Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World

The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin Book Cover The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin
Jean-Luc Nancy, Pierre-Philippe Jandin, translated by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press

Reviewed by: Rona Cohen (Tel Aviv University)

The Possibility of a World is a transcript of a conversation between Pierre-Philippe Jandin and the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. The conversation, which broaches topics spanning philosophy, art history, ethics, politics, religion, community, the Bible, the French Revolution and beyond, exhibits the wide and almost unprecedented scope of Nancy’s writings. This journey through Nancy’s thought is guided by the careful and considered questions of Pierre-Philippe Jandin who, in playing an active role in the conversation, challenges and provokes Nancy with testing questions and comments. An important statement precedes the conversation: “in accordance with J-L Nancy’s wishes, we have attempted to preserve the spontaneity of oral discussion […]”. Owing to this, the reader finds herself standing “on the threshold” (to use Nancy’s phrase from an essay of the same name), observing a scene. This scene, or conversation, is composed of nine chapters, each devoted to a specific topic, and beginning with a question that dictates the direction of the discussion. However, unlike a well-planned interview, the charm of this conversation lies in its associative, non-linear (and not always well-explained) façons de parler.

In keeping with Nancy’s central preoccupation regarding the ontology of plurality as a fundamental ontology, what presides over the entire conversation is a concern with the need to rethink ethics in a “world [that] is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd” (28). In other words, a world that is neither harmonious nor orderly (in the sense of the Greek ‘cosmos’), but rather an irreducible plurality of worlds. Furthermore, this claim extends beyond the argument about the plurality of worlds, since what is at issue is “the plural itself as a principle”,[i] irrespective of whether it concerns politics, the thought of community, or the plurality of the Arts. These modes of plurality, and the consequent requirement to rethink ethics, preoccupy the body of this conversation.

The Possibility of the World does not—and is not intended to—introduce Nancy’s philosophy to the “novice”. Instead, it represents a journey through Nancy’s thought, with which we are already familiar. Owing to this, the book reads as though it were a director’s cut, adding another dimension to a movie or biopic. Given the broad scope of each chapter, in addition to their associative manner, I have chosen only to elaborate on the central issues evoked by each chapter, rather than reviewing chapters in their entirety.

The conversation commences with a preliminary, autobiographical chapter entitled “Formative Years”. This concerns Nancy’s childhood until his mid 20s. On this topic, Jandin begins with a provocative and ironic question:

How did you become a philosopher? Especially since you gave a lecture in 2002 at the Centre Pompidou entitled: “I Never Became a Philosopher.” What’s this non-becoming, then? (1)

Nancy replies:

I didn’t become a philosopher because I’ve always been one. All that I’ve known, or all that I’ve experienced, took place against a background that I wouldn’t call philosophical, though it’s close to it— a background of interest in the things of thought, in conceptions. (2)

The first chapter explores Nancy’s philosophical upbringing.

Nancy’s entry into the world, as Jandin puts it, unfolds in a time of turbulence. Born 1940 in the “thick of World War II” in occupied France, the young Nancy spent most of his childhood in Baden Baden, Germany, owing to his father’s work. As a young boy, Nancy recalls finding great pleasure in “meandering alone in nature” (3), but also, if not especially, in the solitude of reading, which he experienced as “a withdrawal from the rest of the world […] which was an entrance into another world” (3). In 1951, the family returned to France and the young boy entered French school in the middle of sixth grade, which he had in fact commenced already in a French lycée in Germany. He would later on join the Young Christian Students (YCS), a youth movement oriented towards leftist Catholicism, which he recounts as providing the “initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8):

As I realized much later, this was certainly the beginning of something for me, the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense [sens]. The biggest revelation that I had through this exercise was that, in a text, there is practically an infinite reserve of sense […] Basically, this is what I was trained to do: One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite. (7)

While the Catholic orientation of that movement provided the adolescent Nancy with his first encounter of biblical texts and their inexhaustible fount of sense, this encounter eventually culminated in a crisis of faith:

Suddenly the mere possibility of being in what I could think of as a relationship to God— addressing him, having to recognize myself as a sinner, having to confess, having to receive the communion of the body of Christ—all of this had completely lost any substance. (9)

Thus, while the YCS, with its religious orientation, provided the initial path to social and political advocacy, the young Nancy discovered that it was not the only path to becoming socially and politically engaged. Moreover, on account of his distancing from religion, he was increasingly drawn to philosophy. The first philosopher mentioned in this long conversation is Jacques Derrida, whose writings he came upon in 1964 (at the age of 24), and on whose philosophy he writes “I felt that something was bursting open. There was a timeliness to this thought […] A new language was trying, at least, to find itself” (14). However, even earlier on he had discovered Hegel and Heidegger (an encounter that Nancy elaborates on in “Heidegger in France”).[ii]

However, above all it was Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that formed part of the aggregation that left the strongest impression on the young Nancy. Kant’s legacy, Nancy argues, is “enormous”, and far “greater than [Hegel’s]” (18). What changes with Kant is that there is no longer a distinction between the domain of pure reason and the domain of praxis, since after Kant “pure reason is itself practical, which is why it doesn’t need a critique, but rather a critique of its use” (19). Another leitmotif of Nancy’s writings was his preoccupation with the question of the relationship between the sensible and the intelligible, around which the entire Kantian critical corpus revolves (and which is referred to within Kant scholarship as “the Nature-Freedom problem”). These concerns, deemed the one thing “that had never been thought by metaphysics” (20) according to Kant writing to Marcus Herz, were centrally important to Nancy’s own writings, as evidenced (inter alia) in The Muses, Corpus, and The Ground of the Image.

As far as Nancy was concerned, challenging the distinction between pure and practical, sensible and intelligible, constituted a project originating in Kant. Such concerns inevitably move us away from the domain of the first Critique and its study into the possibility of a priori sensibility, to the domain of the third Critique, and its study into a different mode of sensibility.

It is here that the discussion turns to art and its difference from philosophy. “I envy the artist”, Nancy admits, because they “manage to do things which are real!” while “I have a feeling that my texts are too oriented towards the conceptual”. Philosophers “are a group of people who want clarity” (21). On this point, one need only recall Descartes’ fundamental distinction between clear and distinct ideas (as opposed to obscure and confused ideas) in The Passions of the Soul. While Western metaphysics is haunted by the metaphor of light, the artist has the freedom to dwell in the shadows. “I look into the night and enter it”, Nancy quotes Bataille, “but no philosopher truly takes it upon themselves to do that because philosophers are supposed to introduce light into the world” (21). For Nancy, philosophy is not an escape from a cave towards the bright light of the Idea. Philosophy is rather a dwelling-place between light and shadow, between philosophy and poesies: it is a form of writing that encroaches upon a reality that is irreducible to the conceptual, and which, in Nancy’s words, is an ex-scription (a writing from the outside). As he remarks, “words and ideas are not only words and ideas but the circulation of the real”.

The first chapter culminates with this ethically toned remark:

Human beings no longer live in the world in the sense of Hölderlin, reprised by Heidegger, when he writes: “poetically, man dwells.” “To dwell” [habiter] means to be in the habitus, not in the habit but in the “disposition,” an active disposition. In the end, habitus is not far from ethos; what we need is an ethics of the world. This is perhaps the greatest issue of Western civilization, which has now become worldwide [mondiale], or global [globale]—to have had this will to transform the world in order to make it a human world […] This is what Heidegger meant when he introduced what we translate as “Being-in-the-world” (in-der-Welt-sein); to say that the existent, the Dasein, is essentially in the world simply means that it’s necessarily involved in the circulation of meaning or sense, which is what makes a world. (26)

Notwithstanding this Heideggerian-toned observation, Nancy ends up invoking Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become a universal law of nature”:

The imperative is what has been given to human beings in order to make a world, in the end, this means that what’s at stake is to make or remake a world. (27)

This world, which has become an object of knowledge “is at the same time a world where human beings’ presence […] has been pushed aside” (26). We no longer live in the world as beings-in-the-world, we flee from this existential, from this mode of being, and in doing that we flee from our essence as existence.

Nancy interprets Kant’s principle of universality as the ethical obligation of each of us to remake a world, recreating it for the type of being that we ourselves are—Dasein—in order to recapitulate the question of being and our relationship to our being through this creation.

The second conversation, entitled “The World”, picks up the question of ethics and the remaking of the world in connection to one of the fundamental concerns of Nancy’s philosophy, namely the theme of plurality.[iii] Jandin begins by quoting Nancy’s argument in Corpus:

Our world is no longer simply a cosmos, a mundus, partes extra partes (an extension of distinct places), but the world of the human crowd, the non-place of a proliferating population, “[an] endless, generalized, departure.” (28)

Today it is no longer possible to sustain thought about the world in terms of a cosmos in the Greek sense, that is, a uni-verse that is harmonious, beautiful, unified, and total. This narrative is no longer valid, not only philosophically, as Nancy remarks; it is also scientifically untenable: “today astrophysics is compelled in a way to think a plurality of worlds” (30), a multiverse rather than a universe. This thought has two repercussions: “that we no longer can retain the model of a single universe”, but additionally that:

from now on all theories of physics have to think of themselves as a construction of fictions. Moreover, in The New Scientific Spirit, Bachelard writes, in effect, that: [Instruments] are nothing but theories materialized. The phenomena they produce bear the stamp of theory throughout. […] [We] produce, we multiply new objects according to several approaches, and thus we manage to produce several worlds. It’s better to say, perhaps, in order to avoid harming the spontaneous, realistic feeling, that we produce several possibilities of worlds or even several fictions of worlds. Nevertheless, even this word, fiction, is dangerous because it could allow one to think that behind this fictional world lies the true world, when we are perhaps moving past the representation of science as an objective knowledge that comes closer to a real that exists in itself. (30)

The plurality of worlds, an expression coined by Fontenelle that Nancy appropriates as the subtitle of his essay, “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?: (conversation on the Plurality of Worlds)”,[iv] refers to plurality as ontological principle rather than as empirical ontic idea, which merely points to the diversity of our world. Referring to this essay, Jandin remarks:

 […] the multiplicity of the “arts” can’t be subsumed under the unity of a concept of “Art,” you insist on the irreducibility of plurality. It’s the world itself that’s plural, and plurality or space is, so to speak, what makes it shatter from the inside. (37)

This argument resonates with not only Nancy’s theme of the Singular Plural but also Kant’s definition of reflective judgment as opposed to a determinate judgment, as expounded in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. The difference between these forms of judgment can be summarized as follows: the former is a kind of judgment for which no determinate concepts are available and which is therefore cognitively unmastered;[v] the latter, by contrast, countenances the possibility of subsuming the manifold of intuition under a unified concept or law. In a similar vein, there is no concept of Art to unify the heterogeneity of the arts, “art would thus be in default or in excess of its own concept” (The Muses, 4), which is to say that there is no principle of homogenization under which to subsume the multiplicity of worlds that we inhabit as beings-in-the-world. This is, therefore, a thesis that goes to the heart of Nancy’s ontology, while sharing firm ground with Kant’s aesthetics.[vi]

What is lost as a consequence of the fact that we “no longer [live] in a cosmos […] we no longer perceive the totality of an ordered and thus beautiful world” (29), is the loss of the image of man as derived from the idea of humanitas. On the one hand, Nancy emphasizes the great emancipatory value of the Enlightenment: it freed human beings to think for themselves, and it inaugurated the moment of the “auto”. Nevertheless, today we face a different challenge, intimated by Nancy’s claim that our world today is a place of plurality, of multitude, which consequently furnishes us with a new ethical task. At issue is no longer the imperative “to think for oneself”, but rather the requirement “to think about the multiple as dis-position, as dis-tinction” (50), that is, to think of the plural itself as a principle without neglecting the singularity and particularity of each individual. In other words, we must think of plurality not in terms of the faceless masses, but in terms of co-appearances. We must think of the multiple as the new face of humanitas.

Extending the discussion of plurality and the plurality of worlds, the third chapter is devoted to the notion of community as a politically active force of resistance. Jandin begins by asking Nancy to clarify the notion of community “by differentiating it from related notions, such as, for example, crowds, which inspired Baudelaire and sparked Benjamin’s thought, or masses, classes, and the multitude” (51). Having addressed the notion of crowd, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of mass:

[It is] a word that we’ve almost forgotten about today, although it used to be very present, perhaps after the postwar period, the adjective “working” frequently accompanied it: the “working mass”, an expression that was used in a positive way, by people who were involved in the social conflict. (55)

Whereas the notion of mass has been made redundant on account of our having “given up on a certain vocabulary of struggle”, the idea of a political community remains, although it instead appears under new “modified” names. Taking the place of “mass”, Nancy argues, are notions such as Rancière’s “no part” (sans part), suggesting a political alternative: a possibility of a world in which “there’s no politics unless the ‘no part’ manifest themselves in a movement in order to claim or demand their right to have a part” (58). Thus, while the class struggle in the Marxist sense is obsolete—both in language and in praxis—in Rancière’s thought (which Nancy sees as Marxist critique within Marxism itself) we may hope for “a new distribution of the sensible”,[vii] that is, for a Dissensus (disagreement). What we lack today, indeed what is lost, as Nancy points out, is the self-interpretation of society in terms of a conflict. And notwithstanding the fact that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Marxist vocabulary is obsolete. We no longer hear about class struggle and exploitation. Instead we are caught in the mechanism of Capitalism, which provides the language of self-interpretation. This language is that of consumption and accumulation: of consensus rather than dissensus.

In these circumstances, there is no longer any distance between the crowd and Capitalist logic. Since the “good life” is now given in term of consumption there is no longer any conflict or resistance. Thus, as Jandin notes, in our culture “the workers themselves produce the objects that they must acquire in order to live the ideal life” (59). What is lost, nevertheless, is the distance necessary for developing a critical attitude: the distance between the subject and agents of power, which Foucault elucidates by identifying the prisoner’s with the guard’s gaze, bespeaking the loss of distance between the subject and the ideology of power, which is now internalized. This marks the wholesale loss of dissensus. Nancy names this situation the “rehomenization of society”, explaining through this phrase that we are facing a new kind of (so-called) equality, whereby everyone is equal before the ideal of consumption, understood as the newfangled ‘Highest Good’.

In a society that values large numbers (and large number of objects) we see how the logic of “accumulation for accumulation sake” operates. Today everything is commodified: art, nature, universities—even the human being. The chapter concludes pessimistically: if the word ‘emancipation’ comes from Roman law, an emancipated slave becomes a free man:

[Today], on the other hand, it’s perhaps no longer possible to think about an absolutely emancipated human being […] And we’re dealing with a question that’s come up before: Who? We don’t know who we emancipate—we say it’s man, but actually, since we don’t know who man is, we don’t know who we emancipate . . . (65)

The fourth chapter, entitled “People and Democracy”, centers upon the notion of “people”. This chapter recently received critical attention in the collection of essays What is a People? (Columbia University Press, 2016), addressing the ambiguity surrounding this notion, in particular whether it is one of “political emancipation” or whether it has become a notion akin to “a group of words like ‘republic’ or ‘secularism’ whose meanings have evolved to serve to maintain the order.”[viii] To demonstrate ambivalence towards this notion the conversation begins with an anecdote that Nancy recounts of giving a talk on the notion of “people” at a conference in Cerisy, dedicated to Jacques Derrida, entitled “Democracy to Come”. After finishing his paper, Derrida approached Nancy and said to him: “I would’ve said everything you said, but not with the word ‘people’”, to which Nancy replied, “Ok then, but give me another word”. He answered, “I don’t know but it’s not ‘people’”. What Derrida expressed, Nancy tells Jandin, “through this discomfort, the discomfort of our current philosophical situation, was this: At certain moments, we lack the appropriate words” (67). Derrida’s reaction demonstrates his suspicion regarding this notion, even though there is no better word to use in its place. This is not merely a linguistic or discursive failure but rather attests to a certain reality that this notion embodies as an “indication of something that exists, that must exist” (70).

Whereas “the people” are something that must exist, it is at the same time not given, for the construction of a “people” depends on an act of self-declaration, that is, a constituting speech act. In other words, a “people” can only become a political community in this act of self-constitution. Here, then, we can see the emancipatory value of the term in acts such as the one that constituted the “French people” during the Revolution. This act of self-declaration was unprecedented:

I don’t think the French people had ever declared itself as such before through anyone; the king declared himself “King of France” and by the same token all of his subjects were subsumed under or assumed by the royal declaration. The institution of the “sovereign people,” which is not an empty expression, will probably give rise to dangerous political problems. But the “sovereign people” is perhaps first the fact that the people must be able to make a self-declaration, without any superior authority to declare it or institute it as such. (71)

It was in this self-declaration of the French people (at that time of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and of the Citizen) that the Revolution began. Henceforth, the discussion turned to the question of the possibility of singularity within the plurality that the notion “people” connotes, as well as an interesting discussion on the implications of the notion of “people” in a culture, whereby what furnishes the tone is a concern with political correctness.

The fifth chapter deals with the question of political affects, which Nancy briefly touched upon in the third chapter. This chapter is governed by questions such as: “do political affects exit?” and if so “what are they?”, and “Why must there be something from the affective realm in order for political life to be possible?”. From the outset, Nancy dismisses what might have been the obvious answer to the first question, namely that political affects are essentially fear and terror, which one would normally associate with power relations. However, these affects, Nancy argues, are insufficient to “ensure the durability of a government”. Rather, the contrary is true: force must exhibit a sense of amiability so that one can trust the sovereign. This ensures a persistent, uninterrupted flow of power. This argument is supported by historical examples such as the case of Louis XV who was named “the beloved” or the image of the King as a Father, someone who takes care of a family, “the Patriarch”, looking after his subjects/children. But even if (as Machiavelli’s example makes explicit) one encounters the “virtuous appearance” of the prince, as Nancy rightly notes, “someone who has a cruel or perverse personality must be careful to present themself in a certain way” (87).

However, despite the intimate connection between sovereignty and affect, in the era of the modern state we witness the disappearance of affect:

To return to the topic of the modern State, one can say that, on the one hand, it’s forced to constitute itself outside of the affective realm of religion if it wants to claim its full independence, which would come to be called sovereignty, but on the other hand, it would still be forced to seek to qualify itself affectively in several ways and at several moments. (79)

Apart from the historical analysis of the dynamic between Church and state, it is noteworthy that, for Nancy, the question of affectivity holds an ontological significance, particularly in pertaining to the being-with of each of us. The connection between the singularities in this plural “body politic”, the community, is formulated in terms of touch (toucher), which is one of the fundamental concepts in Nancy’s philosophy. Marie-Eve Morin argues that touch is “somewhat equivalent to rapport or sense. That is, it names what happens between singularities, right at the extra of the partes extra partes”, rather than the merging of singularities into a unified whole.

Morin continues:

Contra both the common-sense and philosophical understanding of touch as the sense of proximity (by opposition to the senses of sight, smell and hearing, which can sense at a distance), Nancy insists that in touching, what is touched always remains outside of what touches it, so that the law of touch is not so much proximity as separation.

The sixth part of the conversation, entitled “Politics and Religion”, is a shorter discussion on the difficult question of how the philosophical, the religious and the political interconnect. The discussion revolves around two axes: first, the implication of taking a theological term and using it in a non-theological context, and second, the question of the sacred.

Nancy addresses the first part of the question by making a reference to Gérard Granel’s essay Far from Substance: Whither and to What Point? (Essay on the Ontological Kenosis of Thought Since Kant). There, the Christian notion of “kenosis” (which appears in Paul) is given “an ontological index that is no longer theological” (96). Nancy recalls approaching Granel:

I remember asking him back then: What’s this about? Can we leave the theological behind? Today, very briefly, and as a start, I’d say we can’t. When we speak about “secularization” […] what are we talking about? Is it the complete transfer of the same content but in another context? If one takes a fish and puts it in a dry place, it can no longer live. Is it a metaphorical displacement? But then what does metaphor signify if one takes an element out of religion, it may no longer have a sense. If one extracts “kenosis”6 from its context, as Gérard Granel suggested, is there any sense in speaking about God “being emptied” of its deity in order to become a man outside of Christ, who was precisely this god who joined humanity completely? More simply, can one hold on to the term kenosis outside the context of creation and incarnation? (98)

Addressing the second part of the question, Nancy turns to discuss the notion of sacrifice and its relation to the sacred. Christianity, in its beginning was considered by many to be a philosophy, he claims. However, unlike philosophy or other religious groups it had a “relationship to a higher power and a higher ability to receive the complaints and the offerings of man at the same time, that is, a power that belonged to a logic of sacrifice in one way or another. Is this not what’s at stake in Christianity, which is perhaps the sacrifice that puts an end to all sacrifices, in the words of René Girard?” Nancy sees a connection between sacrifice and the “sacred” defined in The Ground of the Image as what “signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off”.[ix] If the sacred is what is set aside and cut off, how do we bond with it? Nancy’s answer is through sacrifice:

One attempt to form a bond with the sacred occurs in sacrifice, which as a matter of fact does belong to religion, in one form or another. Where sacrifice ceases, so does religion. And that is the point where, on the contrary, distinction and the preservation of a distance and a “sacred” distinction begin.[x]

However, if religion must involve a relationship to the sacred then Christianity is a “completely desacralized religion, which in a sense has been understood by modern society because it’s secular.” (100) But questions that remain are these: Can we be satisfied with desacralizing in this way? Is Christian behavior tenable as something that completely abstains from any relationship with the sacred? Given our over-scientific technological world:

one hardly sees how humankind could simply go back to the sacred now […] Perhaps the very grasping of what we call technology, reason, rationality, and so on will be transformed, but if this is the case, I don’t think that it will be in order to go back to some form of the sacred. (101)

In the seventh chapter the conversation turns to the question of art, a concern at the core of Nancy’s philosophy. While previously claiming to envy the artist who has the freedom to transcend the sensible/intelligible dichotomy, Nancy now turns to address the ontological implications of art, which he explored extensively in The Muses. Nancy begins by arguing that art presents us with a domain privileged for being able to reveal the “ontological range of what we’re after”, provided that we insist on the “heterogeneous multiplicity of the registers or regimes of the sensible” (112).[xi] But before exploring the theme of plurality, and the plurality of the senses, the discussion turns to the situation of art today, where by “today” Nancy means “a time in which the notion of art is no longer connected with the notion of cosmos or the notion of polis” (103) but is instead concerned with what is commonly referred to as “the crisis in art”. Nancy begins by exploring the historical background to this crisis (a crisis that we can perhaps simply call ‘modern art’) and the conditions leading up to it:

The decomposition, if not the rotting or certain disrepair or disassembling of something that was held to be a cosmic and cosmetic order until our time, or perhaps until the so-called “world” wars […]. This good and beautiful order, as it was thought about from the perspective of Europe or the United States, usually presented itself in the form of the nation-state. Besides, at the time of World War I, this order of the City […] began to crumble. (104)

However, despite the historical circumstances leading to a crisis in art, it is with Hegel that the idea of the “end of art” was introduced into philosophical discourse:

Here we can’t avoid returning to Hegel, to whom one always attributes the phrase that suggests art is dead or over, but whose actual words are that art is “a thing of the past.” With this expression, Hegel wanted to say that art as a representation of the truth, as the bearer of the representation of a general layout, was over, and I think he was spot on. (104)

Nancy here evinces agreement with Hegel’s thesis that art “is a thing of the past” insofar as art is no longer a representation of truth. Moreover, for Nancy art’s power is not in its mimetic function at all. Rather, art “consists [in] the gesture of taking sensation to a particular intensity” (104). This is not to say that art is merely about intensifying sensations, but instead that art first and foremost has to do with the discovery that our sensibility does not merely serve epistemological purposes—the sensible component in the acquisition of knowledge and cognition—but rather we can use our sensibility and our senses in ways that exceed cognition and induce pleasure. On this point, as Nancy remarks: “Once a man starts playing with his voice, not just speaking, perhaps already singing, we are no longer in the realm of phenomenology” (114). It is here where sensibility departs from its cognitive function—from its contribution to the cognition of an object, as Kant would have put it in the third Critique. Owing to this, the path to discovering a different aspect of sensibility is opened. Thus, in this respect the “end of art” designates both an end of an era, but at the same time the dawning of a new way of thinking about art, which is no longer committed to mimetic purposes, such as it had been since Plato’s Republic, but is rather (in Nancy’s words in The Muses) a “teckhne of existence”.[xii] For Nancy, while art has lost its representational function, it simultaneously gained ontological power: “like being, art presents itself as a surprise. It makes something visible without reproducing anything that would exist previously”.[xiii]

Nancy employs Focillon’s distinction between form and sign to argue that in modern art, color and sound function like “form” (which, one could add, was a fundamental category to aesthetic thinking since Kant’s third Critique). These, in being forms, signify only themselves, as opposed to being signs that “[signify] something else”. Thus, in departing from its representational vocation, art is freed to explore its own medium, and to make visible its own materiality. To this end, art “[makes] sound be heard for itself as it is being produced” (108), and “[does] color for color’s sake”, a paradigmatic example of the latter being, as Nancy notes, Yves Klein’s Blue (108).

The eighth part of the conversation is devoted to an elaboration of a distinction Nancy drew between “the present” and “presence” in After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes. Jandin begins by placing the topic in context:

[You] distinguish between two senses of the present: the present as it’s been criticized in the “metaphysics of presence” (being present to oneself, etc.) and the present that should be taken into account more seriously in the sense of what is ephemeral, in the words of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer you cite. In other words, has the moment come for carrying out a displacement of our thought, from a problem of time to a problem of space? (119)

J.-L.N.: Yes, a problem of space as in spacing, which may also be the spacing of time, which even our own Western tradition knows very well.

Nancy uses the term “spacing” to designate the act of the original unfolding of space as the site of the moment of the event. It is an original unfolding of spatiality that is exposed only temporally. In Corpus, Nancy describes this space as “a space which is more properly spacious than spatial, what could also be called a place”. Prior to any ontic, empirical space, it is the “ontological clearing” (lichtung) in the words of Heidegger, wherein Being is made patent. Following Heidegger’s critique on the metaphysics of presence, and the stasis, permanency and immovability associated with the thinking of being in terms of a substance, Nancy thinks being in the active transitive sense ascribed to it by Heidegger. As such being itself, presence, is always in movement which cannot be suspended:

All of us have in mind these lines from Lamartine: “O time, suspend your flight, and you, auspicious hours / Suspend your sequence on: / Let’s savor the rapid, evanescent delight / of beauty’s finest hour” — words pronounced by the woman whom the poet loves.3 It’s the request that the flow of time be interrupted, if you like, and this interruption is not a cut or an absence of continuity, but the suspension of the continuity through which it can present itself to itself. The female lover implores for the suspension of time, for spacing instead of the haste of successive moments, which end up nullifying the present moment. (119)

The suspension of continuity that the lover implores is a request to be in the present, to seize the “now”, to cherish the moment and freeze it just for a second so as to “be” in it. But this wish is of course in vain. Just as “time flies”, being is always in movement. In “Laughter, Presence” Nancy addresses the painter who paints the woman he desires, but this is “the painting of her disappearance or of her disappearing”.[xiv] If it is possible to long to paint her, it is because she has “appeared”—but “so rarely”, and “so quickly fled”. Ontologically coming and going, into presence and out of presence, is one and the same movement.

In Basic Problems, Heidegger reads a fragment of the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander addressing movement in terms of the “arrival and departure” of Being: the “transition from coming and going” into presence. If the standing of Being in the Open is temporal rather than static or permanent then what emerges into presence is at the same time in the movement of departing from presence. This is the temporality of Dasein as opposed to the two other types of entity Heidegger defines in Being and Time that have a different existence in time:

But in this metaphysics, presence is actually considered to be something thrown on the shores of the river of time and that remains there in a sort of abandoned immobility. This is what Heidegger calls Vorhandenheit, that is, “Being-present-at-hand” [être-la-place-devant], a dense, motionless, silent, insignificant thing, to be differentiated from something “ready-to-hand” [sous-la-main] that is available for the activity or project of an existent, or what Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit. But one could say just as well that presence in this sense, even with the distinction between the two nuances, is not present at all or is present only for the existent that has it at its disposal. (120)

For Dasein, “one can understand presence in a completely different way as being intimately connected to manifestation or appearance, as we were saying, in the same sense as when one says that someone has a “presence” or that certain actors have a particular “presence,” which means the exact opposite of a thing’s presence. In this case, this presence is a “coming” (one “comes into the presence of”), an “appearing.” (120)

In the concluding chapter “Nihilism and Joy”, Nancy returns to the theme of affects. However, at issue are not political affects but affects that Nancy defines “as an affirmation of a sense of existence”. Jandin introduces the topic by questioning:

Our—final?—question is about nihilism and joy. Can one hear in “the possibility of a world,” the expression that seals our interview, an interrogation into the hope of exiting out of nihilism, which would mean being done with this world that’s ending and which has an affective tone of, in the words of Günther Anders, both hopelessness and the desire for revolution?1 Could one consider a world of joy—I’m aware of the Christian connotation of this expression—in the sense in which you write that “ there is not much joy in the human of humanism”? Must the “retracing” of the limits of the political leave room for the opening of spheres where joy would be possible? (127)

Jandin’s definition of nihilism in terms of the absence of joy appeals to Nancy (“I like this question’s position, which I’ve never thought about”). However, the latter attributes the “disappearance of joy”, and the “loss of enthusiasm – sacrificial, ecstatic, mystical […]  [that] was present in all the mystery religions that existed up until Rome” (128) to the influence of Stoicism and Epicureanism, which [privilege] logos at the expense of Eros (128). Against the prominence of logos, Nancy claims, Christianity appeared with the theme of joy, particularly through participation in the divine, thereby fulfilling a need that was sought. In the modern world since the eighteenth century, Christian joy has been usurped by the idea of “happiness’, which Saint-Just, among the ideologues of the French Revolution (and an advocate of the Reign of Terror), declared as “a new idea in Europe”.

However, at the center of the discussion is Jandin’s evocation of the notion of jouissance (French for ‘enjoyment’ and ‘orgasm’, respectively), which Nancy addressed in both his essay on Lacan L’« il y a » du rapport sexuel, as well as in Dis-Enclosure. Jouissance , the Lacanian term for negative affects which store a possibility of enjoyment, affects which consist of both pleasure and pain, and are “beyond the pleasure principle, embody the separation between instinct and drive, and between procreation and pleasure (132). Once sexuality is dissociated from the aim of reproduction, once it is determined by the logic of the drive and its modes of representation rather than biologically driven, satisfaction is achieved through multiple fragmented erogenous multiple zones.

Just as in Freud, for whom the sexual drive, which although originally attaching itself to one of the somatic functions of the body can then exceed this function (e.g., the voice that is used for singing rather than for talking, the suckling of the breast in order to eat but shortly after, the suckling of the breast for pleasure, “sensual sucking”),[xv] Nancy similarly points to the dissociation between reproduction and pleasure, between life and what goes beyond it, to the intimate connection between jouissance and the death drive. As he remarks: “jouissance is how life shows that the desire to live, which is perhaps life itself very simply, goes far beyond the desire to go on living” (133).

[i] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 2.

[ii] Dominique Janicaud, Heidegger in France, trans. François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).

[iii] See Jean- Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University, 2000), “Why are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in Jean- Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] An expression Rodolphe Gasché uses in The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 2.

[vi] For more on this point, see Ross, Alison. The Aesthetic Paths of Philosophy: Presentation in Kant, Heidegger, Lacoue‐Labarthe, and Nancy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007.

[vii] Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Afterword by Slavoj Žižek. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004.

[viii] Alain Badiou, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, et al., What Is a People?, trans. Jody Gladding (Columbia University Press, 2016), vii.

[ix] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, Trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).

[x] Ibid., 1.

[xi] For more on this point see “Why Are there Several Arts and Not Just One?” in The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

[xii] Ibid., 38.

[xiii] Peter Gratton, Marie-Eve Morin (eds), The Nancy Dictionary (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 27.

[xiv] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Bryne (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[xv] On this point see Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 17: “The crucial point is that simultaneous with the feeding function’s achievement of satisfaction in nourishment, a sexual process begins to appear. Parallel with feeding there is a stimulation of lips and tongue by modeled on the function, so that between the two, it is at first barely possible to distinguish a difference”

Dan Zahavi: Husserl’s Legacy

Husserl's Legacy: Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy Book Cover Husserl's Legacy: Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy
Dan Zahavi
Oxford University Press
Hardback £30.00

Reviewed by: Heath Williams (University of Western Australia)

1. Introduction

In the introduction of this review I will provide some general comments on the nature of the layout, methodology, and style of Zahavi’s work before moving into a detailed commentary. Page numbers refer to the reviewed work unless otherwise indicated.

Husserl’s Legacy is an attempt to defend Husserlian phenomenology from a variety of perceived misconceptions and misinterpretations that have been voiced from both within and outside of the Continental tradition. In particular, it is an attempt to show that Husserl avoids a variety of positions have been levelled at him as criticisms and which are, one assumes, perhaps seen as out of touch with contemporary trends in Anglophone philosophy, i.e. methodological solipsism, internalism, idealism, and metaphysical neutrality.

Interestingly, Zahavi does not attempt to show that one should reject any of these positions for their own reasons. Nor does he argue that one should reject these positions for the reasons Husserl did (and in fact Husserl’s arguments are not often provided). This remains implicit. The scope of the book is to show, via close study of Husserl’s corpus, that Husserl does indeed reject the aforementioned positions. As interesting as Husserl scholars will find this project, it is an unexpected turn from an author who has claimed that one “of phenomenology’s greatest weaknesses is it preoccupation with exegesis” (Zahavi, 2005, 6). The value of the project is that close exegesis serves to precisely locate Husserl’s position on contemporary philosophical issues. But I doubt that it will serve to bring anyone into the Husserlian tent that does not already have some affinity with it.

Thematically, the book has a cyclical character, and questions which are raised early on are returned to as the work unfolds; the central debates are interwoven throughout the work. The work is decisive, yet also full of Zahavi’s characteristic diplomacy, and his careful and considerate attention to detailed distinctions; Zahavi will often proceed by firstly teasing out different meanings of key concepts like metaphysics or naturalisation. In this work, Zahavi draws on his expert knowledge of the full range of Husserl’s collected works, drawing insightful quotes from a range of primary sources. Zahavi also shows his expertise concerning well known commentaries on Husserl from canonical figures like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and a wealth of other Husserlian interpreters.

Zahavi’s methodological approach is to generally begin with a discussion of the position of an interlocutor who has claimed that Husserl held one of the aforementioned positions (i.e. solipsism, internalism, etc.). One method Zahavi then employs is to outline Husserl’s position on a given topic (say intersubjectivity), and on this basis to reason that it would be inconsistent to assume that Husserl held the position his interlocutors ascribe to him (i.e. methodological solipsism). Of course, this approach assumes that Husserl philosophy is internally consistent. Anyone familiar with the Fifth Meditation, for example, will know that Husserl struggled to bring about this consistency. An alternate method that Zahavi employs in dealing with an interlocutor is to provide a sample of excerpts drawn from a variety of Husserlian texts wherein Husserl explicitly disavows the position in question, or endorses an alternate position, i.e. when Husserl says that no “realist has been as realistic and concrete as me, the phenomenological idealist” (170). This second method is certainly enough to establish that Husserl believed that, on a certain rendering, he did not subscribe in a straightforward way to some of the positions he was reproached with (i.e. idealism), and it means we will need to approach our depiction of his position with care, as Zahavi does. However, like much of Husserl’s project, many of these quotes are what Hopkins describes as ‘promissory notes’—statements which require much filling in and detail if they are to be substantiated. Husserl did not always get around to paying these promissory notes out, and this raises a methodological hurdle for Zahavi.

Zahavi locates Husserl’s position on three central issues. 1) The relation between phenomenology and metaphysics, and the clash with speculative realism. 2) Internalism vs. externalism, and the question of methodological solipsism. 3) The naturalisation of phenomenology. There is far too much dense exegesis to provide an enlightening and comprehensive review in the space available here; I will discuss and provide some criticisms of Zahavi’s discussion of theme 1 and 2. As we shall see, Zahavi thinks that locating Husserl’s position on these themes pivots on the interpretation of two key aspects of the Husserlian framework: the noema and the reduction.

  1. Metaphysics and Phenomenology, Part 1.

In this section, I will trace Zahavi’s comments on the metaphysical relevance of Husserl’s early phenomenology. The relation between phenomenology and metaphysics is firstly raised in the second chapter of Husserl’s Legacy. The question which drives this investigative theme is whether or not Husserlian phenomenology can contribute to metaphysical discussions. Zahavi traces the source of Husserlian phenomenology’s purported metaphysical neutrality back to the earlier descriptive project of the Logical Investigations. As Zahavi outlines, for the author of the Investigations, the term metaphysics denoted a science which clarifies the presuppositions of the positive sciences. Metaphysics is, in this sense, the meta to physics. As Husserl is interested in the foundation of all sciences, pure and a priori ones included, he thus sees his project as superseding the metaphysical one. In this sense, Zahavi shows that Husserl saw phenomenology as meta-metaphysical, as various quotes from the Logical Investigations attest. We shall see later that Zahavi provisionally defines metaphysics as taking a position on the question of whether or not physical objects are real or purely mental (ideal) and, as Husserl’s early project does not deign to comment on this issue, it is on this basis that Zahavi views it as metaphysically neutral.

However, Zahavi shows that not everyone has seen Logical Investigations this way. Various interpreters have seen it as a realist manifesto. This reading is motivated by the strong rejection of representationalism which is contained in the Investigations—the reasoning being that, if Husserl is not an intra-mental representationalist, then he must be a metaphysical realist. In response Zahavi claims that this reading ignores one of the key distinction of the Investigations—that between intentional objects which happen to exist in the spatio-temporal nexus, and those that do not. This purely descriptive distinction refers only to modes of givenness, and is indicative of the manner in which the Investigations avoid metaphysics (36).

Zahavi similarly rejects an idealistic interpretation of the Investigations. For example, he discusses Philipse interpretation, which claims that Husserl identifies the adumbrations of an object with the immanent sensations via which these adumbrations are given to us and argues that, as all objects are given via adumbrations for Husserl, all objects are thereby reducible to our immanent sensations. Therefore, Husserl must be some sort of phenomenalist like Berkeley. Zahavi argues that Philipse ignores that Husserl distinguishes between differing parts of a perception, some of which are properties of the object itself, others of which are immanent sensations, and refers to both (unfortunately) as adumbrations. Husserl very clearly states that the reality of an object “cannot be understood as the reality of a perceived complex of sensations” (40).

So, Zahavi shows that, if we are talking about the descriptive project contained in the Investigations, then Husserlian phenomenology is indeed metaphysically neutral, in the sense that it does not take a realist or idealist position on the existential status of physical objects.

Zahavi’s discussion of Philipse utilises the method of providing direct citations from Husserl which contradict one of his interlocutor’s renditions. However, Zahavi also mentions here the spectre which, given this method, haunts Legacy: the validity of Husserl’s assessment of his own project (42). As Zahavi observes, Heidegger was certainly sceptical about Husserl’s evaluation of his own work. This problem is compounded by the fact that some of the claims about his own work are where Husserl spends some of his largest banknotes.

Zahavi agrees that Husserl does not always seem to view his own project clearly or consistently. To illustrate this, Zahavi considers the discrepancy between Husserl’s actual description of intentional acts and his second order reflections on what he is doing. On the one hand, Husserl seems to claim to restrict his analyses in Logical Investigations to the noetic and immanent psychic contents in certain parts. In parts of Ideas 1 Husserl again seems to endorse the claim that only the immanent sphere is totally evident and therefore fair game for phenomenology investigation. However, in both works, he clearly begins to analyse the noematic components of intentional experiences. Although this section is ostensibly in the thematic context of discussing Husserl’s reliability as a commentator on his own work, it very much pertains to the internalist/externalist debate which will take centre stage later, as it concerns the extent to which Husserl’s phenomenology engages with the external world. Indeed, these inconsistencies perhaps illuminate why some of Zahavi’s latter interlocutors have branded Husserl an internalist; perhaps these interlocutors are basing their evaluation on Husserl’s own comments.

Zahavi finishes the section on the Investigations by questioning whether one should react to the metaphysical neutrality contained therein as either liberating or constricting, but then adds the embracing and diplomatic remark that it might be both, or neither, depending on the metaphysical question under discussion. He adds that Husserl began to acknowledge that, if metaphysics is taken in the sense of more than an addendum to physical sciences, then perhaps it might be of relevance to the phenomenologist. He also thinks that there is no need to emphasise the value of the neutrality of the “Logical Investigations at the expense of Husserl’s later works” (47). So, on the one hand, Zahavi endorses the neutrality of the Logical Investigations and simultaneously proclaims its value, whilst on the other hand he paves the way for the more metaphysically relevant phenomenology which is to come with Husserl’s transcendental turn.

  1. Metaphysics and Phenomenology, Part 2.

In the opening of chapter 3, Zahavi draws on one commentator (Taylor Carman) who engages in a practice which is almost a rite of passage for any commentator on a post-Husserlian phenomenologist: showing how one of Husserl’s successors vastly improved on the project outlined by Husserl. These sorts of analyses almost always end up straw manning Husserl, and Zahavi is right to correct them. Zahavi recounts how Carman attributes the success of Heidegger’s project to his rejection of the method of phenomenological reduction (53). Zahavi shows that a similar account is provided by certain Merleau-Ponty commentators. Zahavi pinpoints that the inaccuracy of these accounts lies in their characterisation of the epoche and the reduction leading to solipsism and internalism (55).

Zahavi characterisation of the reduction emphasises Husserl’s comments which stress that the reduction does not involve a turning away from the world of everyday concerns, and that what is initially bracketed (i.e. the positing of the existential concrete person and the lifeworld they are in) is eventually reintroduced and accounted for. Indeed, for Husserl, it is only because phenomenology begins form the reduced ego that it can, eventually, give an accurate and expansive characterisation of the constitutive activities of consciousness and the existence of transcendental entities. The reduction is, on this reading, not an internalist shift. Zahavi will later also emphasise that, in fact, for Husserl just as the ego is the precondition for the constitution of the lifeworld, the transcendental ego is just as equally constituted by its factical engagement.

Zahavi’s discussion turns to the question of whether or not a transcendental Husserlian phenomenology, which is guided by the reduction, can contribute more to metaphysical discussions than the descriptive variety. Zahavi discusses that two prominent commentators, Crowell and Carr, both assert that the transcendental project is concerned with issues that have to do with meaning. On this rendition, because meaning is a concept which transcends being, transcendental phenomenology is thus unconcerned with reality—and metaphysics.

Contra Crowell and Carr, Zahavi argues that the latter Husserl does embrace metaphysical issues. He uses two strategies to make this claim. Firstly, Zahavi quotes a number of Husserlian passages which show that he thought that phenomenology began to embrace metaphysical questions, for example, when Husserl states that phenomenology “does not exclude metaphysics as such” (64 italics removed). However, as Zahavi then states, Husserl rejected some traditional meanings of the term metaphysics, and at other times was quite equivocal about what he meant by it, so some unpacking is required to determine exactly what Husserl’s really means when he says phenomenology might involve metaphysics. Zahavi explicitly avoids one of the ways that Husserl spelled out the claim that phenomenology did metaphysics (i.e. via the exploration of themes related to the ethical-religious domain and the immortality of the soul).

Instead, Zahavi sticks with the sense in which metaphysics is defined as pertaining “to the realism-idealism issue, i.e. to the issue of whether reality is mind-independent or not” (65). It is therefore surprising that an argument Zahavi makes is that Husserlian phenomenology is relevant to metaphysics in this sense because, if phenomenology had no metaphysical implications, then it could not reject both realism and idealism so unequivocally. The odd thing is that that Zahavi has just argued that, because Husserl rejected both of these positions in the Investigations, the early descriptive project is metaphysically neutral. Here he seems to argue that this rejection is a reason to accept that Husserl’s philosophy has metaphysical implications.

To unpack Zahavi’s claim a little more, however, he thinks that because Husserl took a stand on the relationship between phenomena and reality, phenomenology therefore has “metaphysical implications” (74). Zahavi argues that Husserl thought there can be no ‘real’ objects, in principle unknowable, behind appearances. For Husserl, the phenomena is the thing, but taken non-naively. It is thus Husserl’s characterisation of phenomena which imports the metaphysical implications Zahavi mentions. It thus doesn’t make any sense to talk about some other Ding-an-Sich behind the phenomena; it is nonsensical to say that the Kantian thing-in-itself exists.

As Zahavi notes, for Husserl “the topics of existence and non-existence, of being and non-being, are… themes addressed under the broadly understood titles of reason and unreason” (66). So, questions concerning the existence of the thing-in-itself can be referred to our account of the rational experience of objects in the world. According to this account, for Husserl ‘existence’ entails the possibility of an experience which provides evidence for a thing. The possibility of this experience, however, must be a real and motivated one, and belong to the horizon of an actually existing consciousness. It must not be a purely empty and formal possibility. Put another way, the world and nature cannot be said to exist unless there is an actual ego which also exists that can, in principle at least, experience this world in a rationally coherent way. Thus, “reason, being, and truth are inextricably linked” (72). And so, as a result, we can deny the possibility of a mind independent and in principle unknowable reality, and we can also deny any form of global scepticism. Ontological realism and epistemological idealism are both false. I was left a little uncertain how this position is any less neutral than the one advocated for in the Logical Investigations.

The section on metaphysics can be subject to the criticism that Zahavi proceeds to cite Husserl’s text on a particular issue, and rarely provides any further argumentation or clarification. For example, Zahavi notes that Husserl states that it “is impossible to elude the extensive evidence that true being as well only has its meaning as the correlate of a particular intentionality of reason” (72). One is left wondering what evidence Husserl could possibly be referring to, and therefore why we ought to accept this enigmatic claim. Elsewhere, Zahavi states that “the decisive issue is not whether Husserl was justified in rejecting global scepticism, but simply that he did reject the very possibility of reality being fundamentally unknowable” (73). This is perhaps the decisive issue within the (narrow exegetical) context of Zahavi’s discussions. But surely Zahavi recognises that a lot hinges on Husserl’s justification for his position, especially within the context of the project of keeping Husserl’s philosophy relevant.

In fact, towards the end of the work, Zahavi shows that he is aware of this objection. He states that his “aim in the foregoing text has been to elucidate and clarify Husserl’s position, rather than to defend it or provide independent arguments for it” (208). And it is really the final chapter, when Zahavi places Husserl’s phenomenology in confrontation with speculative realism, that his detailed exegesis of metaphysics bears serious polemical fruit. But even then, what one could take away from these later sections is that certain interpretations of Husserl are incorrect, and that perhaps Husserl’s position is more coherent or valuable than that of the speculative realists. Zahavi is aware of the need for more detailed and concrete analyses than the ones he has provided, and even notes that Husserl “remained unsatisfied ‘as long as the large banknotes and bills are not turned into small change’ (Hua Dok 3-V/56). A comprehensive appraisal of his philosophical impact would certainly have to engage in a detailed study of the lifeworld, intentionality, time-consciousness, affectivity, embodiment, empathy, etc.” (211). Such small change can only be rendered by a close examination of the things themselves, however.

  1. Internalism vs. Externalism, Part 1.

The fourth chapter aims to situate transcendental Husserlian phenomenology within the context of the internalism vs. externalism debate. Zahavi notes that several commentators (namely, Rowlands, Dreyfus, Carman, and McIntyre) have considered Husserl an “archetypal internalist” (79), often using Husserl’s position as a foil to later phenomenologist like Sartre or Heidegger. Zahavi traces this conception of Husserl to the West coast ‘Fregean’ interpretation of the noema. Zahavi strategy, as he states (82), is not to argue for the East coast interpretation (he considers this issue settled, has addressed it in earlier books (Zahavi, 2003), and provides references for the works he considers decisive on this issue). He shows, instead, that if the East coast interpretation is correct, then Husserl is not so much of an archetypal internalist after all.

According to Zahavi and the East coast interpretation, the noema is not an extraordinary (i.e. abstract) object. It is not a concept, or a sense, or a propositional content. It is an ordinary object, but considered in an extraordinary (phenomenological) attitude. There is not an ontological difference between the object and the noema, but a structural difference only recognised post reduction. Thus, the reduction does not shift our focus from worldly objects to intra-mental representational (i.e. semantic) content of some sort, via which an act is directed to the aforementioned worldly objects. No, the reduction reveals that consciousness is correlated with worldly objects which themselves bear the content that is presented in intentional acts (83-84).

Zahavi then discusses that the West coast critique of the East coast interpretation would align Husserl with modern day disjunctivism, because of the trouble in accounting for non-veridical experiences like hallucinations. In short, if perception is just of ordinary objects as the East coast interpretation maintains, and there is no internal representational mediator (as disjunctivists agree), then what accounts for the difference between veridical and non-veridical experiences which seem indistinguishable?

Zahavi observes that Husserl distinguishes between two experiences which contain objects that seem the same, but are not. Thus, if I look at an object, and then the object is replaced unbeknownst to me as I close my eyes, then even though upon opening my eyes I think my perception is of the same object, Husserl makes a distinction between the two perceptions, because the object they intend are not identical. Thus, an experience in which an existing object and a seemingly existing (but hallucinatory) object are given are not identical either, even if they seem so. This response is paired with the more experientially based point that hallucinations and perceptions do not, in fact, ever seem the same. A perceptual experience is one which is given within a horizon that unfolds over time, and is intersubjectively verifiable. Hallucinations do not meet these experiential criterions (87-88).

These passages contain convincing arguments for Husserl’s position that could be brought to bear on the contemporary debate between conjunctivists and disjunctivists, but ignore recent work by Overgaard. Overgaard claims that “Husserl believes illusions and hallucinations can be indistinguishable from genuine, veridical perceptions. Husserl grants ‘the possibility of an exactly correspondent illusion’ (Hua XIX/1, 458 [137]), and maintains that ‘differences of […] veridical and delusive perception, do not affect the internal, purely descriptive (or phenomenological) character of perception’ (Hua XIX/1, 358 [83])” (Overgaard, 2018, 36).

Zahavi spends some time recounting various passages which are favoured by the East and West coast schools respectively. He lends his support to Fink’s interpretation, according to which the noema can be considered in both a transcendental and psychological context, and he claims that the fault of the West coast school is taking it solely in the latter. Importantly, he says that grasping the transcendental rendition of the noema is predicated on a proper understanding of the transcendental aspects of the reduction. The transcendental function of the reduction is to collapse the distinction between the reality and being of worldly objects and their “constituted validity and significance” (92). It is the West coast, overly psychological reading of the reduction as an internalist form of methodological solipsism which leads them to an internalist rendering of the noema as an intra psychic representational entity.

During the discussion of the noema, the inconsistency and lack of clarity concerning Husserl’s own work on this topic lurks in the background. The simple fact is, Husserl’s doctrine of the noema is sometimes unclear, on either the West or East coast interpretation, and leaves many questions unanswered. Zahavi acknowledges this when he discusses Bernet’s article that outlines “no fewer than three different concepts of the noema” (93). At this point, Zahavi toys with the conciliatory idea that perhaps there is support for both the East and West Coast reading. What Zahavi decides is that we should seek Husserl’s mature view, and one which coheres with the rest of his ideas. However, perhaps this affords Husserl too much charity; I suspect an outsider to Husserlian phenomenology would conclude as much. Perhaps the correct conclusion is that Husserl’s doctrine of the noema is confused.

Either way, Zahavi concludes that, if internalism is defined as the theory that our access to the world is mediated and conditioned by internal representations, then we can conclude Husserl is not an internalist (94), assuming one follows Zahavi’s interpretive approach to the reduction and the noema. If the reduction is seen clearly, and the distinction between objects in the world and noemata is partially collapsed, it cannot be maintained that the subject who intends a noema is cocooned in their own internal representational prison which is disjointed from the world. For Husserl, objects/meanings are actually in the world, and correlated with consciousness, which is a centre for disclosure (94).

  1. Internalism vs. Externalism, Part 2.

The next objection Zahavi addresses is that the foregoing discussion cannot be reconciled with the fact that Husserl’s is a self-confessed transcendental idealist, and ergo an internalist. Thus, like much of the book, we return to the theme of attempting to unravel exactly what Husserl’s transcendental idealism amounts to. In this section, Zahavi explores two crucial aspects to this problem: 1) understanding the constitutive relationship. 2) Understanding key passages from Ideas 1. My review will end with a discussion of these points.

Regarding the first point, Zahavi’s thinks that we should divorce the notion of constitutive dependence from substance metaphysics. The orld does not depend on one type of substance or another for its constitution. For Husserl, the world does not supervene or reduce to some other type of substance, but depends on being known. In this sense, transcendental “idealism is not participating in… the debate between monists and dualists. Its adversary is not materialism, but objectivism” (102). In the end of this discussion, Zahavi seems also suggests that there is an bidirectional constitutive correlation between consciousness and world (102), something he again suggests in latter passages concerning the factical embeddedness of consciousness (section 4.4). In this sense, Husserl’s thesis of constitution is less internalist than might be assumed, as the world constitutes consciousness as much as vice versa.

Zahavi then turns his attention to discussing the passages in sections 47-55 of Ideas 1 which contain some of Husserl’s most strident commitments to idealism. He mentions the notorious section 49, wherein Husserl claims that consciousness subsists after the annihilation of the world. How are we to square this with Husserl’s purported externalism? Zahavi argues that the best way to interpret this passage is that it expresses Husserl’s commitment to two theses: firstly, that some form of consciousness is non-intentional and, secondly, it is the intentional form of consciousness which is “world involving”, i.e. inextricably correlated with the world. Thus, if the world were annihilated, then intentional consciousness would cease, but if consciousness per se is divorced from intentional consciousness, then some form of consciousness could survive this cessation. So, Husserl can maintain that some form of consciousness is ‘externalised’, whilst another form of consciousness is independent from world experience.

Zahavi then turns to Husserl’s claim (found in section 54) that the being of consciousness is absolute, whilst the being of the world is only ever relative. How can we reconcile this with an externalism that avoids affirming consciousness at the expense of the reality of the world? Zahavi’s controversially rejects the traditional interpretation of this passage, according to which in making this claim Husserl means that consciousness is given absolutely and not via adumbrations, unlike spatial objects which are always adumbrated. Zahavi claims that this reading “falls short” (105), but (surprisingly) never mentions how.

Zahavi’s alternate reading is that Husserl most often talks about the absolute in the context of inner time consciousness. Zahavi claims that the absoluteness of temporal consciousness is intimately linked with the prereflectiveness of consciousness, and that we ought to interpret Husserl’s comments concerning the absolute being of consciousness to mean that consciousness is always prereflectively given. Zahavi is right that sometimes Husserl speaks of the absolute in this context. But this is not really the context in which the passage in question in Ideas 1 occurs.

In section 42 and 44 of Ideas 1, Husserl explicitly connects modes of givenness (i.e. adumbrated vs. non-adumbrated) with modes of being (i.e. contingent vs. absolute). For example, he says that every perception of a mental process is “a simple seeing of something that is (or can become) perceptually given as something absolute” (Husserl, 1983, 95). Note the phraseology: given as absolute. In section 54, Husserl states that transcendental consciousness survives even after psychic life has been dissolved and annulled. The central contrast which Husserl makes in this passage is that even intentional psychological life, and the life of the Ego, is relative when compared to pure or absolute nature of transcendental consciousness. Zahavi is right that Husserl may here may be thinking of the prereflective givenness of the absolute temporal flow. But Husserl does not name what remains after consciousness has been divorced from psychological egological life. He nowhere here mentions concepts like the temporal stream and prereflective consciousness.

So, another parsimonious interpretation is that Husserl talks about the absolute in two contexts, one relating to the connection between modes of givenness and modes of being, and one relating to the different strata of temporal consciousness and prereflective givenness. Now, one might argue that Husserl ultimately sees one context as foundational for the other. In fact, Zahavi has shown elsewhere that Husserl certainly thinks that the capacity to reflect presupposes prereflective consciousness, and in Ideas 1 Husserl says that the “‘absolute’ which we have brought about by the reduction… [i.e. pure consciousness] has its source in what is ultimately and truly absolute”, i.e. temporal flow (Husserl, 1983, 192) . However, Husserl then notes the current discussion has thus far “remained silent” concerning this ultimate absolute, and that we can, for now, “leave out of account the enigma of consciousness of time” (Ibid, 194), barring a cursory account of the threefold structure of temporality. And so, it’s difficult to see how we should read the passages in section 54 as concerning the absoluteness of temporality, as Husserl explicit directs us away from this theme in Ideas 1. And, I don’t think we can direct discussions about reflective givenness to a discussion of temporality (and on to prereflectiveness) without further ado, as Zahavi seems to do here.

I just don’t think the selected passage from Ideas 1 is the best way to get to a discussion of temporal consciousness and prereflective givenness in relation to the concept of the absolute. Zahavi chooses to take this direction because he is concerned that the traditional reading of these passages puts Husserl in the position of a metaphysical or absolute idealist (105). My final point is that this need not be the case as, even on the traditional reading, Husserl’s talk of the ‘absolute’ in Ideas 1 is not leading to an ontological claim. Because, the thesis that consciousness is given absolutely in reflective acts could just as well be labelled a descriptive one, as it rests on a distinction between modes of access to states of consciousness.


Husserl, E. (1983). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. (F. Kersten, Trans.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Overgaard, S. (2018). Perceptual Error, Conjunctivism, and Husserl. Husserl Studies, 34(1), 25-45. doi:10.1007/s10743-017-9215-2.

Zahavi, D. (2003). Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Keith Whitmoyer: The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking

The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking Book Cover The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Keith Whitmoyer
Hardback $102.60

Reviewed by: Frank Chouraqui (Leiden University)

Through the last decade, it was de rigueur for most reviews of the new books devoted to Merleau-Ponty’s thought to chronicle his late but increasing accession to the status of a canonical philosopher. Such books showed us how much we had to learn from Merleau-Ponty, how the distinctions he made were potent for philosophy, and how they helped us organize the tradition that preceded him, especially the relations between empiricism and intellectualism. In that view, Merleau-Ponty was in the process of becoming a great philosopher because it had become obvious that philosophical questions had been addressed in his work in ways so definitive that engaging with such questions made engaging with his work indispensable. One had to know Merleau-Ponty if they were to talk of embodiment, of the phenomenological reduction, of the relations of hermeneutics and metaphysics etc. In such cases, the value of reading Merleau-Ponty was dependent on the value of doing philosophy.

Whitmoyer’s new book may be taken as a signal that such a process of canonization has been complete, and that we’re now moving to a further phase: to speak like Heidegger, not only are we interested in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, we are now also interested in his “unthought.” This is a shift because one’s thought is interesting because of the reader’s interest in those things discussed by the author. An author’s unthought, on the contrary, is interesting insofar as the author is him or herself the object of interest. With this move comes a metaphilosophical line of questioning addressed to Merleau-Ponty: it is not just Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to philosophy that motivates our reading of his works, but rather, it is his meta-philosophy itself.  We now care about Merleau-Ponty’s views so much that we are even considering changing our notion of what philosophy is or should be in order to follow him. A second moment of canonization indeed, where the order of priority between the philosophical project and our attachment to one philosopher becomes reversed. This is a tendency exemplified by Whitmoyer’s book for in spite of a very thorough understanding and knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical position and argument, Whitmoyer chooses to focus on what he regards as Merleau-Ponty’s implicit but fundamental critique of the philosophical project, his implicit reappraisal of the “tasks of thinking.”

Whitmoyer chronicles Merleau-Ponty’s “Philosophy of Ontological Lateness,” but this expression, taken from the title, contains two zones of ambiguity, one surrounding the proper sense of “of” and the other the proper sense of “ontological.” As a result, one may have a philosophical or a metaphilosophical reading of the title. As I suggested above, Whitmoyer emphasizes the latter.

In the first, philosophical, reading, it is not Whitmoyer’s concern to describe Merleau-Ponty’s account of “ontological lateness” if by this we mean some sort of phenomenon, group of phenomena, or even a certain region of being meant to account for the cases in which being or the beings are, in some sense or other, late. In this reading, ontological lateness is not Merleau-Ponty’s topic, but rather, it is his metaphilosophical approach, and a universalisable structure. Secondly, what is so ontological about this lateness? For Whitmoyer, again, it is not a matter of the discipline of ontology being late. It is, rather, that lateness has something ontological to it. On the basis of such a sense of “of” and of “ontological,” one could reformulate Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s view in this one claim: “being is lateness.” This needs clarification, but as I will try to show, this is entirely sound, indeed a helpful formulation for Merleau-Ponty’s most complex set of ideas. And there is reason to believe that this portrays Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty too. But, as I mentioned earlier, Whitmoyer’s interest is metaphilosophical: it is a matter of knowing what the task of philosophy is or ought to be.

This metaphilosophical concern relies on a different reading of the title: in that reading, Merleau-Ponty provides or motivates a discussion about the lateness of ontology over being, in much the same vein as Hegel claims that philosophy is always late. In that line of argument, ontology is—and ought to remain—late before her object, and the metaphilosophical view Whitmoyer attributes to Merleau-Ponty could be formulated thus: “the task of philosophy is to refrain from foreclosing being.” The opposition between closing in advance (or foreclosing) and the lateness of ontology becomes dramatized as the opposition of what Whitmoyer calls “cruel thought” (the thought that has dominated the history of philosophy, obsessed with totalizing views) and what he calls “the philosophy of ontological lateness.” This opposition, as the notion of “cruel thought” suggests, should also be understood as normative: not only is Whitmoyer concerned with the place of philosophy (a topic that has become more and more discussed in Merleau-Ponty studies), he is concerned with philosophy’s value, its virtues and duties (something much newer).

Unsurprisingly, Whitmoyer seems committed to both the philosophical and the metaphilosophical-normative view, the first whereby “being is lateness” and the second, whereby philosophy must remain “late.” He focuses on the latter however, leaving some obscurity on the relations he sees as holding between them. We shall return to this. Once the metaphilosophical focus of the book is thus established, many reading difficulties become ironed out. Let me now propose a brief linear reconstruction of Whitmoyer’s argument.

In part 1, Whitmoyer begins by setting out the metaphilosophical project he attributes to Merleau-Ponty in terms of his later writings and their emphasis on interrogation. Before addressing the notion of interrogation on its own terms, it can be approached negatively: if philosophy is essentially interrogation, it is also, essentially, open and infinite. In Whitmoyer’s reading, this notion of interrogation encapsulates Merleau-Ponty’s polemical stance towards the Cartesian tradition which regards certainty as the end of philosophy (in both senses of “end”). Unlike “cruel thought,” which violates its object by reducing it to a function of thought, interrogation attunes itself or even submits itself to the world it observes, and thereby, it follows it. We have here an initial notion of lateness as following, and an intimation of the normative implications of this lateness: the lateness of philosophy expresses the priority of the world over it. This, it could be added (although Whitmoyer leaves it aside), is widely illustrated in Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Bolshevism as abusive application of theory to practice in the Adventures of the Dialectic. On this basis, Whitmoyer engages in a game of variations around this notion of cruelty: the objectivism of Descartes is cruel because it seeks objectification, but the transcendental idealism of Kant and Husserl’s Ideen I, is, if not cruel, at least “claustrophobic,” because it reduces the embodied subject to the transcendental confined ego. Yet, Whitmoyer regards Merleau-Ponty as committed to transcendental idealism, since “Merleau-Ponty’s critical stance with respect to realism requires that we include him in the tradition of transcendental thought” (52). This is a highly controversial claim, not least because Merleau-Ponty’s entire Phenomenology of Perception is busy preventing such non sequiturs by suggesting that there is indeed a way between intellectualism and realism; in other words, that the mutual exclusion that forces one to choose for either side is misguided. However, such a statement only serves to make Whitmoyer’s work all the harder, and therefore, it make things more interesting: how can Merleau-Ponty’s own putative brand of transcendental idealism avoid the charge of claustrophobia? In spite of such a mispronouncement, Whitmoyer remains a keen reader of Merleau-Ponty, and the subsequent sophistication he attributes to Merleau-Ponty’s so-called idealism shows it to be idealism in name only, for it becomes replaced, in terms Whitmoyer doesn’t use, to a form of metaphysical hermeneutics in which the center of apparition is not the ego but unmotivated and infinite meaning-making. But meaning, as Merleau-Ponty repeats constantly, is never complete, and so such a position reopens what was foreclosed by transcendental idealism, and allows Merleau-Ponty to evade cruel thought.

In part II, Whitmoyer initiates a move from a negative notion of ontological lateness provided in Part I (whereby ontological lateness” is defined in contradistinction to “cruel thought”), to a positive one. This move is motivated by the problem of idealism alluded to above, and by the search for a solution of the hermeneutic kind. As such, it is also a move to the Phenomenology of Perception, in which the possibility to avoid idealism and realism is the philosophical center. Here, ontological lateness becomes characterized as the lateness of becoming to being (82): sense is not the result of thought, but it is a dynamic, temporal act: sense is the same as making-sense. It is endless, and therefore constantly incomplete: its horizon is full meaning, a complete sense of self-identity (being), but its structure is purely dynamic (becoming): it is always held back from this self-identity, it shies before it, it is late over it. Note how this doesn’t suggest that being—this that we are late over—is something that is; but rather, being is a fantasy of becoming, and lateness is simply the self-experience of being as failing, the experience that this fantasy is indeed an unattainable fantasy.

In part III, Whitmoyer gathers his findings. This is where the axiological undertones that motivated the metaphilosophical-normative approach become more overt. The abandonment of cruel thought, he suggests, is motivated by a concern for freedom, for love, and for non-religious “faith.” Thereby, the advent of ontological lateness constitutes a eulogy for a philosophy motivated in epistemological terms. This approach naturally leads into an extensive discussion of Nancy’s Noli Me Tangere, in which, also, indeterminacy is the ground of ethics.

As is the rule with all good books in the history of philosophy, it is where Whitmoyer is at his most interesting that he is also at his most controversial. His reading of Merleau-Ponty is accurate and deep, but what makes it original is its tone, which is normative. In a post-enlightenment world in which we have become hypnotized by the notion of singularity, many scholars have considered Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body as containing the promise for a systematic basis to an ethics of the other, of care or of respect. As a result, we have witnessed a number of more or less ventriloquistic attempts at drawing an ethics from a body of work notoriously suspicious of normative arguments. In this context, Whitmoyer’s book will be of interest to any of the many scholars interested in making Merleau-Ponty formulate the ethics he never did formulate. Whitmoyer’s assumption here is that ontological lateness is elaborated out of a normative concern for evading cruel thought. The motivations for this are left vague, and indeed, Whitmoyer doesn’t seem to think that such motivations need providing: “cruel” thought should be avoided, for presumably obvious reasons (the hint is perhaps in the name). Let’s look at Whitmoyer’s notion of cruel thought, therefore, to see if we can draw from the aversion to cruelty, a positive, ethical ground. Cruel thought, Whitmoyer argues, is a violation of the integrity of its objects (it objectifies, and denies them their mystery, indeterminacy, and becoming). It is also, of course, hubris. He writes: “What is required for this love is not knowledge in the sense outlined above—not clarity, distinctness, and apodicticity—but pistis… the faith we demonstrate when we no longer take ‘knowing’ as our subject, when we let others—[Proust’s] Albertine, being—withdraw.” (3) The presumed motivation to evade pure thought therefore, should be something like respect (as non-intrusion), humility and love. Whitmoyer suggests that “Merleau-Ponty wishes to overcome the fear, jealousy and paranoia that motivate cruel thought and to re-think the sense of philia at stake in philosophia” (3). The decision to close the book with a discussion not of Merleau-Ponty but of Nancy’s Noli me Tangere should serves to confirm this. This is an interesting strategy, but to this reviewer, it seems misguided both philosophically and strategically. Indeed, if I am correct about this, it might even reflect onto the initial decision to place the stake of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in a question about the “tasks of philosophy” that is, a question about metaphilosophical normativity.

Here are the strategic worries: first, this is an approach that weakens Merleau-Ponty’s position. This may not be a concern for those who are interested in his “unthought” as they don’t need any further reasons to follow Merleau-Ponty. But to the others, it does: it detaches Merleau-Ponty from this tradition, it removes him from the context that makes his work meaningful and in my view, justified. Isn’t there a stronger rationale for reading Merleau-Ponty in his own claims that he’s dealing with the overcoming of the stalemate between empiricism and idealism for example? Or that he’s dealing with a stable account of the inherence of the so-called subjective and objective poles? Or body and soul? Secondly, and consequently, this commits Whitmoyer to too much: for example, it commits him to having to explain and trace this non-philosophical (or as yet non-philosophical) normative motivation at the root of Merleau-Ponty’s project, and it commits him to justifying Merleau-Ponty’s metaphysics in terms of value and not truth. But what the text gives us, is rather a Merleau-Ponty motivating his work with traditional questions, and his ontology of incompleteness as the result of fearless, unprejudiced and amoral focus for truth. Indeed, Whitmoyer seems to maintain a muted and ambiguous line of thinking in which the value of releasing philosophy from cruel thought is motivated in terms of truth. He writes: “The philosophy of ontological lateness, finally, is not an attempt to make sense of being, if we understand by that fusing and coinciding with it, but to make sense of the manner in which the sense of this becoming is constantly working itself out, to think through the fact that human inquiry, including the project of philosophy itself, is circumscribed by its immersion in the Strom, and that therefore what it seeks remains at a distance.” (150-151) This is both importantly insightful and ambiguous: insightful, because it is true that the object of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is not being as an object but being as a mode of “working itself out.” Ambiguous, because in Whitmoyer’s view, this is different form “making sense of being” whereby for Merleau-Ponty it is exactly the same: being is the same as this “working out.” We may see therefore how this false distinction between “being” and the “working out” of being leads Whitmoyer to read Merleau-Ponty as driven by concerns others than theoretical, to the point that he returns to the problem by asking: “But is there not something profoundly pessimistic in a philosophy that bids us to give up on completing the tasks of thinking? … These kinds of questions however, again, are only asked from the point of view of thought that began with a presupposed ideal of finality. On the contrary, for Merleau-Ponty, a philosophy of lateness is optimistic precisely because it does not seek closure.” (166). But who asked for optimism? Who thought that optimism could redeem a philosophy that would indeed divert us from our theoretical concerns? Isn’t this already assuming that our motivation for doing philosophy is normative? Furthermore, why need that move to the normative, when Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy entirely satisfies the traditional requirements of philosophy as theory? For who says that the discovery of the openness as the fundamental structure of being is not a discovery?

The philosophical worry becomes visible therefore: Whitmoyer is correct that Merleau-Ponty distances himself from the ideal of “knowledge” as objectivity. The fact that he discovers that this yields an ontology of being, and that this leads retroactively into a formulation of philosophy as seeking not knowledge (the truth of objects) but understanding (which is the truth of meanings) is correct and important, but it is the result, not the motive. Even more, the confrontation of the ideal of understanding against the ideal of knowledge is crucial, indeed, it could very well be the core of the current crisis in philosophy, where the opposition between the so-called “Analytic” and “Continental” approaches to philosophy may arguably boil down to a confrontation between these ideals. As such, siding with the ideal of understanding, which is definitely what Merleau-Ponty does, is a normative move indeed, and it is metaphilosophical too, but it is emphatically not a departure from an epistemic ideal towards the ideal of respect. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty never hesitated to submit values to the test of truth (the long polemic with Sartre in the letters as well as in the end of the Adventures of the Dialectic and the preface to Signs among many other passages, should count as a glaring examples of this). Finally, implicitly attributing the values of respect and humility to Merleau-Ponty runs the risk of trivializing his thought. For Merleau-Ponty, they may be virtues worth having, but not for moral reasons. On the contrary, they are themselves motivated by the philosophical urge to avoid deceptions, for objectification is undesirable as a fallacy well before it is morally wrong: cruel thought doesn’t portray the world as it is, it is false well before it is wrong.

Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s texts, especially the texts from the Forties to the mid-Fifties, is reliable and often deep and insightful. His grasp of the Merleau-Pontian vision of a hermeneutic metaphysics and its connections with openness and becoming offers far-reaching systematic perspectives. His metaphilosophical and normativist reading, although open to the criticisms I have tried to outline here, is original and potent, and its purported weaknesses don’t affect the accuracy of his readings of the texts. Perhaps such an idiosyncratic decision was the cost of motivating and initiating a new kind of discussion around the ethics one could draw from Merleau-Ponty’s work. In that context, it offers a new, original and systematic way to pose the question. Whether this question is Merleau-Ponty’s own or his reader’s will soon become an academic distinction, as Merleau-Ponty increasingly becomes what he himself calls, a “classic.”

Jacques Derrida: Artaud the Moma

Artaud the Moma Book Cover Artaud the Moma
Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts
Jacques Derrida. Edited with an afterword by Kaira M. Cabañas. Translated by Peggy Kamuf.
Columbia University Press
Paperback $20.00 £14.99

Reviewed by: R.A. Goodrich (ARC Centre for History of Emotions – University of Melbourne & ADI European Philosophy & History of Ideas –Deakin University)

This essay reviews a lecture by Jacques Derrida regarding Antonin Artaud. However, we should immediately note that Derrida is not discussing a philosopher or even a philosophical system. Instead, he rhetorically embraces Artaud in Artaud’s own terms, namely, that Artaud is not an artist nor is his work art as conventionally understood. Alternatively expressed, Derrida appears to be engaging in a rhetorical performance in the guise of a lecture as both an homage to Artaud and a provocation of the artistic establishment. Hence, for the vast majority of readers of Phenomenological Reviews, this could well be a problematic starting point for an analysis of Artaud and his late work.

On at least half-a-dozen occasions since the mid-’sixties, Derrida has written or spoken about the confronting avant-garde artist Antonin Artaud. His extended October 1996 lecture at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, translated here by Peggy Kamuf, took place at an exhibition of drawings-and-writing on paper undertaken between 1937 and 1948. These works were grouped sequentially. The first group comprised specifically dated and addressed “Spells” crafted from 1937 which were also clinically regarded as a symptom of Artaud’s severe psychological dislocation. The second group emanated from the Rodez psychiatric hospital between 1943 and 1946 which has since been associated with Artaud’s acute physical pain resulting from repeated electro-convulsive therapy. Finally, MoMA included a series of asymmetrically positioned portraits and self-portraits executed at a private clinic in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris, Ivry-sur-Seine, that were exhibited at Galerie Pierre in July 1947. Unfortunately, none of these works are reproduced with the English translation. This is all the more so when, for the 1947 exhibition’s catalogue, Artaud wrote a prose-poem in which he declared:

the human face,
in fact, wears
a perpetual death of sorts
on its face
which it is incumbent on the painter precisely
to save it from
by restoring
its own features


and which Derrida (40ff.) interprets as giving us a clue to Artaud’s vociferous view of the artworld.

Derrida’s originally untitled lecture forms part of Columbia University Press’s monograph series in philosophy, social criticism, and the arts. This series construes philosophy beyond its academic strictures “to embrace forms of discussion” in which the conventions or “rules of social, political, and cultural practice are both affirmed and challenged; and where new thinking takes place.” (ii) Derrida fulfils the series’ goals as, in part, he continues his 1986 essay on Artaud’s conception of le subjectile. There, he also probed the relationship of drawing and writing (“pictograms”) in terms of at least three consequences. The relationship is one where the conventions of language are made extremely problematic; where Artaud’s creative practices are better construed in terms of force rather than form—his piercing and scorching of the material being used is not simply to foreground the material but also the very activity of Artaud himself—and where the deliberate act of employing brute or clumsy techniques intensifies the spectator’s response to the nature of the encounter between artist and medium. Derrida’s Manhattan response to the sheer frenetic, if not contrary, nature of Artaud’s language is at times no less frantic as he explores how Artaud, on the basis of only a few artefacts—notably the July 1947 portrayal of Jany de Ruy—undercuts the aesthetic categories said to be upheld by MoMA, North America’s leading modernist museum. Amongst these institutionally sanctioned categories, Derrida includes artistic originality and techniques as well as artistic history and influences. Derrida also fulfils the goals of the Columbia series in that he explores the aesthetic realm by way of his widely disseminated interpretive strategies of singularity and repetition. Time and again, these are deployed in the lecture, occasionally without providing listeners an overt rationale, possibly because Derrida may have assumed an audience sufficiently acquainted with his linguistic and phenomenological pre-occupations.

Firstly, we shall briefly sketch his polysemous approach enacted from the beginning of his lecture which sets the scene for the lecture as a whole. Next, we shall examine the approach more closely (without resorting to the derogatory tone that has characterised so many Anglophone responses to Derrida’s prolific writings as exemplified by the multiple accusations of J.R. Searle (1983)). Finally, we shall conclude by raising a number of questions that the published lecture leaves unanswered for its readers nowadays.

Unlike the way he questions the underlying, idealised conceptual schemes of past philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or Edmund Husserl, Derrida’s handling of artists as Artaud the Moma rapidly demonstrates is quite different. Whether Franz Kafka or James Joyce, Paul Celan or Francis Ponge to mention but four literary artists whom he had discussed before the 1996 MoMA lecture, his approach is notably distinctive. He particularly focuses upon specific works, specific words, as intensely singular events. Indeed, in an April 1989 interview with Derek Attridge, Derrida elaborates upon the very experience of singularity characteristic of reading (or viewing) modernist artefacts of the twentieth century, including Artaud himself. Although the “‘historical solidarity’ of literature and the history or tradition of metaphysics must be constantly recalled, even if the differences, the distances must be pointed out,” there remains “a task inherent in the experience of reading or writing” which does not “mean that all reading or all writing is historicized.” (1989: 54) What is this experiential, as distinct from historical or metaphysical, task? It is

to give space for singular events, to invent something new in the form of acts of writing which no longer consist in a theoretical knowledge […] to give oneself to a poetico-performativity at least analogous to that of promises, orders […] which do not only change language, or which, in changing language, change more than language. (1989: 55)

When Attridge raises the question of a longstanding claim of “traditional” literary criticism that “it heightens or reveals the uniqueness, the singularity, of the text upon which it comments,” Derrida concedes that a work or oeuvre “takes place just once” and hence “Attention to history, context, and genre is necessitated, and not contradicted, by this singularity” providing we keep in mind “the date and the signature of the work […] which constitute or institute the very body of the work.” (1989: 67-68) Yet, no matter how paradoxically, we also must concede that for a work to

become readable, it has to be divided, to participate and belong […] in the genre, the type, the context, […] the conceptual generality of meaning, etc. It loses itself to offer itself. (1989: 68)

To that extent, singularity is “deferred”

to be what it is and to be repeated in its very singularity. There would be no reading of the work—nor any writing to start with—without this iterability [….] And any work is singular in that it speaks singularly of both singularity and generality. (1989: 68)

For this reason, we encounter such assertions in the Manhattan lecture as an artwork “is archivable because iterable, in the museum and in the history of art”; in fact, in all those institutions “which the work attacks.” (45)  However, Derrida continues, “for there to be iterability” or repetition, there must also be “the singular event of […] its indisputable occurrence.” (45)

Against this apparently paradoxical background, let us now return to the very opening of Artaud the Moma. Derrida immediately intones the question inscribed vertically adjacent to the pastel blue bordering the pencilled full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy, dated on a Wednesday, the 2nd July 1947, in Ivry-sur-Seine:

            And who
            will say
            what? (1)

Derrida seizes upon the fact that we are not simply encountering a “rhetorical question”; rather, it is one he is “miming” and “relaunching,” “framing” and “immobilizing,” if not ultimately “pretending to install […] today” (1)—Thursday evening, the 10th October 1996, in an exhibition at MoMA. In short, any of us can “decipher right here […] this mute interrogation that, in effect, says nothing at all: neither who nor what.” (2)  By such means, his audience is thrust into the realm of the deictic utterance and whether or not it can be understood by virtue of the meanings of words or of its actual context, if not both. Derrida’s reply is one captured earlier by one similarly albeit sceptically wrestling with phenomenological issues, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein comments about the deictic utterance, “After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before,” as follows:

Do I understand this sentence? Do I understand it just as I would if I heard it in the course of a report? If I stood alone, I’d say I don’t know what it’s about. But all the same, I’d know how this sentence might perhaps be used; I could even invent a context for it.
(A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.) (1945: § 525)


After pursuing the analogy of understanding the meaning of an utterance with that of understanding a musical theme, Wittgenstein ends:

Hearing a word as having this meaning. How curious that there should be such a thing!
Phrased like this, emphasized like this, heard in this way, this sentence is the beginning of a transition to these sentences, pictures, actions.
(A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.) (1945: §534)


In sum, Derrida, continuing to draw upon other instances of word meanings throughout the lecture—for instance, le coup, la foudre, and le mômo—each with an indefinite number of associations and contexts, pithily declares: “This work is not exhausted in a discourse.” (56)

Consequently, the portrait of Jany de Ruy “overruns” Derrida’s own discourse. (56) It does so because, on the one hand, “it gives itself its own body one single and unique time in an event that is both irreplaceable and serial,” and, on the other hand, the “event, at the moment of signing, recognizes no soothing status for itself, no assured stability: neither as a drawing […] nor as work of art in the tradition of a history of art or […] the culture of a museographic canonization.” (56)

At this juncture, Derrida re-assembles Artaud’s vertically inscribed question (quoted above) to ask his audience, “Where are we today? […] This evening?” before responding on its behalf with:

We are within the walls of a MoMA. What is a MoMA? What does museum of modern Art mean? In this very place, who would take place? To say what?” (56)

Shifting the onus from artefact to institution, Derrida abjures any attempt to define visual art (or artists) by its (or their) empirical or concrete properties, let alone abstract or metaphysical ones. Gleaned from his comments about Artaud throughout the lecture, it is apparent that for Derrida there is no work of art in general except when those institutions—galleries, schools, museums—insist on grouping individual works together and, one might add, the spatio-temporal manner by which they are best viewed. Nor can institutional efforts to distinguish between stylistic forms and represented content hold with any clarity or certainty: content can no more be abstracted from style than a representation from what is represented. Oddly, Derrida pays no attention to institutional definitions of art, against which Artaud constantly rails, in terms of the horns of a dilemma first pinpointed by Richard Wollheim (1980: 160-164). If, for example, those conferring artistic status—be they critics, teachers, or scholars—have good reason for taking some object to be an artistic work, then all that these institutional representatives have done is to confirm a status already had before their act of conferral and so they can dispense with the need to define artistic works in institutional terms. If, by contrast, those conferring artistic status were ultimately to deny that a good reason is ever needed or could be articulated for taking some object to be an artistic work, then the very point or value of attributing the status of art to anything appears to be quite arbitrary and hence any institutional definition would fail to provide us with a necessary criterion in the first place.

So, how are we to experience, to understand, Artaud’s work if institutional interpretations are illusory? One will fail to understand, declares Derrida,

if one does not hear his voice, if one does not attune oneself to the tempo of his letters and the rhythm of his words beyond coded language, beyond its grammar and its instituted semantics. (57)

Imbued with Artaud’s April 1947 text, “Ten years since language left,” Derrida excerpts the following:

By a blow…
of the tongue
by my black pencil pressing

and that’s all. (22; cf. 1986: 113 & 121)

These words epitomise the sheer force of Artaud’s drawings and their capacity for

transforming the aesthete’s body, [for] changing these transient guests who, having come as visitors or voyeurs into a museum, would claim to be mere spectators. Woe to these contemplators and consumers of images. (60)

Understanding Artaud also requires “a slow, careful, inflamed, vocalized reading” of all his contemporaneous texts “preceded by subtle and audacious protocols of interpretation.” (63)  Indeed, continues Derrida, “without the experience of these texts, without meditation on these protocols, without recasting everything from top to bottom,” both bodily and cognitively, we shall fail to experience the drawings and, at best, will merely “indulge in some aesthetic tourism.” (67)

Having now sampled some pivotal passages of the Manhattan lecture, how, for readers nowadays, does Derrida himself understand Artaud’s drawings, especially in 1947 when Artaud re-iterates his protest against any suggestion that his portraits and self-portraits are skilfully “academic” and have not truly broken from “those great figures in the history of art” be their work figurative or non-figurative? (37 & 42) Accepting Artaud at his word, Derrida admits that there is one exception, “only one avowed figure of a legitimate and legitimating ancestor,” namely Vincent van Gogh. (43). However, unlike his essay on Artaud’s conception of le subjectile (1986: 96ff.), Derrida stops short of explicitly delving into Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. In it, Artaud asks of someone he regards as “great a writer as he was a painter”:

What is the use of describing a painting by van Gogh! No description attempted by anyone else could be worth the simple alignment of natural objects and hues to which van Gogh gives himself, (1947: 498)

and consequently concludes:

So I shall not describe a painting of van Gogh after van Gogh [upon citing his letters  such as those of the 8th September 1888 and the 23rd July 1890], but I shall say that van Gogh is a painter because he recollected nature, because he reperspired it and made it sweat, because he squeezed onto his canvases in clusters, in monumental sheaves of color, the grinding of elements that occurs once in a hundred years, the awful elementary pressure of apostrophes, scratches, commas, and dashes which, after him, one can no longer believe that natural appearances are not made of.

And what an onslaught of repressed jostlings, ocular collisions taken from life, blinkings taken from nature, have the luminous currents of the forces which work on reality had to reverse before being finally driven together and, as it were, hoisted onto the canvas, and accepted?

There are no ghosts in the paintings of van Gogh, no visions, no hallucinations. (1947: 499)

In van Gogh, Artaud finds a painter only “and nothing more.” (1947: 502) In other words, there is “no philosophy, no mysticism, no ritual, no psychurgy or liturgy” to seek on canvas; indeed, “no history, no literature, or poetry.” (1947: 502) By such logic, understanding is re-directed:

These sunflowers of bronzed gold are painted; they are painted as sunflowers and nothing more, but in order to understand a sunflower in nature, one must go back to van Gogh, just as in order to understand a storm in nature,
stormy sky,
a field in nature […] (1947: 502-503)

To attend to van Gogh’s work itself is to attend to the actualities of his medium:

Painter, nothing but a painter, van Gogh adopted the techniques of pure painting and  never went beyond them.
I mean that in order to paint he never went beyond the means that painting offered  him. (1947: 503)

By quoting Artaud liberally, we have attempted to elicit the degree to which Artaud’s encounter with van Gogh above often parallels Derrida’s with Artaud. More bluntly expressed, does Artaud’s rationale for avoiding descriptions of van Gogh’s work exhibited at the Orangerie in Paris between January and March 1947 function as a precursor for Derrida’s similar avoidance with respect to Artaud’s works exhibited at MoMA between October 1996 and January 1997? Or, as a way of disputing Derrida’s reliance upon Artaud here, are readers meant to presume that Derrida’s lecture is a manifestation of what he had long held about the nature of rhetorical acts which include acts of describing and hypothesizing, evaluating and observing?  For example, in his 1974 essay on Stéphane Mallarmé, Derrida succinctly claims that rhetoric contains a “hidden philosophy,” one exclusively tied to “the meaning of a text” or “its content.” (1974: 113) What rhetoric fails to do is “deal with signifying forms (whether phonic or graphic) or with the effects of syntax, at least as far as semantic control does not dominate them.” (1974: 114) Hence, for rhetoric or any act of description “to have something to see or to do before a text, a meaning has to be determinable.” (1974: 114) Not unlike Mallarmé’s texts, it may be counter-argued, Artaud’s texts for Derrida seem to be organised such that meaning remains indeterminate (“undecidable”) at which point “the signifier no longer lets itself be traversed, it remains, resists, exists and draws attention to itself.” (1974: 114)

It is scarcely controversial to say that the Manhattan lecture is far more focused on the writing accompanying and within Artaud’s hybrid work on paper. Yet, curiously, Derrida makes no mention of the fact that the full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy (amongst many others at the time) is a double portrait; it has Artaud’s portrait embedded within it. What does such an omission indicate? More particularly, what does it imply about the role Derrida has assigned to his audience, to those fulfilling the role of spectators (cf. 14, 33) or witnesses and, for that matter, to himself?

To begin with the latter, the lecture closes on what at first appears to be a confession. Referring to the months before the lecture, Derrida talks of being taken to court and put on trial by Artaud as both plaintiff and prosecutor in a scene incessantly, if not obsessively, in which Derrida hears Artaud’s voice: “I see nothing, I see no one, but I hear him,” Artaud, who “cries out at me.” (71) Haunted by the return of Artaud-Mômo on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, not as a “visible apparition” at MoMA, but as the ghost of his voice which, “by sacred mission or commission, it would be my job to play at guarding for a moment, the bodyguard, right here, of a voice from beyond-the-grave.” (71-72) Next, after capturing the voices of the dead Paule Thévenin (to whom the lecture is dedicated (26)) and Antonin Artaud (whose voice recorded in November 1947 for his radio play To Have Done with the Judgment of God prefaces and concludes the lecture), Derrida qualifies his role: “The bodyguard of Artaud’s voice—which I am not and do not wish to be but which I have perhaps acted for once—sees nothing but he lends an ear.” (74)

What are we to make of this tale and its bearing, not upon the concept of the artist or maker, but upon the equally crucial concept of spectator or witness of the visual arts? To what extent is Derrida enacting the stance taken six years earlier in the 1990 catalogue, presented in the form of a dialogue, for an exhibition at the Louvre of drawings he selected? There, he postulates:

In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind. Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception. The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time […] No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable of witnesses […] has seen and now keeps in memory. (1990: 104)

On the one hand, does this proposal resonate with his longstanding objection to any phenomenological commitment to direct perception, especially visual perception, as the means of garnering experiential facts or truths? After all, Derrida implies, no witness can retrospectively demonstrate through his or her perceptual modality (whether helped or not by electronic prostheses) what event or phenomenon is to be witnessed. Does the above proposal, at the same time, bolster his belief in the efficacy, no matter how contingently or momentarily, of writing and drawing to mediate and ultimately transform experience? On the other hand, does this conception of witnessing—whether his own or his audience’s—exonerate, as it were, not recognising or seeing the full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy as a double portrait?  Again, is the witness’s shift from the visual to the rhetorical, to narrative discourse, consistent with Derrida’s underlying appeal to the vocally performative “something vision alone would be incapable of”? (1990: 122) Finally, there appear to be other aspects of the role of witness Derrida neglects. His conception of narrative associated with the role of the witness leaves open whether it accommodates both the temporal and the evaluative dimensions of narrative or remains limited to the temporal alone? Nor does his notion of witness take account of circumstances where sighting an event and avowals of its occurrence take place simultaneously in such cases as witnessing signatures. Moreover, there are also cases of spectators or witnesses viewing an event or phenomenon whilst simultaneously verbalising a running commentary about it in speech directed at others (or at self) as exemplified by sports commentators or gallery guides.

As stated at the onset of this review, Derrida’s lecture seems to be a problematic starting point for an actual analysis of Artaud and his late work. Ultimately, for readers less familiar with the visual arts and with Derrida’s approach to them (designated as “a poetico-performativity” (1989: 55)), perhaps there is something to be said for Mary Ann Caws’ prefatory observation to her translation of Derrida (1986). There, she notes, the text might be better read “like a musical score” as Artaud would say of his own writing and, as Derrida remarked about his selection of works from Artaud, he “won’t be describing any paintings” let alone their development. (1986: xii)

Thanks are particularly owed to musician and composer Elissa Goodrich for alerting me to issues raised by performance theory.



Artaud, Antonin. 1947. Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. In Selected Writings. Edited by Susan Sontag; translated by Helen Weaver, 483-512. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

Attridge, Derek. 1989. “‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” In Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge; translated by Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby, 33-75. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Derrida, Jacques. 1974. “Mallarmé.” In Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge; translated by Christine Roulston, 110-126. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

————-1986. “To Unsense the Subjectile.” In Jacques Derrida & Paule Thévenin, The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud. Abridged translation by M.A. Caws, 61-157. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

————-1990. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

————–1996. Artaud the Moma: Interjections of Appeal. Edited by K.M. Cabañas; translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Searle, J.R. 1983. “The Word Turned Upside Down.” The New York Review of Books 30(16): 74-79.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1945. Philosophical Investigations, 4th rev. edn. Edited by P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte; translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Wollheim, R.A. 1980. “The Institutional Theory of Art.” In Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays, 2nd edn., 157-166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruce B. Janz (Ed.): Place, Space and Hermeneutics

Place, Space and Hermeneutics Book Cover Place, Space and Hermeneutics
Series: Contributions to Hermeneutics, Vol. 5
Bruce B. Janz (Ed.)
Hardback 139,09 €
XXIV, 531

Reviewed by: Sanna Lehtinen (University of Helsinki)

Place, Space and Hermeneutics is an extensive compilation of articles that cover a wide spectrum of hermeneutical approaches to understanding place and space. It is the 5th volume in Contributions to Hermeneutics series and comprises 37 individual chapters. Hermeneutics is understood quite loosely through philosophical and non-philosophical definitions of it. This is explicitly done in order to avoid diminishing its possibilities: the emphasis is on making visible the richness of current hermeneutical thinking and show new directions and application possibilities for it. Hermeneutics is presented as an umbrella term for a set of methods and perspectives to interpretation that will, and already have proved, to be useful for understanding place and space. How exactly do the fundamental hermeneutic tasks of understanding and interpreting help in making sense of the human relation to space and place? Hermeneutics of place is approached through various very different cases: from imaginary places to embodied experience and from textuality to particular places on the Earth, the specific position of hermeneutics for understanding the human relation to place is shown to be undisputed. One obvious meta-question central to the collection of articles is, what kind of interpretations hermeneutics itself elicits from its authors.

One of the more fundamental themes for an anthology with this type of a theme is the spatial nature of the very situatedness of human beings (v). The interweaving of the ontological and epistemological approaches within hermeneutics is done to a convenient extent: as Jeff Malpas writes in his foreword, the emphasis of the book has been on depicting the hermeneutical engagement with the topics at hand, instead of making a dedication specifically to hermeneutical philosophy (vii). This proves that the approach stays open and close to the topics it is attempting to cover. Another more fundamental question deals with the mechanisms of how place and space contribute to the constitution of the human subjectivity and embodied experience of space. This is a topic that Shaun Gallagher, Sergio F. Martínez, and Melina Gastelum examine more closely in their joint article. The baseline, in a sense, for any hermeneutical relation to the world, comes from understanding how the lived body relates to the world it is by necessity bound to. Understanding the body as it is lived as opposed the ‘corporeal body’ (Körper) brings forth the bodily ramifications for any engagement with place. Kevin Aho takes up this distinction in his contribution and develops the theme of a hermeneutic understanding of the ‘lived-body’ (Leib).

While the application of hermeneutics to place is not new as such, attention has been paid in the book to developing hermeneutic philosophy also towards future needs and purposes. A lot of emphasis is put, quite understandably, on the notion of place. Space is not necessarily discussed to the same extent as place due to the rich, already existing phenomenological tradition concentrating on interpreting place. Space is most often treated in relation to either place or time: direct approaches and experiential perspectives to spatiality become exposed in glimpses. These reflections open up new paths and clarify old conceptions of hermeneutics. It seems clear, that future research will be able to build on the preconception that time and temporality are complemented with place and space within the hermeneutic tradition. The collection makes visible the myriad ways in which hermeneutic philosophy and phenomenology are intertwined and also where their ways part. In this, Ricoeur’s distinction between epistemological (Dilthey) and ontological approaches (Heidegger) to hermeneutics has traditionally worked as a useful compass (116). However, the multiplicity of voices is present throughout the book: in a compilation this vast, no one thinker manages to override others in balancing “the opposing pulls of space and place” (275).

The volume introduces the reader to the internal variation within contemporary hermeneutic thinking. The book is divided into three larger parts: “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”, “Figures and Thinkers” and “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. The importance of a comprehensive account of hermeneutical methodologies applied to place is also highlighted directly by many of the contributors, since, for example according to Christina M. Gschwandtner: “place is always interpreted. There is no objective, neutral, or “pure” place.” (170). Place as such calls for an interpretation as it demarcates an already existing, culturally and historically tinged engagement with space.

The first part, “Elements of Place, Space and Hermeneutics”., consists of nine individual articles examining basic questions of hermeneutics as an approach to place and space. Some do it on a more general level, but others have already a specifically chosen point of view to present. Textuality is presented as a central perspective in Bruce B. Janz’ account, the first of many dealing with this specifically central theme. Annike Schlitte takes up narrative, whereas dialogue is presented as the main topic in Kyoo Lee’s contribution. The choice of focus on textuality in the beginning is well justified by the history of hermeneutical tradition and ideas to which it is still associated with most strongly. The textual model for interpretation is a valid starting point for many of the subsequent ventures as well. The textuality-based themes discussed in the first part serve well also the interpretation of the rest of the book. While text interpretation continues to be central point of orientation for any hermeneutic approach, other interesting themes in the first part of the collection are covered by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s article on the notion of play (Gadamerian Spiel) and style and Dylan Trigg’s phenomenological take on the differences between place and non-place, that builds on the legacy of both Marc Augé and Edward Relph.

Text as a metaphor for place together with other metaphors is examined since both textuality and place are core concepts in hermeneutics (26). The relation of places to memory is also evoked (171). Different narratives turn spaces into shared places, even fictitious or dreamed spaces (Cristina Chimisso on Gaston Bachelard). The theory and practice of art is also present to some extent (Babette Babich on Merleau-Ponty and Keith Harder on place-specific artistic practices). It goes without saying, that architecture is also present in this context. Interestingly enough, stairwells and stairs prove to be important architectural elements discussed as examples in both articles that are directly focusing on architecture: Jean-Claude Gens writing about Gadamer and David Seamon focusing on the architectural language of Thomas Thiis-Evensen.

The second part is titled concisely “Figures and Thinkers” and it delves deeper into the general theme by presenting central figures for contemporary hermeneutic approach to place and space in its 12 chapters. Diverse and indispensable philosophers from Heidegger to Ricoeur or Gadamer to Malpas receive direct attention, the whole list of figures being too extensive to go through here in detail. Space is also dedicated to thinkers less directly associated with hermeneutical tradition: these include Arendt and Foucault. Some names come altogether outside the philosophical canon, such are for example Yi-Fu Tuan and J. J. Gibson, to name a few. All of these thinkers have a slightly different type of relation to hermeneutics and specifically to examining place and space. Some are closer to what could be characterized as the core of the approach and others have had a less direct influence on the unfolding the interpretational themes related to place and space. The thinkers in this part represent many traditions from ontological hermeneutics to human geography. Despite the seemingly wide variety between figures and approaches, there is unforeseeable value in bringing them together under the same title in this context.

The legacy of some prominent thinkers who have been previously considered to be at the margins of hermeneutical tradition, is rewritten from the perspective of inclusive, multidisciplinary hermeneutics. An example of this, Yi-Fu Tuan, is noted in Paul C. Adams’ chapter to explicitly avoid any methodology. However, in his approach closely following some of the central parameters of hermeneutic thinking: empathy and interest towards a vast variety of human experiences and advancing thought through contrasts in circular motion. Other thinkers would seem to resist the stamp of hermeneutics more but are still depicted in this account as bearing some connection to the current forms of hermeneutics of place and space. Henri Lefebvre, for example, is traditionally seen to be very far from any version of hermeneutics but according to Peter Gratton’s reading of his work, Lefebvre’s projects on spatiality are affect also any subsequent hermeneutical account of the themes of place or space. This selection of articles show also, how hermeneutic approach to place can get significant depth and reinforcement from Arendtian multi-perspectivism, Foucauldian discourse analysis or Gibsonian ecological psychology. Also, the more sceptical attitudes towards methodologies in general are given a place, as the articles on Bachelard, Arendt and Tuan pay attention to show.

Hermeneutics is often used to refer to the conscious development of a specific methodology, but the term also denotes a general, even a more intuitive attempt to understand the constituents of particular human actions. The volume at hand makes explicit the inevitable distinction between hermeneutics as a philosophical program (Malpas & Gander 2014) and hermeneutics as a set of interpretation tools applicable to varying topics. An overview of hermeneutics to place and space is created thus by showing the strengths of these approaches in relation to the main topics of interest here: what types of interpretations do human actions and their spatial dispersions elicit and enable? Understanding human actions and practices, their meanings and intentionality behind them, is at the centre throughout the collection, even though interpretative efforts are directed towards more particular aims in each individual contribution. The human relation to place and space and the forms it gets, opens up the discussion to many directions. This serves as a reminder of the vast terrain of possible subthemes in any variety of hermeneutics of place and space. Besides direct engagement, hermeneutics is used also to interpret the many traces left by human activity. It is easy to see great value in this type of an approach, and hermeneutics in this form could profit even more the ongoing discussions about such complex and large-scale issues as climate change and urbanization. This has already been shown by a growing interest towards environmental hermeneutics that precedes this publication (see e.g. Treanor & al. 2013). This is also precisely where the anthology proceeds towards its end.

The third, last and understandably the largest part of the book is dedicated to “Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Spaces of the Hermeneutics of Place and Space”. As one strand of the final part, the topical planetary level problems that are increasingly seeping into our everyday consciousness are taken into closer consideration. The broad concepts discussed in the chapter include the Anthropocene (Janz) and climate crisis (Edward Casey). Environmental and ecological thinking is present more broadly also already in Gschwandtner’s application of Ricoeur’s hermeneutics to place. Janet Donohoe gives environmental hermeneutics a more detailed account as she focuses on the concept of the environment and what this environment in peril is in relation to the human culture and the significant places in our lives. This type of an approach is a welcome reminder, of how environmental philosophy can profit from taking hermeneutics into account in comprehending the current complex environmental threats and the relation to the human lifeworlds.

From environmental perspective, it is also relevant to think about how to draw interpretation about the events that take place on a planetary scale. How does the need for space of the human population affect the living conditions of other species on Earth? What type of knowledge and engagement do these types of questions entail? These questions raised by the currently prevailing ecological concerns show, that the need to reflect, understand and interpret these tendencies and the human responsibilities is more crucial than ever. The human capacity for collectively organizing its living conditions according to the afforded space is not unique, by any means. What we are capable though, is the conceptual thinking and long-term planning in relation to how human spaces are created, developed and used. This type of long-term, temporally evolving engagement is what hermeneutics is also well-equipped to illustrate.

The final part of the book consisting of 15 chapters in total, gives an overview of the interdisciplinary relations in which hermeneutics has proven to be particularly fruitful. The clear intention of this part is also to widen the possibilities of use and show new directions for developing hermeutics of place and space. Among various newer or less-studied interdisciplinary constellations presented here are for example topopoetics, which according to Tim Cresswell is “a project that sees poems as places and spaces” (319). This part of the book, intended to be “exploratory and creative”, stretches further ground for new hermeneutical approaches (4). Paths point towards the possible multidisciplinary futures of hermeneutics of place and space: hermeneutics as inherently directed towards exploration of inner meanings encourages these interdisciplinary approaches. This becomes apparent by some chapters of the final part: they rely strongly on the tradition of their specific field but show how hermeneutics has successfully been implemented into their approach to place or space. Thomas Dörfler and Eberhard Rothfuß, for example, have human geography as their starting point. In the same vein, Pauline McKenzie Aucoin has anthropological and Eva-Maria Simms psychological focuses in their contributions. Making visible these intersections with fields of study that grew in importance during 20th century, point towards the scale of possible uses for hermeneutical concepts and methods.

One pivotal strand in the book focuses on how hermeneutics could help in understanding urban life in its current forms and settings. Urbanization is a complex phenomenon that a collection with a focus such as this cannot omit. Yet it can be approached from many different directions even in this context and it follows that there are various more or less direct references to urban hermeneutics: Alan Blum and Andy Zieleniec, for example, take each in their own article into focus the urban social sphere in order to show how hermeneutics has already been applied and could be developed further within the sphere of social sciences. Zieleniec, for example, brings together Simmel, Benjamin and Lefebvre in order to draw a specifically sociological approach to space and spatiality within the urban sphere. The meanings and values that space and spatiality get through everyday urban activities is in the focus when going through the influence these thinkers have had on sociological study of urban environments. Hermeneutic approach definitely has a lot to offer to the philosophical understanding of different facets of urban life. In this context, the subtheme of mobility could have easily been added in a separate article: moving in any given space necessarily alters the starting point for interpretive engagement. Mobility is present in some parts though, as in Cresswell’s account of poetry (327) or when Zieleniec writes about Simmel and Benjamin (384–385; 387).

The social aspects of hermeneutic philosophy include the shared nature of place, intersubjectivity of spatial experiences and spatial or platial interpretations of social situations. Also presented are the themes of globalisation (Gratton) and inequality (Abraham Olivier on townships in the opening article of the collection), to which philosophically solid accounts are urgently needed. Towards its end, the book presents in separate articles some currently important but also exceedingly wide themes. The questions pertaining to the digital realm, for example, are opened up by Golfo Maggini’s article on digital virtual places. He presents the digital places stemming from ubiquitous computing as heterotopic places of radical alterity. This reading … It would certainly be interesting to read more about this type of an approach to digital and virtual environments, where hermeneutics can significantly widen the interpretational context.

Crucial contributions in the last part of the book are the openings towards feminist and racial approaches to hermeneutics of place and space. Janet C. Wesselius charts feminist philosophy through its already existing approaches to situatedness. She takes into examination the notion of “a woman’s place”, in particular. The perspective of philosophy of race comes through Robert Bernasconi’s article where he dissects institutional racism as a historico-spatial construct. In the final article of the volume, the reader is also given a glimpse of the non-western perspectives to hermeneutics of space and place. This is done by On-cho Ng’s critical treatment of the limits and tensions following from applying local knowledge to interpreting phenomena elsewhere: in this case from how Western hermeneutics collides with Chinese traditions of interpretation. This part of the book scratches the surface of a fascinating discussion that will hopefully continue to flourish. Due to the fact that racial, feminist, queer, non-western or multicultural approaches are by no means marginal anymore, they definitely could intersect already earlier with the main themes of the book in order to be better taken into consideration as parts of the multitude of interpretational horizons.

Throughout the entire collection, the list of actual places used as examples opens up a vast spectrum of different place typologies. They include traditionally valued culturally and historically significant places, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site Meteora in Greece (in Bahar Aktuna & Charlie Hailey’s article) or more generic forms of human spatial traits such as urban hiking trails (in Simms’ example). Walmart chain store (in Trigg’s account) comes to represent a quintessential non-place of the contemporary Western society. Importantly, also places of human despair that should be an exception in the story of any civilisation, such as German refugee camps (in Dörfler and Rothfuß’s article), are included in order to critically examine their non-place qualities. These and other concrete and sometimes even surprising examples fix reader’s attention effectively and punctuate the varied theoretical accounts on place.

The book opens up to two directions that are by no means antithetical but support each other: what are the implications of hermeneutics of place and space on studying different types of phenomena and, on the other hand, what are the direct consequences on the philosophical discourse of more explicitly emphasizing this connection and approach. All in all, there is surprisingly little redundant repetition (or wasted space, one is tempted to say in this context), even when different authors discuss the same thinkers or concepts. It is also a notable feat that the collection is accessible to readers who do not have an extensive knowledge of the hermeneutical tradition. The strengths of this volume are in its wide-ranging scope, the way it presents on-going discussions and includes less heard voices to the canon of hermeneutical approaches. By emphasizing hermeneutics as an inherently open and engaged approach, it encourages any subsequent exploration on human spatiality through this lens. This strong engagement at the core is thus also the legacy of hermeneutics outside the immediate sphere of philosophy.

Care has been put on selecting the themes and writers, at the same time giving them the freedom to approach the topic from an individually selected point of view: “This book is more curated than edited.” (2) This has resulted in a coherent and intellectually rewarding piece of philosophical literature. Janz as the editor clarifies in the introduction, that the idea has not been to cover every aspect of the wide topic but to offer enough for the discussion to continue with renewed energy (2–3). As a result, the collection will inevitably have influence in shaping and directing the contemporary understanding of what hermeneutics is and what it could be. It is also stated explicitly in the introduction that the collection is not intended to be a handbook on hermeneutics and place and space (4). However, this does not mean that it will not, or should not, be used as such. On the contrary, it is easy to see that this selection of texts can open the tradition of hermeneutics to students, scholars and other curious minds, even if they do not have philosophy as their main interest. The collection is an indispensable reference to researchers working on a variety of different topics and approaches within philosophy of space and place as well as more applied approaches circling these themes. It is a valuable contribution to hermeneutic literature as well as to place/space research and the many imaginable intersections between these.


Malpas, Jeff & Ganders, Hans-Helmut (Eds.) 2014. The Routledge Companion to Hermeneutics. London & New York: Routledge.

Treanor, Brian, Drenthen, Martin, Utsler, David & Clingerman, Forrest (Eds.) 2013. Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics. New York: Fordham University Press.

Hans Blumenberg: Théorie de l’inconceptualité

Théorie de l'inconceptualité Book Cover Théorie de l'inconceptualité
Philosophie imaginaire
Hans Blumenberg. Traduit de l’allemand par Marc de Launay
Éditions de l’éclat
Paperback 15,00 €

Reviewed by: Sonja Feger (Universität Koblenz · Landau)

Recent years have seen several new translations of books and shorter works by Hans Blumenberg into English and French, and an English edition with Blumenberg’s most important shorter writings is forthcoming[1]. The French translation under review here, published in 2017, is further evidence of this growing interest in Blumenberg’s work.

Blumenberg’s previously unpublished text Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit was first edited in its German original by Anselm Haverkamp in 2007. Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit (Theory of Nonconceptuality) borrows its title—and so does the French translation by Marc de Launay—from a 1975 summer term lecture Blumenberg gave in Münster. This short text is of particular interest, as it relates several themes within Blumenberg’s thinking in a rather condensed way.

The main text (7–108) consists in the edition of those typescripts Blumenberg based his lecture upon (see 128) and is followed by an appendix entitled “Bruchstücke des ‘Ausblicks auf eine Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit’” (Perspective sur une théorie de l’inconceptualité; 109–125)[2]. A translation of the editor’s postface completes the volume (127–131). Théorie de l’inconceptualité most of the time does without headings or subheadings; only an excursion on ‘economy and luxury’ (19–26) and a revised passage on ‘negation’ serving as a transition (89–91) fall under headings. Instead, larger sections are simply divided by page breaks. As the editor remarks, Blumenberg presents his observations giving examples with varying levels of complexity, and often does so without guiding his listeners or readers to a conclusion (des exemples de complexions diverses—souvent sans déboucher sur une conclusion; 131). By refusing to add any new headings or divide Blumenberg’s work into sections, the editor succeeds in carefully preserving and communicating the original character of the typescript, which is between the tone of a lecture and a written text. Because all Blumenberg’s texts stylistically dense they present a challenge to the reader, and this text is no different. If one expects an easy-to-read introduction to his works, one will not find it in this booklet. Nonetheless, the themes discussed are at the heart of Blumenberg’s phenomenological project and are well worth the effort.

To begin with, it is difficult to judge what exactly the book is about. Here is my proposal: one might say that the text as a whole bundles varieties of human ways to deal with reality. More specifically, in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, Blumenberg primary focus is upon the epistemic operations humans are capable of. Specifically, he is interested in one particular way for humans to engage with reality, namely in the act of theorizing—or, to put it in phenomenological terms, the act of distancing oneself from one’s object of consideration by adopting a theoretical attitude.

Théorie de l’inconceptualité may be regarded as a text about ‘theory’ in a twofold or two-layered way. First, Blumenberg addresses various epistemic operations humans are capable of, focusing on the role of conceptual thinking (or its lack) in cognition. In his attempt to describe the structure of conceptual thinking and to ascribe to it the role it plays in cognition, Blumenberg scrutinizes the various forms the act of theorizing can take.. Secondly, Théorie de l’inconceptualité is itself a theoretical work. This does not so much amount to opposing theoretical and practical philosophy to one another, for Blumenberg himself does use practical examples (though in a broad sense) as much as he draws from epistemological observations and concepts. Rather, Blumenberg considers the ability to take on a theoretical attitude as something we do and perform; for him, it is a distinguished, an essentially human one. In short, Blumenberg addresses theory as one of the human ways to engage with reality from a precisely theoretical point of view. In other words, theory is taken both as a method and as the object in question; that is, theory itself becomes the very object of Blumenberg’s theoretical interest. In this sense, the above-mentioned two-layered approach to be found in the text emerges with Blumenberg playing on the reduplication of theory.

As a first step in this review, I want to discuss Blumenberg’s proposal for a notion of conceptual thinking. Secondly, I will link conceptual thinking to the theoretical attitude humans can assume. Then, I will turn to consider Blumenberg’s attempts to delimit conceptual thinking and nonconceptuality and his anthropological observations. By way of conclusion, I will touch upon the connection between the anthropological and the epistemological dimension found in Théorie de l’inconceptualité. It goes without saying that I cannot consider every aspect the text touches upon. Other topics within the wide range of Blumenberg’s observations such as aesthetics, the concept of the lifeworld, happiness, metaphors, the epistemic operation of negation or the anthropological function of prevention must remain largely uncommented upon here.

Conceptual thinking

Contrary to what the title of the book suggests, the text does not start out by shedding light on what is to be understood by the term of ‘nonconceptuality’. Rather, Blumenberg’s text first lays its focus on conceptual thinking. However, rather than aiming at a (precise) definition of either of the two, Théorie de l’inconceptualité raises the question of how those two different ways of dealing with reality might refer to each other and, moreover, refer to theory in general. The reader expecting to be given a precise definition of at least one of the two terms will be deceived.

The fact that the text lacks a precise definition of conceptual thinking does not mean that Blumenberg does without spelling out crucial aspects he ascribes to conceptual thinking. For him, two features are to be found at the core of conceptual thinking: first, conceptual thinking has something to do with the phenomenon of absence (Le concept a un certain rapport avec l’absence de son objet; 7). For example, imagine the groceries you have run out of, which are therefore absent, and which you (mentally) represent when writing a shopping list. For Blumenberg, what one does in this case is use conceptual thinking in order to re‑present that which is not tangibly accessible (le concept seul demeure, qui, de son côté, représente toute l’échelle de ce qui est sensoriellement accessible; 7).

Blumenberg’s own example of the representation of an absent object in conceptual thinking, however, is more specific than my example of a shopping list. It consists in referring to a primal scene of anthropogenesis, namely the construction of a trap. A trap layer has to adjust his construction in shape and size to the animal he hopes to catch eventually. For example, setting a trap adequate for catching a mammoth requires nothing more than calling into presence that very mammoth which is absent the moment the trap is being set. Having a concept of a mammoth thus means to determine it as the expected prey, that is, to determine the trap in shape and size. In Blumenberg’s view, what the trap layer accomplishes is a conceptualization of an absent object. Or, to put it in phenomenological terms: laying a trap involves knowing an eidos and acting upon that knowledge. What Blumenberg’s example emphasizes, however, is that being able to use concepts is an achievement in (human) evolutionary history, implicitly assuming a historical constitution of transcendental (inter‑) subjectivity.

The second aspect Blumenberg locates within the realm of conceptual thinking is closely linked to the above-mentioned phenomenon of absence and concerns the phenomenon of distance (see 7; 10). Laying a trap directs one’s actions towards objects or events not immediately given but distanced in space and time: a mammoth shall not be caught right now and here but perhaps tomorrow and over there. In this regard, concepts are like tools humans use to act over a distance, they are the means of an actio per distans (12). For Blumenberg, the trap is the first triumph of conceptual thinking (Dans cette mesure, le piège est le premier triomphe du concept; 12).


According to Blumenberg, conceptual thinking such as the representation of a prey when setting a trap can count among reason’s products or performances (un produit de la raison; 7). As reason encompasses conceptual thinking and, therefore, also the above-mentioned actio per distans, it follows for Blumenberg that reason is the epitome of those epistemic operations that put in a performance over a distance, both spatial and temporal (On pourrait dire que la raison serait le condensé de pareilles réalisations à distance; 8). Yet the reverse, that reason only exists when something is conceptualized, does not hold (Mais cela n’autorise pas le renversement qui voudrait que la raison n’existe que lorsqu’elle parvient […] au concept; 7). Thus, it can be emphasized that, for Blumenberg, acting over a distance by means of conceptual thinking is only a first step within humans’ process of becoming a creature capable of theorizing. For what exceeds conceptual thinking insofar as it encompasses it, in Blumenberg’s view, is a theoretical attitude as such.

Blumenberg makes this idea more accessible drawing from an anthropogenic assumption: man, for Blumenberg, is the being that straightens up, transcends the short range of perception, and transgresses the horizon of its senses (L’homme, l’être qui se met debout et quitte le domaine de la proche perception, franchit l’horizon de ses sens; 8). Man raises his gaze and directs it to the horizon, that is, he is no longer only concerned with objects given to him within the realm of immediate and actual tactility, but also with potentially tangible objects (again, such as mammoths caught in a trap).

In Blumenberg’s view, this movement of transgression finds itself repeated. Man not only transgresses the horizon of his senses in order to master objects given to him in a (both temporally and spatially) mediated way. The above-mentioned anthropogenic moment lies in a two-step rotation of the head man accomplishes. First, he directs his gaze from the ground towards the horizon, which amounts to mastering mediately given objects over a certain distance. In this way, both building a trap and focusing on the horizon amount to an actio per distans. Second, man turns his head another ninety degrees to look at the sky (Ce qui veut dire que le regard n’est pas fixé sur l’horizon, spatial et temporal, pour attendre ce qui va arriver et pour agir sur ce qui surgit, mais que le regard, ayant accompli un mouvement à quatre-vingt-dix degrés pour quitter la direction du sol et parvenir à l’horizontal, va encore une fois accomplir une rotation à quatre-vingt-dix degrés et viser la voûte étoilée; 14). As laid out in The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, Blumenberg considers Thales of Miletus to be the “putative first philosopher” (see Laughter, Preface). It is exactly his gaze at the sky that turns him into the first contemplator caeli in a philosophical sense. Instead of anticipating prey and, therefore, being directed toward a potentially tangible object, the stars in the sky are perceptible and yet (at least for the run of several centuries) intangible. The skies represent that which encompasses the totality of all possible objects of perception, and thus represent the idea of totality. In this sense, the sky Thales of Miletus turns his gaze to represents the ultimate object of a theoretical attitude; this is why Thales is described as the proto-philosopher (le proto-philosophe et astronome Thalès de Milet; 16). For Blumenberg, it is a theoretical attitude that ultimately envisages the totality of the world (la théorie pure, son aspiration à la totalité du monde; 16). This is what Blumenberg must have had in mind when he suggests that reason’s intentions exceed the performances of conceptual thinking and relate to the idea of totality (Il se pourrait que la performance d’un concept soit simplement partielle par rapport aux intentions de la raison qui semble toujours avoir en quelque manière affaire à la totalité; 7).

Starting from the concepts that correspond to empirical objects, Blumenberg proceeds by broadening the scope of his scrutiny insofar as he takes into account something by which conceptual thinking in the narrower sense is exceeded. That is, the subject not only perceives singular objects entirely detached from one another and is amazed by the sky as a cosmic whole, but also takes into account the—potential—relations between objects. To put it in phenomenological terms, one could say that it is the horizontality of noemata according to which the perceiving and reflecting subject progresses in her intentional process of intuition. The less an empirical object plays a role in the act of conceptualization (or theorizing), the more intellectual performances—such as the act of idealization—gain importance in the process of thinking. The attempt to establish a meaningful relation among particular noemata leads to a reflection on the totality encompassing them—or again in phenomenological terms: to a reflection on the horizon of all horizons. That being said, it is clear that Blumenberg shares the fundamental insight with phenomenology that there is, apart from a naïve attitude, an observing, theorizing mode of consciousness.


Yet, the question as to which role is to be ascribed to nonconceptuality within the realm of theoretical performances is still unanswered. Once it has been shown that the use of concepts does not remain limited to representations of empirical objects (such as foods or a prey) but is also in some way involved in intellectual acts of greater abstraction, Blumenberg shifts the focus to the very boundary between conceptual and nonconceptual thinking, both of which for him are encompassed by a theoretical attitude. In conceiving of conceptual thinking as an epistemic operation that above all establishes a correspondence between intuition and understanding, Blumenberg clearly draws from a Kantian point of view. In that sense, it is not at all surprising that Blumenberg addresses nonconceptual thinking, too, in Kantian terms.

What Blumenberg does is to relate limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (see 41–42) to his conception of nonconceptuality. This refers to his conviction that the mode of conceptual concretization achieved in the representation of empirical objects is unlike the way abstract ideas are represented. Of course, this does not mean abstract ideas (such as the concept of world or the idea of freedom) cannot be addressed or dealt with by human reason at all. Instead, for Blumenberg, human reason has to approach abstract ideas in a different way, namely by drawing from nonconceptuality. As it follows for him, nonconceptuality must not be taken or undertaken as a mere auxiliary discipline to philosophy (une simple discipline auxiliaire de la philosophie; 56). Instead, it must be acknowledged that the preliminary endeavors to a notion of conceptual thinking do not achieve their aims (le travail dans le champ préalable du concept ne parvient pas à son but; 56) and that conceptual thinking is subject to the condition of—at least possibly—eventually being rendered concrete by the intuition of empirical objects. As Blumenberg sees it, nonconceptuality comes into play the very moment it turns out that this condition cannot be fulfilled, i.e. in the attempt to represent ideas. (Here, it seems to me to be helpful to quote both the German original text and its French translation. For what in German reads “im Zusammenhang mit der Angewiesenheit des Begriffs auf Anschauung und der Verfehlung dieser Bedingung bei der Idee” is rendered into French as follows: dans le contexte de l’articulation du concept sur l’intuition et […] de l’échec de cette articulation quand il s’agit de l’idee; 56). In other words, nonconceptual thought for Blumenberg is the means to operate in the concretization of abstract ideas. In my reading of Théorie de l’inconceptualité, limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (just as metaphors, incidentally) for Blumenberg represent the threshold of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking. The wide range of theoretical performances must exceed the purely conceptual.

However, Blumenberg merely indicates what a theory of nonconceptuality would have to undertake and leaves it open to his readers (or listeners) to follow down the indicated path. According to him, a theory of nonconceptuality is about reconstructing in a broad sense those horizons from which the theoretical attitude and conceptual thinking are derived (Une théorie de l’inconceptualité aurait à reconstruire les horizons, en un sens très large, dont ont procédé la prise de position et la formation conceptuelle théoriques; 112).


It is important to bear in mind that Blumenberg does not seek a definite notion of each of the epistemic operations in question for their own sake. As the use of both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking can be counted among the whole of epistemic performances human beings are capable of, they are part of the description of essentially human traits. That is, as Blumenberg aims at locating his observations within a larger, anthropological framework.. As he says, an anthropological theory of conceptual thinking is an urgent desideratum (Une théorie anthropologique du concept est un réquisit urgent; 9).

In order to frame Blumenberg’s endeavor in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, it is helpful to come back once more to the aforementioned primal hunting scene. Blumenberg does not give a clear answer to the question of why he is using a primal scene to illustrate the performances of conceptual thinking, or to that of which epistemic status this example is supposed to hold. All he does is to underline his assumption that the image of the construction of a trap may be nothing but the best way to depict the capacities of conceptual thinking (Sans doute peut-on montrer le plus clairement ce dont un concept est capable lorsque l’on songe à la fabrication d’un piège; 8). That is, the author himself leaves it an open question as to which epistemic status must eventually be ascribed to the example he is using. However, Blumenberg makes clear that he aims to explain how the capacities of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking have become possible by taking a view that is both anthropological and genetic at the same time (J’essaie de comprendre cela du point de vue anthropologique, générique; 8). The construction of a trap may, therefore, be taken as an attempt to locate reason’s performances or capacities within an anthropological, and more specifically, within an anthropogenic framework. It is thus no coincidence that Blumenberg’s example is the laying of a trap some ten thousand years ago and not a shopping list.

What Blumenberg does is draw a line connecting the anthropogenic observations of man having straightened up and having accomplished twice a ninety-degree-rotation of the head to the transcendental question as to how theory—and with it philosophy— became possible. Théorie de l’inconceptualité offers a contribution to the discussion of the status of conceptual thinking from an epistemological point of view—and, beyond that, points to the discussion of reason’s capacities in a whole. It is thus part of transcendental philosophy since it is an approach to the conditions of the possibility of theory. Blumenberg’s view on the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental in Théorie de l’inconceptualité is quite complex: he raises a question of transcendental philosophy in aiming to lay bare the conditions of the possibility of theory; these conditions can only be explained by reference to empirical assumptions about human prehistory.

In other words, Blumenberg considers both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking to offer a crucial contribution to the project of describing man (like the title of another posthumously edited work lays out, namely Beschreibung des Menschen/Description de l’homme). As he says, one has to consider the anthropological preconditions as the source of the performances of conceptual thinking, which in turn are part of reason’s intending totality (des présupposés anthropologiques […] la source d’où procède également l’efficace du concept qui n’est, en effet, que partiellement liée à l’intention de la raison visant la totalité; 122). Pointing to the intention of describing (and, in parts, explaining) characteristic performances of reason such as conceptual and nonconceptual thinking amounts to counting Théorie de l’inconceptualité among Blumenberg’s numerous approaches to an anthropological philosophy. It is here that Blumenberg’s endeavor exceeds the demands of a phenomenological discipline as Blumenberg gives phenomenology an anthropological orientation. What he undertakes is not a phenomenology of pure consciousness but rather a phenomenologically motivated description of an anthropogenic dimension that presumably has brought about man’s ability to theorize and to philosophize at all.


Blumenberg’s text offers a complex interplay between the fields of anthropological description and of transcendental philosophy. As Blumenberg draws attention to the question of how conceptual thinking as a part of the whole of reason’s capacities might have become possible, it is especially the anthropogenic dimension that links the two. In conclusion, one could say that Théorie de l’inconceptualité can be read in a threefold way. It is, first, an anthropological text, for it focuses on performances of human reason. Since the main interest of the text lies in reasoning and in all the various forms reason may take, the text may, secondly, be regarded as pursuing a project in epistemology. What then provides a link between the anthropological and the epistemological dimensions is, thirdly, the extension of genetic phenomenology into the anthropogenic view Blumenberg puts forward.

At this point, one might return to the style in which the text is presented. Although the title may seem to promise a fully developed theory of nonconceptuality, the text itself maintains a tentative and exploratory character. The reader is offered examples and illustrations taken from diverse texts of philosophy and literature and thus is offered nothing more—and, one has to add, nothing less—than enriching descriptions of the performances of human reason. All of these descriptions are strongly influenced by the phenomenological tradition. Théorie de l’inconceptualité should be counted among Blumenberg’s attempts to contribute to a phenomenologically influenced anthropology.[3]

Selected Bibliography

Blumenberg, Hans. 2011. Description de l’homme. Translated by Denis Trierweiler. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2015. The laughter of the Thracian woman: A protohistory of theory. Translated by Steven Rendall. New York: Bloomsbury (quoted as: Laughter).

Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Bajohr, Hannes, Fuchs, Florian, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[1] Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Other recent translations of Blumenberg’s work include among others: Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat; ibid. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books; ibid. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[2] Unless stated otherwise, all page references refer to Théorie de l’inconceptualité.

[3] I want to thank Tobias Keiling for numerous helpful comments.

Jairo José da Silva: Mathematics and Its Applications: A Transcendental-Idealist Perspective

Mathematics and Its Applications: A Transcendental-Idealist Perspective Book Cover Mathematics and Its Applications: A Transcendental-Idealist Perspective
Synthese Library, Volume 385
Jairo José da Silva
Hardcover 93,59 €
VII, 275

Reviewed by: Nicola Spinelli (King’s College London / Hertswood Academy)

This is a book long overdue. Other authors have made more or less recent phenomenological and transcendental-idealist contributions to the philosophy of mathematics: Dieter Lohmar (1989), Richard Tieszen (2005) and Mark van Atten (2007) are perhaps the most important ones. Ten years is a sufficiently wide gap to welcome any new work. Yet da Silva’s contribution stands out for one reason: it is unique in the emphasis it puts, not so much, or not only, on the traditional problems of the philosophy of mathematics (ontological status of mathematical objects, mathematical knowledge, and so on), but on the problem of the application of mathematics. The author’s chief aim – all the other issues dealt with in the book are subordinated to it – is to give a transcendental phenomenological and idealist solution to the evergreen problem of how it is that we can apply mathematics to the world and actually get things right – particularly mathematics developed in complete isolation from mundane, scientific or technological efforts.

Chapter 1 is an introduction. In Chapters 2 and 3, da Silva sets up his tools. Chapters 4 to 6 are about particular aspects of mathematics: numbers, sets and space. The bulk of the overall case is then developed in Chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 9, “Final Conclusions”, is in fact a critique of positions common in the analytic philosophy of mathematics.

Chapter 2, “Phenomenology”, is where da Silva prepares the notions he will then deploy throughout the book. Concepts like intentionality, intuition, empty intending, transcendental (as opposed to psychological) ego, and so on, are presented. They are all familiar from the phenomenological literature, but da Silva does a good job explaining their motivation and highlighting their interconnections. The occasional (or perhaps not so occasional) polemic access may be excused. The reader expecting arguments for views or distinctions, however, will be disappointed: da Silva borrows liberally from Husserl, carefully distinguishing his own positions from the orthodoxy but stating, rather than defending, them. This creates the impression that, at least to an extent, he is preaching to the converted. As a result, if you are looking for reasons to endorse idealism, or to steer clear of it, this may not be the book for you.

Be that as it may, the main result of the chapter is, unsurprisingly, transcendental idealism. This is the claim that, barring the metaphysical presuppositions unwelcome to the phenomenologist, there is nothing more to the reality of objects than their being “objective”, i.e., public. ‘Objectivation’, as da Silva puts it, ‘is an intentional experience performed by a community of egos operating cooperatively as intentional subjects. … Presentifying to oneself the number 2 as an objective entity is presentifying it and simultaneously conceiving it as a possible object of intentional experience to alter egos (the whole community of intentional egos)’ (26-27). This is true of ideal objects, as in the author’s example, but also of physical objects (the primary type of intentional experience will then be perception).

There are two other important views stated and espoused in the chapter. One is the Husserlian idea that a necessary condition for objective existence is the lack of cancellation, due to intentional conflict, of the relevant object. Given the subject matter of the book, the most important corollary of this idea is that ideal objects, if they are to be objective, at the very least must not give rise to inconsistencies. For example, the set of all ordinals does not objectively exist, because it gives rise to the Burali-Forti paradox. The other view, paramount to the overall case of the book (I will return to it later), is that for a language to be material (or materially determined) is for its non-logical constants to denote materially determined entities (59). If a language is not material, it is formal.

Chapter 3 is about logic. Da Silva attempts a transcendental clarification of what he views as the trademark principles of classical logic: identity, contradiction and bivalence. The most relevant to the book is the third, and the problem with it is: how can we hold bivalence – for every sentence p, either p or not-pand a phenomenological-idealist outlook on reality? For bivalence seems to require a world that is, as da Silva puts it, ‘objectively complete’: such that any well-formed sentence is in principle verifiable against it. Yet how can the idealist’s world be objectively complete? Surely if a sentence is about a state of affairs we currently have no epistemic access to (e.g., the continuous being immediately after the discrete) there just is no fact of the matter as to whether the sentence is true or false: for there is nothing beyond what we, as transcendental intersubjectivity, have epistemic access to.

Da Silva’s first move is to put the following condition on the meaningfulness of sentences: a sentence is meaningful if and only if it represents a possible fact (75). The question, then, becomes whether possible facts can always be checked against the sentences representing them, at least in principle. The answer, for da Silva, turns on the idea, familiar from Husserl, that intentional performances constitute not merely objects, but objects with meanings. This is also true of more structured objectivities, such as states of affairs and complexes thereof – a point da Silva makes in Chapter 2. The world (reality) is such a complex: it is ‘a maximally consistent domain of facts’ (81). The world, then, is intentionally posited (by transcendental intersubjectivity) with a meaning. To hold bivalence as a logical principle means, transcendentally, to include ‘objective completeness’ in the intentional meaning (posited by the community of transcendental egos) of the world. In other words, to believe that sentences have a truth value independent of our epistemic access to the state of affairs they represent is to believe that every possible state of affairs is in principle verifiable, in intuition or in non-intuitive forms of intentionality. This, of course, does not justify the logical principle: it merely gives it a transcendental sense. Yet this is exactly what da Silva is interested in, and all he thinks we can do. Once we refuse to assume the objective completeness of the world in a metaphysical sense, what we do is to assume it as a ‘transcendental presupposition’ or ‘hypothesis’. In the author’s words:

How can we be sure that any proposition can be confronted with the facts without endorsing metaphysical presuppositions about reality and our power to access reality in intuitive experiences? … By a transcendental hypothesis. By respecting the rules of syntactic and semantic meaning, the ego determines completely a priori the scope of the domain of possible situations – precisely those expressed by meaningful propositions – which are, then, hypothesized to be ideally verifiable. (83)

Logical principles express transcendental hypotheses; transcendental hypotheses spell out intentional meaning. … The a priori justification of logical principles depends on which experiences are meant to be possible in principle, which depends on how the domain of experience is intentionally meant to be. (73)

There is, I believe, a worry regarding da Silva’s definition of meaningfulness in terms of possible situations: it seems to be in tension with the apparent inability of modality to capture fine-grained (or hyper-) intensional distinction and therefore, ultimately, meaning (for a non-comprehensive overview of the field of intensional semantics, see Fox and Lappin 2005).[1] True, since possible situations are invoked to define the meaningfulness, not the meaning, of sentences, there is no overt incompatibility; yet it would be odd to define meaningfulness in terms of possible situations, and meaning in a completely different way.

Chapter 4, “Numbers”, has two strands. The first deals with another evergreen of philosophy: the ontological status of numbers and mathematical objects in general. Da Silva’s treatment is interesting and his results, as far as I can see, entirely Husserlian: numbers and other mathematical objects behave like platonist entities except that they do not exist independently of the intentional performances that constitute them. One consequence is that mathematical objects have a transcendental history which can and should be unearthed to fully understand their nature. The phenomenological approach is unique in its attention to this interplay between history and intentional constitution, and it is to da Silva’s credit, I believe, that it should figure so prominently in the book. Ian Hacking was right when he wrote, a few years back, that ‘probably phenomenology has offered more than analytic philosophy’ to understand ‘how mathematics became possible for a species like ours in a world like this one’ (Hacking 2014). Da Silva’s work fits the pattern.

And yet I have a few reservations, at least about the treatment (I will leave the results to readers). For one thing, there is no mention of unorthodox items such as choice sequences. Given da Silva’s rejection of intuitionism in Chapter 3, perhaps this is unsurprising. Yet not endorsing is one thing, not even mentioning is quite another. I cannot help but think the author missed an opportunity to contribute to one of the most engaging debates in the phenomenology of mathematics of the last decade (van Atten’s Brouwer Meets Husserl is from 2007). Da Silva’s seemingly difficult relationship with intuitionism is also connected with another conspicuous absence from the book. At p. 118 da Silva looks into the relations between our intuition of the continuum and its mathematical construction in terms of ‘tightly packed punctual moments’, and argues that the former does not support the latter (which should then be motivated on different grounds). He cites Weyl as the main purveyor of an alternative model – which he might well be. But complete silence about intuitionist analysis seems frankly excessive.

A final problem with da Silva’s presentation is his dismissal of logicism as a philosophy of, and a foundational approach to, mathematics. ‘Of course,’ he writes, ‘Frege’s project of providing arithmetic with logical foundations collapsed completely in face of logical contradiction (Russell’s paradox)’ (103). The point is not merely historical: ‘Frege’s reduction of numbers to classes of equinumerous concepts is an unnecessary artifice devised exclusively to satisfy logicist parti-pris … That this caused the doom of his projects indicates the error of the choice’. I would have expected at least some mention of either Russell’s own brand of logicism (designed, with type theory, to overcome the paradox), or more recent revivals, such as Bob Hale’s and Crispin Wright’s Neo-Fregeanism (starting with Wright 1983) or George Bealer’s less Fregean work in Quality and Concept (1982). None of these has suffered the car crash Frege’s original programme did, and all of them are still, at least in principle, on the market. True, da Silva attacks logicism on other grounds, too, and may argue that, in those respects, the new brands are just as vulnerable as the old. Yet, that is not what he does; he just does not say anything.

The second strand of the chapter, more relevant to the overall case of the book, develops the idea that numbers may be regarded in two ways: materially and formally. The two lines of investigation are not totally unrelated, and indeed some of da Silva’s arguments for the latter claim are historical. The claim itself is as follow. According to da Silva, numbers are essentially related to quantity: ‘A number is the ideal form that each member of a class of equinumerous quantitative forms indifferently instantiates’, and ‘two numbers are the same if they are instantiable as equinumerical quantitative forms’ (104).[2] Yet some types of numbers are more or less detached from quantity: if in the case of the negative integers, for example, the link with quantity is thin, when it comes to the complex numbers it is gone altogether. Complex numbers are numbers only in the sense that they behave operationally like ones – but they are not the real (no pun intended) thing. Da Silva is completely right in saying that it was this problem that moved the focus of Husserl’s reflections in the 1890s from arithmetic to general problems of semiotic, logic and knowledge. The way he cashes out the distinction is in terms of a material and a formal way to consider numbers. Genuine, ‘quantitative’ numbers are material numbers. Numbers in a wider sense, and thus including the negative and the complex, are numbers in a formal sense. Since, typically, the mathematician is interested in numbers either to calculate or because they want to study their relations (with one another or with something else), they will view numbers formally – i.e., at bottom, from the point of view of operations and structure – rather than materially.

Thus, the main theoretical result of the chapter is that, inasmuch as mathematics is concerned with numbers, it is ‘essentially a formal science’ (120). In Chapter 7, da Silva will put forward an argument to the effect that mathematics as a whole is essentially a formal science. This, together with the idea, also anticipated in Chapter 4, that the formal nature of mathematics ‘explains its methodological flexibility and wide applicability’, is the core insight of the whole book. But more about it later.

Chapter 5 is about sets. In particular, da Silva wants to transcendentally justify the ZFC axioms. This includes a (somewhat hurried) genealogy, roughly in the style of Experience and Judgement, of ‘mathematical sets’ from empirical collections and ‘empirical sets’. The intentional operations involved are collecting and several levels of formalisation. The details of the account have no discernible bearing on the overarching argument, so I will leave them to one side. It all hinges, however, on the idea that sets are constituted by the transcendental subject through the collecting operation, and this is what does the main work in the justification. This makes da Silva’s view very close to the iterative conception (as presented for example in Boolos 1971); yet he only mentions it once and in passing (146). Be that as it may, it is an interesting feature of da Silva’s story that it turns controversial axioms such as Choice into sugar, while tame ones such as Empty Set and Extensionality become contentious.

Empty Set, for example, is justified with an account, which da Silva attributes to Husserl, of the constitution of empty sets that I found fascinating but incomplete. Empty sets are clearly a hard case for the phenomenological account: because, as one might say, since collections are empty by definition, no collecting is in fact involved. Or is it? Consider, da Silva says, the collection of the proper divisors of 17:

Any attempt at actually collecting [them] ends up in collecting nothing, the collecting-intention is frustrated. Now, … Husserl sees the frustration in collecting the divisors of 17 as the intuitive presentation of the empty collection of the divisors of 17. So empty collections exist. (148)

It is a further question, and da Silva does not consider it, whether this story accounts for the uniqueness of the empty set (assuming he thinks the empty set is indeed unique, which, as will appear, is not obvious to me). Are collecting-frustration experiences all equal? Or is there a frustration experience for the divisors of 17, one for the divisors of 23, one for the round squares, and so on? If they are all equal, does that warrant the conclusion that the empty sets they constitute are in fact identical? If they are different, what warrants that conclusion? Of course, an option would be: it follows from Extensionality. Yet, I venture, that solution would let the phenomenologist down somewhat. More seriously, da Silva even seems to reject Extensionality (and thus perhaps the notion that there is just one empty set). At least: he claims that there is ‘no a priori reason for preferring’ an extensional to an intensional approach to set theory, but that if we take ‘the ego and its set-constituting experiences’ seriously we ought to be intensionalists (150).

Chapters 6 is about space and its mathematical representations – ‘a paradigmatic case of the relation between mathematics and empirical reality’ (181). It is where da Silva deals the most with perception and the way it relates with mathematical objects. For the idealist, there are at least four sorts of space: perceptual, physical, mathematical-physical and purely formal. The intentional action required to constitute them is increasingly complex, objectivising, idealising and formalising. Perceptual space is subjective, i.e., private as opposed to public. It is also ‘continuous, non-homogeneous, simply connected, tridimensional, unbounded and approximately Euclidean’ (163). Physical space is the result of the intersubjective constitution of a shared spatial framework by harmonization of subjective spatial experiences. This constitution is a ‘non-verbal, mostly tacit compromise among cooperating egos implicit in common practices’ (167). Unlike its perceptual counterpart, physical space has no centre. It also admits of metric, rather than merely proto-metric, relations. It is also ‘everywhere locally’, but not globally, Euclidean (168). The reason is that physical space is public, measurable but based merely on experience (and more or less crude methods of measurement) – not on models.

We start to see models of physical space when we get to mathematical-physical space. In the spirit of Husserl’s Krisis, da Silva is very keen on pointing out that mathematical-physical space, although it does indeed represent physical space, does not reveal what physical space really is. That it should do so, is a naturalistic misunderstanding. In the author’s words:

At best, physical space is proto-mathematical and can only become properly mathematical by idealization, i.e., an intentional process of exactification. However, and this is an important remark, idealization is not a way of uncovering the “true” mathematical skeleton of physical space, which is not at its inner core mathematical. (169)

Mathematical-physical space is what is left of the space we live in – the space of the Lebenswelt, if you will – in a representation designed to make it exact (for theoretical or practical purposes). Importantly, physical space ‘sub-determines’ mathematical-physical space: the latter is richer than the former, and to some extent falsifies what it seeks to represent. Euclidean geometry is paradigmatic:

The Euclidean representation of physical space, despite its intuitive foundations, is an ideal construct. It falsifies to non-negligible extent perceptual features of physical space and often attributes to it features that are not perceptually discernible. (178)

The next step is purely formal representations of space. These begin by representing physical space, but soon focus on its formal features alone. We are then able to do analytic geometry, for example, and claim that, ‘mathematically, nothing is lost’ (180). This connects with da Silva’s view that mathematics is a formal science and, in a way, provides both evidence for and a privileged example of it. If you are prepared to agree that doing geometry synthetically or analytically is, at bottom, the same thing, then you are committed to explain why that is so. And da Silva’s story is, I believe, a plausible candidate.

Chapter 7 is where it all happens. First, and crucially, da Silva defends the view that mathematics is formal rather than material in character. I should mention straight away that his argument, a three-liner, is somewhat underdeveloped. Yet it is very clear. To say that mathematics is essentially formal is, for da Silva, to say that mathematics can only capture the formal aspects of reality (as the treatment of space is meant to show). The reason is as follows. Theories are made up of symbols, which can be logical or non-logical. The non-logical symbols may, in principle, be variously interpreted. A theory whose non-logical symbols are interpreted is, recall, material rather than formal. Therefore, one could argue, number theory should count as material. Yet, so da Silva’s reasoning goes, ‘fixing the reference of the terms of an interpreted theory is not a task for the theory itself’ (186). The theory, in other words, cannot capture the interpretation of its non-logical constant: that is a meta-theoretical operation. But then mathematical theories cannot capture the nature, the specificity of its objects even when these are material.

That is the master argument, as well as the crux of the whole book. For it follows from it that mathematics is essentially about structure: objects in general and relations in which they stand. This, for da Silva, does not mean that mathematics is simply not about material objects. That would be implausible. Rather, the claim is that even when a mathematical theory is interpreted, or has a privileged interpretation, and is therefore about a specific (‘materially filled’) structure, it does not itself capture the interpretation (the fixing of it) – and thus it is really formal. Some mathematical theories are, however, formal in a stricter sense: they are concerned with structures that are kept uninterpreted. These are purely formal structures. Regarding space, Hilbert’s geometry is a good example.

Da Silva’s solution to the problem of the applicability of mathematics is thus the following. Mathematics is an intentional construction capable of representing the formal aspects of other intentional constructions – mathematics itself and reality. Moreover, it is capable of representing only the formal aspects of mathematics and reality. It should then be no surprise, much less a problem, that any non-mathematical domain can be represented mathematically: every domain, insofar as it is an intentional construction, has formal aspects – which are the only ones that count from an operational and structural standpoint.

This has implications for the philosophy of mathematics. On the ground of his main result, da Silva defends a phenomenological-idealist sort of structuralism, according to which structures are the privileged objects of mathematics. Yet his structuralism is neither in re nor ante rem. Not in re, because structures, even when formal, are objects in their own right. Not ante rem, because structures are intentional constructs, and thus not ontologically independent. They depend on intentionality, but also on the material structures on whose basis they are constituted through formalisation. This middle-ground stance is typical of phenomenology and transcendental idealism.

I have already said what the last two chapters – 8 and 9 – are about. The latter is a collection of exchanges with views in the analytic philosophy of mathematics. They do not contribute to the general case of the book, so I leave them to prospective readers. The former is an extension of the results of Chapter 7 to science in general. A couple of remarks will be enough here. Indeed, when the reader gets to the chapter, all bets are off: by then, da Silva has put in place everything he needs, and the feeling is that Chapter 8, while required, is after all mere execution. This is not to understate da Silva’s work. It is a consequence of his claim (217) that the problem of the applicability of mathematics to objective reality, resulting in science, just is, at bottom, the problem of the applicability of mathematics to itself – which the author has already treated in Chapter 7. Under transcendental idealism, objective, physical reality, just like mathematical reality, is an intersubjective intentional construct. This construct, being structured, and thus having formal aspects to it, ‘is already proto-mathematical’ and, ‘by being mathematically represented, becomes fully mathematical’ (226). The story is essentially the same.

Yet it is only fair to mention that, while in this connection it would have been easy merely to repeat Husserl (the approach is after all pure Krisis), that is not what da Silva does. He rather distances himself from Husserl in at least two respects. First of all, he rejects what we may call the primacy of intuition in Husserl’s epistemology of mathematics and science. Second, he devotes quite a bit of space to the heuristic role of mathematics in science – made possible, so the author argues, by the formal nature of mathematical representation (234).

As a final remark, I want to stress again what seems to me the chief problem of the book. Da Silva’s aim is to give a transcendental-idealist solution to the problem of the applicability of mathematics. Throughout the chapters, he does a good job spelling out the details of the project. Yet there is no extensive discussion of why one should endorse transcendental idealism in the first place. True, a claim the author repeatedly makes is that idealism is the only approach that does not turn the problem into a quagmire. While the reader may be sympathetic with that view (as I am), da Silva offers no full-blown argument for it. As a result, the book is unlikely to build bridges between phenomenologists and philosophers of mathematics of a more analytic stripe. Perhaps that was never one of da Silva’s aims. Still, I believe, it is something of a shame.


Boolos, G. 1971. “The Iterative Conception of Set”. Journal of Philosophy 68 (8): 215-231.

Bealer, G. 1982. Quality and Concept. Oxford: OUP.

Fox, C. and Lappin, S. 2005. Foundations of Intensional Semantics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hacking, I. 2014. Why is there Philosophy of Mathematics at all? Cambridge: CUP.

Lohmar, D. 1989. Phänomenologie der Mathematik: Elemente enier phänomenologischen Aufklärung der mathematischen Erkenntnis nach Husserl. Dodrecht: Kluwer.

Tieszen, R. 2005. Phenomenology, Logic, and the Philosophy of Mathematics. Cambridge: CUP.

Van Atten, M. 2007. Brouwer Meets Husserl: On the Phenomenology of Choice Sequences. Dodrecht: Springer.

Wright, C. 1983. Frege’s Conception of Numbers as Objects. Aberdeen: AUP.

[1]     Unless impossible worlds are brought in – but as far as I can see that option is foreign to da Silva’s outlook.

[2]     The notion of quantitative form is at the heart of Husserl’s own account of numbers in Philosophy of Arithmetic – and it is to da Silva’s credit that he takes Husserl’s old work seriously and accommodates into an up-to-date phenomenological-idealist framework.

Denis Seron: Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique

Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique Book Cover Apparaître: Essai de philosophie phénoménologique
Studies in Contemporary Phenomenology, 16
Denis Seron
Hardcover €204,00
xii, 213

Reviewed by: Charles-André Mangeney (Archives Husserl de Paris, rattachées à l'ENS d'Ulm. Paris, France)

Des géants ou des moulins ? A propos de l’ambiguïté de l’intentionnalité en phénoménologie.

Une manière d’entrer dans le nouveau livre de Denis Seron est  d’emprunter le chemin d’un  des problèmes centraux et classiques en  philosophie de l’esprit et du langage, problème qui sert de pivot au déploiement de son argumentation : le problème  de représentations sans objets, connu en philosophie du langage sous la forme russellienne du problème des énoncés singuliers existentiels négatifs. Intuitivement, le problème se formule ainsi [i] : lorsque je dis, par exemple, « Le Père Noël n’existe pas », je profère bien un énoncé doté de signification, mon énoncé et la représentation qui le sous-tend se rapportent à quelque chose, et tout le monde me comprendra s’il m’arrive de dire  une telle chose, bien que  mon énoncé soit sans référence. On me comprend, et pourtant, je ne parle de rien. Tout se passe comme si je parlais bien de quelque chose, puisque ce que je dis a un sens, alors que  je ne parle pas de quelque chose qui se trouve dans le monde (il n’y a pas hors de moi un référent « Père Noël » dont cela a  du sens de parler). Or, notre conception naïve du langage, reprise par les empiristes de Hobbes à Stuart-Mill, indexe le sens d’une proposition sur sa référence : dire quelque chose qui a du sens, c’est faire en sorte qu’à notre discours corresponde un état de chose auquel il est adéquat. Or, avec l’exemple du Père Noël, ce n’est pas le cas. Comment est-il donc possible qu’un énoncé sans référence soit doté de sens et de quoi cet énoncé, puisqu’il est pourvu de sens, peut-il bien parler ? On dit bien, en présence d’un énoncé dépourvu de signification, que l’on ne voit pas de quoi il parle, et donc que son objet, sa référence, n’est pas clairement défini. Ce problème se retrouve dans toutes les attitudes propositionnelles qui peuvent impliquer un irréel : lorsque je dis que « je m’imagine le Père Noël », ou alors même dans les illusions ou les comportements hallucinatoires (« j’ai cru un instant voir un spectre  » etc.). Ici aussi, nous comprenons ces propositions, et pourtant elles font référence à une certaine forme de non-être.

La stratégie de  Denis Seron consiste  à réinvestir  une des solutions données à ce problème  impliquant  le recours à l’intentionnalité et à tenter en retour une clarification des concepts qui appartiennent à la panoplie intentionnaliste, afin d’en retirer  une conceptualité phénoménologique claire et une définition plus précise de la phénoménologie (il faudrait dire que l’allure logique de l’argumentation ici mise en œuvre est du type : « si l’intentionnalité doit vraiment permettre de répondre au problème des représentations sans objets, alors il faut qu’elle comporte telle ou telle détermination »).

On peut apporter deux types de solutions à ce problème : d’abord, la solution que l’on peut qualifier de sémantique, d’inspiration frégéenne ou russellienne, et qui consiste à soutenir que le langage peut parfois être trompeur, puisqu’en réalité, derrière les formulations paradoxales du type « X n’existe pas », nous trouvons une structure logique saine et non aporétique. Russell montrera , par exemple, qu’il est d’abord nécessaire de distinguer être et existence , que quelque chose peut être sans nécessairement exister (un concept est quelque chose mais n’a pas  d’existence dans le temps et  l’espace), puis que  les énoncés sans objets peuvent tous se traduire sous la forme de concepts sans subsomption ou extension, d’un concept vide d’instanciation : dire « Pégase n’existe pas », cela revient en fait simplement à affirmer que sous le concept de Pégase ne tombe aucun objet, présupposant par là  la distinction entre sens et référence que l’on doit à Frege[ii]. Ainsi, affirmer que Pégase n’existe pas, revient bien à parler de quelque chose : nous parlons du concept « Pégase » et nous affirmons qu’il n’existe pas d’individus y correspondant.

Denis Seron critique explicitement cette conception sémantique ou conceptualiste, et l’objection est de taille, puisque  ces conceptions ne parviennent pas à rendre compte des hallucinations ou même d’attitudes propositionnelles comme l’imagination (il est peu probable que lorsque nous  imaginions Pégase, nous ne faisions qu’en convoquer le concept). Denis Seron se revendique au contraire d’une approche héritée de Brentano et Husserl, d’une approche intentionnaliste, qui se réfère à une compréhension bien précise de ce que l’on nomme les contenus intentionnels. En  un sens, celle-ci pourrait d’abord se formuler comme suit , en revenant à Husserl : «Si […] l’on demande comment il faut entendre que le non-existant ou le transcendant puisse avoir valeur d’objet intentionnel […] il n’y a à cela pas d’autre réponse que […] : l’objet est un objet intentionnel, cela signifie qu’il y a un acte avec une intention de caractère déterminé qui […] constitue précisément ce que nous appelons l’intention dirigée vers l’objet»[iii]. C’est donc sur la voie d’un retour à Husserl et  Brentano qu’il nous faut suivre notre auteur pour en apprécier la richesse et l’originalité.

  • Le problème de l’intentionnalité : le contenu intentionnel n’est pas l’objet extramental

Denis Seron rappelle d’abord l’origine et les présupposés fondamentaux de toute théorie intentionnaliste de l’esprit[iv]. Le terme d’intentionnalité  est originellement un terme de  scolastique médiévale, repris par Brentano dans un but précis : lutter contre  la conception empiriste et dite « atomiste » de l’esprit. Si nous partons du principe que  l’esprit est constitué de  contenus mentaux que l’on nommera des représentations, les représentations que nous vivons effectivement sont des contenus complexes que nous appelons des contenus propositionnels,[v] et qui se caractérisent par le fait d’être toujours en lien avec le monde, au sujet de ce qui s’y passe. Ainsi , comme le rappelle Denis Seron, désirer, croire, penser, ce n’est pas simplement avoir conscience de désirer, de croire ou de penser, mais c’est bien plutôt désirer que quelque chose se réalise dans le monde, croire que quelque chose a lieu, penser à quelqu’un ou quelque chose. Autrement dit, si nos représentations sont intentionnelles, cela signifie qu’elles sont toujours représentations de quelque chose. L’auteur rappelle très clairement la ligne de fracture entre la conception intentionnelle et la conception atomiste de l’esprit. Pour des empiristes comme Hume, Hobbes ou Stuart Mill, le caractère intentionnel des représentations est accidentel et dérivé  : pour eux , les représentations qui peuvent être intentionnelles sont des complexes formés d’éléments simples non-intentionnels, les sensations, qui sont le fruit d’un rapport causal, et donc non sémantiquement motivé, avec le monde. Il n’y aura donc que certaines représentations qui pourront prétendre à mordre sur le monde, mais  originellement le flux mental est fermé sur lui-même, composé d’éléments simples sans rapport avec les choses. Pour Brentano, au contraire, tout contenu mental est un « acte intentionnel »[vi], c’est-à-dire qu’il est intrinsèquement au sujet, à propos de quelque chose d’autre que lui-même.

Après ces éclaircissements, si nous en revenons au problème des représentations ou énoncés sans objets, il nous semble d’abord qu’une telle théorie non seulement ne peut pas nous aider à résoudre ce problème, mais bien d’avantage, qu’elle nous plonge dans une perplexité plus grande encore. En effet, si nous reprenons la question de  Denis Seron lui-même au début du second chapitre :  comment des représentations sans objets (fiction, hallucination, illusion) sont-elles possibles, si toute représentation doit être intentionnelle, c’est-à-dire si toute représentation se définit intrinsèquement par la propriété d’être au sujet de quelque chose d’autre qu’elle ?  nous conduirait à affirmer que celui  qui voit un spectre ne voit rien (le spectre n’est pas présent en chair et en os devant lui) mais qu’ il doit bien voir quelque chose, puisque sa perception doit être intentionnelle. Tout le travail de Denis Seron , grâce aux avancées conceptuelles de Brentano et  Husserl, montre non seulement que l’intentionnalité permet de répondre à cette question, mais qu’en retour cette question elle-même nous permet de mieux déterminer ce qu’est l’intentionnalité.

 Reprenons l’exemple de l’hallucination, et soyons attentifs à sa grammaire. Soit l’exemple, repris ici, de Don Quichotte[vii] qui, sur la route de Puerto Làpice, voit des géants alors qu’il s’agit en réalité de moulins. En  un sens, Sancho Panza a raison de rétorquer à Don Quichotte qu’il ne s’agit pas de géant mais bien de moulins, mais en  un autre sens, Don Quichotte à raison de répondre à son tour qu’il voit bien des géants, et qu’il ne voit pas autre  chose. Toute la force  de la conception intentionnelle de Brentano, reprise par Denis Seron, est de  nous permettre de maintenir ensemble  les deux alternatives de ce dilemme et d’y séjourner assez longtemps pour le résoudre. Il va s’agir  en réalité de faire apparaître l’ambiguïté de la grammaire de l’intentionnalité. En effet, l’argument clé est qu’il faut distinguer le fait qu’une représentation soit au sujet de ou à propos de, et le fait qu’elle soit en relation à ce à propos de quoi elle est. Autrement dit, l’internalisme de Brentano nous permet de distinguer le contenu intentionnel de la représentation et son objet. Une représentation peut être au sujet de X (avoir X comme contenu intentionnel) sans être en relation effective avec un X extra-mental (avoir X pour objet). La distinction entre le contenu intentionnel et l’objet est la pierre de touche de l’exposé de Denis Seron, il faut donc bien la comprendre : si le contenu intentionnel est une propriété de l’état mental intentionnel, il n’est pas une entité intermédiaire par laquelle serait médiatisé notre rapport au monde, il est lui aussi intrinsèquement mental et de la même étoffe que notre esprit, mais il oriente notre esprit vers quelque chose du monde sans être lui-même cette chose. On parlera alors d’une théorie de l’inclusion intentionnelle, et il faudra la comprendre en termes d’apparence. Lorsque je dis par exemple que « la tache sur ma chemise m’apparaît comme bleue »[viii], je dis bien d’une part que ma représentation est au sujet de ma chemise et de la tache qui s’y trouve, je parle donc de  quelque chose qui se trouve dans le monde, mais du fait de l’utilisation d’une grammaire de l’apparence,  j’indique également que ma représentation n’a pas encore trouvé le chemin de sa référence, c’est-à-dire, précisément son objet. En disant qu’il me semble que la tache est bleue, je peux encore me tromper. Il est donc possible que ma représentation ait une direction, qu’elle concerne intentionnellement quelque chose, sans qu’elle soit en référence à un objet : elle peut avoir un contenu intentionnel sans pour autant être en relation à un objet existant en dehors d’elle-même (il faut noter que Denis Seron prends ici explicitement position pour une conception brentanienne, c’est-à-dire, intra-psychique de l’intentionnalité, à rebours de toute conception métaphysique de l’intentionnalité[ix], comme par exemple la conception heideggerienne qui établira que l’intentionnalité est transcendance, c’est-à-dire, relation au monde[x]).

  • L’ambiguïté intrinsèque du langage intentionnel

Cette théorie de l’inclusion intentionnelle ne nous permet pas encore  de voir comment Denis Seron résout le problème de l’hallucination : nous devons mieux saisir ce qu’il nomme l’ambiguïté intrinsèque du langage intentionnel . Pour ce faire, il faut distinguer  l’intentionnalité à proprement parler et la conscience phénoménale. Cela revient à distinguer le contenu intentionnel visé par la conscience et  la conscience de la visée de ce contenu : lorsque nous disons que « nous voyons un vase devant nous », d’une part, nous avons une conscience perceptuelle de ce vase, c’est-à-dire que notre état mental se dirige vers un objet, et si nous voyons effectivement le vase, nous sommes absorbés par lui dans une expérience directe, mais d’autre part, nous avons aussi conscience de percevoir le vase, conscience de notre propre perception, et si quelqu’un nous demandait « que fais-tu ? », nous pourrions sans difficulté lui répondre : « je regarde ce vase ». Pour le dire en termes sartriens, toute conscience non-positionnelle de soi est accompagnée d’une conscience pré-réflexive de soi[xi]. Notons ici que Seron reprend le contenu minimal du dénominateur commun à Brentano et  Husserl[xii], à savoir, l’idée qu’il y va de l’essence même de la conscience que  de se connaître (une conscience inconsciente est un monstre logique, comme un cercle carré), même si elle se connaît sur un plan pré-objectif et non encore représentatif.

Dans le cadre de la théorie non relationnelle ou encore de la conception adverbiale l’intentionnalité défendue par Denis Seron à la suite de Brentano, cette distinction entre conscience phénoménale et représentation intentionnelle est décisive pour répondre au problème des représentations sans objets. Si l’on reprend l’exemple célèbre de Brentano : « Le centaure est une fiction des poètes », il est très clair que ce qui est en question ici, ce n’est pas l’objet extra-mental « Centaure » avec lequel les poètes seraient en relation par le truchement d’une représentation cherchant une référence dans le monde, mais c’est bien plutôt un état mental intrinsèquement « à-propos-de-Centaure », et dont la conscience phénoménale permet de rendre compte, puisque lorsque j’imagine des centaures, j’ai conscience de les imaginer. Si bien que l’énoncé « Le centaure est une fiction des poètes » qui était encore problématique  dans une conception métaphysique et relationnelle de l’intentionnalité (puisqu’il faudrait que le poète soit en relation avec le Centaure comme objet extra-mental), devient un simple énoncé concernant un état mental, dans lequel est inclus un contenu intentionnel, lui-même encore mental. L’objet auquel il est  fait explicitement référence, c’est la représentation elle-même et non pas son objet extra-mental. Denis Seron propose de paraphraser l’exemple brentanien comme suit : « Il existe un état mental tel que des poètes sont dans cet état et qu’il a pour contenu intentionnel le centaure »[xiii]. Ainsi, la référence touche l’état mental intentionnel des poètes, et non pas son objet, ce qui serait absurde.

Il y a cependant certains contextes dans lesquels il est difficile de savoir si c’est  l’état mental avec son contenu intentionnel qui est endossé[xiv], c’est-à-dire qui est tenu pour existant et prétend au rôle de référent, ou si c’est  l’objet extra-mental. Si je dis : « j’imagine le Père Noël », il n’est pas difficile de savoir que ce qui est endossé, ce n’est pas l’existence du Père Noël, mais l’existence de mon « imagination-à-propos-du-Père-Noël » en tant qu’état mental intrinsèquement intentionnel. Dans le cadre du vocabulaire de l’apparence ou de l’hallucination, les comptes-rendus de l’expérience intentionnelle deviennent précisément ambigus. Si je dis que « la tache m’apparaît bleue », il n’est pas évident de savoir si je me situe sur le simple plan de l’apparence phénoménologique qui ne me permet de n’endosser que l’existence du contenu intentionnel pour moi, c’est-à-dire au sein de mon état mental, et cela sans prétention à mordre sur l’être effectif de la tache, ou si au contraire je prétends faire référence à la tache elle-même, de manière extra-mentale.

  • In recto, in obliquo.

Nous voudrions attirer l’attention du lecteur sur une distinction très importante que l’on doit à Brentano, et qui, si  elle est souvent oubliée, est bien rappelée et restituée dans toute sa richesse par Denis Seron. Il s’agit de la distinction entre le modus rectus et le modus obliquus[xv]. Elle nous permet de mieux thématiser l’ambiguïté intrinsèque du vocabulaire intentionnel et de tenir ensemble sa double aspectualité (le contenu intentionnel mental et la référence extra-mentale) : si je perçois qu’il pleut dehors et que je suis sûr que  c’est bien le cas, alors on dira, d’après Brentano, qu’in recto je me réfère à la pluie comme objet avec lequel je suis en relation, et qu‘in obliquo je me réfère à l’état mental intentionnel qui vise la pluie, c’est-à-dire indirectement et non représentativement, mais par le biais de ma conscience phénoménale intra-mentale. Inversement, dans les cas où la référence est incertaine, comme par exemple si je crois simplement qu’il pleut , il faudra dire qu’in recto je me réfère d’abord à mon état mental, mais qu’in obliquo je vise, du fait de  mon contenu intentionnel inclus  dans mon état mental de croyance, quelque chose comme la pluie. Comme le dit Denis Seron : « La description phénoménologique in obliquo est ontologiquement réductible à la description psychologique in recto […] »[xvi], c’est-à-dire que lorsque l’on prétend référer dans le cadre d’un  référence incertaine ou qui échoue, la référence effective doit se retourner vers la tentative de référence elle-même, et donc, le vécu psychologique en personne (dire que « X m’apparaît », dans le cadre d’une description phénoménologique oblique, c’est dire  que j’ai effectivement un contenu mental visant intrinsèquement X).

Nous pouvons alors comprendre en quoi, dans l’exemple des géants pris pour des moulins, Sancho Panza et Don Quichotte ont raison. En effet, en  un premier sens, Sancho Panza a raison de dire qu’il n’y a pas de géants, car il n’y a pas d’objet extra-mental dénotable in recto sous la forme de géants. Mais Don Quichotte a raison, en  un autre sens, de dire que ce qu’il voit c’est bien des géants, au sens où il faut convertir sa description phénoménologique in obliquo en description psychologique in recto : il existe bien un état mental intentionnel au sujet ou concernant des géants et dont Don Quichotte est le porteur. Il est donc vrai qu’il n’y a pas de géants et que Don Quichotte ne voit rien sur le plan de l’objet, mais il est vrai qu’il y a bien des géants sur le plan du contenu intentionnel mental. Les géants n’existent qu’in obliquo, mais le contenu mental intentionnellement lié aux géants existe bien, lui, in recto.

  Cette manière élégante de régler le problème des représentations sans objets, a de lourdes conséquences en ce qui concerne sa compréhension implicite de ce qu’est l’intentionnalité. Cette conception très brentanienne suppose d’abord de définir  l’intentionnalité en termes d’apparence, c’est-à-dire  d’un donné non pas immédiatement en lien avec le monde, mais qui est d’abord présent pour moi et pour moi seulement. Il y a d’abord une conscience phénoménale pré-représentationnelle. Ce qui, nous rappelle Seron, implique non plus  de définir la conscience en termes d’intentionnalité (et ainsi, la conscience viserait donc quelque chose sous la forme d’une représentation qui prendrait position sur l’existence ou l’inexistence d’un état de choses), mais l’intentionnalité en termes de conscience (par là, un état mental intentionnel est d’abord le fait intrinsèque d’avoir conscience du fait qu’il est au sujet de X). Ce qui permet à l’intentionnalité de n’être plus la notion originaire, mais d’être une notion seconde, laissant  la préséance à  la distinction entre existence et apparence. Cela a l’avantage immense de montrer qu’une représentation intentionnelle peut réussir ou échouer[xvii], et c’est ce qui permet, dans les cas d’échec, de penser des  représentations sans objets. Denis Seron ajoute que cet internalisme n’est pas pour autant un phénoménisme stricte : certes nous commençons par avoir conscience de nos représentations, d’un point de vue privé, mais la visée in obliquo creuse une brèche dans le solipsisme et fait en sorte que l’état mental soit toujours et au moins à la recherche de quelque chose du monde, même s’il ne le trouve pas : même lorsque ce qui m’apparaît n’existe pas, il faut déjà que cet apparaître prétende à l’existence pour qu’il puisse être démenti.

Cette nouvelle définition de l’être même de l’intentionnalité permet, par ailleurs, à Denis Seron de critiquer, par l’intermédiaire de sa résolution du problème des représentations sans objets, certaines conceptions contemporaines de la perception et de l’intentionnalité. Il critique d’abord la théorie des sens-data, en démontrant que contrairement à sa théorie, qui conserve au moins un rapport oblique au monde, cette dernière sombre dans un internalisme radical qui vire à l’idéalisme, perdant toute possibilité d’une intentionnalité effective. Il s’attaque  ensuite à  la conception sémantique de l’intentionnalité, à travers un de ses représentants : Gilbert Ryle. Le point de discussion concerne la possibilité d’une intentionnalité qui ne soit pas conceptuelle. Seron défend alors l’idée qu’il y a des expériences immédiates, non médiatisées par du  conceptuel, qui nous mettent en présence des choses. C’est dans cette même optique qu’il va critiquer la thèse célèbre sur la perception de Charles Travis. La position de Travis consiste à dire que la perception est « une simple confrontation »[xviii] au  monde, qu’elle est en deçà de toute attitude propositionnelle, c’est-à-dire qu’il n’y a aucun sens à dire qu’elle pourrait échouer ou réussir. Par exemple, dans le cadre de l’illusion de Müller-Lyer, analysée par exemple par Jocelyn Benoist[xix], nous voyons d’abord perceptuellement la ligne avec les flèches tournées vers l’intérieur comme plus grande que celle avec les flèches tournées vers l’extérieur. Et cela  n’a pas de sens de dire que nous nous trompons, dans l’espace logique de la perception. Notre perception n’est alors illusoire qu’extrinsèquement, dans la position de Travis, à l’expérience perceptive. Le contre-argument de Seron, fort de tous les acquis précédents, se présente comme suit : si l’on veut préserver la différence entre l’être et l’apparaître, il faut en  un certain sens que la perception soit déjà représentationnelle, et qu’elle prenne position, même si c’est seulement de manière oblique, quant à l’existence ou à la non existence de son objet.

  • Conclusion : qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie ?

Enfin,  cette définition internaliste de l’intentionnalité, la définissant comme un apparaître qui prétend obliquement à la référence sans nécessairement y avoir accès d’emblée, a une implication majeure : elle détermine une certaine compréhension de ce qu’est la phénoménologie et du contenu de son travail. Si l’intentionnalité est définie en terme  d’apparence, et si l’apparence, qui n’est certes pas une entité médiatrice entre le sujet et le réel, mais bien plutôt un moment de l’accès du sujet au réel, le rôle de la phénoménologie va être  « d’analyser les apparences »[xx] pour établir quelles sont  celles qui vont pouvoir légitimement prétendre à la référence, et  celles qui ne le pourront pas. Autrement dit, la phénoménologie doit être une théorie critique[xxi]. En d’autres termes, cela signifie que la phénoménologie n’est plus une discipline autonome, mais qu’elle devient un instrument nécessaire de toute théorie de la connaissance qui prétend décrire nos conditions d’accès au réel lui-même. La phénoménologie devient donc bien, comme le précise Denis Seron, une ressource pour la philosophie de l’esprit, et notamment pour répondre à un des questions principales qu’elle pose : qu’est-ce qu’une croyance vraie ? Nous en arrivons donc à une définition minimale de la phénoménologie, consciemment déflationniste[xxii], qu’avec Denis Seron nous pourrions formuler ainsi : il s’agit d’une théorie permettant de parvenir à une connaissance objective de l’expérience subjective. L’étude phénoménologique de l’apparaître se trouvera, dans cette perspective, toujours placée dans un contexte où l’apparaître est toujours déjà compris depuis une  différence effective en  l’apparence et la réalité : étudier l’apparence, ce n’est pas d’abord étudier comment le monde nous apparaît en original, mais déterminer à quelles conditions cet apparaître pourra toucher et rejoindre ce qui est véritablement.

La prise de position est ici, dans son ensemble, une prise de position empiriste, c’est-à-dire que la démarche fondamentale de ce travail consiste à  retracer la genèse subjective de l’objectivité, en partant de ce qui se donne à nous, de l’expérience, pour déterminer à quelles conditions cette expérience pour nous est aussi expérience de ce qui existe en dehors de nous. La démarche de Seron est explicitement anti-naturaliste, puisque le naturalisme refuse par principe que le subjectif soit premier, et  des relations naturelles (connexions neurales, efficiences de processus physiques etc.) le fondement de toute connaissance possible. La « réduction phénoménologique », véritable pierre de touche de la phénoménologie historique, acte fondateur du retour aux choses mêmes, se voit conférer , dans cette optique, un sens déterminé : il s’agit de ce que Seron nomme une « escalade phénoménologique »[xxiii], et qui consiste à réduire les représentations visant le monde in obliquo à des états mentaux psychologiques pris pour thème réflexivement in recto. Cette escalade nous permet de sortir de l’attitude naturelle dans laquelle nous endossons nos croyances en ce qui concerne le monde, pour revenir réflexivement aux états mentaux et à leurs contenus intentionnels intrinsèques, afin de déterminer si l’endossement qu’on leur prête, concernant le monde et non plus seulement leur existence psychologique, est justifié.

Cette manière d’intégrer la phénoménologie à la philosophie de l’esprit représente, comme le rappelle Denis Seron dans son avant-propos, une réelle possibilité de réconciliation de la philosophie continentale et de la philosophie analytique. Nous voudrions cependant nuancer une telle affirmation, car la définition de la phénoménologie qu’elle implique laisse pour compte  et exclut tout un versant  de la phénoménologie, lui aussi inspiré des  travaux de Husserl : il s’agit du versant  ontologique de la phénoménologie, qui prend sa naissance avec Heidegger et se poursuit jusqu’à aujourd’hui avec Renaud Barbaras ou Claude Romano. Cette acception de la phénoménologie se place en-deçà ou au-delà de la question de notre accession à la réalité, car cette question de théorie de la connaissance suppose quelque chose que cette tradition ontologique remet en question, à savoir qu’il y ait une distance originelle entre un sujet isolé et un monde existant sans lui, distance qu’il reviendrait à la connaissance objective de combler, moyennant une procédure définie et consistante. Cette ontologie phénoménologique ne vise donc pas à analyser les apparences pour savoir si elles peuvent prétendre au statut de connaissance, puisqu’elle refuse la différence entre l’apparaître et l’être, elle ne se donne pour objectif, au contraire, que d’explorer les différents modes d’être par lesquels les choses se donnent à nous, travail initié par la distinction husserlienne du mode  de donation de la région monde et de la région conscience. On donnera  pour preuve que la définition de la phénoménologie en termes d’analyse des apparences ne fait pas encore consensus, cette citation de Michel Henry : « La phénoménologie n’est pas une théorie des apparences, théorie qui laisserait derrière elle l’être réel des choses »[xxiv]. C’est là  la preuve que la phénoménologie n’a pas encore résorbé son éclatement[xxv] constitutif, éclatement qui est à la fois le garant insigne de son éclat et la ressource de sa vie même.


Benoist, Jocelyn, Elements de philosophie réaliste, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

Brentano, Franz, Psychologie du point de vue empirique, Paris, Vrin, 2008.

Frege, Gottlob, Ecrits logiques et philosophiques, Paris, Seuil, 1970.

Heidegger, Martin, Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.

Henry, Michel, Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps, Vendôme, PUF, 1965.

Husserl, Edmund, Recherches logiques,II, Paris, PUF.

Janicaud, Dominique, La phénoménologie éclatée, Paris, éditions de l’éclat, 1998.

Panaccio, Claude, Qu’est-ce qu’un concept ?, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

Russell, Bertrand, The principles of mathematics, Cambridge, At the university press, 1903.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, L’Être et le néant, Paris, Gallimard, 1943.

Scheler, Max, Le formalisme en éthique et l’éthique matériale des valeurs, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.

Sellars, Willfrid, « Empiricism and the philosophy of mind » in Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge & Kegan, 1963.

Travis, Charles, Le silence des sens, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2014.

Wagner, Pierre, Logique et philosophie, Paris, Ellipses, 2014.

[i]   Nous reprenons l’exemple donné par Pierre Wagner dans son excellent ouvrage introductif : Wagner, Pierre, Logique et philosophie, Paris, Ellipses, 2014

[ii]      Voir à ce sujet Russell, Bertrand, The principles of mathematics, Cambridge, At the university press, 1903, § 47 et Frege, Gottlob, Ecrits logiques et philosophiques, Paris, Seuil, 1970.

[iii]  Husserl, Edmund, Recherches logique II, Paris, PUF, p. 218-219.

[iv]  Seron, Denis, Apparaître. Essai de philosophie phénoménologique, Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2017, p. 19.

[v]     Voir Panaccio, Claude, Qu’est-ce qu’un concept ?, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

[vi]    Brentano, Franz, Psychologie du point de vue empirique, Paris, Vrin, 2008.

[vii]   Cité par Denis Seron, Op. Cit. p. 140.

[viii]  Ibid. p. 31.

[ix]    Seron fait la distinction, Ibid. p. 33.

[x]   Heidegger, Martin, Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.

[xi]    Sartre, Jean-Paul, L’Être et le néant, Paris, Gallimard, 1943.

[xii]   Husserl propose pour sa part de distinguer « le contenu intentionnel » qui est ce que vise la représentation, et le « contenu réel » de la représentation, qui est le vécu lui-même de cette visée. Recherches logiques, II, Op. Cit. §16. Comme le disait Scheler à propos du mouvement, il faut distinguer « la conscience qui tend » et « la conscience de tendre ». Scheler, Max, Le formalisme en éthique et l’éthique matériale des valeurs, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.

[xiii]  Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 108.

[xiv]  Sellars, Willfrid, « Empiricism and the philosophy of mind » in Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge & Kegan, 1963.

[xv]   Brentano, Franz, Op. Cit.

[xvi]  Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 95.

[xvii] Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 129.

[xviii] Travis, Charles, Le silence des sens, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2014.

[xix]  Benoist, Jocelyn, Éléments de philosophie réaliste, Paris, Vrin, 2011.

[xx]   Seron, Denis, Op. Cit, chapitre III.

[xxi]  Le terme « critique » doit être compris ici au sens kantien, c’est-à-dire au sens d’un questionnement en retour sur la légitimité des prétentions que peut envelopper une faculté déterminée ou un usage donné de cette faculté. La critique n’a donc pas pour thème le monde en dehors de nous, mais les théories qui s’y rapportent, théories dont on évalue la capacité à s’élever à la dignité de connaissance.

[xxii]   Comme Denis Seron le dit lui-même : « le monde phénoménal est vaste et l’on doit voyager léger », p. 18.

[xxiii]   Seron, Denis, Op. Cit.

[xxiv]   Henry, Michel, Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps, Vendôme, PUF, 1965, p. 164.

[xxv]    Janicaud, Dominique, La phénoménologie éclatée, Paris, éditions de l’éclat, 1998.

Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, Luca Vanzago (Eds.): Imagination and Social Perspectives

Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology Book Cover Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Michela Summa, Thomas Fuchs, Luca Vanzago (Eds.)
Hardcover £96.00

Reviewed by: Mary Edwards (School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University)

In his Philosophical Introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Imagination: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, published in 2004, Jonathan Webber observes that despite the centrality of the imagination to numerous philosophical debates, scant attention has been given to questions such as “What is imagination? What are we actually doing when we imagine? What are we aware of, and what kind of awareness do we have of it?” (2004: xii). The situation has changed dramatically since 2004. Today, questions concerning the character, function, potential, and limits of the imagination are the focus of many exciting debates not only within phenomenology and the philosophy of mind, but also in the fields of psychology, social and political theory, and aesthetics. In short, the imagination is now flourishing as a subject of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology takes on the vital task connecting new insights about the nature of the imagination to questions concerning “the meaning and formation of social perspectives” (1). Although it would be incorrect to claim that research into the imagination has hitherto ignored questions about human sociality (see, for example, Castoriadis 1987 [1975]; Lennon 2015; Robinson and Rundell 1994), this edited volume strives to fill some notable gaps in the available research on imaginary dimension of sociality. Specifically, the editors state that their aim is to offer new investigations into the nature of the “interplay between imaginative and social experience” (1), a topic that has been relatively under-researched.

As the subtitle suggests, the volume emphasizes insights from phenomenology and phenomenologically informed research in psychopathology. However, an increased appreciation for centrality of the imagination to human life – along with the recognition that phenomenological methods provide the most satisfactory means to investigate it – means that this emphasis has the potential to furnish a rich interdisciplinary exchange. This potential is realized in this volume, which brings together contributions from leading and emerging scholars working not only in phenomenology and psychopathology, but also in philosophy of mind, epistemology, psychology, social and political philosophy, philosophy of language, and anthropology. What’s more, Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology does some work towards bridging the so-called divide between continental and analytic philosophy by combining insights from thinkers from both traditions.

The volume’s eighteen chapters are divided into five sections: Imagining Oneself; Imagination and Intersubjectivity in Psychopathology; Imagination and the Experience of Others; The Sociality of Imagination; and Aesthetic, Ethical and Social-Political Grounds of Perspective-Taking. These section titles provide an accurate indication of the diversity – in terms of both focus and approach – of the volume’s contents. Although it is impossible to do full justice to all eighteen contributions in the context of a review such as this, in what follows, I shall try to provide a general sense of the achievements of the collection as a whole by discussing it in terms of what I take to be three of its key themes.

Unsurprisingly, empathy is an important theme. What is perhaps more surprising though is that the chapters that offer theorizations and analyses of empathy in are not confined to the third section on Imagination and the Experience of Other but, rather, peppered throughout the volume. Indeed, the idea that our common conception of empathy – as an imaginative action through which one simulates the experience of another in order to feel what s/he feels – is impoverished is continually reinforced throughout the book.

Matthew Ratcliffe’s chapter, titled “Empathy Without Simulation”, is the chapter that most obviously calls our preconceptions about what empathy is into question. Drawing on instances of empathy in clinical practice, Ratcliffe contends that empathy has a “wider applicability” than is generally supposed (199). He criticizes theories of empathy that define it as the (implicit or explicit) simulation of another’s experience for mistaking a characteristic particular to quite sophisticated kinds of empathy – and which is neither necessary nor sufficient for empathy – for the essential characteristic of empathy. Further, he maintains that while phenomenological accounts – such as those defended by Edith Stein and, more recently, Dan Zahavi – correctly underline the centrality of the second-person to empathic experience, they tend to overstate its perceptual (or quasi-perceptual) quality, with the consequence that they render the other’s feelings as visible but vague; they seem incapable of explaining how one subject would be able to “‘see’ why” another feels the way she does (212). Sight is, therefore, gained at the cost of empathetic insight in Ratcliffe’s view. In order to preserve both “the second-person orientation” of empathy and grant its subject insight into another’s perspective, Ratcliffe argues that empathy ought to be characterized as an “openness to potential phenomenological difference between self and other” (205), with more sophisticated forms of it also involving “exploratory” processes, including simulation (202).

Anita Avramides examines simulation and perception accounts of empathy in chapter 11, so as to contrast their respective views on the role of the imagination in “knowing others”, which she takes to be a means not only for predicting others’ behaviour but also for calibrating one’s mental life with regard to theirs (194). She contends that simulation accounts assign a central role to the imagination and perceptual accounts, none at all. This sets the stage for the introduction of Avramides’s own alternative account, which grants the imagination a key role in the process of knowing others, but turns out to be in accordance with perceptual accounts due to its insistence that “the role of the imagination in our coming to know the minds of others is the role it plays in the perception of others, not the simulation of others” (192). Building primarily upon the work of P.F. Strawson, Avramides’s chapter may be of particular interest to readers from continental and phenomenological backgrounds, since it employs an “analytic” frame to defend a perceptual account of perception, which makes an interesting contrast to the phenomenological (quasi-)perceptual accounts of empathy discussed elsewhere in the volume.

Matthias Flatscher and Sergej Seitz’s chapter on “The Ethico-Political Turn of Phenomenology” makes another important contribution to the overarching idea that empathy may function in ways that extend far beyond our conscious efforts to understand others. The authors hold that Husserl’s key insight that “the other is ultimately not a phenomenon in the phenomenological sense” (327) – since the other qua other conscious subject is given to conscious as inaccessible – when considered alongside the “riddle of how empathy becomes indeed possible”, gives us cause to challenge the “two basic assumptions that Husserlian phenomenology shares with the whole tradition of modern Western thought”; namely, the presumed “analytic priority of the subject over the other” and the idea that the “relation between self and other is first and foremost epistemological” (328). Then, through a careful discussion of Emmanuel Levinas’s view that subject’s being is one that “occupied by the other” from the beginning (332), Flatscher and Seitz suggest Levinasian phenomenology – which takes the ethico-political sphere as ontologically more primary than the epistemological – opens up the possibility of conceiving of empathy not as a riddle, but as a the principal ethical event triggered by perception of a face that “speaks” (330).

The idea that intersubjective events play a fundamental role in shaping human experience motivates all the chapters in this collection, in one way or another. It is an idea of central philosophical importance because it prompts us to challenge our preconceptions about the autonomy of the individual, and many of the chapters within this volume attempt – in more or less direct ways – to respond to this challenge. Even Andrea Altobrando’s chapter, titled “Imagining Oneself”, eventually connects the capacity to abstractly conceive of oneself on one’s imagination to the capacity to be a social subject (39). The indispensability of the imagination to social experience is the subject of chapter 8, where Jens Bonnemann seeks to illuminate the fundamental role it plays in Sartre’s conception of intersubjectivity. The novelty of this chapter lies in the fact that rather than examining Sartre’s thought on the imagination in The Imaginary, it focuses on his discussion of “The Look” in Being and Nothingness, in order to highlight the role of the imagination in shaping social experience and, primarily, the experience of being looked at. Bonnemann’s analysis elaborates upon Sartrean insight that when one feels oneself as the object of a look, the “perceptible qualities of the objective Other become the basis for imagining his/her inaccessible view” (161). In the context of Sartre’s phenomenology, it contends that only our interactions with others can show us who we are. This implies that “[w]hen I think about myself, the imagination comes into play as well because I try to imaginarily see myself with the eyes of another” and so the other’s otherness, together with “the inescapability of the first-person perspective”, provide “the basis for the constitutive correlation of interaction and imagination” (165). And, what Sartre sees as being constituted by this correlation is, according to Bonnemann, precisely the subject’s sense of herself as an I.

Fittingly, the chapter that follows Bonnemann’s provides an elucidation of Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to move away from what he regards as overly individualist philosophical accounts of intersubjective experience – which he even finds preserved in Sartre’s phenomenology – by shifting the emphasis from the subjectivity of consciousness to “intercorporeality”. Here, Luca Vanzago explains that intercorporeality for later Merleau-Ponty designates something more than the “incarnated subjectivity” discussed in The Phenomenology of Perception. Although the nature of this “something more” is difficult to define, Vanzago’s suggestion is that it involves a revision of Merleau-Ponty’s earlier sharp distinction between the imagination and perception, as well as “a different articulation between the two” (167). This different articulation is described as being one that presupposes a “relationist” as opposed to a “substantialist” conception of life and nature. It, therefore, gives way to a new relational ontology. This gives us further insight into what the “something more” of Merleau-Ponty’s later notion of intercorporeality consists in, as the “ontologization of the interrelations between subjects” in his later work is described to take “the shape of intercorporeality”, which – rather than deriving from substance – appears to be “more fundamental than substance” (171). But what does this ontological claim have to do with sociality? What does this understanding of intercorporeality imply for intersubjectivity? In responding to these questions, Vanzago underlines the crucial point that if intercorporeality provides the basis for intersubjective experience, then “what a subject is can neither be equated with its own self-consciousness or with its own biological body”, since “Othernes” is “already present as a constitutive part of the subject’s sameness” (172). Why might this view be considered more radical than, for instance, Sartre’s idea that the imagined other is essential to the subject’s capacity to understand herself as an “I-subject”? The answer is because it refuses to posit even a weak sense of self-consciousness as existing prior to the encounter with otherness. The perspective from which the problem of intersubjectivity is considered is, therefore, reversed in Merleau-Ponty’s later work, according to Vanzago. The task for the philosopher approaching this problem is no longer that of accounting for the experience of another but, to the contrary, that of accounting for the experience of the self as an individuated subject.

Silvana Borutti, and Karl Mertens, in chapters 16 and 17 respectively, offer further illuminating changes of perspective in relation to the problem of intersubjectivity. The perspective put forward by Borutti is one that regards “an aesthetical-imaginative relationship with otherness” as “the foundation of meanings comprehension” (288), which is illustrated through an analysis of Kant’s concept of Gemeinsinn (common sense) alongside Wittgenstein’s notion of Übereinstimmung (literally: consonance of voices). Mertens’s chapter asserts that if the perspective that “agents are always already embedded in situations that are fundamentally social” is adopted, “there is no need to transcend the individualistic perspective of the involved agents” and the “problem of explaining how it is possible for individual agents to develop collective intentions that guide their social action no longer arises” (311). Mertens presents “collective social perspectivity” – whereby “the particular social perspectives of social groups and even whole societies are considered in the specificity” (306) – as real possibility, in order to support the adoption of this perspective in analyses of societal change and social progress.

Rudolf Bernet’s chapter, “Spinoza on the Role of Feelings, Imagination and Knowledge in Sex, Love and Social Life”, is an investigation into the possibilities that emerge from considering the metaphysics of intersubjectivity by following Spinoza, for whom “[t]he metaphysical interest in what it means to be a human among other humans and the ethical interest in what it means to lead a good life in relation to other persons are intimately related” (140). Bernet’s close study of Spinoza’s understanding of the passions provides a way of conceiving of “the imagination of others” as something that may be surpassed and transformed into “an intellectual insight into their intrinsic nature” (151).

A different question to that of how the imagination may function in our awareness of others’ experiences is the question of whether we can share imaginative experiences with others. The three chapters comprising section IV, The Sociality of Imagination, take up this question. In chapter 14, Julia Jansen uses a phenomenological approach to consider whether there is “even such a thing as shared imagining” (247). By situating the question concerning the possibility of shared imagining within a phenomenological framework that considers the imagination not merely as a cognitive function that generates private representations “inside” the subject’s mind, but as a dynamic mode of consciousness that can also be embedded in, extended into, and distributed throughout a social world, Jansen shows that the idea of shared imagining is not strange as it might initially seem. What is most illuminating about Jansen’s chapter, is its development of Husserl’s idea that imagined objects are not individual objects (as objects of perception are), but ideal objects that are, in Jansen’s terms, insusceptible to “individuation” (255). When imaginary objects are conceived of in this way, it becomes possible to see how different subjects can still be said to imagine the same thing even if the contents of each subject’s consciousness is not the same: “Despite the different psychological episodes the two [imaginers] may be undergoing, they can still share the content of their imagining because that content is ‘ideal’ insofar as it is irreducible to any real experiences in space and time or any processes underlying them . . . we can both imagine the same (snow white, ‘a just state’) in different ways”, and this “same” turns out to be “merely quasi same” because the imagined object necessarily lacks a distinct position in space and time (256). The possibility of having the quasi same imaginary object as another opens up the further possibility of bringing our imaginings closer together through communication. For instance, if we imagine Madame Bovary together and you tell me that she has brown eyes, so long my imagined Madame Bovary is neutral with regard to eye-colour, I can adjust my image of Madame Bovary to bring it closer to yours. However, Jansen suggests that Husserl’s key insight about sharp distinctions between perception and imagination being phenomenologically unviable is not pushed to its full conclusion in his work, which places too much emphasis on the “creative” aspects of imagination (261). More work must be done then, in Jansen’s view, in order to satisfactorily account for the imaginative aspects of less cerebral forms of collaboration at work in activities such as dancing together, playing music together, etc.

Emanuele Caminada’s exploration of Scheler’s account of the social cognition, in chapter 15, and Thomas Szanto’s normative account of collective imagination, in chapter 13, compliment Jansen’s chapter by investigating the conditions for sharing mental states that are usually construed as “subjective”. First, Caminada’s chapter does a good job of underlining the value of following Scheler when considering different types of social understanding in connection to different forms of sociality, by showing how “paying attention to the role played by different forms of sociality permits to see how direct social perception is constitutively embedded in communities that share a good amount of expression forms” (278). Caminada draws upon Scheler’s famous example of shared grief to provide a typology of social emotions that illustrates how the difficulty in understanding how another feels may be reduced or increased depending on the social situations of both parties, as well as their relation to the object of the emotion in question. Second, Szanto’s chapter considers the phenomenon of “imaginative resistance” – where the subject finds that s/he is unable to engage in imagining a situation s/he finds morally abhorrent – in order to counter the common assumption that there are no limits to what can be imagined. Then, it proceeds to argue that the normative constraints that the imagination is subject to take on a stronger role in collective imaginings. Szanto maintains that an appreciation of the enhanced normative dimension in collective imaginings turns out to be crucial for grasping the ways in which collective imaginings differ from individual imaginings. Drawing on the work of Edith Stein, Szanto reinforces Jansen’s point that subjects can imagine the same object differently, and he helpfully outlines the normative criteria he believes must be satisfied in order for the imagining of an object to be considered collective by developing Kendall Walton’s classic account of collective imagination. A final result of Szanto’s chapter is that it provides a solid basis for more comprehensive accounts of the collective imagination.

The final key theme of this volume, as I see it, is that of the as-if function of the imagination. This function is shown to be essential not only to our theoretical understanding of the imagination, but also to our understanding of certain psychopathological conditions, since the awareness that imaginings merely constitute objects “as if” they were present is vital in distinguishing fiction from reality – as Michela Summa’s chapter “Experiencing Reality in Fiction: Discontinuity and Permeability” superbly illustrates – as well as for separating the real from the unreal within experience. Thus, in addition to revealing the imagination as an essential component of human experience, the volume also offers systematic analyses of its potential to be dangerous and alienating. In chapter 5, Thomas Fuchs provides a fascinating account of the ways in which the as-if function of imaginings may be reduced or altogether lost in schizophrenia by investigating some of its symptoms, including: concretism, defined as “the failure to adequately use an understand the metaphorical or figurative meaning of language”; transitivism, “the loss of self-other distinction or self-demarcation”; and delusion (87-94). Moreover, Fuchs also argues that the transition from the delusional mood – in which aspects of experience take on an unreal character – to full delusion – in which the unreal is mistaken for the real – involves not only a loss of the as-if function, but also a loss of intersubjectivity (92). The centrality of a sense of a shared reality to non-pathological imagining is further explored in the two chapters that follow: Tim Grohmann’s chapter 6, titled, “Intersubjective Expression in Autism and Schizophrenia”, and Zeno Van Duppen’s chapter 7, “The Phenomenology of Intersubjective Reality in Schizophrenia”.

If one expects to find some sustained engagement with Cornelius Castoriadis’s philosophical work on the imaginary institution of society in this volume, one will be disappointed. Castoriadis is mentioned in Szanto’s chapter (224) and briefly discussed in Jansen’s (249-50), but there is no sustained treatment of his work here. As the focus of this volume is on phenomenological analyses of the imagination and social perspectives, it would be unfair to regard the absence of a prolonged engagement with Castoriadis’s work as a flaw. But, it certainly would be a bonus, in my view, particularly as Kathleen Lennon has recently underlined its significance for philosophical investigations into the social imaginary (2015: 71-95). Further, even though Sartrean insights are developed throughout this volume outside of Bonnemann’s chapter in ways that will surely be of interest to Sartre scholars (see, especially, 84, 124-5, 223, 228), some may find it disappointing that there is only one chapter that concentrates on Sartre’s thought on the imagination. My only real issue with this volume, however, is that it has been let down by careless copy-editing in places. Notably, one finds “deem [instead of doom] to failure” on the first page, then “synonymous of [instead of with] ‘supposing’” (2), “how [instead of what] your experience would be like” (11), and “the most evident bias of these current debates consists in its naturalism” (265, emphasis added). Castoriadis’s name is also missing from the Index. Although minor, these errors can distract the reader from the content.

In conclusion, this collection of original articles – some of which were first presented at the 2015 conference “Imagination, Intersubjectivity, and Perspective-Taking”, held at Villa Vigoni, Loveno di Menaggio, Italy – offers a fresh and truly interdisciplinary perspective of on the significance of the imagination in our social lives. But it has much to recommend it beyond its novelty and interdisciplinary scope. First and foremost: it brings together vitally important research on the social features and functions of the imagination that have so far been under-researched. The editors’ helpful introductory chapter outlines the problems raised by the question of the imagination’s role in human life and gives readers a good sense of which chapters will be most relevant to their interests. The chapters themselves each yield new insights into the incredibly complex ways in which the imagination provides structural support for human sociality and indicate areas where further research is required. Altogether, this means that Imagination and Social Perspectives: Approaches from Phenomenology and Psychopathology represents an invaluable resource for scholars and advanced students working on the philosophy of the imagination and/or the psychological mechanisms involved in social interaction.



Castoriadis, C. 1987. The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. K. Blamey. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lennon, K. 2015. Imagination and the Imaginary. New York and London: Routledge.

Robinson, G. and J. Rundell (eds). 1994. Rethinking Imagination: Culture and creativity. New York and London: Routledge.

Webber, J. Philosophical Introduction. In The Imaginary: A phenomenological psychology of the imagination, by J.-P. Sartre, trans. Routledge. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Miles Groth: Translating Heidegger

Translating Heidegger Book Cover Translating Heidegger
New Studies in Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Miles Groth
University of Toronto Press
2017. Reprint edition
Paperback $29.71

Reviewed by: Eric v.d. Luft (Gegensatz Press)

This book is a non-updated reissue of a book published by Humanity Press in 2004. Nevertheless, the University of Toronto Press did well to pick it up, because it is an important contribution to anglophone Heidegger studies. Markus Weidler’s review of the 2004 publication in The Review of Metaphysics, 60, 2 (December 2006): 399-401, is both a straightforward summary and a clear appraisal of the main thrusts of its contents.

The book’s title suggests that it might be a sort of manual for rendering Heidegger’s difficult technical vocabulary into English. Some of this is indeed included, but it occupies only the first third of the book (15-112), which is mainly historical. The second third (113-198), which is mainly systematic, concerns Heidegger’s own theory of translation, and the final third (199-304) is bibliography.

The Preface and Part One expose infelicities and errors in translating some of the key terms of Heidegger’s technical vocabulary into English. In so doing, Groth suggests a few modifications, some of which seem more controversial than the questionable renderings which he is trying to improve or correct. For example, he translates das Seiende, which he considers “the pivotal term in Heidegger’s way of thinking” (8), as “be-ing,” then gives an unconvincing explanation of how adding the hyphen emphasizes both the substantive and the participial or gerundive nature of this word and reveals how Heidegger used sein as a transitive verb. Since das Seiende “denotes the active ongoing manifesting of an effective actuality” (8), it leads him to rather farfetched renderings such as “seienden Menschen (actual human beings)” (8). The reader is left wondering not only how he would translate wirklichen Menschen, but also whether a clumsy circumlocution such as “human beings who actively are” would be more in keeping with his analysis of das Seiende.

One of the thorniest problems in translating Heidegger is to distinguish adequately between Dasein and Existenz. A common solution is to translate the latter as “existence” and the former as either “being-there” or “there-being” or just leave it in German. Groth suggests translating Dasein as “existence” and Existenz as “life” (9-10). Some of his reasons are cogent, but his flouting of the cognate is bound to cause confusion and his bending over backwards to avoid allusions to Dilthey is unnecessary.

Groth identifies six “fundamental words” (Grundworte) from Heidegger’s technical vocabulary as indispensable in his thought, namely, Sein, Seiende, Dasein, Existenz, Nichts, and Ereignis (23). We might add a few more, such as Sorge, Gestell, Anwesen, Sprache, Alltäglichkeit, ontisch, das Man, eigentlich, Bestand, Zuhandenheit, Gelassenheit, and even the infinitive lassen. Translating these terms as accurately as possible is crucial toward developing any plausible understanding of Heidegger among anglophone thinkers. Accordingly – and wisely – Groth’s focus in Chapter One (29-94) is on the earliest receptions of Heidegger in English, starting with Ryle’s review of Sein und Zeit in 1929, in order to identify the roots of persistent misinterpretations of Heidegger among anglophone scholars. Groth apparently believes that Ryle got Heidegger completely wrong, and it would be difficult to disagree with Groth about this, especially since Groth cites to his advantage several of Ryle’s most blatant mistranslations of Heidegger’s terms, e.g., Sein as “timeless substance” (30) and besorgen as “being-about” (31). Nevertheless, despite his strong criticism of Ryle, Groth graciously gives Ryle the last word, citing to Ryle’s advantage Ryle’s 1969 partial recantation of his 1929 review (32-33).

Groth is less kind to Marjorie Grene. He is not the first to name her 1948 Dreadful Freedom (later retitled Introduction to Existentialism) as among the least helpful introductions to existentialism in general or to Heidegger in particular. Her book, which considers Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Marcel, is worthwhile only with regard to Kierkegaard, and is indeed quite pernicious with regard to Heidegger. In the preface to the 1959 edition, she not only admitted her own laziness in trying to interpret Heidegger for the first edition, but also, after claiming to have finally understood him, rejected him outright and withdrew from any serious consideration of Heidegger to wallow in her pessimistic existentialist morass. After duly citing this preface, Groth shows how Grene actually had little or no understanding of Heidegger (35-36), but obstinately tried to squeeze him into her Procrustean existentialist framework and called his thought and language “weird” or “nonsense” whenever she could not satisfactorily perform this squeeze.

Groth gives about two dozen more good examples in Chapter One of erroneous pre-1949 receptions of Heidegger. Many of these early interpreters, e.g., the theologian Julius Bixler (37), misunderstood Heidegger’s idiosyncratic use of Existenz and thus threw him in among the existentialists. Others, e.g., Paul Tillich (47-49), Ralph Harper (49, 75-76), and Vincent Edward Smith (68-69) each erred in similar ways, trying to impose Thomistic or Scholastic categories of essence and existence upon Heidegger, who uses Wesen, Dasein, and Existenz in quite different senses from how medieval philosophiers used quid est, quod est, essentia, esse, or existentia. All that these theologically or existentially inclined interpreters really show is that, despite their interpretations, Heidegger’s philosophy cannot easily be turned in a theological direction. Furthermore, Eric Unger, writing for the intelligent laity rather than just philosophers, presents Heidegger not as a serious thinker, but as a curiosity, almost a sideshow freak (57-60). Not surprisingly, he also lumps Heidegger in with the existentialists. Unger fails to recognize the ontological difference, believes that Heidegger contrasts reality and existence, and translates Seiende as “reality.” A frustrated Groth writes that “any possibility of understanding Heidegger’s notion of existence is foreclosed by Unger’s translation of Dasein as ‘human life'” (59). Many such interpretations leave us “with an overwhelming sense of obscurity and incomprehensibility about Heidegger’s so-called existential philosophy” (65). Others simply dismiss his vocabulary as impossible to fathom in English (41). For Groth, none of these writers misinterprets Heidegger more grotesquely than William Tudor Jones (70-71) and none of them comes closer to satisfying Groth’s own understanding of Heidegger than William Barrett (72-74).

Regarding Heidegger’s too often alleged connection to existentialism, Groth notes in several places (e.g., 37, 45-49, 66-67, 72, 74) that some interpreters, especially theologians, are too quick to consider Heidegger in conjunction with the radical Christian existentialist Kierkegaard, who, after all, has very little in common with Heidegger. Groth suggests that this tendency to lump the two together may arise from inadequate understanding of such terms as Sein, Dasein, Existenz, Leben, and Wesen. He complains that some translators render Dasein as “human existence” (42, 47), which he says is redundant, since Dasein only refers to specifically human existence. Even though his point is well taken, the redundancy might be necessary to convey the full Heideggerian sense of Dasein to anglophone readers.

Given her life story and especially her close association with Heidegger from 1924 to 1926, we would expect Hannah Arendt not to misunderstand him, even when she disagrees with him. Nevertheless, Groth identifies an “essential error” (51) in her reception of Heidegger, namely, that she confuses Dasein, Existenz, and Mensch. However, as a native speaker, she surely realized that what was perfectly clear to her about Heidegger’s technical vocabulary in German could not be adequately expressed in English. Also, it is not unlikely that her view of Heidegger in the 1940s was influenced by her subsequent mentor, the avowed existentialist Jaspers, and was thus pushed toward existentialism. If we look at the German text of her “What is Existenz Philosophy?” (1946) or “What is Existential Philosophy?” (1994), i.e., “Was ist Existenz-Philosophie?” (1948), we see that among her purposes is to explain, in plain German, Heidegger’s complicated German to a German audience. For example, she uses Essenz instead of Wesen. Such a purpose would naturally not translate well. But Groth considers only the first of these two English translations, does not mention her German version, and indeed seems to be misinterpreting her, alleging, for example, that she equates Existenz and Dasein when she certainly knows better than to do that. Hence we should give her the benefit of the doubt. Much of Groth’s criticism of Arendt could more properly be applied to her translators, Barrett, Robert Kimber, and Rita Kimber (87 n. 48).

Chapter Two (95-112) gives an account of the earliest translation of Heidegger to be published in English: Existence and Being (London: Vision; Chicago: Regnery, 1949). It is important to realize that this book is not a translation of a book by Heidegger, but rather an English journalist’s loosely interrelated compilation of four of Heidegger’s essays (albeit with Heidegger’s approval). In other words, there is no systematic unity to that book. Of the five who worked on it, Stefan Schimanski, Werner Brock, Douglas Scott, Alan Crick, and R.F.C. Hull, only Brock had solid philosophical credentials and none of them were qualified to interpret or translate Heidegger (109). The result was not only a misrepresentation of Heidegger, but also an internally inconsistent hodgepodge. Groth shows how these inconsistencies swirled around the usual key terms: Dasein, Seiende, Existenz, and Sein (104), as well as Befindlichkeit, Entfremdung, existenziell, etc.

The art of translation is to break a textual or literary artifact apart then reassemble it in the context of another culture. Good translating has many axioms, e.g., use a dictionary as contemporary as possible with the text to be translated; translate into, not out of, your native language; try to preserve etymological connections, puns, permutations, transpositions, rhymes, etc. Heidegger would not disagree with any of these; however, his project was different. Going back to original terms and texts was a key aspect of his deconstructive agenda, and thus of his entire philosophy. He did not trust translations, but always preferred to consult and analyze the originals, which in his case generally meant classical and scholastic Latin and especially ancient Greek. Groth notes that Heidegger believed that misunderstandings and corresponding mistranslations of five Greek terms, alêtheia, hen, logos, idea, and energeia, have largely “determined the course of Western philosophy” (19), for better or for worse.

Accordingly, Chapter Three (115-163) discusses Heidegger’s theory of translation as it evolved from 1915 to 1969. Groth has painstakingly gleaned this theory from scattered remarks in Heidegger’s vast corpus. These gleanings provide insight into not only Heidegger’s theory of translation, but also his method and agenda of philosophizing in general. This feature alone would, for both Heidegger scholars and Heidegger disciples alike, make this the most interesting chapter in the book; but Groth makes it even more interesting with the extraordinary claim (116-117) that, contrary to common sense and to traditional hermeneutical principles, thinking is not dependent upon words. Rather, Groth holds that, for Heidegger, thinking is a kind of saying (Sagen), as if there were a real difference between the spoken word and any other kind of word. After all, common sense dictates that we cannot “say” anything unless we have words in which to say it. Without words, spoken or otherwise, actual thinking is not possible, but just a flow of inchoate emotions, disconnected perceptions, and vague notions of how to proceed and survive in the world on a purely animal level.

Groth notes that other commentators have missed this counterintuitive interpretation of Heidegger, as well they might, since it is spun out of thin air and couched in equivocation. Groth even presents evidence against it as evidence for it. He cites “language speaks” (die Sprache spricht) to support his argument that “thinking is not up to the thinker” and that we do not use language, but language uses us in the service of being (117). While it is certainly true that, for Heidegger, language reveals being to us if we listen carefully; it would still be a misinterpretation to take the individual or subjective human actor out of the process of creating or presenting language in the first place. Heidegger’s optimal kind of thinking, meditative thinking (rechnendes Denken), although we may get lost in it and end up we know not where, is above all a deliberate, self-motivated, and self-motivating act, as we clearly infer from Heidegger’s 1955 “Memorial Address.” His famous assertions that “language speaks” and “language is the house of being” mean, among other things, that thought hides in words, i.e., that thought remains concealed (verborgen) in words – whether written, spoken, read, heard, or even merely dreamed – until it is disclosed (entborgen) as being. If we conceive of language in the broadest possible way, then the existence and development of language is a necessary and sufficient condition for thinking.

Despite this major misstep by Groth, other aspects of Heidegger’s theory of translation and Groth’s interpretation of it are less problematic, and generally lead to the conclusion that translating is a kind of thinking (160 n. 69).

Chapter Four (165-193) provides a detailed example of Heidegger’s “paratactic” method of translating. Parataxis means “arranging,” “arrangement,” or “array.” Groth shows how Heidegger breaks up, rearranges, and reassembles an eight-word fragment from Parmenides, using Parmenides to elucidate more precisely his own meaning of seiend-, seen in the Greek as various forms of einai. This is a reciprocal process (183); i.e., in order to bring (herüberbringen) into German the concepts that are hidden in Greek words, the German translator must first immerse himself in Greek thought and go over (hinübergehen) into the Greek so as to become capable of understanding these concepts in both Greek and German and thereby of eventually rendering them in German. Thus Heidegger reads himself into Parmenides and Parmenides into himself. Heidegger is not interested as much in the grammar or syntax of the Greek text (150) as in its particular words, syllables, and even letters, so as to disclose to himself and his readers the far-reaching allusions, etymological inferences, and deep truths that would otherwise remain hidden forever, and were perhaps even hidden from Parmenides. This method coheres well with the whole deconstructive enterprise. “For Heidegger, translating was not at all a matter of words, but of ways of thinking” (108), which suggests that Heidegger’s translation of Parmenides may tell us more about Heidegger than about Parmenides.