brentano decided to leave the priesthood in 1873 and then the Church in 1879 because of an existential and spiritual crisis that, until the end of his life, left traces evidenced by this volume.

In his preface, Brentano explained and complained: «in spite of many subsequent attacks from those on the side of the Church, I determined never to act in an aggressive way, and even took pains to encourage a certain respect for the Church, that I myself still cherished, in the hearts of others. But I nevertheless would like to see other youthful souls, who are motivated by the highest aspirations, spared the difficult inner struggles that I suffered through.» Following a rationalist perspective, Brentano aims here to prove that the faith proclaimed by the Revelation and formulated by the Catholic Church does not meet the criteria of rational and objective knowledge. Brentano, a defender of natural theology, sees dogmatic theology as an illegitimate and invalid doctrine incompatible with the latter.

The rupture between Brentano and the Catholic Church followed the proclamation in 1871 of the dogma of papal infallibility on the occasion of the First Vatican Council. Brentano was involved in the discussions as Alfred Kastil’s introduction recalls: «Bishop Ketteler (…) before the opening of the Vatican Council, as the conflict over infallibility, began to surge, commissioned the young theologian Brentano, whose thorough knowledge of Dogmatics and Church history he so valued, to draft a memorandum on the contentious subject.» Brentano joined the leaders of the schismatic current of the «Old Catholics» in elaborating counterarguments to this dogma.

According to Brentano, the affirmation of papal infallibility would represent an abuse of power by the ecclesiastical authorities and an obstacle to intellectual freedom. As I will indicate later, such a statement reflects neither the spirit nor the letter of the texts promulgated by the First Vatican Council, even if it has the merit of alerting to the temptation of clericalism and power abuses.

Brentano’s aim in The Teaching of Jesus and its Enduring Significance is therefore twofold: on the one hand, to show the moral value of the person of Jesus, his authenticity and courage, and on the other hand, to demonstrate what he considers to be inconsistencies or even contradictions in the dogmas of the Catholic Church to justify his opposition to the Council and his rejection of the dogma. We will see, though, that he tends to compensate for his rejection of absolute truth by an absolutization of rationality that may itself be problematic.

This work also helps contextualize Brentano’s rationalism by revealing his personal and philosophical relationship to the Catholic faith and his defense of natural theology. The latter is situated within a broader philosophical movement opposing Catholicism – that of the secularization of the late 19th century – as the author’s references to Nietzsche in the last pages show. His emphasis on the moral and existential exemplarity of Jesus is also striking and original in this particular context. This review begins by summarizing Brentano’s arguments before offering a short critical analysis, both from a philosophical and a theological standpoint, to match the scope of this volume.

I. Jesus, The Gospels, or The Church?

As the book’s introduction indicates, Brentano repeatedly affirms his admiration for Jesus, for the moral law proposed by the Gospels and recognizes the existence of a unique God who is infinitely good. Unlike positivist philosophers supporting historicism, Brentano does not seek to compare the historical Jesus to his presentation in the Gospels. His critique is instead directed toward the Catholic Church and what he believes to be his relation to truth through the problematic question of dogmas’ definitions. According to Brentano, any search for objective truth is the privileged and exclusive domain of philosophy and rational metaphysics based on natural knowledge. Contrary to the Christian doctrine, Brentano does not think natural knowledge is compatible with the Revelation.

Consequently, Brentano does not recognize the logical and epistemic value of «the teaching of Jesus» and even less its dogmatic elaboration by the Tradition. He claims and reaffirms in these pages his apostasy, even if he maintains his moral admiration for the person of Jesus, his courage, his authenticity, and if he retains his providential role in the history of humanity. Brentano’s criticism thus pits the person of Jesus against the Church. This is a statement or hypothesis from the author. However, even if he is a theologian by training, he does not elaborate a theological refutation of the unity between the sacramental body of Christ and the ecclesial body, as affirmed by Saint Paul in the first epistle to the Corinthians.

The first chapter focuses on the moral teaching that can be drawn from the Gospels, contemplating the life and words of Jesus. After recalling the commandments of God’s law given to Moses, Brentano looks at the morality contained in the parables of the Gospels. The author insists on the exemplarity of Christ and the authenticity of his testimony and his life, contrasting with the disciples’ attitudes: «One should look to his example. One should learn from him to be gentle and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29 [NSRV]). The commandment to love one another is transformed into a new commandment by the addition of the words: «as I have loved you» (John 13:34 [NSRV]). One must thus also follow him by taking up his cross. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6 [NSRV])» (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 36).

Nevertheless, expanding on his analysis and description of Jesus’ teaching, Brentano became interested in his humanity. He criticizes Jesus’ human traits, his anger, and legitimate outbursts at the religious authorities who consistently seek to trap him, discredit him, and put him to death. However, such a way to downplay Jesus’ personality because of his humanity reveals the way Brentano conceives of God (based on an ideal of impassibility or self-mastery). It does not contradict the Christian dogma, according to which Jesus is true God and Man and therefore endowed with human affectivity. In the following pages, we see that this criticism of Brentano may result from the fact that he was somewhat favorable to Monothelitism, a doctrine rejected by the Church and according to which Christ would have had two natures (human and divine) but only one will (divine). This heresy was rejected by the Lateran Council (649) and the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople III (680-681). Unfortunately, Brentano seems to endorse Monothelitism witfhout explicitly addressing the arguments that refute it.

Brentano insists on the figurative language and parables of Jesus to distinguish faith from reason. He argues that parables are less precise than logical demonstration and, therefore, less prone to convince: «Faith exists in a disproportion between the evidence and the level of conviction. For faith exists, to a certain extent, midway between opinion and knowledge, sharing with the former the absence of secure grounds and sharing with the latter absolute conviction and the suspension of doubt. One has often run up against this, but the Church has continually reaffirmed this paradoxical, logically and morally dubious anomaly (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 39).» Such a rationalist definition immediately rules out the supernatural dimension of faith, which would find its roots in grace, and reduces it to a form of unfounded certainty. These definitions endorsed the Kantian definitions of faith, opinion, and knowledge, proposed in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. God and the soul, in these contexts, are practical ideas of reason whose application should be limited to the field of morality. According to Brentano, the truth can only have a logical and epistemic value. Thus, if Christ has a moral value of exemplarity, one cannot, according to Brentano, rely on his words to found and legitimate dogmas: «Jesus’s moral teaching does not constitute significant progress because it heralded entirely new commandments, but rather because, through his life and death, he lived them in a way that offered an incomparable example of the possibility of such sublime virtue. His sublime courage enlivened others to imitate him. This example will shine forth forever, and no prophecy is more certain as when, in this sense, one says: Jesus for all time» (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 41).

In a second chapter, Brentano focuses on the content of Jesus’ teaching concerning God, the world, and his mission. According to Brentano, Christ’s humility would conflict with his words about the glory of God and his identity as the Son of God. Brentano transposes here a human and worldly conception of glory and royalty since he qualifies the reign of Christ as a «monarchy,» to consider later this description contradictory and “untenable.”

Brentano’s approach to theology is based on the theology of substitution (supersessionism), which will be refuted by the Church in the 20th century, notably by the declaration Nostra Aetate and the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council (1965). In other words, Brentano’s reading manifests a theological and cultural bias that is entirely incompatible with his claim for an objective knowledge that would be deprived of any form of dogmatism. Moreover, on other occasions, Brentano provides explanations that result from several anti-Semitic prejudices.

II. Brentano’s Epistemology and the Absolutization of Natural Theology

In a third chapter, Brentano examines Blaise Pascal’s ideas and his apologetics of the Christian faith. However, as the volume editor explains, “his terse manner of formulating Pascal’s view is too much geared towards setting up his criticisms to be taken as a comprehensive introduction to, or interpretation of, Pascal’s text.” Brentano believes that Pascal’s argument about the original sin as the source of evil and suffering is irrational and unconvincing. He claims another explanation for the fallibility of human freedom could have been put forward without necessarily resorting to a theological argument. A strictly Aristotelian approach centered on acquiring virtues and analyzing incontinence would have been sufficient in line with his strictly human interpretation of Jesus’ moral perfection. Brentano advocates for self-control that could be acquired without the help of grace.

Brentano criticizes Pascal for not tolerating theological and philosophical criticism and for not subjecting Christian dogmas to rationalist scrutiny: «instead of attempting to bring these doctrines into harmony with reason, Pascal hurls the crassest insults against the presumption of a reason that seeks to evaluate whether real contradictions exist (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 58).» Brentano puts forward scientific arguments to refute creationism and reproaches Pascal for not questioning dogmatic theology’s ontological foundations. Moreover, according to Brentano, Pascal’s work is judged contradictory since Brentano opposes the Jansenist argumentation of the Provincial Letters to the later mysticism of the Thoughts.

In this chapter, Brentano examines more specifically the arguments in favor of the Church offered by Pascal in a passage of The Thoughts: the spread of Christianity in the world, the sanctification of Christians, the divine source of Scripture, the person of Jesus, the testimony of the apostles, the life of Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament, the history of the Jewish people,  the timeless continuity of the religion, the doctrine of original sin, the holiness of Church teaching, the behavior of «worldly-minded people.» To address these doctrinal points, Brentano provides historical counterexamples and rephrases the definitions. To refute prophecies, for instance, Brentano defines them as «predictions» or divinations, whereas such characterization corresponds somewhat to the activities of the «false prophets» described in the Scriptures. The authentic prophet is indeed the one who, as Paul Ricoeur says, «is that man capable of announcing to the King that his power is weak and vain;» in other words, the one who does not respond to the libido dominandi and the libido sciendi of the powerful,  but somewhat reminds them of the vanity of their overly human desires for control over people and events before the almightiness of God. In this sense, the type of divination criticized by Brentano is also undermined by St. Paul as it may contradict the virtue of hope: «For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is no hope at all: Who hopes for what he can already see?» (Rom, 8.24). So, paradoxically, Brentano unconsciously sided with Christian theology and the reasoning behind Pascal’s wager.

The point on which Brentano insists the most is the continuity of the Christian religion, and even more so of the unity of dogma through the centuries. According to him, the variability of the Church’s decisions and attitudes over the centuries and the disagreement between certain popes would show contradictions that would make it impossible to proclaim the dogma of papal infallibility. He criticizes the turning point made under the pontificate of Innocent III (1160-1216), during which the «vicar of Peter» was henceforth called «vicar of Christ» – and the institution of the pontifical theocracy continued and accomplished during the reign of his successor Boniface VIII (1235-1303). Indeed, according to Brentano, the condemnation for the heresy of Pope Honorius I (x- 638), who supported the monothelitic doctrine, shows, in retrospect, that a Pope can be wrong, and his teaching refuted by his successors.

According to Brentano, the affirmation of papal infallibility represents an absolutization of the power of the Church as an institution, which he does not hesitate to compare to the absolutism of Louis XIV, recalling the famous phrase of the French monarch: «I am the State.» It is important here to clarify how Brentano (mis-)understands papal infallibility. According to him, it seems that any statement uttered by a Pope would always be considered universally valid. Thus, the example of Honorius I would have shown that such an assertion would be a contradiction de jure and de facto.

Finally, taking up the example of the moral perfection and goodness of Jesus, Brentano concludes this chapter with a critique of clericalism, the Inquisition, and the political power of religious authorities by emphasizing the incoherence and violence of persecutions against intellectuals and scientists who conducted research contrary to the teaching of the Church (Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and Copernicus). He thus reaffirms – quoting the Gospels – that the command of love cannot be taught through abuses of power, violence, surveillance, calumny, and persecution. Brentano ends his reflections by comparing Jesus to Nietzsche to reaffirm better the moral superiority of Jesus due to his life’s testimony and genuine sense of compassion.


Several points must be critically assessed to contextualize Brentano’s text and examine his demonstration.

III. Faith and Reason: Best Enemies?

Brentano’s text leaves no room for the dimension of mystery when he considers the Incarnation, the Trinity, or the Redemption, and the free compliance it entails through the supernatural gift of faith, as conceived by the Christian doctrine. For the Fathers of the Church, faith is not opposed to human reason but opens it to a dimension that exceeds its finite capacities while fulfilling them. The hermeneutic circle described by Augustine between faith and reason, taken up by phenomenology and hermeneutics throughout the 20th century, defines human reason in its relationship to transcendence and its desire for the absolute. Such a conception overcomes the Kantian dichotomy, which may sound quite reductive, between belief as a subjective conviction and truth as objective certainty. The subject-object dichotomy has notably been considerably revised throughout the 20th century. Any attempt to take Brentano’s arguments for granted on the sole basis that he discredits faith as being “subjective” would have to endure and refute, as well, the critiques raised against rationalism and classical empiricism provided by critical epistemology and phenomenology.

Moreover, the First Vatican Council, which Brentano opposes, had precisely defined the respective perimeters of theology and philosophy. Far from rejecting philosophy and rational knowledge, it asserted its value in the search for truth: «There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. Regarding the source, we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known» (Dei Filius, IV: DS 3015). It is not the First Vatican Council that rejected philosophy but Brentano, who philosophically rejected dogmatic theology, as a reliable way to truth. In other words, from a post-Kantian perspective, Brentano limits the scope of any possible experience to the gnoseology he developed during his philosophical career. For him, faith statements cannot have a truth value.

Brentano’s summary of Christian doctrine is based on the «God of the philosophers,» the “architect” of Malebranche and Leibniz, and not on the God of Christian Revelation defined by dogmatic theology. Consequently, Brentano’s demonstration reveals more of his philosophical option  – a kind of philosophical supersessionism – than it constitutes a viable refutation elaborated from within. From a methodological point of view, Brentano relies on deist dogmatism to refute the Christian dogma of the Trinity. Brentano’s text is instead a counter-apologetic in favor of an alternative definition of God that would make it possible to dispense with dogmas and the Roman Catholic Church, rather than an honest discussion – in the sense of a medieval disputatio – of the arguments given by the Fathers of the Church, moreover rarely cited, on the respective roles of faith and reason in these metaphysical endeavors.

Consequently, Brentano’s text is less a systematic and consistent refutation than a polemical attempt to put down the Christian doctrine. In this sense, it bears historical significance as it reveals the bellicose spirit of the late 19th century. It deserves attention to better understand the sources of division and quarrels between philosophers and theologians around the turn of the 20th century.

IV. On Papal Infallibility and the Catholic Church: Historical and Theological Discussions

One may be surprised while reading Brentano’s critique of the dogma of papal infallibility as it deliberately seems to ignore the decrees of the First Vatican Council that do not match his interpretation. Providing the historical context of the Council would have been helpful. The political history of Europe and Italy (notably the Risorgimento), as well as the history of the Church, showed that affirming the dogma of papal infallibility also responded to a need for unity in the context of growing secularism and a recurrent battle within the Church between Gallicanism and ultramontanist doctrines. Second, Brentano is wrong in implying that the declaration of papal infallibility amounts to an abusive absolutization of the power of the Pope as an individual.

The constitution states: «the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex-cathedra, that is, when in the discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter,  possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable» (Vatican I, chap. 4, s. 9).

The declaration specifies that it applies when the Pope speaks «ex-cathedra» and that it concerns dogmatic definitions in matters of faith and morals. These definitions are not meant to be new definitions that would be completely independent of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, as the content of the doctrine is believed to have been revealed once and for all by God in the Scriptures and forever complete. In other words, papal infallibility means that dogmatic definitions (such as the dogma of the Assomption in 1950) proclaimed by the Pope ex-cathedra necessarily match the deposit of faith. It also affirms the supernatural and spiritual vocation of the Pope – that exceeds his individual nature – in the sense that the Pope is not meant to be the representative of the Bishops, as in a political party, but rather the «Servant of the servants of God» as other texts will recall (Ecclesiam Suam, 114). Considering this vocation, one should understand the dogma of papal infallibility from the Christian perspective, and not by projecting a strictly secular point of view onto it, as if some rational perfections were granted to a single individual because he would have institutional power. Such a standpoint would contradict Jesus, who declared, «If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all» (Mark 9, 35). Ex-cathedra then means endowed with the Holy Spirit, in the spirit of Peter, who learned how to let himself «be led by someone else where he does not want to go» (John 21:18), precisely giving up on his own subjective will to obey God rather than men (Acts 5, 29), in other words, to obey the command of love and unity, rather than the lust for power and reputation.

When the constitution states that whoever denies the definitions proclaimed by the Pope ex-cathedra should be declared «anathema,» it only means «separated from Christ» (Rom 9, 3), as Catholics believe that the Church is the body of Christ, and the Pope, the vicar of Christ. This means that if someone refutes this doctrine (for instance, Brentano), he has the absolute right and freedom to endorse another doctrine of faith or none of them, but he is not legitimate in trying to change the deposit of faith of the Catholic doctrine according to his subjective, personal views and to present them as theologically valid for the people.

So, Brentano’s theological position conflated two aspects: a political one and a theological one. One shall necessarily agree with Brentano’s critique of power abuses and the extreme violence committed against those who raised questions or asserted different points of view. However, papal infallibility is not meant to lead to a one-sided homogenization or some ideological arbitrariness but rather to affirm the believers’ capacity through grace to trust in the Pope and the Church so that there will not be «in the Church as many schisms as they are priests» (St. Jerome; Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam, 113), and unity could be preserved throughout history. It is worth noting, though, that the Catholic Church’s aggiornamento in the 20th century has encouraged dialogue with humanities and sciences to make progress in understanding the world and people.

V. Classical empiricism and positivism as appropriate methodological tools to address theological questions?

The phenomenologists of the Göttingen Circle and Edith Stein will reflect extensively on the question of the relationship between phenomenology and religion from both an epistemological and a moral point of view. According to Edith Stein, opposing these two fields should give way to a dialogue that broadens our philosophical conception of truth. In her last treatise (Finite and Eternal Being, IV, #10), entitled «an attempt at a deeper comprehension of truth (logical, transcendental, ontological truth),» Edith Stein carries an in-depth analysis of the Aristotelian and Thomistic definitions of truth to show, from a phenomenological point of view, how transcendental truth and logical truth are articulated, and subsequently how divine truth would be inherently different from any truth. According to her, philosophy would become an ideology if it presents itself as a closed-off system, restricted to logical truths or the propositions of the natural sciences: “Reason would be unreasonable if it persisted in stopping at the things it can discover by itself” (Stein). Philosophy and theology, according to Stein, are not settled: «Pure philosophy, as a science of being and being in its ultimate causes, as far as man’s natural reason can carry is, even in its most complete completion imaginable, essentially unfinished. It is certainly open to theology, and from there, it can be completed. However, theology is also not a closed or enduring doctrine. Historically, it unfolds as an appropriation and intellectual and progressive penetration of the revealed truth of the Tradition.” (Stein)

Brentano’s critique of dogmatic theology should be put into perspective with what Christian doctrine says about the dynamism and spiritual growth of the spirit while contemplating the teaching of Jesus – teaching that for Christian theology are not «logical propositions» to be understood by a few initiates, but the revelation of a personal God accessible to all. In this perspective, a phenomenological approach would instead state that God is less an “object” of investigation than the “subject” of an encounter: «phenomenology is a philosophical style that can be attentive to religious, moral, and ecological evidence without reducing that experience to the presentation of objects» (A. Steinbock.  2012. ‘Evidence in the Phenomenology of Religious Experience, The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology (Edited by Dan Zahavi), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 590-593).

Ultimately, Brentano’s text points to the methodological differences between philosophy and theology. Acknowledging their discrepancies does not mean ruling out one another but encouraging an honest and respectful dialogue. The translation of this volume is timely in that it draws attention to the necessity to think anew about the way we conceive of faith and reason in a disoriented world where, paradoxically, blind scientific positivism confronts new forms of obscurantism and plot theories – two opposite yet similar ways to disfigure the human mind, her reason as well as her heart.

In theology as well as in philosophy, the word of Edith Stein resonates acutely: «accept nothing as love if the truth is missing, accepts nothing as truth if love is lacking.» To Brentano, Jesus is the only teacher who ever managed to fully reconcile these two dimensions of human existence and prove their significance: “If one interprets it consistently and pays close attention to its essential elements, then Jesus’s teachings have not been superseded by history. On the contrary, they have yet to be realized in their fullest sense” (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 41).

Karsten Harries: The Antinomy of Being

The Antinomy of Being Book Cover The Antinomy of Being
Karsten Harries. Preface by: Dermot Moran
De Gruyter
Front matter: 22. Main content: 246

Reviewed by: Richard Colledge (School of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University)

Karsten Harries’ The Antinomy of Being, which is based on his final Yale graduate seminar, is a deeply ambitious study that brings to the table vast scholarship across a range of philosophical, as well as literary, theological, early modern scientific, and art historical sources. Focusing especially on what he presents as a key problematic in the work of Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger, Harries demonstrates the way that this notion of the antinomy of Being is at the heart of the condition of possibility of truth, and thus for any response to the spectre of nihilism. When taken as a whole, his arguments make a compelling case not only for the centrality and irreducibility of this issue across a range of philosophical fields, but also for any rigorous meta-philosophical reflection. This welcome development in Harries’ work is a text that challenges contemporary thought across various fields.

The idea of the antinomy of Being is one that Harries has presented and discussed numerous times in his writings over the last decade and a half in particular, generally as part of a more finely focused argument that opens into this larger underlying set of concerns.[1] However, in this 2019 monograph, Harries provides a fully developed account of what he describes as “the unifying thread of [his] philosophical musings” from over half a century of teaching, even if the term itself appeared in his work only comparatively recently (AB, 1).

“Antinomy” is associated with paradox; aporia; the limits of language; cognitive dissonance; and possibly even the limits of logic. More specifically (especially in a Kantian context), it relates to the clash between two apparently contradictory beliefs, each of which is entirely justifiable. Two of the four famous antinomies in Kant’s first Kritik (relating to space and time, freedom, substance and ultimate necessity) are the subject of explicit attention in this book, as is the way that the same fundamental problematic can be seen as being deeply at play in the work of Martin Heidegger and various other post-Kantian thinkers. The ways that these more specific cases arise in Harries’ text will be surveyed below. However, it is important also to note that Harries’ concern is not to simply paint his topic as an issue in the thought of a particular group of philosophers. To the contrary, his larger and more basic project is to show that the antinomy of Being is an irreducible element in all thought, cutting across all disciplines and genres. Consequently, its denial amounts to the distortion of thought, while coming to terms with it is the only pathway to intellectual (perhaps also existential) authenticity. For ultimately, it is a question of how it is possible to respond to the ever-present threat of nihilism (the topic of his 1962 doctoral dissertation). As he puts it early in his Introduction:

[O]ur thinking inevitably leads us into some version of this antinomy whenever it attempts to comprehend reality in toto, without loss, and that a consequence of that attempt is a loss of reality. All such attempts will fall short of their goal. What science can know and what reality is, are in the end incommensurable. Such incommensurability however, is not something to be grudgingly accepted, but embraced as a necessary condition of living a meaningful life. That is why the Antinomy of Being matters and should concern us. (AB, 2)

What is the nub of Harries’ contention? In a sense, the book is something of a manifesto for hermeneutical realism, and in such a way that places equal weight on both hermeneutics and realism as complementary poles of the antinomy of Being as a whole. On one hand, there is an absolute insistence on the finitude of all understanding (“hermeneutics goes all the way down” as the old adage has it), while on the other hand there is an equally strong insistence on the real as that which is finitely understood. In this way, the twin disasters of nihilism – i.e., idealism (nothing can be known; or there is no real as such) and dogmatism (in its many guises, be it scientism, religious fundamentalism, etc) – are both variations on the theme of denial of the ineluctable antinomy of Being. Both idealism and realism contain kernels of truth, but in canonising one side of the antinomy and marginalising the other, both are ideologies that destroy the balance required to underpin the possibilities of knowing in any genuine sense. On one hand, idealism absolutizes the rift between mind and world so that it is portrayed as an unbridgeable chasm that makes knowledge of the real impossible. On the other hand, in its claim to have captured and represented the real, there is something absurd and self-undermining in rationalistic realism, and in presenting a shrunken parody of the real it too vacates the space for nihilistic conclusions.

In seeking to do justice to both sides of the antinomy, Harries is not afraid to defend what he sees as the key insight of the Kantian antinomies that he links respectively (if unfashionably) to the transcendental and the transcendent dimensions of the real:

[T]he being of things has to be understood in two senses: what we experience are first of all phenomena, appearances, and as such their being is essentially a being for the knowing subject. Science investigates these phenomena. But the things we experience are also things in themselves, and as such they possess a transcendent being that eludes our comprehension. The identification of phenomena, of what science can know, with reality is shown to mire us in contradiction. (AB, 1)

I suggest that Harries’ stance invites comparison with other contemporary forms of hermeneutical realism, such as that developed by Günter Figal.[2] Figal’s approach places the focus on the problem of objectivity: of the thing’s standing over against the subject as irretrievably other, even in its being understood and grasped. As Figal puts it, “[h]ermeneutical experience is the experience of the objective [das Gegenständliche]—of what is there in such a way that one may come into accord with it and that yet never fully comes out in any attempt to reach accord.”[3] Similarly, it is this simultaneous knowability and unknowability of things that Harries highlights in his observation of the antinomy that characterises all understanding of the objective, of that which shows itself – only ever finitely and incompletely – as the real.

In the first chapter of the book, Harries sets out his account predominantly with reference not to Kant, but to Heidegger. These pages provide a condensed summary of some of the major aspects of his previously published readings of Heidegger that gather around this theme. For Harries, the confrontation with the antinomy of Being is at the heart of a key tension in Being and Time, a tension that Heidegger repeatedly returns to for the rest of his life. Even if Heidegger never used the term, Harries asserts that it is directly evoked in his notion of “the ontological difference” (the difference between beings and their Being [Sein]), for to attempt to think this difference Heidegger, he claims, “had to confront the Antinomy of Being” (AB, 15). As Heidegger outlines in §§43-44 of Being and Time, but more directly in his summer 1927 lecture course, there is a formidable problem here. On one hand, without Being, there would be no beings, and so Being is transcendental. Further, there is Being only when truth (and thus Dasein) exists, for without Dasein, there would be no revelation of beings. But on the other hand (and here the antinomy becomes evident), it cannot be said that beings, or nature as such, only are when there is Dasein. Nature does not need to be revealed to Dasein (there need be no event of truth) in order to be what it already is. We do not create beings; they “are given to us,” and our “experience of the reality of the real is thus an experience of beings as transcending Being so understood” (AB, 15). Being “transcend[s] … the Dasein-dependent transcendental Being to which Being and Time sought to lead us” (AB, 14). The antinomy of Being thus arises in this distinction Heidegger implicitly notes “between two senses of Being: the first transcendental sense relative to Dasein and in this sense inescapably historical, the second transcendent sense, gesturing towards the ground or origin of Dasein’s historical being and thus also of Being understood transcendentally” (AB, 15-16).[4]

To be sure, with this Heidegger interpretation Harries intervenes in well-established debates within (especially American) Heidegger scholarship. However, unlike the way much of that debate circles around early Heideggerian thought (and sometimes only Division 1 of Being and Time), Harries is concerned with the way that this same issue continued to play out – albeit in different terms –  in Heidegger’s later works. For example, he makes the interesting (unfortunately undeveloped) suggestion that Heidegger sometimes looks to differentiate these two senses of Being via the introduction of the Hölderlin-inspired spelling “Seyn” or in placing “Sein” under erasure. “Sein and Seyn are the two sides of my antinomy,” he explains: “Being understood as the transcendent ground of experience (Seyn) transcends Being understood transcendentally (Sein)” (AB, 16). However, the attempt to comprehend … the presencing (das Wesen) of Seyn will inevitably “become entangled in some version of the Antinomy of Being. Thus:

Any attempt to conceptually lay hold of that originating ground threatens to transform it into a being, such as God or the thing in itself and must inevitably fail. Here our thinking bumps against the limits of language. Being refuses to be imprisoned in the house of language. And yet this elusive ground is somehow present to us, calls us, if in silence, opening a window to transcendence in our world. (AB, 16)

For Harries, the notion of the Kehre in Heideggerian thought – understood as Heidegger himself presents it, as “a more thoughtful attempt to attend to the matter to be thought” –  is a step made necessary by “the antinomial essence of Being, which denies the thinker a foundation.” Indeed, Harries goes still further in doubling back to Kant: the “Antinomy of Being shows us why we cannot dispense with something like the Kantian understanding of the thing in itself as the ground of phenomena, even as the thing in itself eludes our understanding” (AB, 16-17).

In Chapter 2 (“The Antinomy of Truth”), Harries continues his engagement with Heideggerian thought, specifically concerning the paradox of language. Accordingly, language is both the way that beings are revealed and thus (transcendentally) come to be for us, whilst also limiting us to a finite encounter with the real that in itself transcends the limits of linguistic and thus worldly presentation. In other words, as Heidegger emphasised time and again (though it is also an insight voiced throughout philosophical history, from Plato to Wittgenstein and beyond), language both reveals and conceals the real, both revealling and “necessarily cover[ing] up the unique particularity of things” (AB, 25). Harries illustrates this point by opening the chapter with citations from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s evocative 1902 “Letter of Lord Chandos,” before then showing how Hofmannsthal’s insights were already voiced by figures as diverse as Aquinas, Kant and Nietzsche. After focusing on “the truth of phenomena” through a Kantian lens (in the course of which he illuminatingly quotes Copernicus on his own distinction between appearance and actuality in planetary observation), Harries then provides an extended analysis and critique of Heidegger’s account of truth. In partially sympathising with Tugendhat’s critique of Heidegger’s early notion of truth as alētheia, Harries goes on to maintain that transcendental subjectivity only makes sense in the context of transcendental objectivity. The real is only ever encountered and uncovered perspectivally, but the (infinite) array of possible perspectives (via the contingencies of worlding) points to a transcendent whole that is nonetheless inaccessible in its completeness to the finite subject:

To understand the subject as a subject that transcends all particular points of view is to presuppose that consciousness is tied to perspectives but transcends these perspectives in the awareness that they are just perspectives. The transcendental subject has its foundation in the self-transcending subject. (AB, 45)

In Harries view, in its focus on the finitude of phenomenological access, Heidegger’s early position fails to do justice to this larger context: Heidegger’s fundamental ontology “suggest[s] that the perspectival is prior to the trans-perspectival without inquiring into the meaning of this priority.” Further, it must be recognized that “the perspectival and the transperspectival cannot be divorced,” for human self-transcendence “stands essentially in between the two” (AB, 45). Nonetheless, even given this critique, Harries continues to insist, with Heidegger, on the ineluctability of finitude:

[T]he transcendental philosopher remains tied to a given language and subject to the perspectives it imposes, even as he attempts to take a step beyond them. The absolute of which he dreams must elude him. The pursuit of objectivity cannot escape its ground in the concrete. (AB, 45)

Chapter 3 (“The Architecture of Reason”) is largely devoted to the relationship between Kant and Nietzsche on this question. Focusing especially on the latter’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense,” Harries is in agreement with Nietzsche in his staunch opposition to linguistic realism: words do not simply express the inner essence of the things they re-present. “What we can grant him is that the thing in itself remains quite incomprehensible,” and so “what we are dealing with are always only appearances.” However, Harries also wants to insist on the key distinction between the thing-in-itself and objective appearance as such. After all, if the phenomenon just is the self-giving of the thing as it is – albeit finitely and perspectivally – then this makes sense of the possibility of similar perceptions; and this in turn is what makes shared concept formation possible. Furthermore, he argues, it is only thus that Nietzsche is able to sustain his own “social contract theory of language” (AB, 55). But on the other hand, Nietzsche’s linguistic idealism produces a savage critique of scientific rationalism which, he suggests, fails to see that its concepts are really metaphors, the product of the imagination. Concepts are “the ashes of lived intuition”, and scientific rationalism is therefore nothing other than a chasing after shadows. In leaving behind lived experience, science leaves us with death: a “columbarium of concepts” (AB, 63).

This link between science and loss – of the dangers of intellectualism that imperils the natural human experience of the real – is accentuated in the following chapter (“The Devil as Philosopher”) that presents an intriguing diptych of Fichte and Chamisso. Harries’ engagement with the former – who is his major philosophical interlocutor in this chapter – surveys the train of thought that led Fichte to the nihilism of his absolute idealist conclusions. But he also addresses the sense in which Fichte’s path of thought equivocally led out the other side through his conception of “conscience” by which a disinterested intellectualism is replaced by a spirit of conviction. It is thus that Harries sees Fichtean thought as subject again to “the call of reality, which is submerged whenever the world is seen as the desiccated object of a detached, theoretical understanding” (AB, 77). The hinge of the aforementioned diptych is made possible by Fichte’s historical exile from Jena to Berlin, where he met and befriended the romantic poet Adelbert von Chamisso, author of the cautionary tale of Peter Schlemihl. In Harries’ interpretation, Schlemihl – a character who (Faust-like) bargains with a demonic (Mephistopheles-like) philosopher to trade his shadow for unending wealth – is emblemic of the dark side of Enlightenment reason that would have us lose our natural embodied selves, our cultural and social particularities, our “homeland,” in pursuit of the ashes and emptiness of objectivity, soulless freedom and universal reason. Only disembodied ghosts cast no shadows. As Nietzsche would later suggest, disembodied reason is a form of living death. The rationalistic road by which Fichte would propose the inescapable mirror of consciousness that posits the world through its own volition is yet another form of failing to think through both sides of the antinomy of Being.

This leads Harries the full circle back to Heidegger, in a chapter titled “The Shipwreck of Metaphysics”, but also to a very contemporary application of the Heideggerian problematic. He begins by recalling his diagnosis of the antinomy of Being that emerges from Heidegger’s early thought (two irreducibly opposed senses of Being), and he notes Heidegger’s own admission (in his 1946/47 “Letter on Humanism”) that “[t]he thinking that hazards a few steps in Being and Time has even today not advanced beyond that publication.” Harries has us dwell on this impass with Heidegger. Was the whole incomplete project of Being and Time was therefore a dead-end? For Heidegger, it was not simply a “blind alley” (Sackgasse), but something far more telling: a Holzweg. The path of his thought was a very particular kind of losing of one’s way that is typical of “a genuinely philosophical problem” as Wittgenstein would put it (AB, 86). The Holzweg of Heideggerian thought leads us directly into the to the aporia of Being as such.

Harries goes on in this chapter to provide a very contemporary and “concrete” illustration of how this plays out in our own time with regard to the contortions of scientific materialism. He might have chosen any number of interlocutors in this field, but instead (in another hint of Harries’ intellectual generosity) he selects an interlocutor close at hand: a philosophically-minded colleague from Yale’s computer science department, Drew McDermott. With a nod to the medieval doctrine of “double truth” (condemned at Paris in 1277), Harries notes the way that his colleague is completely committed to the basic proposition that the natural sciences hold the key to all that is, can be, and will be understood, even as he admits that science cannot explain key aspects of our first-person experience of the world, including values we hold to be true. In this, he was inspired by Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world (that undermined a materialist “present-at-hand” projection of the world) , even though his commitment to the scientific attitude puts him at loggerheads with Heidegger. Harries sees in McDermott’s apparent cognitive dissonance the very aporia with which Kant and Fichte wrestled, and to which Heidegger’s own work was also to point.

The following chapter (“Limits and Legitimacy of Science”) expands upon this problem of the incompatibility of science with meaning, seen through the lens of the nineteenth century German physicist Heinrich Hertz (in his search for simple comprehensive scientific principles to comprehend the world), the early Wittgenstein (who despite similar aspirations famously concluded that “the sense of the world must lie outside the world”), and Kant (who similarly wanted to entirely affirm the scientific attitude even as he affirmed the truth of dimensions that transcend, and are precluded by, the sciences: freedom, immortality, God).

What begins to emerge in Chapter 7 (“Learning from Laputa”) are twin themes that will come to dominate the later parts of the book: the notion of seeking to escape from the confines of earthly existence through rationality and scientific application, and the theme of being-at-home. Harries’ major inspiration here is Swift’s portrayal of the Laputians in Gulliver’s Travels, who in creating their flying island revel in their (albeit ambiguous) transcendence of standard physical constraints and social bonds. These men of Laputa literally “have their heads in the clouds,” as they exist detached from their earthy home. Indeed, Harries notes the allusions here to Aristophanes’ The Clouds, and he sees both productions as parodies of rationalistic hubris (AB, 119). Here we see the link made to Heidegger’s critique of technology, which not only involves the triumph of curiosity (seen also in the Laputians), but also the flight from grounded human dwelling. Like Peter Schlemihl, with technological enframing, we lose our shadows.

Harries’ upward orientation continues in Chapter 8 as he turns to the cosmological revolution of the sixteenth century. A key figure here is Giordano Bruno, whose execution is understood in the context of an absolute commitment to the sovereignty of rational freedom, and more specifically the implications of his championing of the idea of infinite time and space. In such a universe, conceptions of boundedness, constraint, society, embodiedness, home and homecoming – one might say facticity –  are lost. As Nietzsche pointed out, there is no longer any horizon, no up or down. But Harries similarly points to the earlier tradition of Germanic mysticism (from Walther von der Vogelweide, to Ruysbroeck, to Eckhart and Suso) that made similar gestures toward the power of self-transcendence and freedom of thought to leave the body behind and even challenge the boundary between the human and the Divine. Here the thinking of space through intellectual freedom leads to antinomy. On one hand, space must be limited, since otherwise location would be impossible; but on the other hand, space cannot be limited since there can be nothing outside of space.

On the basis of this extensive groundwork, in Chapters 9 and 10 Harries turns, respectively, to other Kantian antinomies: concerning freedom and time. With reference also to Fichte, he sets out the terms of Kant’s antinomy of freedom: that on one hand there are two kinds of causality in the world (via laws of nature, and via the law of freedom, since otherwise it would be impossible to account for spontaneous events that are not reducible to natural cause and effect), while on the other hand freedom is clearly precluded by the necessary laws of nature (since otherwise the flow of events would lose their regularity). He follows this line of thought into Kant’s Critique of Judgment, in which freedom is defended “from a practical point of view” in terms of the experience of persons (AB, 159). But again, Harries is keen to show the perennial nature of this problem, returning to the Paris Condemnations to show that these same irresolvable issues are at play both in terms of the understanding of God’s freedom (Divine voluntarism vs rationalism) and human freedom (in the context of knowledge and sin).

The richly textured chapter on Kant’s antinomy of time (that draws in also Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle, Rilke and Heidegger), takes a series of perspectives on the theme. On one hand, time must be bounded (and the world must have a beginning), since otherwise there could be no foothold in time within which events could occur. But on the other hand, it makes no ordinary sense to conceive of an event outside of time, so time must be infinite. As Harries points out concerning the latter, Kant is thinking here of the idea of time as a complete and infinite whole, an incomprehensible “noumenal substrate.” Here the notion of the sublime in the third Kritik is helpful. Sublime nature, for example, cannot be phenomenonally comprehended as a whole, but it can be thought, and here reason comes to the fore even as imagination and understanding are outstripped. This power of reason to think the infinite, points to the human capacity to transcend its finitude in a certain sense at least that nonetheless conflicts with the ongoing finitude of understanding. The noumenal is thinkable, but not understandable.

It is perhaps something of a shortcoming of the book that Harries doesn’t do the detailed work of relating the structure of the Kantian antinomies in general to his proposal about the antinomy of Being as such. However, the main outlines can be inferred. The logic would seem to be that the “thesis” and “antithesis” sides of Kant’s antinomies speak to the two senses of Being that Harries delineates: the transcendental and the transcendent (or the phenomenological and the noumenal). If, for Kant, transcendental idealism was the means by which these two were held in tension, Harries would seem to be suggesting that we need a robust sense of the Holzwege that both joins and separates what Heidegger wrote of as Realität and des realen: worldly reality and the inaccessible real.[5]

The final chapters of the book (Chapter 11 on “The Rediscovery of the Earth”, and Chapter 12 on “Astronoetics”) focus on this notion of the tension between human finitude and our attractedness to the heavens, to the infinite. We live with a double truth here: we are at home in our local domestic communities even as we are aware that we dwell on a planet that is spinning through space at extraordinary speed. Some of us long to realise the ubiquitous human desire to transcend our earthly dwelling place (as seen in ancient theories and myths, from Thales, to Vitruvius, to Icarus, to Babel, to modern hot air balloons and space flight), and the recent innovation of literal astronautical transcendence of the earth’s atmosphere has given us a taste of what this might mean. In our own times, there is talk of humanity becoming a space-travelling, multi-planetary species. However, Harries insists that we remain mortals, and (for the foreseeable future) creatures of the earth. The brave new world of space flight remains parasitic on the rich and nurturing resources of our home planet. He goes on to reminds us of the long tradition of Christian suspicion of pagan hubris (Augustine vs Aristotle): yes, we are made in God’s image, but human curiosity is also at the root of the fall.

These many themes are continued into the chapter on Astronoetics. The key question here concerns the human relationship to our origin: our earthly home. Are there limits to human self-manipulation and our manipulation of the earth? In order to think through such questions, aeronautics needs to be complemented by what Hans Blumenberg termed astronoetics: the act of thinking or dreaming our way imaginatively through space while remaining “safely ensconced at home.” (AB, 189). This is eventually a matter of thinking deeply about what is at stake in human ambition. Harries presents Jean-François Lyotard and the artist Frank Stella as representatives of the alternative he terms “postmodern levity.” This approach is uninterested in what they characterise as the modern (philosophical and artistic) nostalgic longing for a “lost centre or plenitude,” instead freely revelling in immanence and innovation. If modern art, in its “unhappy consciousness” is “never quite at home in the world,” the post-modern is characterised by a resolute this-worldliness (AB, 204). If modernity looks to evoke that which is finally unpresentable, artists like Frank Stella strive to create works of art that simply satisfy, are fully present, and eschew any ambition to point beyond themselves to obscured dimensions of truth or reality. Needless to say, such an approach is the antithesis of Harries’ account of the incomprehensible presence of the real in things as ordinary and precious as the experience of other human beings and the beauty of nature (see AB, 209).

It cannot be said that Harries’ Conclusion (titled “The Snake’s Promise”) succeeds in pulling together the various threads of his rich and ambitious book. But then again, for a book that deals with the the irreducible antinomy of Being, this seems apt. There are no neat resolutions to be had here. Perhaps this is already intimated in the re-encapsulation of the meaning of the antinomy of Being with which the chapter begins: that “reality will finally elude the reach of our reason, that all attempts to comprehend it will inevitably replace reality with more or less inadequate human constructions.” (AB, 216) In musising further on Heidegger’s critique of technology, Harries shows himself to be largely on the same page as Heidegger, though he is slightly sceptical about a simplistic nostalgic call to return to a pre-industrial golden age. Science and technology have profoundly changed our context, and there is no lineal return.

However, what the final pages do provide is a concluding and scathing critique of the distortions and banishments of the real by science, by art, in education and in popular culture. Science “seeks to understand reality in order to master it” (AB, 233), but in this never-ending quest, it reduces the real through perspectivalism and objectification, alienating us from it. Second, “aestheticizing art” obscures the real insofar as in simply looking to entertain it asks nothing of us. In both cases, the real lies inaccessible and largely forgotten behind the image. In fact, neither the artist, nor the scientist, are second Gods (as per the snake’s promise in the garden), for the work of both is parasitic on the underlying reality that make them possible. Third, and worse still, is the aestheticization of thinking itself: “the transformation of humanistic scholarship into an often very ingenious intellectual game.” (AB, 233) Fourth, and worst of all, is the attempt to aestheticize reality, especially by technological means, for in this way, reality is counterfeited; the real becomes the surreal.

Where does Harries’ extraordinary book leave us? Perhaps most of all with a plea to respect the real, by making a space for its unexpected appearings, to await its uncontrolled showings, and to resist the temptation (driven by our own anxieties) to partialize or even falsify it. I can do no better than to end with Harries’ own appeal:

[E]very attempt to [manipulate reality] … makes us deaf to its claims, denies us access to its transcendence in which all meaning finally has its ground, a ground that by its very essence will not be mastered. To open windows to that reality we must find the strength to abandon the hope to take charge of reality, the hope to be in this sense like God. Only such strength will allow us to be genuinely open to the claims persons and things place on us, will let us understand that we do not belong to ourselves, that we cannot invent or imagine what will give our lives measure and direction, but have to receive and discover it. (AB, 233-34)

[1] See Karsten Harries, “The Antinomy of Being and the End of Philosophy,” in Division III of Heidegger’s Being and Time: The Unanswered Question of Being, ed. Lee Braver (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 133-47; Harries, “The Antinomy of Being: Heidegger’s Critique of Humanism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, ed. Steven Crowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 178-198; and Harries, Wahrheit: Die Architektur der Welt (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2012). For a thoughtful engagement with the last of these, see Steven Crowell, “Amphibian Dreams: Karsten Harries and the Phenomenology of ‘Human’ Reason,” in Husserl, Kant and Transcendental Phenomenology, ed. Iulian Apostolescu and Claudia Serban (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020), 479-504.

[2] For more on this, see my “Thomism and Contemporary Phenomenological Realism: Toward a Renewed Engagement,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 95, no. 3 (2021): 411–432 (esp. 417ff).

[3] Günter Figal. Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy. trans. Theodore George (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 2.

[4] For a not dissimilar reading of the dynamics at play in this area of early Heideggerian thought, and of how this plays out in his later thought, see my “The Incomprehensible ‘Unworlded World’: Nature and Abyss in Heideggerian Thought,” forthcoming in The Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology.

[5] See, e.g., Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962), 255 [SZ: 212]; Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 217 [GA20: 298].

Steven DeLay: In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith

In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith Book Cover In the Spirit: A Phenomenology of Faith
Steven DeLay
Christian Alternative Books: John Hunt Publishing

Reviewed by: Sarah Pawlett Jackson (St Mellitus College and University of London)

In the Spirit is a short text comprised of nine chapters and a conclusion. Each chapter has a loose thematic centre, which it explores associatively. The author draws out different existential threads in conversation with the Christian scriptures and a range of different works of art. There is a particular journey that the book hopes to take its reader on, although I didn’t fully appreciate this until I got to the end. Starting in darkness, with the soul asleep, journeying through resistance to conversion to a life renewed, the book ends with a vision of perfection and the pattern of a divinely ordered life.

The opening chapter – ‘A Drunkard’s Sleep’ – takes drunkenness as its phenomenological and theological meditation. In this chapter DeLay draws substantially on Adriaen van Ostade’s Drunkards in a Tavern to illuminate his various conceptual forays on this theme. He goes in a number of different directions exploring the image and experience of drunkenness. Intoxication by alcohol is associated variously with sleep, dreaming, lying, illusion, blindness, restlessness, simmering rage, hardness of heart and a failure to be satiated. These different qualities of the drunk and the addict find obvious correlates in the existential and spiritual realm. For DeLay, that which the drunk’s restless thirst longs for is ultimately the living water which Christ offers the Samaritan woman in John 4; the water that is himself. Yet the drunk ‘dulls his sensibility’ (12) to this living water, which is why there is a wakefulness, a ‘sober-mindedness’ (16) needed before it is even possible to drink from that which will satisfy. There is a particularly interesting reflection in the midst of this meandering exploration, on two types of blindness. DeLay takes us to Christ’s diagnosis in Matthew 11:18-19 of those that reject both he and John the Baptist, but for different reasons. John is rejected for his sobriety while Jesus is rejected for his so-called gluttony. As DeLay puts it: ‘Doubt, then, comes in two forms of blindness: with John, an unduly suspicious seeing that does not see what meets the eye, simply because it does not want to see it; with Christ, a self-servingly shallow seeing that sees only enough to be able to remain blind to whatever more it does not want to see.’ (18) DeLay puts the question to us – where else do these two types of blindness show up (or fail to show up) in the reader’s life and experience – the not seeing what is there and the only seeing what is there?

The second chapter – ‘The Strong Wind and a Still Small Voice’ – majors on the theme of dependence. It focuses on the Biblical story in 1 Kings 19 where the prophet Elijah is fed by an angel after waking alone and exhausted in the wilderness. DeLay considers the weakness, fragility of Elijah in his moment, which leads him to a broader reflection on the vulnerability and dependency woven through the human condition, requiring a posture of something like Løgstrup’s ‘basic trust’. He notes the ways we can resist this part of ourselves and try to maintain an illusion of independence. DeLay considers different artist’s impressions of this moment in Elijah’s story (Escalante, Bol, Maggiotto and Moretto.) These different ways of depicting the moment give us, as the reader, a way into imagining different possible postures – both of resistance and of receptivity – in Elijah in this moment, and in ourselves.

The third chapter – ‘On the Broad Way’ – circles around the theme of desire. It considers both desires locked into their own sense of themselves, as well as the possibility of a desire that leads to divine transcendence. DeLay tells us, starkly, that ‘Desire’s transfiguration, from inattentive or feverish, on the one hand, to attentive and judicious, on the other, is an upheaval of everything, that great moment of lucidity marking the fear of God.’ (35) This chapter circles back to themes from the previous two, picking up the narcotising theme from the first chapter. He again uses different pieces of visual art (Rodin and Munch) to invite us to consider different ways of seeing-as-artist, and so different ways of desiring. With echoes of Levinas he identifies the desire which hoovers the world into one’s own totalising artistic project, and an alternative which is receptive to the interruption of God.

Chapter Four is called ‘The Golden Calf.’ As its title suggests, this portion of text riffs on the theme of idolatry. Here DeLay engages with the contemporary prevalence of social media, thinking phenomenologically about the pressure it exerts to keep us preoccupied with images of ourselves. He diagnoses a new very and yet very old phenomenon, traced back to the myth of Narcissus. In an enjoyable pun, he diagnoses: ‘Narcissus, in fact, is the ancient predecessor of what for us has become rampant, a transcendental egoism consisting in the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency from God, a shallow pride leading to the pursuit of self-adoration, thereby culminating in an existence whereby one becomes one’s own idol, one’s own golden calf.’ (54) Taking this pronouncement further, he claims that this narcissism becomes ‘demonic’, because ‘divorced from the goal of becoming wise, the task of being oneself meets with failure. For underestimating evil, it fails to take adequate refuge from it.’ (65)

Chapter Five – ‘Through the Veil of the Word made Flesh’ – is something of a hinge chapter. Here DeLay tells us retrospectively what he has been seeking to do so far, and why: ‘If, then, the preceding chapters have aimed to establish one thing, it is to disclose the stupor in which we grope when we are estranged from God, whatever the particular reason is. Having fought for however long it may be to live apart from God, how will coming to know him be achievable after persisting alone? What form can a reconciliation between God and us take?’ (66) This chapter tries to illuminate the moment of conversion, where the inverted, self-satisfied ego is taken out of itself and transformed. This, then, is the frame with which to read this chapter, and the whole of the second half of the book. The exploration of a phenomenology of the closed-off life becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of conversion becomes an exploration of the phenomenology of the spiritually open and given-over life. DeLay’s orthodox answer to the question of what form divine-human reconciliation might take, is that ‘the incarnation changes everything.’ (66) It is the incarnation of God that ruptures our experience (of drunkenness, independence, feverish desire and idolatry) and addresses us. The recurring image – once again explored through the eyes of various artists, but particularly in this case, Caravaggio – is of St Paul’s Damascus Road conversion. It is Paul’s confrontation with the incarnate and reconciling person of Christ that knocks him (and us) off our horse. DeLay describes it thus: ‘The haze lifts. The riddle dissolves. Life ceases to be a Promethean project of forging an identity by way of the purposes we choose to determine for ourselves. Now, it instead takes on the pure form of a divinely appointed vocation, a task God gives us…Henceforth, the incarnation points the way for us, because Christ, while in earth, dwelling among us, leaves the pattern of life by which reaching eternal life is possible.’ (68) In the second half of this chapter he starts the constructive work of articulating what a phenomenology of this life so patterned involves. He offers a rich description of the ‘spiritual senses’ – what-it-is-like to have spiritual sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands of the heart, as it puts it) awake and attuned.

The sixth chapter – ‘The Purple Robe’– takes evil as its theme, particularly evil’s resistance to the conversion held up in the previous chapter. Different manifestations of the resistance to conversion are explored, but DeLay’s focus is evil’s pattern of denial of the truth followed by violent attack on the truth. The counter-pattern of the converted life works against this grain of denial-and-attack: ‘Displaying the futility of evil’s will to destroy the truth, Christ’s personal victory over death takes on universal significance. Having passed through suffering unto death, and back to life, his resurrection guarantees the good’s ultimate triumph over evil. Even when evil seemingly has overpowered the truth to the point of putting it to death, it fails, for the truth only rises again. This is the eternal power of the good originating beyond the world, a good having issued its first word with creation, and its last word with the resurrection.’ (102)

Work and rest are the central theme of the seventh chapter, titled ‘Apparitions of the Kingdom’. By implicit contrast to the locked-in desire and restlessness explored in earlier chapters, this is an examination of a work redeemed and a true rest that springs from outside of the self. As we find in all these chapters, DeLay offers a taxonomy of experiences. Of particular interest here is his distinction between different types of restoring rest – rest found through connection with the whole, and rest found in meditation on the dignity of the details, which he demonstrates in his discussions of Turner and Monet respectively. Again, what is offered is a phenomenology of the life spiritual – after the pattern of Christ. Rather than embroiling himself in classic philosophical debates about work and rest (usually cashed out as activity and passivity, or freedom and determinism) he rather points us to the fact that ‘metaphysical questions regarding God’s relation to creation and the relation between divine and human action are resolved simply by imitating Christ.’ (109)

‘Paul and the Philosophers’, DeLay’s eight chapter, takes wisdom as its theme. Paul’s famous sermon to the Greeks at Mars Hill is explored through various painterly depictions (Raphael, Ricco, Fortuny, Pannini and Rothermel.) The wisdom that is the pattern of Christ DeLay describes as ‘a third way’ (120) between the wisdom of the Greek philosophers (both Stoic and Epicurean) and the Jewish wisdom tradition from which Paul himself comes. Most pertinently for the philosophers reading this text, DeLay puts forward the suggestion that intellectualism’s sceptical posture can be destructive not only as a form of idolatry, but also as a form of superstition. For ‘when the truth has been revealed, and one persists in ignorance, what previously had been an admirable attitude of epistemic modesty itself becomes superstition, for it clings to an ignorance that has ceased to be warranted.’ (125) By contrast, Paul preaches obedience to the truth revealed, the person of Christ himself.

Chapter Nine, ‘The World’, considers the theme of overcoming. The Biblical stories paired and explored through artworks here are that of St John’s Revelation on the island of Patmos, and Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. The connection hangs on Patmos as a site of temptation similar to that of Christ’s wilderness. Drawing on both stories, DeLay gives an account the work and experience of overcoming – overcoming the world, overcoming temptation and (rightly) overcoming oneself. Christ is again the pattern book for this existential task. In refusing Satan’s attempts to get him to use his power in the wilderness he shows us, for example, that real power does not always need to show itself, and this is the kind of overcoming that our more spiritually alive selves are called to.

We come to the Conclusion, which is titled ‘Perfection’. The telos of the journey is held before us to continually elevate us, to remind us of the nobility that is possible and to-be-pursued. ‘Existence assumes the form of faith, for it becomes a stretching forth, a perpetual exodus always in patience seeking after the heavenly city, rather than turning back to idle aimlessly where it had begun.’ (150) And yet lest we forget, we are reminded – ‘nobody begins elsewhere than with mercy.’ (151)

My experience of reading this book was that each chapter was something like a homily – less primarily a piece of conceptual analysis (although this is wound through DeLay’s prose) and more of a moral, spiritual and existential exhortation. Or perhaps the foreground use of artworks makes this book feel like visiting a gallery with someone, attending with them, jointly attending and seeing what they see. I could imagine a sermon or lecture companion series to this text. Knowing now the homiletic quality of the text, I might have chosen to read it differently. I suspect that the best way to approach this book is not to read it too quickly, but to treat each chapter as a meditation, pausing between each. There are strands of connection between the chapters, but similarly, one could easily read each chapter as standalone. As so much of the book involves discussion of unseen works of art, reading in a space where one has access to a high resolution screen to search for the images will probably serve this more tuned-in and contemplative reading. (Learn from this reader’s mistake – don’t read on the London Underground with no Wi-Fi to search for images). In an ideal world this book would have included all the images it refers to, but there are a huge number of artworks engaged, which would no doubt have been a huge cost and headache to compile.

Although I want to say that this is a homiletic piece of work, it is also certainly reads as a primary piece of phenomenology in the tradition of Christian existentialism. DeLay’s energy is not directed towards any secondary analysis of any other thinkers – the text is focused on making its own declarations, analyses and exhortations. The prose has a meandering and associative quality, with themes built on implicitly, and in a non-linear way. The form of the book seems to want to evoke some of the texture of our experiential and existential existence. It has no introduction, no framing, no signposting, no overview. We are dropped straight into the meditation on drunkenness and sleep with the question: ‘Am I in darkness?’ Initially I found this jarring and disorientating, but, in settling in to DeLay’s prose, I take it that this abruptness is intentional, evoking our thrownness and the disoriented sense of waking from sleep, not knowing quite where we are or what it is to find ourselves awake (or are we?)

As a work of phenomenology, the extent to which the reader will find it valuable will be the extent to which the rich phenomenological descriptions that DeLay paints resonate with the lived experience of the reader, or not. For this reader, there were many points at which the text spoke to my lived experience – see above, on blindness and intellectualism particularly. On this point I would be fascinated to speak to others who have also read the text. This text is accessible to the engaged and interested reader of any stripe – no previous expertise in philosophy is needed, although my suspicion is that the book may split a room. This is a book that I wish I had been able to read with others, to find out what did and didn’t resonate with them, what they saw, felt or noticed in reading this book that I didn’t, what rubbed them the wrong way. I am particularly curious as to how the book’s assertions might land with those who do not share the theological commitments that are made foreground. For this reader, immersed in and committed to the Christian faith, the theological assumptions are a familiar landscape in which I live, move and have my being. But how might the non-believer respond to the assertion that ‘the incarnation changes everything?’ This of course raises something of the meta-question of the nature, significance and legitimacy of the theological turn in phenomenology, although I think DeLay is rightly unapologetic in assuming that this kind of theological phenomenology is legitimate. I am interested less here in the meta-philosophical question and more in the interpersonal and experiential one: what-is-it-like for an atheist to read this book? There are many kinds of atheist, of course, so there will not be one answer to this question. My sense is that there are flavours and textures of human experience which DeLay puts words to, in conversation with art and scripture, which make this work the kind of site where theists and atheists can dialogue…but I seek the atheist’s opinion here.

In a similar vein, I am also curious as to how the tone and feel of the book is received by a non-Christian audience. The sermonising quality of DeLay’s writing has a certain severity or heaviness to it. This is a descriptive rather than critical point – again, the quality of a primary existential text (as we find in the likes of Kierkegaard, Levinas and friends) definitionally has a confronting tone. I would love to know for whom else this is a holy confrontation, and whether there are those for whom it leaves cold as moralising. One person’s aphorism is another’s cliché. Maybe all existential writing runs this risk, and there is a boldness to DeLay’s unironic frontal delivery which, in a philosophical landscape typically concerned with caveats and an obsession with narrowing the scope of a set of claims, is refreshing. As I say – I am curious to know where this text leads others.

Emmanuel Alloa: Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media

Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media Book Cover Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media
Emmanuel Alloa. Translated by Nils F. Schott. Afterword by Andrew Benjamin.
Columbia University Press
Paperback $35.00 £28.00

Reviewed by: David Collins (SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford)

Looking Through Images: A Phenomenology of Visual Media is an English translation of Emmanuel Alloa’s Das durchscheinende Bild: Konturen einer medialen Phänomenologie, which was first published in German in 2011 after having been presented as the author’s doctoral thesis in 2009. The range and breadth of Alloa’s knowledge of thinkers and views from different periods in the history of western philosophy is impressive, ranging from Ancient Greece through the early modern period and into the twentieth century, and including thinkers from different philosophical traditions, engaging with analytic philosophers of art such as Nelson Goodman and Richard Wollheim as well as the phenomenological and ‘continental’ philosophers in relation to whose ideas Alloa’s own account is mainly situated. However, due in part to the number and diversity of figures covered and the space required to present even a cursory account of their views, the book’s wide-ranging discussion ultimately fails to come together into a single—or even a coherently conjunctive—focus, with at least three aims being discernable that are never fully realized in a way that fulfills the initial promise of Alloa’s introduction.

One thing that this work aims to do is to analyze and give a theory of what it is for something to be an image—the ‘image-ness’ of images, as it were; their ‘pictoriality’—which Alloa contends remains largely unexamined in academic discourse despite the recent popularity of image-centric inter-disciplinary fields such as ‘visual studies’ and ‘media studies.’ Connected with this first concern, Alloa is also interested in explaining how images operate, or their distinct place in human experience and their importance within our socio-cultural world, and is guided by a phenomenological approach in investigating both concerns. “Th[e] book is conceived,” he notes upfront, “as a phenomenology of the way we deal with visual media and as a rehabilitation of images as irreplaceable agents of our everyday opening up of world” (3).

In particular, Alloa seeks to present an alternative to the widespread understanding of images as just, or primarily, representations, arguing that although an image is always an image of something, an image’s nature qua image goes beyond anything that could be called its ‘content’, where he calls this transcendence of (re)presentational content “iconic excess” and insists that this excess is itself “genuinely visible or phenomenal” (Ibid.). Rather than subordinating images to what they are images of, as secondary (i.e., ‘re-‘) presentations or copies of an original, and rather than understanding pictorial expression as derivative of verbal expression, which he thinks the currently dominant approaches to theorizing and understanding images are guilty of doing, Alloa wants to attend more to how things are presented in images than to what is presented. This distinction between what an image is of and the image qua image—including how the images presents, or is of, what it is of—might seem at first to mirror the two directions in visual studies that Alloa calls the ‘transparency’ and ‘opacity’ paradigms, respectively. His concern with images qua images rather than what they are of does not take the form of an interest in images as ‘opaque,’ since the latter involves an interest in the thing that bears an image—a painting, a photograph, etc.—qua material object—e.g., as a canvas of a certain size, shape, and weight with coloured pigments applied to it surface, or as a strip of celluloid containing arrangements of grains of silver halide—, and since Alloa takes both this approach and the ‘transparency’ approach, which looks past an image-bearing object’s materiality and pictorial surface to what is depicted therein, to overlook how something exists and operates qua image in the first place.

There are some claims that Alloa makes when introducing the basics of his view of images that seem odd or paradoxical at first glance. For instance, he claims that he takes images not to be phenomena themselves, strictly speaking, but rather to be media in which things appear, writing that a central part of the nature of images is that “they do not themselves appear but in them show something other than what they are” (5). One might wonder how a phenomenological approach can be usefully taken toward something that is not itself a phenomenon, and how what one can come to understand by taking such an approach will be the nature or operation of images, if they are not phenomena, instead of the related phenomena that are claimed to be shown through images. One might also wonder whether Alloa is right to say that images “do not … appear,” which seems to entail that we never perceive images, only what they are of and the objects that bear them. To claim that images are not perceived raises the question of just what is meant by ‘images’ here, since it would seem to go against most ordinary uses of this word.

This apparent difficulty may be resolved by noting that another of Alloa’s aims in the book is not only to apply a phenomenological approach to the study of images but to propose a new kind of phenomenological approach, which he calls ‘medial phenomenology,’ as an alternative to Husserlian ‘transcendental’ or ‘eidetic’ phenomenology. Framed against his claims that all phenomenal appearances are mediated, his own account might be understood as taking images to be media for appearances themselves rather than for independent objects that appear ‘through’ them. However, whether this view of images as media for appearances, rather than appearances themselves, is convincing, and so whether this helps resolve the difficulty, must be seen by considering how Alloa develops his twin concerns with pictoriality and mediation.

The book is divided into five chapters, with each chapter containing ten sections, although the reason for this uniform number of sections is not obvious. The division seems to be arbitrary at best: with some chapters, the inclusion of ten sections feels unnecessary and seems to be done for the sake of symmetry rather than from any organic need; with others, the division of some sections into further sub-sections (e.g., 3.4a–f; 5.7a–j) suggests that more than ten sections may have been warranted given the topics covered in the chapters. Although they are meant to follow one another in a thematic progression, for the most part each chapter can be read on its own, with the connections between chapters often being loose or general.

Chapter 1 focuses on the place of images in early Greek philosophy, centring on Plato’s dispute with the Sophists over the ontological status and value of images. Alloa contends that this question of the image has an important place in the ‘foundations’ of western philosophy itself, with the role that Plato’s answer to this question plays in his refutation of the Sophists setting the agenda for the subsequent course of metaphysics and epistemology. Specifically, Alloa sees Plato’s suspicion of images to be at the root of what he claims is philosophy’s ‘iconophobia,’ which explains what Alloa claims is a relative lack of philosophical accounts of, or engagements with questions about, the nature of images qua images. As well as containing a survey and explication of the ancient debate over images and their relation to truth and knowledge—or what we might call their cognitive significance—this is the chapter in which the dual paradigms of transparency and opacity are introduced and the ancient roots of the present forms of these paradigms are traced, with the transparency paradigm being linked to the notion that images make objects present to us so that, for instance, when we see a painted portrait of a family member or public figure, we are given access to something of that person’s essence through a kind of metaphysical ‘participation’ or methexis of the person (or object) in the painting. The opacity paradigm, on the other hand, holds that images are just marked surfaces, so that when one sees, for instance, a painting of some object, what one sees is only a flat material surface bearing an arrangement of coloured pigments that in some way resembles that object, where this resemblance can arouse thoughts of that object but where one does not perceive this object itself in any sense ‘through’ the painting. Early versions of each paradigm can be seen in the debate between Plato and the Sophists with, e.g., sophistical claims for the broad expertise of artists grounded in their ability to represent a wide variety of subjects being linked to the transparency paradigm, and the platonic denial of this expertise, with the reduction of images to ‘copies of copies’ doubly removing them from the proper objects of knowledge, being aligned with the opacity paradigm.

Chapter 2 stays with Ancient Greek thought but shifts the focus to Aristotle and his account of perception as being necessarily mediated, with Alloa reconstructing and attempting to rehabilitate a notion of ‘the diaphanous’ as a general medium of perception through which phenomena of all kinds appear. Chapter 3 looks at how this idea of the diaphanous as a medium for perception was taken up and used by thinkers after Aristotle, presenting a survey that ranges from later Hellenistic and early Medieval philosophers such as Themistius, Plotinus, and Aquinas up to early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Berkeley. Because the book’s initial concern with images takes a back seat in these chapters to a discussion of mediality and of perceptual appearance in general, it is not immediately clear how these chapters are meant to relate. Fortunately, the latter half of the third chapter ties together the central topics of the first two by framing various thinkers’ appeals to the idea of ‘diaphaneity’ in terms of the transparency and opacity paradigms. However, these ideas are still mainly applied here to ideas of a transparent medium, with a discussion of images only coming into play at the end of the chapter. As a result, the relevance or importance of some of the figures discussed in the third chapter is not clear, apart from their being thinkers who make some mention of the diaphanous. To be fair, this may be an artifact of the book’s origin as a doctoral dissertation, a genre for which literature reviews and demonstrations of a broad knowledge in the history of philosophy are expected. Nevertheless, the number of thinkers and ideas covered in this chapter does not allow for the more in-depth explication or analysis that might have helped tie these ideas together and show their relevance for Alloa’s overall project.

Chapter 4 puts the focus back on images and traces a different history involving a different period in philosophy: that of the place of images and the idea of a perceptual medium in the phenomenological tradition, running from Brentano and Husserl up through Sartre to Fink, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida. This chapter helps to connect the initially disparate ideas discussed in the previous chapters, with the first six of the ten sections focusing more on images—especially in relation to Husserl and Sartre—and sections seven to ten discussing the idea of perception as being mediated. It also sets the stage for the last chapter by leading us to see Alloa’s proposed medial phenomenology and its application to an analysis of images’ pictoriality as both part of a strand of thinking running through the phenomenological tradition and a continuation of the twentieth century development of these ideas. The discussions in this chapter of image-consciousness in Husserl and Sartre, and of Merleau-Ponty’s late ontology of ‘flesh’ (chair) as itself offering a kind of medial account of perception and experience, are particularly interesting and are worth the consideration of students and authors who are working on these topics.

These discussions, however, are not given enough space to do more than scratch the surface of the elements of these phenomenologists’ theories that are relevant to Alloa’s project—e.g., the discussion of Merleau-Ponty is only given a six-and-a-half page section at the end of the chapter—, where expanded discussions of all three thinkers would have been more valuable and would have helped to flesh out, and add depth to, the original positions that Alloa develops in his next and final chapter. The feeling that this chapter’s discussion of phenomenological thinkers has been given ‘short shrift’ to some degree increases when one notices that the thinkers and ideas discussed in the first three chapters do not directly tie into or set up the views in this chapter, leading to a feeling that the book’s chapters remain somewhat disconnected, despite each dealing with one or both of the two central topics. Because the discussions in the first three chapters, interesting though they are, are not strictly necessary to lead up to the discussion of twentieth century phenomenologists in this chapter, it is difficult not to think that an expansion of this chapter into two, or even three, chapters, along with the final chapter—possibly also expanded—would have worked better as a self-contained book, or at least if accompanied by a shorter discussion of the historical background in Plato and Aristotle in a single opening chapter. (Again, one wonders if this is largely an artifact of the book’s origins as a doctoral dissertation.)

Chapter 5 is the core of the book in both its length and substance: here, Alloa presents his original positions on the topics that have been discussed in the previous chapters. These primarily consist in (i) a medial phenomenology (or ‘diaphenomenology,’ as he also calls it) that is meant to offer an alternative to existing approaches to phenomenology, especially the eidetic and transcendental phenomenology of Husserl and those influenced by him, and (ii) an account of iconicity—i.e., of what it is for something to be an image—that is framed, after Nelson Goodman, as a ‘symptomatology’ rather than a definition framed in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. With respect to the latter, Alloa’s account features ten ‘symptoms’ that paradigmatically characterize images, viz.:

(a) ellipsis, by which Alloa means that images are always of a fixed aspect of an object and never the whole object, and are always specific rather than general;

(b) synopticity, which involves the simultaneous rather than sequential presentation of an image’s components as well as a phenomenal, if not always a literal, two-dimensionality or flatness;

(c) framing, as a way of both structuring the visual space of an image and marking it out from the rest of the phenomenal world;

(d) presentativity, meaning just that an image presents something to view by showing it rather than by ‘telling’ us about it or presenting it discursively;

(e) figurality, where exactly what this is is not entirely clear, but which Alloa ties to the evidentiary potential of images as well as to the idea that an image is always more than a sum of its individualizable ‘parts;’

(f) deixis, or depiction, which Alloa differentiates from both reference and representation;

(g) ostensivity, which has three forms: exemplification—where there is no distinction between the surface or bearer of an image and what the image shows—ostension—involving presenting something by pointing to it—and bareness—which refers to the possibility of an image not showing anything other than what it is as a material object, and which Alloa explains by talking of images “externalizing themselves” (262);

(h) variation sensitivity, which combines what Goodman calls ‘syntactic density’ and ‘relative repleteness,’ and, briefly put, is a matter of any change to one part of an image also making a change to the image as a whole;

(i) chiasmic gazes, which involves the image being a locus or meeting-place for two points of view, with the image both standing out to the viewer and drawing the viewer’s gaze inwards, where this is expressed in the metaphor of an image ‘looking back’ at those who look at it;

(j) seeing-with, which is Alloa’s addition to the categories of seeing-in and seeing-as that are familiar in philosophical discussions of images, whereby images are taken to mediate our seeing of their objects rather than our literally seeing images as what they are of, or our being limited to seeing the object in the image.

It is understandable that Alloa should want to avoid formulating an essence of pictoriality by giving necessary and sufficient conditions for something being an image, due to current suspicions of this kind of definition. However, it is not clear how gathering together these ten ‘symptoms’—i.e., features or characteristics that images of various kinds often have—adds to existing understandings of the nature of images since, with the exception of ‘seeing-with,’ each symptom picks out an already familiar feature of many types of image. If the claim were that all of these symptoms together, or some majority of them, is sufficient for something to count as an image, bringing together these otherwise independent features might be useful. Alternately, if more than the last symptom were novel, it would more clearly enhance our understanding of what it is to be an image. But with it being possible to be an image without having any of these features or symptoms (because none is necessary), or to have any number of them without being an image (because none is sufficient), this list does not obviously help us understand the nature and function of images as such, or what in virtue of which something is and functions as an image. In contrast, the symptom-based account of art that is found in Nelson Goodman’s aesthetics, which Alloa takes as the model for his own symptomatology, gives us insight into the nature and function of artworks qua art by highlighting features of art that had not often been thematized as such, and by letting us treat possession of all of the features or symptoms as being practically sufficient for something to count as art, and possession of at least one symptom as practically necessary for arthood, without any strictly logical entailment.

Aside from this worry about these symptoms giving us a useful account of pictoriality, there are further questions that can be raised about the individual symptoms on the list. For one thing, the difference between the three symptoms that Alloa calls ‘figurality,’ ‘presentativity,’ and ‘deixis’ is not made clear, and these could likely be presented as one symptom. For another, the second symptom, ‘synopticity,’ seems to contain elements that are distinct from one another and so would be better if presented as two symptoms, viz., the simultaneous rather than sequential presentation of an image’s ‘parts,’ and an image’s flatness. It is not only unclear what these features have to do with one another (consider: a large mural might be flat, but its flatness does not allow a viewer to take in its components in one glance), but it is not clear that the parts of an image are not commonly—or even perhaps necessarily—experienced in some sequence or other by the percipient, even if no sequence is specified by the image itself (but, then again, techniques of composition typically allow for a painter or photographer to lead viewers to attend to various parts of an image in a certain order). Further worries might be raised about the three characteristics that Alloa brings together under ‘ostensivity:’ one might wonder whether objects that exemplify certain properties are properly considered images (e,g., paint samples are not ‘images’ of the colour they exemplify); what Alloa calls ‘ostension’ seems, from his examples, to be more a matter of an image depicting an act of pointing than of an image itself pointing; and what he calls ‘bareness’ is, like exemplification, not clearly a characteristic of images per se, but rather would seem to apply to anything that appears—and one might wonder where the medium is through which the appearance appears when the appearance is a ‘bare’ one in Alloa’s terms. (It is also not clear how ‘bareness’ is a case of ostensivity, unless one takes every visible object to be ‘pointing to’ itself—but if one does, the notion of ‘pointing’ would need to be revised at risk of becoming otiose.)

The final symptom, ‘seeing-with,’ links Alloa’s account of pictoriality to his concern with mediation since it positions images as media for seeing things ‘through,’ i.e., via, them, and thereby to the theory of medial phenomenology that he aims to develop as this chapter’s other main focus. However, how exactly Alloa conceives of this medial phenomenology qua phenomenology or method, and why it should be accepted or seen as preferable to other approaches to phenomenological investigation or analysis, is unfortunately not made clear. The main idea seems to be that every appearance is an appearing-through something else, which is to say that every appearance is mediated by that through which it appears, but a case is not made for why this claim should be accepted. At one point (223-24), Alloa seems to be arguing that Husserl’s insistence that we only perceive an adumbration or aspect of an object at any one time entails that our perception of things is mediated through these adumbrations or partial views. However, this is not a case of our perceiving one thing through another thing, since the adumbration is an aspect of the object that we perceive and not a separate object: we perceive a table, for example, by seeing one side of it or one angle on it at a time, where any perception of a side or an angle just is a perception of that table, and where each side or angle—i.e., each adumbration—is not itself an entity distinct from the table and so cannot sensibly be said to be one thing that the table, as another thing, is seen ‘through.’ In Husserlian terms, what seems to be going on here is something akin to a confusion of part of an experience’s noetic content with an additional object over and above the object intended in the experience (i.e., the noema). However, a way of experiencing something is not itself a ‘thing,’ or at least not a thing in the same ontological sense in which the thing experienced is, and so it is not clear how any conclusion about the mediated nature of all appearing follows from this, or why this apparent ontological doubling is warranted.

Without making a case for why one should accept that every appearance appears through something other than itself, the grounds and motivation for adopting a medial phenomenology as one’s approach to studying all phenomenal appearances, or experience more broadly, would seem to be lacking; and this is in addition to what exactly ‘medial phenomenology’ involves not being outlined clearly. Alloa does state that “[t]he research domain of medial phenomenology would … concern above all the medial difference between that which appears and that through which it appears” (224), but little indication is given of how this difference between medium and appearance is to be investigated. If this chapter’s discussion of images as one type of appearance is meant to demonstrate how this medial phenomenology will work when applied to some other type of appearance or phenomenon, more could be said to make the methodological principles in this discussion more explicit, and to address the question of whether these principles would apply beyond a particular concern with images. More could also be said to clarify how what Alloa is proposing is distinct from, and why it is preferable to, existing approaches in phenomenology that might also be called ‘medial,’ especially Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy of ‘flesh’ which positions what he calls flesh as a kind of medium in and through which perception occurs, with flesh mediating our access to and awareness of objects.

Aside from the question of just what medial phenomenology involves as a phenomenology, one might think that an approach to investigating phenomena in terms of their mediation and the medium through which they are mediated would make sense—or at least be more plausible—when applied to images rather than to all phenomena that ‘appear.’ Still, there is some confusion over what exactly the medium is here. In most places, Alloa explicitly takes the image itself to be the medium (see again the remarks from p. 5 quoted at the beginning of this review), but in other places it seems more plausible to interpret his remarks as taking the image-bearing object, or ‘image-surface,’ to be the medium. On the first understanding, taking an image itself to be a medium raises the question of what it is mediating or allowing us to encounter through it. Images, in general and as such, are not plausibly media for the perception or appearing of what is referred to as the ‘image-subject,’ i.e., the thing in the world that an image is an image of, since it is not, for example, the person herself who appears in a painted portrait of her—although, arguably, the subject of a photograph is seen through the photograph as per Kendall Walton’s photographic transparency thesis, which gets a passing mention on p. 149. Moreover, in some cases—e.g., drawings of unicorns—what an image is ‘of’ does not exist and so cannot be itself perceived or appear, whether through the image or in any other way. On the other hand, if it is the ‘image-object,’ i.e., the phenomenal figure encountered an image that may or may not represent a subject or depict some kind of thing by having a certain shape or appearance, that is what appears through a medium, this would seem to make the image-surface the medium. It is unclear what else, apart from these candidates, could be the medium here, and the second interpretation seems more plausible with the image-bearing object—a paint-covered canvas, paper marked with ink, etc.—being the medium through which the image-object appears. It is, after all, most natural (at least in English) to talk of the image-object as an appearance, where this is a way of appearing of the image-bearing object, not in the sense that it is what makes the image-bearing object visible but in the sense that it is a ‘look’ that this object ‘has’ when marked, arranged, or otherwise organized in a certain way. However, more needs to be said to show why this could not be explained adequately with the notions of ‘seeing-in’ and ‘seeing-as,’ and why it is necessary to appeal to the further notion of ‘seeing-with’ that Alloa introduces.Although the last several considerations have been largely critical in tone, I do not want to give the impression of having a wholly negative assessment of Alloa’s book. The breadth and scope of Alloa’s knowledge of different thinkers, eras, and philosophical traditions, and of the range of views on images that are discussed, is impressive, and there is much to interest scholars working on theories of perception or visual aesthetics in one of the thinkers, traditions, or time periods (e.g., Ancient Greece) that are covered here. Also, many of Alloa’s individual points about the nature and function of images are insightful and worth engaging with, especially the points he makes in connection with the many examples he discusses, and to the ten ‘illuminations’ that he intersperses throughout the main text which are extended analyses of specific examples that touch on or are tangentially related to, but do not always directly tie into, what is being discussed in the sections in which they occur.

Nevertheless, there are some significant issues that detract from the value that this book might have had, most notably the lack of a clear focus or aim throughout. Is the main aim of the book to give a theory of the nature and function of images, or to develop a medial phenomenology, or to give a genealogical account of the concepts that still feature prominently in our thinking about images? The chapters and sections jump back and forth between each of these three aims, resulting in not enough space or attention being devoted to any one of them to fully and clearly develop a novel theory of pictoriality, or a medial phenomenology, or a comprehensive history of ideas about images and visual appearance in western philosophy. The genealogical aim is the most successfully realized, although certain thinkers whom one would expect to find included in such a history, such as Spinoza, Hume, and Kant, or Bergson and Deleuze, are conspicuously absent. This gives the book an unfocused, somewhat disjointed feel that never quite gets resolved by having these strands of inquiry get tied together in the final chapter, where this leaves some intriguing and promising ideas underdeveloped. While a longer book that had space for a fuller development of each focus and an ending that brings them all together would not have been ideal, simply due to considerations of length, all of this might have been accomplished better in two books, one being a history of thinking about images leading to an original ‘symptomatological’ account of image-ness or pictoriality, and the other being a history of thinking about perception as mediated, leading to a novel—and a more clearly explained and defended—form of medial phenomenology.