Edmund Husserl: Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920

Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920 Book Cover Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920
Bibliothèque des Textes Philosophiques
Edmund Husserl. Translated by Marie-Hélène Desmeules and Julien Farges
Vrin
2020
Paperback 12,00 €
202

Reviewed by: Veronica Cibotaru (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges présentent dans cet ouvrage pour la première fois une traduction française d’une partie du volume 37 des Husserliana qui reste jusqu’à présent non traduit en français. Ce volume contient des leçons sur l’éthique que Husserl donna entre 1920 et 1924. Toutefois cette traduction présente une partie de ces cours qui ne porte pas directement sur la question de l’éthique. C’est pourquoi précisément elle s’intitule Digression dans les Leçons (Exkurs in der Vorlesung). Cette version française traduit l’intégralité de la Digression, une partie des appendices ainsi qu’un choix de variantes.

Les traducteurs mettent au jour dans leur introduction deux thèmes fondamentaux qui structurent cette Digression, à savoir la normativité et la déconstruction. La question de la normativité est mue par la distinction opérée par Husserl entre les sciences d’objets (Sachwissenschaften) et les sciences normatives (Normwissenschaften), distinction dont le point culminant consiste selon les traducteurs dans l’élucidation phénoménologique du terme «évaluer» (werten). En effet, cette élucidation permet de démontrer au § 13 que les sciences normatives et l’éthique ne sont pas équivalentes.

Comme le montrent les traducteurs il y a l’œuvre dans ce texte de Husserl une réflexion sur la possibilité des sciences normatives, possibilité qui se conçoit par la structure intentionnelle de la conscience. Par là-même la normativité devient dans ce texte un objet d’étude en soi et n’est plus considérée à l’aune d’une simple application des sciences théoriques, approche que Husserl adopte dans le premier tome des Recherches logiques, Prolégomènes à la logique pure. Plus précisément, ce lien intrinsèque entre la normativité et la structure intentionnelle de la conscience se conçoit comme une relation intrinsèque entre le sens et l’objet visé, relation qui n’est pas réelle mais intentionnelle. En effet, cette relation implique une distance entre le sens et l’objet visé, ce qui fait que le sens subsiste même lorsque l’objet visé n’existe pas. Or c’est précisément cette distance qui fonde la possibilité des jugements normatifs puisqu’ils portent justement sur les visées de sens. Sur ce point l’explication des traducteurs est particulièrement éclairante : «s’il y a un sens à juger une visée de sens à l’aune de sa conformité à l’objet auquel elle se rapporte, c’est justement parce que la possibilité subsiste que l’objet ne soit pas tel qu’il est visé».[1]

A partir de cette compréhension de la normativité l’on peut définir les sciences normatives comme des sciences qui reposent sur le rapport entre le sens et l’intuition. Comme le remarquent les traducteurs l’on retrouve cette compréhension des sciences normatives déjà dans les Ideen I, § 136-153. A partir de cette définition Husserl réinterprète la distinction entre les sciences de la nature et les sciences de l’esprit puisque seules les sciences de l’esprit admettent une orientation normative, les sciences de la nature ne pouvant avoir qu’une orientation objective.

Dans leur introduction Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges offrent également une élucidation intéressante du rapport entre l’éthique et la normativité tel qu’il apparaît dans la Digression. Ils insistent sur l’idée développée par Husserl selon laquelle la valeur et la vérité ne sont pas équivalentes, ce qui permet justement de distinguer l’éthique de la normativité en fonction de ces concepts opérants qui leur sont respectivement propres. En effet, «la vérité ne « s’apprécie » (…) pas comme on apprécie la teneur affective et axiologique d’un objet ; elle consiste à vérifier que le sens est ajusté à l’attestation intuitive ».[2] La vérité ne présuppose donc pas intrinsèquement un acte d’évaluation, raison pour laquelle elle est une catégorie qui n’est pas équivalente à la valeur. Par conséquent, l’éthique et les sciences normatives ne sont pas équivalentes. De façon très intéressante les traducteurs en concluent que la notion d’une éthique normative n’est pas pléonastique.[3] Bien au contraire il est possible de concevoir également une éthique objective sur le modèle des Leçons sur l’éthique de 1914 de Husserl.

Toutefois. malgré cette distinction claire et nette entre l’éthique et les sciences normatives sur laquelle insistent les traducteurs force est de constater l’idée paradoxale soutenue par Husserl au § 13 de la Digression selon laquelle « l’éthique est de fait, parmi toutes les sciences normatives, la reine des sciences »[4], semblant ainsi soutenir que l’éthique est bel et bien une science normative. Husserl justifie cette idée en affirmant que l’éthique « présuppose toutes les autres sciences et qu’elle les absorbe finalement en elle, et (…) qu’elle prête finalement à toutes les sciences une fonction éthique.»[5] Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges n’occultent pas dans leur introduction cette idée paradoxale.. Toutefois cette idée ne contredit pas à leurs yeux la distinction husserlienne entre l’éthique et les sciences normatives, étant bien plutôt un geste rhétorique censé exprimer l’idée selon laquelle l’éthique « transformerait en devoir pratique la normativité intentionnelle étudiée dans ces sciences »[6], c’est-à-dire dans les sciences normatives.

Il aurait été sans doute intéressant de mentionner le contexte polémique au sein duquel Husserl élabore la distinction entre la valeur et la vérité et par là-même aussi entre la valeur et la norme. En effet, Husserl développe cette distinction contre la pensée de Windelband et de son école à laquelle il reproche de confondre « l’acte d’« évaluer » au sens affectif avec l’acte de « normer ». »[7] Il est vrai toutefois que Husserl se limite à évoquer ce point, ce qui explique sans doute son omission dans l’introduction.

Le deuxième volet de la Digression déploie ce que les traducteurs considèrent comme étant la « première (et quasiment la seule) exposition circonstanciée de la méthode de la déconstruction (Abbau) »[8] sous la plume de Husserl, méthode qui sera reprise par Heidegger et Derrida entre autres. L’exposition détaillée de cette méthode ne se retrouve selon les traducteurs que dans un seul autre texte de Husserl, datant de 1926, édité dans le volume 39 des Husserliana.

La méthode de la déconstruction est étroitement liée selon les traducteurs à la dimension génétique de la phénoménologie dont l’objet d’étude est « l’histoire des objets dans la conscience et, de façon corrélative, l’auto-constitution « historique » de la subjectivité constituante elle-même ».[9] L’objet de la phénoménologie génétique est donc le pouvoir constituant de la passivité à la fois primaire et secondaire. Or au sein de la passivité secondaire s’édifie la sédimentation que les traducteurs définissent de façon très éclairante comme un « phénomène de modification continue en vertu duquel les acquis des visées actives de la conscience ne disparaissent pas quand ces visées cessent d’être actuelles mais persistent à l’arrière-plan de la conscience sur un mode rétentionnel, comme des dépôts d’activités antérieures prêtes à être réactivés ».[10]

Or, la méthode de la déconstruction consiste justement en une procédure inverse, à savoir en une procédure de dépouillement (entkleiden, abtun) ou encore de désédimentation, terme que les commentateurs reprennent à Jean-François Courtine et à Dominique Pradelle.[11] C’est une procédure de clarification du sens qui consiste à dépouiller les objets du monde de leurs couches de signification avec lesquelles ils nous sont toujours prédonnés. Par là-même il s’agit de mettre au jour un « niveau originaire d’expérience »[12]  au sein duquel se constituent les prédicats de signification.

Une telle procédure de déconstruction aboutit à un monde d’objets in-signifiants, dont on ne peut jamais faire l’expérience et que Husserl nomme monde de l’expérience pure. Comme le soutiennent Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges, le fondateur de la phénoménologie reprend consciemment ce terme au philosophe empiriste et positiviste Richard Avenarius, puisque dès le début des années 1910 Husserl met en avant l’affinité qui existe entre sa phénoménologie et la pensée d’Avenarius, notamment dans des cours réunis dans le volume 13 des Husserliana. Ici il aurait été sans doute intéressant de remarquer que l’on retrouve cette notion d’expérience pure également au sein de la pensée de William James que Husserl n’était pas sans connaître.

De façon très intéressante les traducteurs attirent notre attention sur le fait que la manière dont Husserl utilise la notion d’expérience pure évolue au cours de ses écrits. En effet, si dans la Digression le monde de l’expérience pure s’oppose au monde de la vie, dans les textes ultérieurs regroupés dans les volumes 6, 9 et 32 des Husserliana le monde de l’expérience pure est tout au contraire identifié au monde de la vie.

Pour finir, les traducteurs évoquent la question du sens de ce procédé de déconstruction, qui consiste selon leur formule en une « reconstruction philosophique du monde ».[13] Plus précisément cette reconstruction peut avoir un double sens, à savoir celui d’une restitution du monde de l’expérience dans sa concrétude ou celui d’une construction d’un monde ambiant conforme aux normes, d’un nouveau monde vrai corrélatif d’une humanité vraie. Cela permet finalement de montrer le lien intime qui relie la question de la déconstruction à celle de la normativité dans la Digression. En effet, «la méthode de déconstruction sert l’idée de normativité telle que Husserl l’a élaborée dans la première partie de la Digression ».[14]

Plusieurs écrits ont été consacrés au sein de la littérature contemporaine à la question de la normativité d’une perspective husserlienne et plus généralement phénoménologique.[15] En ce sens cette traduction ainsi que son introduction permettent d’approfondir une question actuelle et importante pour la recherche phénoménologique contemporaine. Plus particulièrement, la distinction que proposent Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges entre les notions de normativité, de normalité et d’optimalité est particulièrement féconde pour nuancer les lignes de recherche contemporaines autour de cette question. Selon les définitions proposées par les traducteurs, la notion de normativité désigne la rectitude en fonction d’une norme, la notion de normalité indique ce qui devrait normalement être notre perception de l’objet tandis que la notion d’optimalité définit ce qui devrait être idéalement notre perception de l’objet.[16] Ces distinctions conceptuelles permettent aux traducteurs de démarquer l’objet propre de recherche de la Digression, à savoir la normativité, de l’objet de recherche de plusieurs études phénoménologiques contemporaines qui n’est pas la normativité telle que l’entend Husserl dans la  Digression mais la normalité et l’optimalité.

En conclusion, nous saluons cette première traduction française de la Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920 ainsi que les éclaircissements apportés par les traducteurs qui sont à la fois très utiles pour une meilleure compréhension des enjeux de ce texte mais aussi féconds pour la recherche phénoménologique contemporaine.

[1] Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, trad. fr. par Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges, Paris, Vrin, 2020, p. 16.

[2] Ibid,, p. 31.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 151 / Hua 37, 319.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 33.

[7] Ibid,, p. 146 / Hua 37, 316.

[8] Ibid., p. 36.

[9] Ibid., p. 37.

[10] Ibid., p. 38.

[11] Cf. Jean-François Courtine, « Réduction, construction, destruction. D’un dialogue à trois : Natorp, Husserl, Heidegger » dans Archéo-Logique. Husserl, Heidegger, Patočka, Paris, P.U.F., 2013, p. 35 ; Dominique Pradelle, Généalogie de la raison, Essai sur l’historicité du sujet transcendantal de Kant à Heidegger, Paris, P.U.F., 2013, p. 309.

[12] Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, p. 42.

[13] Ibid., p. 47.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Voir par exemple Steven Crowell, Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013 ; Maxime Doyon et Thiemo Breyer (éd.), Normativity in Perception, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 ; Matthew Burch, Jack Marsh et Irene McMullin, Normativity, Meaning, and the Promise of Phenomenology, New York, Routledge, 2019.

[16] Edmund Husserl, Normativité et déconstruction, Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920, p. 24.

Karel Novotný: Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie

Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie Book Cover Welt und Leib. Zu einigen Grundmotiven der Phänomenologie
Orbis Phaenomenologicus Studien, Vol. 50
Karel Novotný
Königshausen & Neumann
2021
Hardback 28.00 €
172

Reviewed by: Nikos Soueltzis (University of Crete)

World and the Lived-body: From the title of the book the author cares to prepare us for an encounter with two of phenomenology’s most prominent themes. Trivial as it may be this ascertainment is already an understatement of the complexities and shifts that have marked the history of their treatment within phenomenological tradition. Only the plural form in the subtitle (On Some Basic Motifs of Phenomenology) gives a hint of the challenges that await the reader. Thought-provoking and informative, Karel Novotný’s book discusses the work of philosophers who have voiced their objections against Husserl’s classic conception of the consciousness–world correlation.

It should be clarified from the start that Novotný’s book is not meant as an introduction to the phenomenological themes of the world and the lived-body. To appreciate the fineness of his analysis some degree of familiarity with the phenomenological tradition is clearly presupposed. Thus, the reader should be prepared for a close engagement with the text and indirectly with the broad corpus of texts Novotný discusses. We will briefly present the content of each chapter and then address a few points that caught our attention.

The book comprises three main parts each of which consisting of two chapters. In the first part, Novotný examines Eugen Fink’s and Renaud Barbaras’ attempts to initiate and carry out a cosmological turn from within phenomenology. In the second part, he discusses Jan Patočka’s and László Tengelyi’s transcendentally oriented phenomenological conceptions of the world. In the third part, the book focuses explicitly on what he calls the “margins” of the world/lived-body correlation. Patočka’s conceptions of movement and life, both in his late and early work, are given here special attention. Finally, after demarcating the “marginal” function of lived-corporeality in Husserl’s work, the book culminates in a concise exposition of Emmanuel Levinas’ and Hans Rainer Sepp’s original elaborations of it.

In the opening chapter of the book, Novotný introduces the problem of the world’s pregivenness by referring to some of Husserl’s classic texts and to the revisions it undergoes but also elicits in the hands of his major successors. For Husserl, the world is the open framework of all fields in which something that appears exerts an affection on the ego. The world’s transcendence is always given to a horizon-consciousness and phenomenologically explicating its constitution amounts to explicating the world’s horizon-structure. The Noesis-Noema correlation involves horizon-nexuses on both sides. But the world is not a horizon that correlates to a single act; it is the horizon of all horizons. Husserl’s description of the performance of epoché and phenomenological reduction in Ideas I reveals the fundamental function of the Generalthesis: the positing of the world as existing. The world is a sense-formation of a universally functioning subjectivity. Thus, subjectivity and world are tightly connected in this correlation that forms an absolute basis for Husserl’s phenomenology. But, according to Novotný, his theory of world-apperception carries with it a debatable implication much criticized by his successors. Namely, the tendency to understand world-apperception as prescribing that every real thing is determined in advance in its universal typicality. Met with suspicion, this implication led to two different currents of critisism. On the one hand, fearing that this typicality poses a threat to the openness of appearing, the line of Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and Marc Richir, dismisses the view that the world is the origin of appearing or that this appearing is tied to a total apperception (21). On the other hand, before this turning-away from the world, cosmological attempts were made to recover the world in its primordial pregivenness and establish it as the framework that makes possible every phenomenal correlation. Novotný briefly discusses the second line of thought characterizing it as a “cosmological turn” and names Fink as its main proponent. The latter grasps human relating to the world not on the ground of an intentional consciousness and its horizons but within a framework that already embraces them both. To do so, he moves away from Husserl’s model of horizon-gradations by reversing the direction of its openness. Instead of beginning from a subjective bearer that stands outwards (Hinausstehen) toward the openness of the horizon, we now follow the opposite direction and focus on the world’s emerging within (Hereinstehen) the horizon-system (23). Fink’s contribution rests in pointing out the fleeting dimension of the world beyond the bipolar appearing/withdrawing characterizing the ontological difference—i.e., Being’s withdrawal for the beings to appear, while remaining inseparable from them.

In the second chapter, Novotný discusses extensively Renaud Barbaras’ work. In broad strokes, he summarizes the latter’s project as an attempt to radically de-subjectivize appearing as such by being led back to the world’s own process of becoming. He distinguishes between two modes of appearing: “primary” and “secondary.” Primary manifestation is the world’s anonymous process of becoming. Secondary appearing, on the other hand, is the appearing that involves a subjective pole. The world itself exhibits an essential distance within its movement of primary manifestation, a dynamic depth. Thanks to the latter, living beings are characterized by the movement of an insatiable desire: they reach out to the world, always moving within its depth and being that movement. For Barbaras, herein lies the deepest structure of correlation. Secondary appearing emerges through this movement of desire once a peculiar event of rupture occurs. In his earlier texts, this event transpires within the world but does not stem from the world’s movement. Having placed at the core of this movement the productive force of physis, he characterizes this event of rupture as metaphysical to denote what Husserl calls the primary fact of subjectivity (34f.). But the “transformation” effectuated through the event of rupture is a mere prolongation of the world-movement and not a radical change or any kind of discontinuity. The significance of this event as well as the difficulties that follow from it become apparent if one considers the spatial dimension of appearing and the accompanying individuation of the living subjects in it through their lived-bodies.[i] Given his cosmological perspective, it is no surprise that Barbaras speaks of a proto-spatialization. Beings are spatially individuated prior to their embeddedness into any framework of orientation.

As Novotný points out, it is imperative to explain what the role of the event of rupture is in this proto-spatialization. The prolongation of primary manifestation into secondary appearing implies the emergence of the lived-bodily centrality and this must be somehow related to the event of rupture. Trying to delve deeper into the cosmological realm, Barbaras recently revised his initial conception. Focusing on proto-spatialization, he describes the world’s movement through a threefold articulation: (a) as ground (Boden, le sol), (b) as site (Sitz, le site), and (c) as place (Ort, le lieu) (39). Novotný tries to explain the complex ways in which these modes of spacing relate to each other, finally making possible the openness of subjectivity. Barbaras employs this threefold distinction to show that subjectivity’s intentional tendency rests on a more primal movement. Far from being an autonomous self-movement, the movement of phenomenalization is the world’s ultimate force returning to itself. To further explain the emergence of subjectivity within the world’s movement he claims that the world already exhibits a subjectivity of its own, one that differs from the self-relation peculiar to the experiencing of appearing yet attested to by the latter. All beings exhibit subjectivity in different degrees. Human subjectivity is inscribed deeper within world’s subjectivity, while subjectivity of lifeless things is inscribed in it in the most fleeting and volatile manner. Acknowledging world’s own subjectivity implies that lived-bodily subjectivity occurs as a movement within world’s own movement. In the same movement that bodies become individuated, the human living being takes hold of the world in its phenomenalization (43).

It is in the third chapter that Novotný moves away from the previous cosmological attempts. He discusses the similarities and differences between Patočka’s and Fink’s understanding of the world. Like Fink, Patočka does not subscribe to a world-conception based on thing-apperception: the world is not a mere extension of the objectifying intentionality into surrounding zones. However, the peculiarity of his approach rests on acknowledging that there is a deeper horizonal structure involved in thing-apperception that is intimately connected to the world and co-shapes its pre-givenness in a primordial manner. Thus, Patočka’s phenomenology places emphasis on the mutuality between the pre-givenness of the whole and the fact of its limitation: both permeate and sustain each other. He admits that the world-totality does not need the various subject-centers of appearing, but he acknowledges their interrelation as a fact that cannot be ignored. Thus, instead of relinquishing phenomenology altogether towards a speculative cosmology, he insists on the possibility of a phenomenology of the world-totality. Such a phenomenology cannot perform the metaphysical leap to a “real world” behind appearances. Instead, it tries to make accessible those appearances on the ground of the world-totality that is present in them. Novotný characterizes Patočka’s perspective at that time as “static,” provisionally setting aside the “genetic” access to the world-totality, a task taken up in his theory of the “movements of existence.”

Novotný then examines Patočka’s project of asubjective phenomenology. His discussion is initially limited to Patočka’s relevant published texts. He provides us with a brief presentation of his critical reconsiderations of Husserl’s phenomenology, based on the need to preserve the world’s irreducibility to the constituting life of consciousness. But the risk of ending up with a metaphysical enclosure of a cosmos that affords its own hypostatized mode of appearing is too high. He chooses to “focus on the openness of appearing itself, for which the world serves only as a respectively a priori form but not as a ground in the sense of source” (63). The world is an a priori form. But where is this a priori hinged on and how can we trace it? Patočka’s reply is that phenomenology’s proper theme of inquiry is the autonomous “field of appearance,” i.e., the sphere of the different modes of appearing that is independent both from the appearing objects as well as from the spontaneity of the acts of consciousness. Thus, it should not be subjectivized and reduced to the noetic-noematic distinction. The allegedly immanent components of appearing (e.g., sensation and apprehension) are in fact modes of appearance pertaining to the object (65). But how does this field appear and how does it relate to the appearing of the beings that appear in it? Patočka follows a specific methodological path that allows him to free the phenomenal sphere from all possible constraints and misinterpretations. While he employs Husserl’s phenomenological epoché, he dismisses the complementary move toward the immanence of consciousness, i.e., his phenomenological reduction. He characterizes this break as a radicalized epoché (66). In Patočka’s Nachlass Novotný traces significant contributions to an understanding of this asubjective world-a priori. He distinguishes its three structural moments: (a) the totality of “what” appears, (b) the “who” to which it appears, and (c) the “how” of the appearing (72). All these moments are themselves given within appearing as such. Even though Novotný leaves out of consideration Patočka’s relation to Heidegger, he adds that in his project of asubjective phenomenology Patočka is clearly inspired by the motif of the ontological difference (74). In any case, Patočka’s insistence on the primacy of the problem of appearing attests to a certain distancing from Heidegger’s path, albeit on occasions in an ambivalent manner.

Chapter four discusses the issue of world’s pregivenness in Tengelyi’s project of phenomenological metaphysics from his last book Welt und Unendlichkeit. The guiding theme is his investigation on the kind of “necessity” implied in the commonly held view of the world’s non-modalizability. Tengelyi grasps this necessity not as a priori but as a factical one (78). He draws attention to what he considers to be “primal facts” that can be phenomenally shown but are irreducible or non-inferable. In the three sections of this chapter Novotný focuses on three points from Tengelyi’s phenomenological metaphysics of the world: (a) the conception of world’s openness as its essence, (b) the world’s openness in relation to the event of appearing, and (c) the reality of the world. To address the theme of the world, Tengelyi employs what he calls the “diacritic” method and gradually differentiates between world-totality and infinity (83). Both poles are treated in their contrast but as necessarily belonging together (Tengelyi 2014, 301). His aim is to revise our familiar phenomenological conception of the total world-horizon as a mere correlate of consciousness. The world’s existence in experience presupposes an inner concordance that is not a priori guaranteed but only factually shown (cf. Tengelyi 2014, 323). Thus, our world-cognition entails a certain contingence. Starting from this, Novotný broaches the issue of the relation between the world’s openness and the appearing as event. This contingence of my world-cognition attests to an alterity that leaves its traces in the infinite system of possible experiences, it always threatens to disrupt it (85). To denote that, Tengelyi refers to the possibility of “unavailable” experiences, to wit, experiences that do not accord with the smooth sense-giving intentional streaming of consciousness. Appearing announces itself in experience as an event bearing the character of contingent facticity, namely, an event that can never be reduced to sense-giving. This alterity with its potentially disruptive effects is tightly connected to world’s reality. The latter exhibits an openness that is announced in our experience of the world through the potentially disruptive contingence. The fact that this contingence is experienced entails that the openness of the world can be phenomenologically exhibited (88). But Tengelyi also tries to phenomenologically clarify the belief in the existence of the world based on the primal fact of lived-bodiliness. The fact of the sensory appearing of the world that nurtures our world-belief, as Novotný very vividly says, points to the fact of our embodiment. Even though the latter is never implicated in the event of appearing, it shows itself as its factical condition (90).

In chapter five, Novotný examines the basic motif announced in the title: Of the world’s being anchored to a relation to lived-corporeality (Leib-Körper). The experience of the world is always centered around a lived-bodily zero-point of orientation and always bears the polarity “home-alien.” But the lived-body borders on what is alien to it in another peculiar manner. It is the corporeal aspect that attests to this bordering and inscribes certain gaps to the continuous pregivenness. Novotný discusses Patočka’s relevant positions beginning from his dismissal of the primal correlation as one between an objectifying experience and its object. Instead, he privileges the correlation between life and the pregiven world that confronts it with its alienness. To situate this correlation, Patočka will appeal to a third concept of lifeworld mediating between the world as universe of beings and the world in its ontological function. It is the world that correlates to the fundamental movements of human life and not to a traditionally conceived subject. But, as Novotný points out, substituting life-movements for the subject does not amount to an overall dissipation of subjectivity: it is neither a way of naturalizing consciousness nor a cosmological reduction. The movements of existence are forms of expression of a living inwardness. Focusing on the dimension of movement introduces us to a dynamic-genetic perspective that encompasses the static-phenomenological one. Novotný highlights the role of lived-corporeal life for Patočka’s phenomenology by discussing his broader theory of movement and zeroing in on what he defines as the first movement of existence, i.e., the movement of “anchoring.” This movement originally opens the world in a purely instinctive manner; it is the sensuous life that is externally stimulated to movement (105f.). But for Patočka lived-corporeality points to a plurality of life-centers that form the world as the medium of expression starting from their respective internality and in mutual contact. The first world-relating movement is individuated through an intersubjective connection between living interiorities. Thus, the movement of “anchoring” involves more than our organic world-embeddedness. It is also articulated by our being accepted in a community. This acceptance or non-acceptance colors the world respectively either with a welcoming warmth or with the threatening coldness of its vastness.

Novotný turns further to Patočka’s unpublished manuscripts to defend him against any allegations of a cosmological turn. The most challenging part is the one dedicated to Patočka’s early project of life-phenomenology. Novotný guides us through the bulk of untranslated texts from the 1940’s introducing the reader to its main elements (122ff.). From life’s “inwardness” to the appearing as expression of this “inwardness” and his peculiar account of aesthesis based on a polarity of indifferences, Patočka’s early project involves many radical revisions of familiar aspects of phenomenology. As an example, Novotný refers to Husserl’s “hyletic sphere” and how Patočka integrates it to his project. The hyletic sphere is a first externality but not a lifeless one. It must already contain that which enables the intention to turn the hyletic stratum into a bearer of expression (127). Thus, it is not only to the other person or living animal being that an “inwardness” is ascribed but to other beings in general. Hyle is already an externalization that expresses an “inner” life. Lived-corporeality plays here an essential role as the particular expression of human life that offers us the key to understand expression as a phenomenon of life in general (129).

In the last chapter, Novotný focuses explicitly on lived-corporeality and its phenomenological examination. His guiding assumption is that the lived-body (Leib) can only be the core of the self inseparably from corporeality (Körper) while the latter is experienced at the same time as a limit of subjectivity. What we are looking for is a primal lived-corporeal experiencing in which the inner and the outer are intimately connected. His itinerary starts with Husserl and his conception of the lived-body. The aim is to point out the ineradicable significance of the corporeal aspect (Körper) and the impossibility of a total abstraction from it. He does that by critically showing that in Husserl’s (especially later) work the lived-body is absorbed in the immanence of living-experiencing leaving no room for a differentiating singularization. It cannot account for the singularity of the self, i.e., for the singularity of the perceiving subjectivity in its factual distinction from any other. Thus, we should entertain the hypothesis that this is carried out by the twofold character of lived-corporeality. As Novotný says, living-experiencing is each time mine thanks to the “psycho-physical” lived-corporeality (136). Living-experiencing and the lived-body, according to him, are anonymous in their immanence and thus unable to singularize the self. This singularization is only possible through the anchoring of lived-corporeality (140). It is at this point that he will interpose Levinas’ theory about the position (or positing) of the body as corporeality (Körper) from his early text Existence and Existents.

According to Levinas, egoic living-experiencing cannot posit corporeality on its own, so it is posited through an event that escapes the custody of the subject. Levinas refers to a materiality that lies hidden within the objects of the surrounding world as an alterity. It is neither perceived nor thought of as it cannot be fixated within a system of sense-relations, but it is affectively given. This materiality attests to the fact of the anonymous existence, the there is that is revealed in the experience of horror with its depersonalizing effect (142). The emergence of consciousness is made possible by a positing that depends on corporeality and not on a pure ego or the flesh of the lived-body. It is a corporeality that does not point back to a constituting immanence. It is no object but the event of the positing of “here” and a precondition for any immanence. Translating it in the terms of his own model, Novotný claims that the position (or positing) of corporeality lies in the margins of the universal correlation.

Novotný’s last stop is Hans Rainer Sepp’s concept of the border-Leib (Grenzleib) drawn from his project of phenomenological ecology. Along with direction-Leib (Richtungsleib) and sense-Leib (Sinnleib), they form the three fundamental dimensions of lived-body.[ii] Border-Leib refers to the limit-experience of our lived-body in which the nakedness of the real is experienced prior to its articulation in a sense; direction-Leib refers to the movement of an embodied experiencing that is a reaching out to an exteriority by desiring it; the sense-Leib refers to a fixed framework of sense that structures a new lived-bodily dimension. Sepp starts with the acceptance that human subjectivity is an embodied subjectivity. Thus, we must understand how its relation to its environment and to itself is bodily formed in such a way that human beings participate to place-relations determined by their lived-body. To that extent, Sepp speaks of a primordial place as a limit or a border that delineates the singularity of life. It is a factical limitation in an absolute “here.” For Sepp this limit or border is a “living being-inside” (146). With respect to the subjective pole of the correlation, Novotný sees in Sepp’s idea of border-Leib an affinity with Levinas’ positing (or position) of corporeality. But he finds Sepp’s conception of the “real” as more fitting to describe the primal situation with respect to the non-subjective pole. He integrates Sepp’s as well as Levinas’ positions to his own model of the margins of the universal correlation. The former’s “real” and the latter’s anonymous “there is” lurk in the margins deprived of any sense-articulation.

As already mentioned at the beginning, Novotný’s book is a demanding read not due to its writing style but because it engages in a discussion of a wide range of authors and texts. To that extent, the reader’s effort is dictated by the material itself. That being said, the only traceable drawback is that at times Novotný inserts his own remarks and reconstructions without having previously provided a sufficient context. Unfortunately, sometimes this interrupts the reading flow and thus raising the suspicion that particular  sentences are packed with dense implications which are not properly fit in the context. To be fair, this is a recurring pattern only in the chapter on Barbaras’ cosmology.

A striking example can be found on page 34 where he refers to “appearing as such” as the core of his reconstruction without a clear indication as to its differentiation from “primary” and “secondary appearing.”[iii] Things would probably be much easier if a chapter on Patočka already preceded his discussion of Barbaras’ work. However, in the given occasion the lack of an explicit distinction incites confusion especially when Novotný transposes the “event” of rupture into the context of “appearing as such”: it is the latter that exhibits an essentially evental character. Trying to follow this transposition, one can ask: if the distinction between primary and secondary manifestation is something derivative from the point of view of “appearing as such,” why should there be any essential connection between its evental character and the event of rupture? It could even be misleading to employ it as a leading clue. The world’s obtaining its specific mode of appearing (its “how”) does not signify anything like a radical rupture since it is already a moment of the a priori of appearance. In fact, one could contend that there is no dimension of “appearing as such” that could accommodate the speculative demands of “primary manifestation.”

But let us make a more general interpretive suggestion based solely on Novotný’s analysis. Can we claim that in the present context switching from a cosmological to a phenomenological perspective and vice versa is a matter of subordinating interchangeably to each other two significant aspects of the event—its dynamic and its facticity? Can it be the case that Barbaras privileges spatialization by adopting the spatial-modal tripartition of the primary event (le sol, le site, le lieu) to compensate for tacitly ascribing a secondary function to the event’s facticity as opposed to its dynamic? To be sure, Barbaras’ turn to a metaphysical cosmology is not a matter of carefully blurring the limits of phenomenology. However, a close investigation of how he moves away from the latter is surely a productive endeavor. Novotný’s model of the “margins” of correlation admittedly provides us with a solid basis to carry it out.

From a broad perspective, the model of the “margins of correlation” that Novotný promotes in his book allows us to pinpoint and thematize an area of investigation that is quite elusive. He employs it with caution and with a specific aim. To that extent it is a rather useful instrument of analysis. Nevertheless, there is a risk of stretching the model considerably by trying to fit in everything that speculative thought defines as escaping phenomenology’s reach. Some precaution is perhaps necessary to avoid measuring up those margins against the criticized instances of arbitrary hypostatization and to maintain their reference to the correlation itself. This is already what Novotný has in mind when he describes them based on the “escaping appearing/conditioning appearing” dipole and this is probably why confronting Barbaras’ peculiar cosmology is so important for his project.

Apart from this general remark, many interesting points of discussion are raised from Novotný’s analysis. Indicatively, we will mention only two. Because of the varied contexts of the chapters, we will address them in the specific frameworks in which they emerge. The first is drawn from his reference to what Patocka calls the “first movement of existence.” Towards the end of section 5.1 he distinguishes two of its components: (a) our primary acceptance by the others and (b) the affective readiness of life (113). We believe that this is a very interesting issue that should draw our attention to the complex interrelations between these two components, i.e., how the one affects the other. But a more pressing question comes to mind: how does Patočka gain access to the phenomenality of their connection within the anchoring-movement? How is their structural balance on such a dynamic ground procured at a phenomenological level? Is it a matter of their intertwinement in a past that is irretrievable in its own terms or is the first movement of existence as such characterized by an ultimate actuality that sets the limits of any inquiry into the origins of its components? If the latter is the case, should we not acknowledge this actuality first as the phenomenological edge of human life in its polyphonous movement before we proceed to its characterization (as event, proto-facticity, etc.)?

The second remark refers to Sepp’s notion of border-Leib discussed in section 6.3. We mentioned earlier that Sepp considers the limit that delineates life’s singularity as a “living being-inside.” But Novotny traces a certain tension at this point: this absolute “here” where life is factically singularized is not a place where this life is opened up for itself in its singularity. How can Sepp claim that they coincide as a “living being-inside”? To accommodate both claims, Novotny suggests viewing them through the perspective of lived-corporeality. As corporeal, this singularity is posited as absolute “here” in a proto-factical manner. As lived-body, this factical limitation is identified with an “absolute being-inside.” The problem is how to understand the transition or contact between the two. According to Novotný, Sepp settles it by resorting to the perspective of the direction-Leib. It seems that it was probably Sepp’s reference to an “absolute ‘here’” that led Novotny to such a claim (146). Yet, Sepp elsewhere refers to the dimension of “Ausleben” to connect the two poles (cf. Sepp 2010, p. 134). Roughly translated, it is the living-out of the lived-body (here: at an organic level). Orientation and directedness are built on this tendency of “Ausleben” when this tendency itself encounters its limit as an obstacle. In short, the “Da” to which Sepp refers is meant to circumscribe the primary resistance of the naked real against the organic tendency of lived-bodily “Ausleben.” Novotný probably wants to connect this primal contact between lived-body and corporeality with an experiential dimension that does not run the risk of lapsing into a cosmological or naturalistic interpretation. It seems that appealing to direction-Leib as the broader perspective in which the two poles of border-Leib come in contact is what enables him to claim that border-Leib is a component of the margins of correlation.

Overall, Novotný’s book is an invaluable addition to the arsenal of phenomenological scholarship. Insightful and rigorous, Welt und Leib meets all the requirements: rich in content, organized, detailed, historically and systematically informing, and conversing with major contemporary phenomenological theories. In short, the reader can only benefit from it in so many ways.[iv]

References

Sepp, Hans Rainer. 2010. „Gabe und Gewalt. Gedanken zum Entwurf einer leibtheoretisch verankerten Anthropologie.“ Cornelius Zehetner, Hermann Rauchenschwandtner u. Birgit Zehetmayer (Hg.): Transformationen der kritischen Anthropologie. Für Michael Benedikt zum 80. Geburtstag. Wien: Löcker: 133-146.

Tengelyi, László. 2014. Welt und Unendlichkeit. Zum Problem phänomenologischer Metaphysik. Freiburg: Karl Alber.


[i] Novotný refers on purpose to the Leib-Körper compound and not just to Leib. He does so throughout the book, and it is important for his theory regarding the body’s primary role in the correlation to the world and its way of being situated in the “margins” of the correlation. Below, we will translate it as “lived-corporeality” to preserve a reference to both components.

[ii] Sepp develops this threefold distinction in Sepp (2010).

[iii] Another example is his abrupt reference to the “Earth” as the ground of all corporeality on page 47, while we first learn more about its role in Patočka’s philosophy on page 109.

[iv] This research is co-financed by Greece and the European Union (European Social Fund-ESF) through the Operational Programme “Human Resources Development, Education and Lifelong Learning” in the context of the project “Reinforcement of Postdoctoral Researchers – 2nd Cycle” (MIS-5033021), implemented by the State Scholarships Foundation (ΙΚΥ).

Eric S. Nelson: Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other

Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other Book Cover Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Eric S. Nelson
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $34.95
480

Reviewed by: Kristóf Oltvai (The University of Chicago)

In Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other, Eric S. Nelson advances, via these two key interlocutors, a “materialist ethics of nonidentity” (14) that would critique nothing less than “contemporary capitalist societies in their complexly interconnected cosmopolitan neoliberal and neomercantile nativist and nationalistic ideological variations” (260). Such great expectations, and mouthfuls, populate the whole continent of this nigh-five-hundred-page tome, which, alongside its protagonists, surveys, enlists, or corrects thinkers as diverse and challenging as Enrique Dussel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth, Jacques Derrida, and Iris Murdoch. While such breadth – to say nothing of Nelson’s frequent and fascinating asides to Asian philosophies – reveals a deep erudition, the study’s verbosity often belies its chief argument: that Emmanuel Levinas’s phenomenological defense of ethics as ‘first philosophy,’ if informed by and reinterpreted through Theodor Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics, offers up a useful framework for rethinking our ethical obligations to dehumanized human and nonhuman Others in the Anthropocene. Admittedly, Nelson tips his hand quite late when he writes that “[t]he alternative interpretative strategies outlined throughout this work…point,” not to some reconstitution of “a republic of rational spirits or community of communicative and dialogical agents” à la Habermas and Honneth (Nelson’s whipping boys), but to an “an-archic and unrestrained solidarity…between material existents” (332). His concerns seem, in the final analysis, ecological, while his conclusions share a family resemblance with object-oriented ontology.

The text’s primary theoretical contribution is its concept of “asymmetry”: if ethics is founded on ontological equality, then one’s moral obligations to certain humans, and even more so to nonhuman or flat-out nonliving beings, is impossible. We must thus develop, Nelson claims, ways to think moral obligation in ontologically asymmetrical conditions. Even putting stylistic issues aside, the argument is vexed by a central difficulty, namely, an inability to articulate what sets its solutions apart from the behemoth it means to criticize. While he does offer some recommendations, Nelson frequently jumps from first-person phenomenological description to third-person, extremely concrete public policy positions, or puts forward an idea that “the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). The former confuses distinct levels of philosophical analysis, while – to echo Slavoj Žižek’s criticism of Levinas, one that Nelson himself considers (299) – the latter risks a sentimentalism unable to deconstruct global capitalism. Both fangs of this problem arise from Nelson’s underdeveloped account of the precise epistemological connection between phenomenology and critical theory, as well as from a conflation of liberalism and capitalism his own sources reject. The Ethics of the Material Other thus ultimately finds itself unable to decide whether liberalism’s wholesale rejection, or just its reformulation, is in order.

After an introduction meant mainly to acknowledge Adorno’s and Levinas’s diverging philosophical idioms, Nelson divides his study into three parts: “After Nature,” “Unsettling Religion,” and “Demanding Justice.” In “After Nature,” Nelson turns to Marx’s and Adorno’s idea that ‘nature,’ as an ideological category, is dialectically-materially constructed, first using this idea to critique Habermas and Honneth, and then suggesting it helps us get around Levinas’s anthropocentrism. The basic point here is easy to grasp. ‘Nature’ and ‘culture’ are not static ontological spheres; rather, ‘nature’ is itself historically conditioned, and, in late capitalism, serves as both “the environment,” a mere “background for human activity” (38), and as a fetishized reservoir for consumers’ ‘sublime’ experiences. The “natural and human worlds” should thus be rethought, Nelson argues, “as historically intertwined and mutually co-constituting” (46), with ‘nature’ now defined, with Adorno, as the material τόδε τι that confronts and resists reason’s dialectic. In contrast to Habermas and Honneth, then, for whom the Marxian “expression ‘domination of nature’…is [only] a metaphor extended to nature from the domination between humans in misshapen relations” (44), Nelson recovers Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s sense that, in fact, the real exploitation of nature grounds, and is interwoven with, specific forms of dehumanization. In other words,

[i]nsofar as humans are worldly bodily beings, with practical material lives, it is debatable whether the nondisposability of humans can be preserved in a world where everything else is disposable… In not listening and responding to animals, environments, and the materiality of the world… numerous human forms of life and suffering are silenced (48).

The extent to which Nelson himself actually embraces the “nonreductive, aporetic, and ethical praxis-oriented…materialism” (49) he finds in the older Frankfurt School is another question, as his examples of ‘natural’ phenomena still seem oriented by romanticism; we hear of “melting glacier[s]” and “polluted wetlands” (128), for example, but few of the more discomfiting candidates from radical ecology. Nelson wonders, for example, if “[i]t might be the case that there can be an ethics that is responsive to and responsible for animals, ecosystems, and environments without presupposing or requiring any concept or experience of nature” (114), without interrogating what concept of ‘nature’ underlies the three ethical subjects with which he begins that very sentence. The extent to which “bodily suffering” (81) motivates Nelson’s ethics – and restricts them – is likewise open to debate, and downplays, in his account, the extent to which ‘nature’ remains, for Adorno as it was for Hegel, an epistemological category. Nonetheless, Nelson’s use of Adorno to overcome Levinas’s alleged “antinaturalistic and antibiological” (91) is convincing. Levinas’s critique of ‘naturalism’ is indeed oriented by his desire to steer clear of anti-humanist romanticism, especially in its reactionary modes; if we jettison a romantic construction of ‘nature,’ then, granting an “alterity and transcendence to life and living beings insofar as they are ethically rather than biologically understood” (116) does become possible. This reinterpretation also dovetails with the one advanced by Megan Craig and others, namely, that Levinas’s descriptions of the ethical encounter are just extended epistemological metaphors, meant to ground a radical empiricism. This would fit nicely with Adorno’s own defense of empiricism, in his Metaphysics lectures and elsewhere, against idealism’s alleged hatred of the empirical.

In his study’s second part, “Unsettling Religion,” Nelson focuses on the notion of ‘prophecy,’ primarily in Levinas’s philosophical interpretation of Judaism. Before jumping into this, though, he begins by overviewing Ricœur’s three ‘masters of suspicion’ – Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud – and their critiques of religion. In what amounts to a methodological exercise, Nelson admits that while “[r]eligions operate as ideological disguises and hegemonic regimes of this-worldly power that demand ascetic and sacrificial practices and exact heavy costs in lives and suffering,” they are simultaneously “expressive of prophetically inspired hope for forgiveness, happiness, and justice” (150). He expends particular energy evaluating Nietzsche’s views on religion in On the Genealogy of Morality, affirming the Genealogy’s ‘prophetic’ elements while rejecting its crypto-virtue ethics and justification of suffering through amor fati. Nelson then turns to the meat of the argument in this part, which is Levinas’s confrontation with Kierkegaard over the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. For Nelson, this contrast illustrates two fundamental ‘religious’ modes: Kierkegaard’s, that of fundamentalism and theocratic tyranny, of “the religious constituting the suspension of the ethical,” as against Levinas’s ‘prophetic’ “interruption of [God’s] command by the ethical demand not to kill” (181). For Levinas, Kierkegaard’s positive valuation of Abraham’s decision in Genesis – to carry out God’s command to sacrifice Isaac despite its patent immorality and absurdity – shows that Christianity is “an egotistical and self-interested search for consolation, redemption, and salvation.” Judaism, on the other hand – which Levinas identifies with the angel intervening to stay Abraham’s hand – is “not even primarily about God” (184), but about “the humanism of the other.” This is “the ethical truth of monotheism,” which Levinas actually finds in the later Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, not “faith and its subjectivity” (183). Through this analysis, Nelson provides evidence for the theory that – as Samuel Moyn has argued – Levinas’s concept of ethics norms his construction of ‘Judaism,’ not vice versa. This is why, for example, he can praise “atheism” in one moment “as the break with mythic absorption and monistic participation” while lambasting it as “the denial and absence of the transcendent” (213) in the next.

Nelson then turns to Bloch, for whom the “the radical potential of prophecy in Judaism and Christianity, the prophetic denunciation of exploiters, despots, and masters… prepared the way for the communist communities of love from which” – on Bloch’s reading, at least – “primordial Christianity emerged” (230). Finally, “Unsettling Religion” concludes, in a somewhat disjointed way, with a chapter on Murdoch and the Danish Lutheran thinker Knud Ejler Løgstrup. Apart from Løgstrup’s apparently “underappreciated” (243) status in contemporary philosophy and his use of Kierkegaard, I found this excursus confusing, especially given that Nelson would have had to unpack Murdoch’s metaphysical commitments in a more sustained way to make the comparison of her and Levinas other than external. Also meriting scrutiny is the “category of the religious” Nelson claims his analysis has uncovered – namely, one that, “through its prophetic and redemptive moments and in its dreams, hopes, and visions formed and expressed in abject, damaged, and wounded life… heighten[s] the radical republican and social democratic alignment in the direction of equality (fairness), liberty (autonomy), and solidarity (love)” (259). After all, his frequent gestures to Asian religious and philosophical concepts notwithstanding, Nelson’s proponents of ‘prophecy’ here all work within one textual reception history – that of the Hebrew Bible. Can we cleave this ethically- and politically-oriented prophetism from its scriptural origins, ethos, and legitimation? If not, we may need to resist identifying it with ‘religion’ sans phrase; “messianism” (232), per Nelson’s own suggestion, may be more accurate.

“Demanding Justice,” the study’s final part, attempts to think through how a Levinasian ethics, having passed through the clarificatory crucible of the first two parts, might reorient contemporary political theory. I stress ‘Levinasian’ because, at this juncture, Nelson’s use of Adorno recedes into the background, even as earlier adversaries like Habermas and Honneth return as the “high priests” (to repeat Žižek’s quip) of global capital. Nelson’s guiding question here is whether “there [is] in the Levinasian motif of the ‘language of the other’…the possibility of an alternative to both the false universality of liberal and neoliberal cosmopolitanism and the false concreteness of communitarianism and racialized particularism” (320). These two frameworks are, for Nelson, secretly complementary: neoliberalism preaches universal equality and ‘human rights’ while materially erasing those distinct ways of life – human and nonhuman – unable to be integrated into the free market’s logic, and finds itself quite comfortable with new forms of nationalism and chauvinism that stratify intrasocietal wealth as long as global capital flows remain unimpeded. He takes especial issue with the classical Enlightenment concept of freedom, which he sees as having been perverted into an ideology whereby “appeals to one’s own freedom function to justify power over others and deny the freedom of others to live without coercion and violence” (285). Where this disfiguration is not carried out by the state, it is done so by the ‘culture industry’ and other homogenizing social and economic mechanisms, as diagnosed by Adorno, Horkheimer, and Alexis de Tocqueville. This ideology finds its quintessential expression in the fact that the modern subject is told her freedom is absolute while she finds the most primal experience of freedom – the freedom for meaningful political action – denied her. “Freedom from society robs the individual of the strength for freedom. Asocial freedom limited to an absolutized private self, and divorced from the sociality of the other, is…a denial of the freedom that participates in and helps shape society” (303).

Now, Nelson is aware that Levinasian ethics does not have an obvious answer to this problem; he repeatedly cites, for instance, Žižek’s objection that Levinas, by hyperbolically exaggerating the self’s infinite responsibility for the Other in the ethical encounter, just shifts the burden of society’s sins onto the atomized subject. Nelson claims in response that Levinasian ethics serves as a corrective to existing egalitarianisms rather than a full-blown political counterprogram. Because “Levinas’s political thinking is in multiple ways…an ethically informed and other-oriented transformation of French republican thought” (321), it aims at “disrupting and potentially reorienting self and society, immanently within and yet aporetically irreducible to being, its unity or multiplicity, or other ontological determinations” (332). “Instead of offering an ethical program of cultivating virtues or duties, or setting up procedural normative guidelines,” then, “Levinas speaks of the other as a who. This ‘who’ cannot be defined by ethics in the sense of a normative theory or moral code” (324). Nelson, however, and in a way that I will momentarily question, then turns to define and elucidate precisely such a theory: a “cosmopolitanism of the other,” one “not only concerned with universal and abstract justice” but with “the singularity and particularity of those forgotten and suppressed by the universal as incarnated in the current social-political order” (340). This new cosmopolitanism would “require…a radically an-archic res publica, a republicanism of unrestricted civic associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338). Moreover, it would extend from the human into the nonhuman world, “[n]ourishing and cultivating the life of material others…in fairer forms of exchange and distribution of goods and of intersubjective and interthingly recognition” (332). Ethics of the Material Other closes by suggesting that, although it has successfully gestured toward the ethical and theoretical foundations of this ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ only a “political economy oriented toward alterity and nonidentity” would complete its task. Such a political economy would “address” itself to the same themes – “the modern domination of nature that has resulted in disappearing species, deteriorating ecosystems, and the wounds of damaged life” (356) – with which Nelson framed the first part, underscoring the text’s ecological orientation.

Nelson’s fundamental contribution here is his use of Adorno to refine Levinas’s concept of alterity and thereby extend the latter’s phenomenology of the ethical encounter to explicitly include nonhuman Others. This detour through Adorno is not, strictly speaking, necessary. Otherwise than Being can, in particular, be read as an empiricist epistemological treatise, in which Levinas uses a prolonged interhuman metaphor to express the radical exteriority, objectivity, and claim on the conscience, not just of the human Other, but of the truth as such. Nelson’s decision to implicate Adorno is nonetheless insightful insofar as the latter’s later work not only concerns itself with the fact that the history of “metaphysical” (Levinas would write “ontological”) thought identifies the particular as negative and meaningless, but with the particular’s epistemological function, as the concretum of experience, without which reason loses contact with reality. The connection between human materiality and particularity on the one hand, and the functional meaning of these two terms on the other, is thus clearer in Adorno’s oeuvre than in Levinas’s, where Otherwise than Being has to flesh out the genetic phenomenology of reason that remains underdeveloped in Totality and Infinity. Nelson’s ‘asymmetry’ productively borrows this ontological-into-epistemological fluidity from Adorno. Asymmetry characterizes my relationship to the culturally, biologically, and, ultimately, even the epistemically Other, such that I might have, for example, an asymmetrical responsibility to a work of art, to my cultural traditions (‘the past’), or to coming generations or states of being (‘the future’). Access to the Other’s internal states or experiences, nay, even to their external characteristics, need not be a prerequisite for ethical relationship. That Nelson himself seems to sometimes ground these relationships in some shared quality – “sentience,” for example, as in “Buddhist ethics,” “or the equal consideration of interests in Peter Singer’s utilitarian animal ethics” (74) – suggests that certain political aims, such as environmentalism, motivate his project, but it does not obviate the fact that his conclusions align with some of our most important moral intuitions: the care for landscapes, landmarks, sacred sites or objects, and institutions. Whether or how these intuitions can be translated into political aims, however, is a more difficult question.

It is here that Nelson’s argument runs into its central difficulty, namely, in its attempt to map what is, for Levinas, a first-personal phenomenological description of the ethical encounter onto a third-personal normative prescription for political action. Otherwise than Being provides Levinas’s own account of how this transition takes place: although my obligation to the other is experienced as infinite, as soon as another other, “the third,” also places its unlimited demand on me, there takes place an ethical compromise whereby these two others’ needs are compared before I act upon them. This tragic but necessary choice, whereby I must not respond to the other’s infinitude for the sake of a ‘third’ just as transcendent, is the abiogenesis, not just of ethical speech, but of reason and language as such. It is in this paradoxical “comparison of the incomparable [that] there would be the latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral notion being.”[1] For Levinas, then, what marks any given politics’ ethicality is not whether it does in fact respond to each and every claim of alterity – an impossible task – but the degree to which it allows itself to be challenged by such claims at all. “It is then not without importance to know if the egalitarian and just State in which man is fulfilled…proceeds from a war of all against all or of the irreducible responsibility of the one for all… It is also not without importance to know, as far as philosophy is concerned, if the rational necessity that coherent discourse transforms into sciences, and whose principle philosophy wishes to grasp, has thus the status of an origin…or if this necessity presupposes a hither side…borne witness to, enigmatically, to be sure, in responsibility for the others.”[2] What Levinas offers us in Otherwise than Being is a genetic phenomenology of human politics, linked to one of rationality. These are accounts of how all such discursive and social formations have in fact come about, as is evident from how Levinas explicitly juxtaposes them against two other universal accounts, namely, Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Levinas is not prescribing, then, a certain form of government, let alone specific policy recommendations – although, if his account is true, and rationality is born of the ethical encounter, then a politics that flouts its hetero-foundation may risk unreason and collapse, as natural law theory believes tyrannies do.

Nelson acknowledges this several times (277, 281, 282) only to then jump to specific cases; “the denial of healthcare” (296) and “the use of capital punishment” (323), for example, are said to be incompatible with Levinasian commitments, as is liberal capitalism. “[E]quality cannot be limited to symmetrical rational agents exchanging reasons or rights. Such an abstract ideal misses the reality of exchange as structured by desires and interests, relations of power, status, and wealth, and the social-economic reproduction of society” (283). This diagnosis of liberalism – shot through with unseen power dynamics and guided by bellicose competition – sits uneasily with Levinas’s genetic account for both structural and epistemological reasons. The structural reason is that Nelson’s argument effectively, in an odd Hobbesianism, hypostasizes the State; it places the State in what is, for Levinas, the subject’s phenomenological position, expecting the State to experience and respond to alterity in the way the subject does. The epistemological reason is that Levinas’s phenomenology, like phenomenology in general, assumes a transparency incompatible with a transcendental hermeneutic of suspicion applied to the same object of analysis. If we accept Levinas’s account of political formation, in other words, we cannot accept a (broadly) Marxian one at the same level.

We are left with three possibilities. Either (a) Levinas’s account is accurate, and liberalism is simply a social formation that necessarily forgets its ethical genesis; (b) liberalism is compatible with societies’ ethical genesis, but has only contingently forgotten it; or (c) the Marxian account of liberalism is accurate, and Levinas’s is an ideological concoction. Because Nelson’s study does not develop a rigorous epistemological link between their phenomenological and critical-theoretical analytic registers (in the vein of, say, Maurice Merleau-Ponty), it cannot firmly decide between these three options. Instead, Nelson wavers between them. Many passages seem to opt for (a): because liberal capitalism has so deeply failed morally, its normative presuppositions are shams. “Abstract liberal arguments against oppression that leave capitalist forms of power essentially unquestioned are complicit with systems of subjugation that exploit, marginalize, and systematically reinforce powerlessness and vulnerability. They are compelled to sustain the machinery of global capitalism” (341). Or, again: “The liberal priority of justice over care, charity, and republican and communistic solidarity functions as a veil of indifference for excusing injustice, given the structures of domination imbedded in the institutions and practices of social-political life” (323). Nelson, rhetorically at least, seems to prefer (a); not unproblematically, however, his conclusion’s writ actually leans toward (b) or (c).

Nelson himself provides an important formulation of (c) in the form of Žižek’s and Stephen Bronner’s objections to Levinas (299, 305): does Levinas’s ethics, by placing a burden of infinite moral responsibility on the individual, not surreptitiously excuse the State or society of their structural injustices? Secondly, does this shift not privatize ethical discourse, obviating the need for social critique and collective action? Thirdly, does a phenomenology of infinite indebtedness to the Other not preclude moral criticism of that Other, “turn[ing]” society, in effect, “into a set of competing cultural ghettos” (314)? Nelson does not provide robust answers to these concerns. His alternative to particularistic communitarianism, the ‘cosmopolitanism of the other,’ remains underdeveloped, its only seeming quality a promise to avoid the mistakes of past cosmopolitanisms. Even more strikingly, there are moments where Nelson’s interpretation of Levinas as a theorist of ‘small acts of kindness’ meshes with Žižek’s view of him as a bourgeois sentimentalist. In his chapter on Levinas, Murdoch, and Løgstrup, for example, Nelson embraces their idea that “the good can occur through both uncultivated and cultivated human attitudes and practices of goodness, such as the small everyday acts that all three philosophers elucidate to different degrees” (249). We are told that Levinas is, in fact, “the opposite of the moralizing and ethically privileged perfectionist imagined by his detractors. Ethics does not consist in moralistic perfection, not even as a regulative ideal, but in the ‘saintliness,’ ‘genuine humanity,’ and the ‘greatest perfection’ that transpires in the insufficiency and incompletion of everyday life in ordinary acts in which one places the other before oneself” (337). Nelson’s emphasis on the quotidian may assuage Žižek’s worry that Levinas presses for a “hyperbolic yet ultimately empty responsibility” (272), but not its corollary, that “asymmetrical freedom is inherently conservative and elitist in negatively privileging myself over others, as if injustice were solely my responsibility” (299). Indeed, Nelson’s answer to this specific charge – that Levinas can be placed in the French republican tradition and was sympathetic to socialist causes, and hence would surely not endorse a “neoconservative” policy of American exceptionalism (319) – substitutes biography for philosophy. The question is not where Levinas’s personal political proclivities lay, but whether his ethics structurally endorses a quietism or separatism (as in Totality and Infinity’s phenomenology of family life) that frames individual political involvement as morally irrelevant or, at best, unfulfilling. Given especially Levinas’s known antipathy to Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology of social life,[3] Nelson could have probed this angle further.

In yet other moments of his argument, however, Nelson seems to opt for (b). Levinas, he says, does not proposes any formation to replace liberal capitalism and its grounds in Enlightenment universalism, but rather offers up the encounter with the Other as its continual corrective. “[A]symmetrical ethics signifies a way of correcting,” rather than replacing, “standard liberal and socialist categorizations of social-political equality.” Again: it “indicates a noteworthy way of revising the contemporary discourses of ethical and critical social theory.” Or, yet again: “Levinas’s articulation…is not so much a rejection as it is a critical transformation of the categories of modern universalism” (281). While these sorts of statements get closest to Levinas’s actual position, they are not compatible with Nelson’s siding throughout his text with (a). We cannot claim that encountering the Other urges us to revise our political priorities within an existing liberal framework while also claiming that liberalism is fundamentally an ideological obfuscation. This contradiction stems, in Nelson’s account as in many others’ in contemporary continental thought (including, say, Agamben’s), from a conflation of liberalism with capitalism. Defining ‘liberalism’ as just free markets, and the unitary state power that enforces these (333), makes this conflation possible. Liberal theorists like Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt (to name two of Nelson’s own interlocutors) argue, however, that liberalism requires, above all, ‘civil society,’ the ‘thick,’ face-to-face communities that make deliberative rationality possible. Nelson’s most programmatic gesture, toward “a republicanism of unrestricted civil associations, public spheres, and solidarities that contests the overreaching powers of the state, the market, and manufactured public opinion” (338), fully fits into this richer concept of liberalism, his protests notwithstanding. Classing Levinas with Arendt among capitalism’s liberal critics should lead us, however, to a more nuanced parsing of the relationship between alterity and communality than what Nelson offers here. After all, the point Arendt makes about refugees and human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which Nelson cites in this context, is not really one of “an inclusive republic that would welcome the stranger, the exile, and the stateless who have lost the very right to have rights” (321). (To be fair, Nelson’s misreading here is now so widespread in Arendt reception as to have become an interpolation.) Arendt certainly lauds such welcome, but her basic argument is Burkean. Universal human rights are an aspirational norm, but they are meaningless outside of a concrete political community; the nation-state’s particularism is thus the vehicle that realizes the universal. Arendt would agree with Levinas that “justice remains justice only, in a society where there is no distinction between those close and far off, but in which there also remains the impossibility of passing by the closest,”[4] but would stress that said ‘society’ must be bounded if we wish to retain a lived and practical meaning for ‘passing by’ the neighbor. Ultimately, then, Nelson’s embrace of “unrestricted solidarities” (2) may contradict some of his sources’ terms. I can have an unrestricted sense of responsibility for every possible Other, or a solidarity with the actual others I encounter in my embeddedness in my particular context, but unless ‘the face of the Other’ is but a cipher for a universal ontological determination (which Levinas would surely reject), I cannot have both. It is past due for the ‘negative political theologies’ inspired by Levinas, Adorno, Derrida, Hent de Vries, and others to acknowledge this fact and so to begin shifting their analyses from the insistence on ‘alterity’ to asking what political procedures and norms make – or could make – regular encounters with the Other a feature of public life.


[1] Emmanuel Levinas. 1998. Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974).  Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, p. 158.

[2] Id., p. 159.

[3] Dominique Janicaud. 2000. “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology” (1991). Trans. Bernard Prusak. In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate. New York: Fordham Univ. Press, p. 44.

[4] Levinas, Otherwise than Being, p. 159.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953

The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953 Book Cover The Sensible World and the World of Expression: Course Notes from the Collège de France, 1953
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Translated from the French with an introduction and notes by Bryan Smyth
Northwestern University Press
2020
Paperback $34.95
320

Reviewed by: Antonia Schirgi (University of Graz)

Background

Merleau-Ponty suddenly died in 1961, at the young age of 53, at a time when he was still in the process of developing his thoughts and was working on a major book in which he wanted to further his thoughts and present a new ontology beyond a strict distinction of subject and object. For many years thereafter, notes that Merleau-Ponty drew up in preparation of this book that were posthumously published under the title The Visible and the Invisible and his  second thesis (habilitation), the Phenomenology of Perception, were considered to be his most important works. Apart from some published articles and books, Merleau-Ponty left a number of unpublished manuscripts and working notes (more than 4000 pages). Some of these unfinished works and notes were published in the years after Merleau-Ponty’s death. In 1992 the majority of Merleau-Ponty’s notes were donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France by his family and, since then, some previously unpublished materials have been published. These notes allow their readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts from his early works to the later ones, to see continuities, moments of self-criticism as well as to understand his engagement with certain philosophical and other literature (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 7).

After the completion of his second thesis, Merleau-Ponty was affiliated to the University of Lyon (1945-1949), later he held a professorship for child psychology at the Sorbonne (1949-1952). In 1952 he was elected to the Collège de France, he assumed his position there the same year, held his inaugural lecture on the 15th of January 1953 and began his regular teaching activities the following week (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). The Sensible World and the World of Expression (Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression) was the title of one of the two courses that Merleau-Ponty gave that year. The Collège de France is a unique institution; even if it is a public university, it does not offer regular introductory courses. The courses taught at the Collège are lectures and colloquia that permit the professors to present their ongoing thoughts and recent research to advanced students and/or the general interested public. Holding a chair in philosophy at this institution permitted Merleau-Ponty to further his philosophical thoughts, to return to some the phenomena that he treated in his first and second thesis as well as to some issues of his approach that he became aware of during the years after the completion of these books, and to present these thoughts to his audience. This return does, however, not present a break with his work and thoughts from the years at Sorbonne; rather, the insights that he gained during these years enriched his perspective on the phenomena (perception, the union of body and soul etc.) that he re-started to deal with.

In this review, I will discuss the translation of the posthumous edition of Merleau-Ponty’s notes on The Sensible World and the World of Expression. Furthermore, I want to give a brief overview of the course and of some of the key innovations that can be found in these notes. However, I will not discuss the content of the book in detail here.

The Manuscript

Detailed preparatory notes for the course on the sensible world as well as some further workings notes were part of the materials donated to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF “don 92-21 de Suzanne Merleau-Ponty”, NAF 26993 X). Merleau-Ponty himself published a brief summary of this course (cf. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard, 1968, 11-21), as he did of every course that he held at the Collège de France, but he did not publish any further materials. The preparatory and working notes were transcribed and published by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen in 2011 (MetisPresses).

Merleau-Ponty wrote up these notes in order to present the thoughts they contain to his audience; however, they are not immediately written for a public (like it would be the case with an article or a book). The manuscript contains some paragraphs that are written in full sentences. Nevertheless, large parts of the manuscript consist of incomplete sentences, bullet points, or listings of keywords. The editors of the French edition “strove to present Merleau-Ponty’s notes in a virtually verbatim form, and meticulous effort was made to keep the page layout as close as possible to that found in the actual notes themselves” (xliii). This effort of the editors is of high value for those working with Merleau-Ponty’s notes, as it permits readers to follow Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts in the way he developed them and not to be simply guided, and potentially misguided, by the interpretation of the editors. However, interpretations of a text like the present one, are challenging. As Merleau-Ponty’s notes are, to my knowledge, the only materials available (no student notes or similar document have been published or included in the collection at the Bibliothèque nationale de France), it remains unknown how Merleau-Ponty elaborated and discussed his thoughts during his lectures. Smyth argues for a limited interpretation of this manuscript. Even if these notes were of importance as they date back to a crucial moment in the development of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts, the thoughts they contain were thoughts and work in progress. According to Smyth one should not over-hasty draw conclusions from these notes, from the perspective of a present-day reader who knows the further development of Merleau-Ponty’s work. Furthermore, the course notes should not be interpreted “in isolation from his other courses at the College de France” (xxxvi). Merleau-Ponty himself stated in his official course summary that it would still be necessary to further explore linguistic expression in order to define the philosophical meaning of the analyses perused during this course (cf. xxxvi; Merleau-Ponty 1968, 21). Therefore, Smyth argues that “we should be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions from them [these notes, A.S.] at all” (xxxvi). His call for a cautious interpretation of a manuscript like the present one seems adequate and valuable, but it might be a bit too far reaching. In this manuscript Merleau-Ponty discusses issues from a different angle than he did in other texts, and he elaborates thoughts more in details than he did in his published writings. Even if these notes were still work in progress, they can help readers to understand where Merleau-Ponty was coming from – which sources he considered important, in which direction his thoughts developed etc. To name an example, the importance of the writings of the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder for Merleau-Ponty’s development of the concept of the body schema can only be understood from the present manuscript, not from Merleau-Ponty’s earlier writings (in the Phenomenology of Perception Schilder is only mentioned once). His discussion of the body schema in the present preparatory notes does not only deepen the thoughts Merleau-Ponty already developed in the Phenomenology of Perception, but it also shows new directions that he has been about to take with regards to this concept. Smyth is right that these preparatory notes should not be interpreted in isolation from Merleau-Ponty’s notes for his other courses and other materials, but does this not hold true for all of Merleau-Ponty’s writings? Even if certain writings, like the Phenomenology of Perception, were published by Merleau-Ponty himself, now that we know from courses like the present one as well as from articles and manuscripts that Merleau-Ponty himself was critical of some of his early positions and descriptions, it seems wrong to interpret the position he presented there as the position of Merleau-Ponty. Besides that, the problematic status is not unique to the manuscript of the course on the sensible world. None of the posthumously published manuscripts was intended to be immediately published. Even if Merleau-Ponty’s most renowned mature work – The Visible and the Invisible – is the publication of a manuscript that Merleau-Ponty prepared for publication, the manuscript that Merleau-Ponty left when he died in 1961 seems to have been far from a final version. We can only speculate how he would have further developed this manuscript would he had been given the time to do so.

The Translation

Editing notes, like Merleau-Ponty’s notes on the sensible world, is not an easy task; the same holds true for their translation. The present edition is a translation of the French edition (not of the original notes) (cf. xliii). The peculiar style of the manuscript that is, as I already mentioned, excellently reflected in the French transcript, has largely been preserved in the English translation. This means, for example, that words that Merleau-Ponty underlined, are underlined in the book, words that he crossed out, are included in the text, but crossed out as they were in the manuscript and so on (cf. xliv). Nevertheless, a translation is not simply a reproduction of a text in a different language, but it is the outcome of a process of interpretation. Smyth makes very clear that he is aware of his own interference in the text, when he states: “It is not possible […] to translate the notes as they stand without engaging in some disabbreviation, for there are simply too many uncertainties and ambiguities at the level of the words themselves.” (xlv) Hence, while the French edition in general does not add any terms to the text itself, but sticks to the original manuscript and its abbreviated style, the English translations “adds a very large number of terms within the text itself” (xiv). Thereby Smyth wants to enhance the readability of the text, “to facilitate as clear and unambiguous a reading of Merleau-Ponty’s notes as possible” (xiv), and to outline the “intended meaning of the transcribed words” (xiv), or rather the transcribed words as they were read and interpreted by the translator. Further to the additions that Smyth made to the text itself, his translations “includes a new and expanded set of annotive notes” (xliii), that go beyond the notes included in the French edition. In addition, Smyth outlines his choices concerning the translation of some crucial terms that are not easily to translate – the “hard cases” as he would say (cf. xlvi-li).

The Structure of the Course and of the Book

In general, Merleau-Ponty held two courses per year, each one comprised fourteen to fifteen lectures (cf. xxxvii, endnote 1). Often the topics of the two courses corresponded – this was also the case in 1953, when Merleau-Ponty dealt with issues of language in his second course – and on two occasions the two weekly courses were merged in order to develop one single issue more in depth (1956-1957 and 1957-1958, when Merleau-Ponty gave two intense courses on nature).

The Sensible World and the World of Expression comprises fourteen lectures. The course can be divided into four parts: (1) the first three lectures serve as a general introduction and overview of the course, (2) in lessons four to ten Merleau-Ponty discusses space and movement from a phenomenological point of view (including depth perception, a phenomenon that has become highly important for Merleau-Ponty), (3) the lessens ten to thirteen are dedicated to the body schema and (4) the last lesson dealt with expression (primarily with non-linguistic expression, but Merleau-Ponty gave some indications concerning linguistic expression too). As Smyth points out, Merleau-Ponty did not intend to discuss linguistic expression in detail in this course; however, he did intend to discuss “the passage from expression at the level of the sensible to cultural expression that is not yet language” (xvii), as it is the case in visual art. Nevertheless, Merleau-Ponty took more time than planned to elaborate the basis of his thoughts and therefore he could only discuss this move in his last lesson. Hence, the four parts were not given equal attention in the course (cf. xvii).

The book (the French and the English edition) contains the notes preparing the course, as well as working notes that Merleau-Ponty developed while preparing the course. These notes were not dated or classified by Merleau-Ponty. The editors of the French book categorized them thematically for their edition (cf. 129; Saint Aubert 2011, 171).

Merleau-Ponty’s Thoughts on the Sensible World

In The Sensible World and the World of Expression Merleau-Ponty primarily deals with the relation between the bodily human being and the sensible world. As I already mentioned, the relation between the world of expression is briefly touched in this course, but dealt with more in detail in his courses and writings on language. So, how does Merleau-Ponty understand this sensible world and what did his course aim at?

Sensible world = things

World of expression = cultural things, ‘use objects,’ symbols. (I didn’t say: universe of language)

Double goal:      — deepen the analysis of the perceived world by showing that it already presupposes the expressive function.

                             — prepare the analysis of this [expressive] function through which the perceived world is sublimated, produce a concrete theory of mind. (9)

This brief definition and equally brief statement concerning the double goal of the course present the first lines of the preparatory course manuscript of Merleau-Ponty. Even if these first words seem to indicate a strong division of the sensible world and the world of expression, in what follows Merleau-Ponty makes clear that they are not separated, but “enveloped” (27) in each other. He is less interested in their analytic distinction, than in the dynamic passage from the one to the other in and through movement. As explained above, Merleau-Ponty did not follow his original plan for the course, in particular did he not manage to extensively discuss expression. Therefore, the course dealt more with the first part of his twofold goal than with the second part; indeed, after spending more time than expected on topics related to the first part of his general aim, only the last lesson remained for the second part (cf. xvii).

The main concepts that Merleau-Ponty deals with in this course are perception and expression (in its relation to the sensible world). Already on the first page of his manuscript Merleau-Ponty criticises his own approach towards perception, as he presented it in the Phenomenology of Perception and in a lecture that he gave at a meeting of the Société française de philosophie in late 1946 on the issue of the Primacy of Perception (lecture and discussion published with Northwestern University Press, 1964). He argues that his earlier works did not present strong and clear enough a break with classical positions, concepts and terms. With reference to the critique by Jean Hyppolite and Jean Beaufret, following his lecture in 1946, Merleau-Ponty acknowledges that readers and listeners could have gotten his thoughts wrong, as (1) one could have thought that the “primacy of perception” as he presented it was primacy in the classical sense, a “primacy of the sensory, of the natural given”, even if for him “perception was essentially a mode of access to being” (10); (2) one might have missed Merleau-Ponty’s ontological thoughts and taken his work as “only a phenomenology” (10); (3) therefore readers might have thought “that being was reduced to the ‘positivism’ of perception”, even if the perceived is “not possessed” by the philosopher, but “unquestionably before us” (10; underlining in the original). With reference to this discussion, Smyth argues that the main innovative aspect of this course “is that Merleau-Ponty is also revisiting the phenomenological analysis of the perceived world itself.” (xvi, emphasis in the original) However, Smyth presents an even stronger claim concerning the shift in Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts as he outlined them in the present course. According to him, Merleau-Ponty realized that his manner of presenting the problem of “how the sensible is taken up expressively […] made it unsolvable” (xvi). Perception was an “encounter with the sensible” and as such it was “already expressive” (xvi). Hence, Merleau-Ponty “came to realize […] that he didn’t get the phenomenology of phenomenology right, because he didn’t get the phenomenology itself right in the first place. So, he was still building his phenomenological method, not building on it” (xvi-xvii; emphasis in the original). Even if this reading indicates a strong shift in and important innovations of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on phenomenology and the phenomenological method, it does not negate the continuity of this development.

Besides perception, the other central concept that is discussed in this manuscript, is expression. Merleau-Ponty’s notion of expression is broad: Expression is “the property that a phenomenon has through its internal arrangement [son agencement interne] to disclose another [phenomenon] that is not or even never was given” (11; annotations and emphasis in the original). This definition already highlights the relational aspect of expression. Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions of perception and expression presuppose and involve a certain conception of the human being. As he already did in his early works, also in this course Merleau-Ponty opposes dualist conceptions. It is the body (in its entirety) that perceives and expresses. A body that is able to perceive and to express, is a body “as [a] given organization, [as] ‘sensory’ activity” and a “body that moves itself”, it is a body “[as a] response to ‘natural’ aspects of the world” and a body “[that] returns to the world in order to signify it [or] to designate it” (28; annotations in the original).

Particularly during the first two introductory lectures Merleau-Ponty discusses consciousness. In the second part of his course, he deals with space and movement, especially with depth perception and the perception of movement. The following lectures are dedicated to the body schema (a part that Merleau-Ponty seems to have added in the course of the semester) (xxii). The notes to this course are the first writings in which Merleau-Ponty aligned depth perception and (the perception of) movement with the body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 10-11).

Thereby Merleau-Ponty further elaborates concepts and thoughts that he already discussed in his earlier works and at the same time he introduces new concepts and thoughts and present some major shifts with regards to some concepts. Some of the core innovations that he outlines in these preparatory notes are:

  • Merleau-Ponty rejects classical conceptions of consciousness (particularly in the first and second lecture). In his course on the sensible world, Merleau-Ponty introduces for the first time the concept of “écart” (generally translated as “divergence”) (xix). Merleau-Ponty elaborates this, not only but particularly well, by referring to the example of the perception of a circle. When a circle is perceived it offers its sense as a tacit sense (as opposed to the classical position, according to which sense is essence and given). The sense of a circle is a “certain mode of curvature” (13), namely the “change of direction at each instant always with the same divergence” [même écart] (20) and therefor the circle itself is a “mode of divergence” [mode d’écart] (20; underlining in the original). Merleau-Ponty develops this notion further in his preparatory and working notes for this course (e.g. working note on the Diacritical Conception of the Perceptual Sign or working note on Diacritical Perception, included in the present edition on the pages 158 and 159).
  • When Merleau-Ponty discussed the concept of the body schema in the Phenomenology of Perception he presented it mainly as a sensory-motor unity. The Sensible World and the World of Expression is the first document in which the body schema is “understood in a much more active (or enactive) – because expressive – way” (xxii). At the same time, this is the first document in which Merleau-Ponty elaborates its relational dimension – the relation of the body schema and the (sensible) world (cf. 123) as well as the relation between different body schema (cf. Saint Aubert 2011, 13). The extension of the concept of the body schema has important implications for Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of movement and expression as well as their perception (movement is perceived by the entire body schema) and the relation to the world and others.
  • In the context of his discussion of the body schema, Merleau-Ponty introduces the notion of praxis, a notion that he prefers to the notion of action (cf. 100). “The unity of the body schema is that of a praxis so construed, and the body schema is the background implied in [this praxis].” (100; annotation in the original) The praxis builds on the body schema (that is formed by the praxis, but that is more than a memory of previous praxis and/or experience) and continuously forms and transforms the schema. The praxis is a form of interaction with the world – it is not an “adaptation” to the world, at the same time it is not a world-less action performed by an isolated individual, it is “not only functional, but projection of the whole man” (100).
  • Merleau-Ponty intensively discusses movement – what movement is, how movement can be perceived and how movement can be expressed in visual art (How can something that is stationary express movement? (cf. xxxv)). For Merleau-Ponty movement is not displacement, a variation of relations, and a place is not a “relation to other places” (33; underlining in the original), rather it is “first of all situation” (35; underlining in the original). Movement requires that the moving is in movement, that movement is something different to a series of different spatial positions, but rather something “absolute”, something that is “in the thing in motion and not elsewhere” (52). Movement entails an encroachment of here and there, before and after; something that is only possible if movement is neither only in the moving thing nor only in the perceiving or observing subject, but if it occurs “through a sort of mixing of me and the ‘things’” (52). The perception of movement is not simply an intellectual undertaking, rather it is the body schema in its entirety that perceives movement (cf. 64-65).

Consequently, in visual art movement is not something that is depicted by signs that indicate a change of place, but by the “envelopment of a becoming in a stance [attitude]” (124, annotation in the original). It is, for example, the body of a horse that is painted in a manner that shows its intentionality of movement. Movement is indirectly presented or a reference of something oblique. The language of “écart” plays into Merleau-Ponty’s description of the problem of movement in visual art. Movement is “[reference] of signifying to signified that is elsewhere and only appears through [the signifying], presentation through divergences with respect to a norm that is itself never given. Presentation of the world through variations in modulations of our being toward the world.” (125-126; annotation in the original)

Because of these and some further innovations the book is a valuable source for researchers working on and with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. Together with his published writings from the early 1950s and the manuscripts of his other courses it can help to better comprehend the development of his thoughts and to enrich one’s interpretations of his concepts.

Bibliography

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. Résumés de cours. Collège de France 1952-1960. Paris: Gallimard.

Saint Aubert, Emmanuel de. 2011. “Avant-propos.” In: Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au Collège de France. Notes, 1953, edited by Emmanuel de Saint Aubert and Stefan Kristensen, 7-38. Geneva: MetisPresses.

Adam Lovasz: Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present

Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present Book Cover Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present
Lexington Books
Lexington Books
2021
Hardback 49,00 €
332

Reviewed by: Giorgi Vachnadze (KU Leuven)

Henri Bergson paints a fascinating, slightly fear-provoking and highly counter-intuitive yet incredibly beautiful picture of the world greatly reminiscent of the Heraclitean universe. A world where one cannot step into the same river twice, where repetition is but an illusion, a temporary shell for the human mind surrounded by the eternal flux of becoming and a place where intuition reigns supreme over both reason and instinct. Adam Lovasz pays great homage to Bergson by reconstructing his thought, adding his own particular flavor to the style and defending the Bergsonian world from the most unrelenting critical attacks. Philosophy, if it is to approach the demiurgic vibration of the real, must resist the temptation to build cathedrals” writes Lovasz (16). Defending the continental tradition against vicious assaults from both the analytical camp as well as from those who seek answers exclusively from fact-minded scientists is no easy task. Despite being slightly repetitive at times Upgrading Bergson is a wonderful read, executed in the most beautiful literary style and showing incredible depth of comprehension in fields as seemingly distant as Einsteinian relativity theory and modern evolutionary biology. Not to mention the philosophical legacies of Bergson and Gilles Deleuze alike.

The book is made up of 5 chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 2: Completing Relativity should pose the most difficult challenge to most readers, as it gets into the nuts and bolts of relativity theory. Lovasz however goes much further, attempting to reconcile two diametrically opposed worldviews of Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson, shedding a new light on the famous Bergson-Einstein debate and attempting a thorough renaissance of the Bergsonian position concerning the philosophical interpretation of time according to, as well as against – Einstein’s theory of relativity. As far as alternative narratives are concerned, Bergson via Lovasz offers us one of the most profound counter-ontologies.

Instability is a semantic attractor-state for Bergsonian philosophy. Chapter one of Adam Lovasz’ work is dedicated to Bergson’s La Penseé et le mouvement, often translated as Thought and Instability. A treatise on time and the flux of human experience. How does mind make sense of temporality in a real and material sense? Material patterns invoke new modes of thought, without presenting us with any general image or form(Lovasz 2021, 15) writes Lovasz. The absence of an ideal image is precisely what points to instability. The fact that entities persist in time is understood by Bergson as a variety of the miraculous. We have here the deconstruction of universals par excellence. Even scientific theories, according Bergson (via Lovasz), are subject to the constant change in virtue of their underlying methodologies. Behind the apparent unity; the stability of a scientific theory, there lies an ever-present, turbulent and hybrid-form of the method, it’s concrete manifestation in practical performance.

Reality does not offer itself up to mind, there is no one-to-one correspondence between mind and matter. Lovasz shows that Bergsonian cosmology has no room for the idea of progress or a meaningful teleology. History and human activity in the aggregate, have no finality nor a determined goal. Instead, the idea of a purpose-driven universe is only a useful fiction constructed for the purpose of avoiding collective despair and pessimism. Moreover, the deluded thinking which renders the past a servant to the present (or the present to the future) is the direct symptom of universalizing speculative thinking that Bergson aimed to challenge.

Such retrograde thinking serves a distinct political function of means-ends justification. It is often referred to as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or the retrospective movement of truth.” The essence of such wishful thinking and ideological manipulation is once again, the failure to admit the underlying instability of reality, an unmanageable substratum of contingency and chaos. This is a profound connection with serious epistemological and political implications. Bergson wants to underscore the importance of contingency simultaneously at both levels of immediate human experience and history. One might venture as far as to say that the very idea of progress itself is a form of ideology.

There is an internal excess within every object of immediate experience which can never be understood or analyzed completely. The TFP, which stands for the True-First Perception, refers to the uniqueness of an image generated by consciousness during every act of perception, each irreducible to the former and the next. Reality is in essence a perturbation. This way, Bergson is swimming against the current of traditional western philosophy, side-stepping or dissenting from, an enormous corpus of philosophical knowledge, the aim of which is to uncover the essence and the underlying foundation of reality. This leads us closer to the central argument. Bergsonian epistemology unpacks a phenomenological interpretation of time. Time as a duration is contrasted with time as displayed by the clock or time as seen through the eyes of a physicist. Bergson has little interest for the spatialized time of discrete units where every moment is identical to the next. Bergsonian duration is non-quantifiable.

The translation of the flow of time into discrete units instantiates a suppression of duration. It cannot be the case that the time of the clock measures real temporality (Lovasz 2021, 19-20).

The Bergsonian variety of essentialism is quite paradoxical. And understandably so, given Lovasz’ insightful and accurate reflections on the subject. For Bergson, change itself is the underlying structure; the substance of reality. Duration, in all of its heterogeneity, remains nonetheless a given throughout and for all reality. Higher levels of complexity are introduced in Bergsonian ontology, where the reader is confronted with multiple forms of differential durations, which nonetheless exhibit a certain level of invariance. A Bergsonian take on the theory of evolution arranges beings according to the kind of duration they belong to. Material duration refers to inanimate matter, organic duration to the realm of animal species and conscious duration to human temporal interiority.

The deconstruction of the atomistic, abstracted interpretation of time and the universe is followed by a positive theory of human intuition.

We are enjoined to return to a condition of immediacy before the colonization of thinking by ready-made concepts and fixed, static ideas. Intuition is a passive, reverent posture concerning the complexity of being/s that is nevertheless resolutely creative (Lovasz 2021, 27).

Intuition is a spiritual form of comprehension, which reaches into a pre-conceptual mode of understanding. For Bergson via Lovasz, concepts operate as distancing mechanisms, they obstruct the mind’s capacity to relate to the object directly without mediation.

Another element of Bergson’s process philosophy extends his epistemology, his ontology and his theory of time to a very unique account of free will. Without a doubt, one could see its potential emergence and attempt to reconstruct Bergson’s thought along the lines of an indeterminist position concerning freedom. A Bergsonian account of freedom and the conditions for its realization would most likely involve, first and foremost, the recognition of one’s ignorance by acknowledging the occlusion of reality by an invented conceptual framework. The deconstruction of universals and retrograde thinking would then be followed by more positive and active techniques for uncovering the hidden durations and temporalities of the universe thereby fostering one’s intuitive faculty for creative reasoning. One could therefore potentially identify both negative (critique of rigid conceptual systems and the illusion of stability) and positive (developing the intuitive forms of comprehension) forms of freedom in Bergson.

Completing the circle of the first chapter and returning to the question of thought and instability, we can see now how a Lovaszian reading of Bergson advocates for a destabilization of thought, with the purpose of uncovering a more spiritual, but also a finer and more accurate form of intuitive reflection. Bergson’s True Empiricism is a mystical anthropomorphism of inanimate matter and the environment. A mystical form of apprehension which listens to entities in a way that classical empiricism would find childish and pseudo-scientific. An intensified form of listening, as opposed to the indifferent gaze of an impartial bystander.  

The debate between Einstein and Bergson concerning the theory of relativity and the interpretation of time has been strangely neglected by history. At least as far as the Bergsonian view is concerned. The physicist’s conception of time has come to dominate the modern scientific paradigm. Time as duration on the other hand, has been entirely relegated to the realm of the subjective, artistic and the emotional. Lovasz believes that Bergson’s book Duration and Simultaneity, where Bergson offers a critique of specific metaphysical interpretations of Einsteinian relativity, despite all the accusations levelled against it; as being “unscientific” – deserves a second look. A much needed and overdue renaissance for the continental tradition. The purpose of the second chapter is to seek out a reconciliation, if any, for Bergsonian metaphysics and the theory of relativity.

Lovasz offers a shockingly original interpretation of relativity theory, perhaps much to the detriment of many superficial “post-modernists”. The view, which according to Lovasz was shared by Einstein, is that modern science, far from tackling universal truths and eternal verities, is only a useful convention used to solve particular human, all too human, problems. The position is largely reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s view of mathematics. Wittgenstein describes mathematics as a collection of various techniques of calculation – language games, in essence – the purpose of which is to solve particular mathematical problems. There is no overarching Truth or even a stable continuity of calculating practices across either the history of mathematics or within the internal development of any particular axiomatic system. Radical conventionalism has been around as an epistemological theory for a while now, but Lovasz seems to be one of the few people who ascribes this position to a famous revolutionary scientist.

No longer may we talk of absolute movement, mobility having no independent existence in the Einsteinian view. It is always a particular, relative development we talk of when we speak of change (Lovasz 2021, 83).

The larger point is that conventionalist methodological approaches imply the suppression of passions, emotions or other personal investments during the construction of scientific systems and this is what tends to draw a line between Bergsonism and relativity. However, the existence of multiple heterogeneous timelines and the constant discrepancy between clocks travelling at different speeds within different inertial frames of reference seems to hint at a universe that isn’t that different from Bergson’s!

Time itself is a heterogeneous multiplicity of temporal interrelations and mutual causalities. Does this not in itself resemble the Bergsonian affirmation of multiple durations? Real simultaneity is distorted by gravitational effects. Time has no relevance outside of a particular body of reference (Lovasz 2021, 83).

Lovasz’s project is little short of ambitious as he seeks to reconcile two enormous and radically divergent metaphysical systems.

Not only time, but extension itself becomes something relative with Einstein; as objects accelerate they change their shape and become elongated, mass and energy become interchangeable magnitudes, and reality itself becomes akin to a mathematical equation where objects morph and transform into one another according to fixed proportions and measurable quantities.

Momentously, relativity constitutes an upheaval that liquifies all constants by paradoxically utilizing a constant value—the speed of light—to decompose a previous cosmology (Lovasz 2021, 85).

The dissolution of object-identity in Einstein via Lovasz is absolutely fascinating. We spoke of an object-excess, with Bergson, where we can never conceptually grasp reality, but only describe its surface appearances. There seems to be a very similar situation with Einstein where things are not what they are per se; instead, things are what they do i.e. how fast and in which direction they travel, at what speed, how other things are behaving in their vicinity and so forth.

Lovasz takes things further. Much less than attempting to “excuse” Bergson’s critique of relativity theory, he levels his own criticism against Einstein, who, Lovasz claims, remained a crypto-absolutist by utilizing the concept of the speed of light as a constant invariant across space and time. But the weakest link in Einstein’s theory remains for us the famous Twin Paradox. The dissolution of objects qua objects, their mathematical intersubstitutability can be restated as an equivalence between space and time. In an Einsteinian universe time exhibits the properties of space, that is, time is entirely spatialized. The faster one travels the more time one “gathers”. One can monopolize on temporality by increasing the level of acceleration. “Aging is a matter of movement” (Lovasz 2021, 99). If a man is launched into space, traveling fast enough for an (un)certain amount of time, while his twin remains on earth, once he returns to earth, the second twin will have aged considerably more than the first. The problem arises when we decide to choose between the two (seemingly arbitrary) frames of reference. Whichever twin remains “motionless” ends up aging more than the other. What lies, to my mind, at the core of the insurmountable problem is the irreducible difference between Biology and Physics. As Lovasz clearly explains, the world of the physicist is a world of reversible processes, whereas the world of the Biologist, and to a certain extent the Bergsonian subject, both inhabit an irreversible timeline, where the same path cannot be taken twice nor travelled backwards. The essence of the problem then, in very blunt and oversimplified terms, is the artificial imposition of a quantitative universe of interchangeable magnitudes upon the lived and the real experience of time that Bergson aims to bring to our attention. Lovasz dedicates an entire section to the problem, one that is satirically and most adequately termed: The Tyranny of the Clock.

Physics is overwhelmingly concerned with an objective definition of time. Ironically, such a striving to get a handle on the physical reality of time drives Einsteinian relativity into a forgetfulness of time’s indivisible, enduring being. The accelerations and transformations of real processes cannot remain characterized by their relationships with clocks. Measurement invariably tends to decompose duration into a set of spatialized instances (Lovasz 2021, 106).

The main takeaway here is that time cannot be measured. And the obsessive compulsive intuition of the physicist is what lies at the root of the twin paradox. Duration is not, nor can it be made to be discrete. Time dilation which results in the desynchronization of clocks is precisely the result of the spatialized interpretation of time. Space becomes “parasitic” upon time and quite literally steals duration. Bergson via Lovasz argues that this is nothing but pure fiction: “Time dilation is an abstraction that does not correspond to physical reality. It is not unlike mistaking the distancing of a person from us with a real reduction in stature” (Lovasz 2021, 110).  The problem lies in the fact that choosing different inertial frames places us into different kinds of universes, where it is no longer a trivial matter which of the two twins’ position we adopt, as it will decide which one of them is accelerating. In a way, the chosen frame will also add more reality to one of the twins, leaving the other to suffer the consequences of Einstein’s abstractions.

Chapter 3 contains the core argument of the book and an abridged presentation of the entire Bergsonian corpus: Being is becoming. The point was already made earlier in different terms, when we spoke of change being substance, and of reality as essentially impermanent and unstable. Any kind of stability or order encountered in the world is the result of the activity of the mind and is therefore, entirely a construct. Our construct. Lovasz refers to Bergsonian ontology as organic temporality (Lovasz 2021, 121). The chapter also aims at investigating the question of whether Bergson was a monist or a dualist. That is, whether life and matter are in effect the same thing, or if there is a significant distinction that makes living beings stand out ontologically from the background of inorganic matter. Bergson’s book Creative Evolution offers a beautiful literary combination of evolutionary biology and abstract metaphysics, often referred to as philosophy of life.

The phenomenology of Bergsonian becoming is repeatedly compared to a mounting snowball, an analogy used by Bergson himself. The snowball, as it becomes larger tends to get increasingly impure and polluted with assimilated matter. Our experience of duration resembles this process. At any given moment the entire memory of our journey is reflected in our present moment, the path is present as a miniature map within the physiognomy of the actual.

According to Lovasz, process philosophy does not automatically entail holism. The statement concerning either the substantiality of change or the conceiving of reality as a series of hybrid durations, does not necessarily entail a holist-reductionist metaphysics. However, other difficulties come to light. For instance, the reality of individual objects and living beings becomes undermined. To take the theory of evolution as an example:

Movement alone is real, but if this is the case, then the individuation of species represents a halt and hence, an unreality” (Lovasz 2021, 128). And further on: “the privileging of processes and relations involves a slippery slope, leading inevitably to the negation of individual objects. Without individual substance, the very basis of individuation is supposedly endangered (Lovasz 2021, 128).

Bergsonian process ontology privileges change, immobility and movement, which results in a horrifying view of reality where all entities, including human or animal species have neither essence nor reality. What seems most beneficial to the species in the classical Darwinian axiology: their individuation, seems to be the beginning of the end, from the vantage point of process metaphysics.

Lovasz does not offer us a teleological Bergson, but he does aim to rescue him from the accusations of pessimism and holistic reductionism. One of the most common notions in Bergsonian philosophy used to argue in favour of an holistic interpretation is the vital impetus, or vital force. The elan vital was supposed to capture the essence of living beings; exhibiting a mysterious property that constantly eludes proper empirical investigation.

Lovasz argues one should not even speak of the vital force in the singular, but rather see it as a multiplicity of vitalisms, each with its own particular ontology. The functionalist-vitalist account of life relies only on identifying a particular form of arrangement, regularity or a set of relations that are found throughout nature indicating the presence of organic life-forms. There is no singular chemical reaction that would account for the emergence of life. Such indeterminist positions concerning the nature of living organisms has been widely confirmed throughout the sciences. More so, the irreducible complexity of living entities is used by Bergson as an epistemic contribution to his account of free will. Life as indeterminacy is also the very condition for the freedom of living beings. Duration is not a blanket term with Bergson, there is no overarching form of duration that could subsume all the others.

Returning to the question concerning science and its tendency to exclude time as duration in order make sense of reality. The scientific method proceeds in a way that is similar to the human cognitive process: It abstracts a significant portion of reality in order “discover” a handful of variables and identify a set of relations among them. In order to do so, it must operate through fixed concepts. Science, by spatializing time, in fact constructs an artificial edifice; a theory, the purpose of which is in effect to exorcise change and instability. If scientists operated through Bergsonian ontology and the epistemic “commitments” of process philosophy, then science would be in a permanent Kuhnian paradigm shift, an ongoing and ceaseless revolution in methodology. It would be the end of science as we know it.

Only fictional extracts, as molded by scientific or practical activity, have a relative immunity to the bite of time’s fangs, and even these are affected by longer term historical transformations of knowledge and society. Time is not a quantity but a quality (Lovasz 2021, 134).

And nonetheless, reality is not some insane muddle of pure difference, at least not unless we undergo a kind of traumatic limit-experience, which one could argue to be a form of revelation or direct insight into the mystery of substance as pure change. The reason we at least experience reality as relatively stable at moments is due to the variable, but nonetheless patterned distribution of durations. It is indeed the case, as we mentioned before, that the Bergsonian universe is essentially a collection of actions and processes, but there are similarities among them. Reminiscing once more, another Wittgensteinian notion; that of family-resemblances, we could say, despite the fact that no two durations are identical, that there are similarities which tend to crisscross and overlap without pointing to any comprehensive unity or universality. “An object exists to the extent that it endures, but this persistence is qualitative and not quantitative” (Lovasz 2021, 134).

An interesting hierarchy is present in Bergson via Lovasz. Scientific-analytical constructs borrow from, and are built upon the primal level of durations; not the other way around. For a classical philosopher of science, it would be very counter-intuitive to speak of foundation as something less fixed and more turbulent then the construction; more fluid then the facts themselves. Bergson is not exclusively concerned with the world of the scientists. His aim is to reconcile the everyday with the analytical. Bergson is not, properly speaking; a philosopher of science, despite the fact that he was always very careful to square his views with the latest developments in the natural sciences. Instead, Bergson brings the conceptual edifice down to the level of perturbations, demonstrating that theories, concepts and paradigms are subject to the same flux and constant change as the very objects they try to fix.

Bergson’s book Creative evolution is incompatible with either a mechanistic or a teleological world-view due to its insistent emphasis on the role of novelty in all becoming. It is entirely opposed to an unfolding of a pre-determined structure of being. Nothing is set in stone, nothing follows a plan (neither material nor divine) and there is no final end to the striving of turbulent durations. Whatever limited finality an organism might have, it is only an attempt to cling to a false and invented individuality, only to disperse once again into a whirlwind of pure change either in the act of reproduction or its own final termination. Let us conclude this part by quoting Bergson via Bergson this time:

That is why again they [scientists] agree in doing away with time. Real duration is that duration which gnaws on things, and leaves on them the mark of its tooth. If everything is in time, everything changes inwardly, and the same concrete reality never recurs. Repetition is therefore possible only in the abstract: what is repeated is some aspect that our senses, and especially our intellect, have singled out from reality, just because our action, upon which all the effort of our intellect is directed, can move only among repetitions (Bergson 1998, 52).

In chapter 4 Lovasz discusses another famous work by Bergson: Matter and Memory displaces the mind-body problem entirely and offers its own deconstructive version of the unnecessary dualism. The key to uncovering Bergson’s position lies in his theory of perception. The image is contraposed to representation, with the former exhibiting emergent and novel features irreducible to the latter, which in turn is always incomplete. In addition to the mind-body problem and in relation to it, Bergson via Lovasz simultaneously aims at dismantling the debate concerning the opposition between materialism and idealism.

Matter cannot be represented. Nor is it in any other way separate from the way it is uniquely, that is discontinuously perceived. Matter just is a multiplicity of images. There is neither a pure materiality; objective and inert, nor an ideal point of perception that could unite all individual durations into a whole. Neither subjectivism nor objectivism can dominate the Bergsonian metaphysic. Analogously, consciousness with Bergson is an emergent and highly dependent property of the brain, while simultaneously being irreducible to mere neurochemical processes. Memory, according to Bergson, is the meeting ground for mind and matter, the point of reconciliation and the central point of departure for his theory of subjectivity.

Movement is primary, while individual perception is but a sampling of images. What Bergsonism allows for is the introduction of pure, undomesticated mobility into philosophy. Nothing exists apart from images or movements (Lovasz 2021, 186).

We might add that the aforementioned ontology of mobility is further used to occupy a peripheral space between ideality and materiality, a space, it seems, where memory, intuition and images – present central oscillating points for the rest of the Bergsonian philosophy of the process.  

The closing chapter returns to the question of agency and free will in Bergson tending to the famous essay on Time and Free Will. The work aims at a similar project of rescuing duration from quantification, except; instead of challenging leading breakthroughs in modern physics, its purpose is to resist the temptations of psychophysics, neuroscience and other (what today we would term) cognitive sciences to reduce human subjectivity to a set of calculable problems and chemical processes. The project is similar to what is often encountered in classical phenomenology, where the reader is called on to return to “the things themselves”; her immediate given data of consciousness, in order discover a primordial presuppositionless way of seeing that has been covered up by the “natural attitude”. Such a return to immediacy would be consonant with the injunction to think differently, to train one’s intuitive faculty and thereby see through the veil of stability and structure.

Bergson does not, however offer a clear, distinct and positive definition of freedom. It is very difficult to apply his ideas to practical conduct and determine whether this or that course of action was self-determined. If duration is pure heterogeneity and each moment is intertwined with the next, there is no clear way of separating off the stimulus from the agent, the action from the reaction. Where in the chain of interpenetrating images could one separate oneself off and state without hesitation the moment she began to act, as opposed to the moment she was affected by something else? In many ways, Bergson plays on our ignorance, on human ignorance in general, equating freedom with contingency and pure spontaneity. Freedom is the irreconcilable eruption of agency amidst overdetermined necessity; an epistemic break in the series of concepts that bind us to an artificially assembled reality. Concepts, which just like everything else, are vulnerable to the tides of fluctuating perturbations. Our blind spots are effectively the source of our autonomy.

Adam Lovasz’s Upgrading Bergson is an exciting and difficult journey through a cosmology that is both beautiful and terrifying. It presents a real challenge to reassess our worldviews in a radical, almost pathological manner. A world where becoming determines being and order gives way to chaos. A thoroughly anti-Platonic vision, which dares to undermine our most cherished belief in the indisputable authority of modern science and Einsteinian relativity in particular. A turbulent universe of scaled difference, multiple durations and heterogeneous temporalities. And finally, an outstanding contribution to the much neglected field of Bergsonian scholarship. Upgrading Bergson deserves its own shelf-space in every continental philosopher’s personal library.

 

References & Bibliography:

Bergson, Henri. 1998 (1911). Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Dupré, John, and Stephan Guttinger. 2016. “Viruses as Living Processes.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 59: 109-116.

Kuhn, Thomas. 2021. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Princeton University Press.

Lovasz, Adam. 2021. Updating Bergson: A Philosophy of the Enduring Present. Lexington Books.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2010. Philosophical Investigations. John Wiley & Sons.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 2013. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Routledge.

Stuart Elden: The Early Foucault

The Early Foucault Book Cover The Early Foucault
Stuart Elden
Polity
2021
Paperback $26.95
288

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Stuart Elden’s The Early Foucault is the third of a four-volume study of the origins and development of Michel Foucault’s thought. This book is the first one regarding the period it covers, basically the 1950s, but it is the third to be published. It will be soon followed by a fourth and final book, that will cover the ‘archaeological’ period and Foucault’s forays into art history and literary criticism. External factors explain the disconnect between the order of production and the chronology. Elden’s first two books dealt with the publication of Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France.  The publication of the Lectures began in 1997, with the publication of the sixth lecture, Il faut défendre la société (1975-1876). Additional volumes followed it, released not in the order of their delivery by Foucault, but on the availability of audio recordings of the lectures. Foucault’s preparatory notes and other ancillary materials later supplemented and eventually displaced the recordings. Elden’s earlier books responded to the availability of the Lectures and the will to integrate the new material into a coherent picture. The First Foucault and the forthcoming book on Archaeology deal with the archive material made available to the public in recent years. This material includes reading and preparatory notes, lectures of the period before his appointment to The College de France, manuscripts in different degrees of development, philosophical diaries, bibliographies, etc.

Elden is one of the first to attempt a synthetic picture of this wealth of materials. He relies on archival material from Foucault and his contemporaries, detailed comparisons between different editions of published works, and a thorough familiarity with the secondary literature.

While we have three superb biographies of Foucault (Eribon, Miller, and Macey) and numerous specialized studies, these are primarily based on Foucault’s published work and interviews with Foucault and his contemporaries. But the opening of Foucault’s literary estate — deposited today in the Bibliothèque nationale de France — necessitates revisions, or at least qualifications, of our prior understanding of Foucault’s thought and development. Elden’s book is a thorough study of the archive. It also explores Foucault’s stay in Upsala (Sweden) and his use of its University Library’s significant collection of medical books and printed materials. Also, using documents unearthed in recent years by Polish historians, he sheds some light on the sordid story of how the communist Polish secret police attempted to entrap and possibly blackmail Foucault.

It is not possible to describe in detail the riches of the book in this review. Therefore, I will concentrate on a few issues previously insufficiently documented and on how newly discovered materials sheds light on the formation of Foucault’s thought. Ultimately, the book’s structure is strongly indexed to a foretold result, writing the two texts Foucault submitted for his doctoral degree (Doctorat d’État). This structure necessarily downplays the roads not taken. Elden is aware of this, and on several occasions, he considers projects that Foucault abandoned or reoriented into newer ones.

Chapter 1 discusses Foucault’s university studies in philosophy and psychology, with particular emphasis on a Master’s thesis that Foucault prepared under the supervision of Jean Hyppolite.  This work was presumed lost, but it was recently recovered and would be published soon. Chapter 2 investigates Foucault’s first teaching assignments at the University of Lille and the Ecole normale superieure (ENS) in Paris. Chapter three discusses Foucault’s earlier publications and describes several other projects that Foucault began in this period but left unfinished. Chapter 4 looks at his work as a co-translator of the existentialist psychiatrist Binswanger and the philosopher and essayist von Weizsäcker. Chapter 5 analyzes Foucault’s study of Nietzsche and Heidegger, his reading of the work of Dumezil, and his relationship with the composer Jean Barraqué. Chapter 6 covers Foucault’s postings in Upsala and Warsaw, while chapter 7 does the same for the Hamburg period. In Hamburg Foucault translated and commented Kant’s Anthropology, that he submitted as his secondary thesis for his Doctorat d’état. Finally, chapter eight deals with the defense, publications, and after story of Madness and Civilization, his principal doctoral dissertation.

One of the many strengths of Elden’s account is its attention to Foucault’s study of Hegel, Husserl, Kant, the Dasein analytical movement, and many more. This is particularly welcome because Foucault is not very loquacious about his readings. In particular, there is almost no explicit reference in Foucault’s published writings to his extensive reading of Husserl. Elden shows that Foucault studied Husserl intensively, even reading and annotating some of Husserl’s unpublished manuscripts. The same is true of other master thinkers, such as Freud, Binswanger, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.

Chapter 1 presents the teachers Foucault encountered first in Lycée Henri-IV during the preparation for the entrance examination to the École normale supérieure (ENS) and later at the ENS and the Sorbonne. These teachers were not only sources of knowledge and inspiration for Foucault but also incarnated the philosophical establishment, and Foucault will meet them as teachers, examiners, members of his doctoral jury, and later, as colleagues. Of particular interest is the figure of Jean Wahl, who played an essential role as a relay for German philosophy, was interested in the philosophy of Heidegger, but also in Hegel and Kierkegaard. Foucault attended Wahl’s courses on Heidegger in 1950 and possibly also in 1952.

Elden then presents the figure of Jean Hyppolite, and most importantly, the thesis that Foucault wrote under his direction and submitted in 1949. The dissertation asks three questions: (a) what are the limits of the field of phenomenological exploration and what are the criteria for the experience that serves as the point of departure; (b) what the limits of the transcendental domain in which experiences are made up; (c) what the relations of the transcendental world with the actuality of the world of experience (12).

Elden describes Foucault’s arguments (12-17) and adds that Foucault refers to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, other Hegel writings, and a wide range of secondary literature, including the work of Kojève, Lukacs, Hyppolite, Löwith, and Croce. Foucault also references Husserl and expositors of Husserl’s philosophy, such as Levinas, Fink, and Sartre. According to Elden, Foucault argues that The Phenomenology of Spirit is not an introduction to the Hegelian system or its first part, but rather an assessment of how a ‘system as the totality of knowledge… could be conceived’ (13).

Elden concludes that it is ‘an apprentice work’ and is surprised that Foucault does not evoke the famous ‘master slave’ theme. He points out some continuity between the thesis and Foucault’s later interests. For example, Elden lists the idea of the transcendental and the stress on the question of knowledge (16). Elden also notes the absence of references to Heidegger and Nietzsche (17). However, he seems less surprised by Foucault’s strikingly ‘unhegelian’ reading of the Phenomenology.

Foucault studied not only philosophy but also psychology and psychopathology. Elden refers to his teachers, Lagache and the psychiatrist and neurologist Ajuriaguerra.  Foucault also read the work of Georges Politzer, who proposed a Marxist oriented ‘concrete psychology,’ critical of psychoanalysis.  Foucault was also interested in the historical approach to psychology that  Ignace Meyerson developed. Regarding psychoanalysis, Elden refers briefly to Pierre Morichau-Beauchant, one of the earliest French psychoanalysts and a friend of his family. Foucault attended Lacan’s seminars. Based on Maurice Pinget, a close friend at that period, Elden writes that Foucault attended Lacan’s seminars in 1951 and until his departure for Upsala in 1955.  But while Pinget claims that Foucault was very enthusiastic about Lacan, other witnesses seem to remember that Foucault had little sympathy for Lacan’s project and philosophical ambitions (20). And Foucault’s early publications do not reflect Lacan’s teachings.  Elden promises more on the relationship between Foucault and Lacan in his forthcoming book about Foucault’s Archaeology (21).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was another significant influence. Foucault attended Merleau-Ponty’s lectures in 1947-48 in the Sorbonne, but probably not his lectures at the College de France. Foucault wrote an unpublished manuscript on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy (see chapter 4). Elden describes the influence of Merleau-Ponty as being significant for the young Foucault, in particular, because of Merleau-Ponty’s project to bridge between psychology and philosophy (23).

A section in this chapter deals with the preparation for the aggregation examination. Elden explains the mechanism of the exams (24-25) and portraits some important characters for Foucault in this period, mainly Althusser and Canguilhem. Foucault failed in his first attempt but retook the exam the next year and was graded second in philosophy. One anecdotical aspect of his exams is that Foucault’s subject for the oral exam was sexuality, a topic newly introduced by Canguilhem to the program. It seems that Foucault complained about the subject.

Chapter 2 deals with the Lille and ENS period, from 1949 to his departure for Upsala in 1955. Following his aggregation, Foucault applied for a scholarship to conduct doctoral research at the Foundation Thièrs. His proposal was the study of the problem of human science in post-Cartesian thought and the work of Malebranche and Bayle. Elden remarks that this subject seems to link back to Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Malebranche and Maine de Biran. In this period, Foucault also worked as an assistant lecturer in psychology at the University of Lille. He taught contemporary psychology and its history, psychoanalysis, psychopathology, Gestalt theory, the work of Pavlov and other Soviet psychologists, Rorschach tests, and the existential psychologies of Roland Kuhn and Binswanger. He also taught psychology at the ENS, covering psychology, experimental psychology, Pavlov, and the psychoanalytical theory of personality.

In parallel to his teaching activities, Foucault obtained a certificate in psychopathology from the Institute of Psychology of Paris. The studies there included lectures and practical observations at the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital.

We have several archival materials from this period. Three ‘substantial manuscripts’ were preserved: ‘Connaissance de l’homme et réflexion transcendantale’ (Knowledge of man and transcendental reflection), an untitled manuscript on Binswanger, and one on phenomenology and psychology.  We also have indirect materials, such as student notes, which cover Foucault’s teaching at the ENS.  Elden describes and summarizes the content of this archival material.

Regarding ‘Knowledge of Man,’ the manuscript is in a binder labeled ‘Cours 1952-3’, and its content overlaps with a course that Foucault taught in 1954-5 at the ENS with a different title. Elden suspects these notes may be more than just teaching material, maybe material for a projected thesis. In these manuscripts, Foucault takes leave from his Master’s thesis and explores the notion of a ‘philosophical anthropology.’ The manuscript begins with references to the origins of philosophical anthropology in the early modern era. In a typical Foucauldian gesture, he dates the origins of the word ‘anthropology’ to the work of the physician and philosopher Ernst Platner, a Kant’s contemporary. Next, Foucault surveys the development of anthropology in early modern times, referring to Scheler, Husserl, and Binswanger. Finally, Foucault claims that philosophy did not recognize anthropology as an autonomous discipline because of the influence of dualism, theology, and the privilege given to abstract a priori rationality. Foucault refers abundantly to Leibnitz, Spinoza, Lessing, Malebranche, Descartes. Still, Elden suspects that these sections are most likely oriented to the curricular requirements and are not the kernel of Foucault’s project.  The second part of the course studies Kant’s anthropology in relation to the critical project overall.  A few pages inserted after the concluding chapter of the manuscript deal with ‘the end of anthropology,’ an idea that he powerfully develops many years later in The Order of Things. The final pages are devoted to a reading of Nietzsche, to the relationship of biology to psychology, and the criticism of psychologism, religion, and universal history.  Finally, Foucault reviews current views on anthropology, discussing Jaspers, Heidegger, Löwith, Kaufmann, and Vuillemin.

Elden dedicates a few paragraphs to the question of when and how Foucault knew about Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, which was still unpublished at that time. The question is whether Foucault developed his reading of Nietzsche independently of the influence of Heidegger, a query that Foucault himself addressed ambiguously.  Elden discusses this issue in chapter 5.

Another important manuscript of this period is the one on Binswanger.  This manuscript has been, in the meantime, published in a critical edition with the title Binswanger et l’analyse existentielle (2021).  Elden discusses the problems of dating the manuscript, presents Binswanger’s career, and his relationships with Freud, Husserl, and Heidegger.  According to Elden, one of the key themes of Foucault’s manuscript is whether Binswanger was able to move from a descriptive and pre-scientific apprehension of the human being to a rigorously scientific anthropology (34). Elden does not pursue this lead but concentrates instead on showing the extent of Foucault’s mastery of Binswanger’s work.  What attracted Foucault to Binswanger? Elden says that Foucault was attracted by Binswanger’s interest in ‘modes of being of the human.’ Binswanger also provided an alternative to Sartre’s anthropological-phenomenological project (37). Elden adds that while Foucault did not publish this text, it is quite developed. While the manuscript overlaps with his Introduction to Dream and Existence, Foucault did not use this manuscript as a basis for his later essay. Elden speaks of a road not taken, even if eventually the interest in Daseinsanlysis may have inspired Foucault to write History of Madness. But Foucault soon will reject the whole idea of philosophical anthropology and its impossible hermeneutical circle. In his later work, Foucault will castigate as an ‘empirico-transcendental doublet’ the pretension of a philosophical anthropology.

The third manuscript reviewed in this chapter has for title Phénoménologie et psychologie. Foucault gave a course with the same title in 1953-4 and the following year. A different manuscript on psychology in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty may also be part of the course. And a third manuscript, intitled Psychologie et phénoménologie’, seems to date from the same period, but it has only a thematic but not textual relation to the manuscript (40).

Foucault begins with the claim that ‘The tradition attributed two forms to psychological experience, recognizing each as an independent source: introspection…and objective observation…in the first psychology sought its philosophical foundation, in the other its scientific justification. The situation was clear, but it was an alibi: psychology was never where it was suspected to be’ (Foucault, quoted and translated by Elden, 41).

The manuscript follows with the claim that the death of God contributed to the division between subjective and objective forms of experience. But according to Elden, the reference throughout the manuscript is Husserl. Elden comments that Husserl was a major focus of Foucault’s research at this point in his career, even if he rarely discussed Husserl in his writings (42).

Archival material regarding Foucault’s lectures on psychology, child psychology, testing, etc., is not extant. Still, we know indirectly of Foucault’s lectures through notes from students at the ENS, Lagrange, and Simon in particular (43-46).

Elden also refers to Foucault’s internship in the Sainte-Anne hospital, collaborating with Jacqueline and George Verdeux on various testing and electroencephalography research. Foucault also participated in studies conducted at the Fresnes prison, part of a project to evaluate new inmates suitability for different institutions and programs.  Elden observes that Foucault seems to have had in this period an earlier exposure to many of the issues that he will explore in-depth in his mature work. Elden also mentions that Foucault never referred in detail to his previous work, and his recollections were not very consistent. For example, we know that Jacqueline Verdeux requested Foucault’s help for her translation of Binswanger’s work. But Elden does not say if Foucault knew Binswanger before his collaboration with Verdeux or how he came to be interested in his work.

Chapter 3 deals with Foucault’s first publications in the early ’50s. In this period, Foucault wrote three essays and one book, which reflect on Foucault’s interests in psychology and psychopathology. They are the Introduction to the French translation of Binswanger’s Dream and Existence, a review essay on the history of psychology from 1850 to 1950, and finally, one on scientific research and psychology. Maladie mentale et personnalité, a book, was published in 1954, reissued in 1962 with profound changes, and finally abandoned by Foucault. While these writings were published between 1954 and 1957, Elden estimates that they were written simultaneously.

Elden’s decision to separate the published from the unpublished works may be a disservice to himself and his readers, insofar as the detailed descriptions do not coalesce into a clear hypothesis about what drives Foucault’s explorations. We don’t know if Maladie Mentale et Personnalité and the Introduction to Dream and Existence represent the ideas developed in the early manuscripts or their abandonment.

Maladie Mentale et Personnalité was commanded by Jean Lacroix for the series ‘Initiation Philosophique’ published by the prestigious Presses Universitaires de France. The collection was planned as a series of introductions to philosophical subjects. Lacroix accepted Foucault’s proposal in February 1953, and Foucault delivered a manuscript in October 1953. In Chapter 8, Elden compares the original with the revised edition Foucault published after publishing Madness and Civilization. Elden summarizes the book and emphasizes that the way Foucault presents the problem of psychology and pathology is similar to the approach that he will develop in his mature works, namely, uncovering the structures that make possible forms of scientific knowledge (63). At this stage of Foucault’s evolution, the problem is still presented in philosophical anthropological terms: the approach must be grounded on Man itself, not on the abstraction of illness (Elden 65, quoting Foucault). Evaluating the impact of this book, Elden argues that as Foucault’s profile raised, more attention was paid to this book, especially to the (heavily edited) second edition, despite Foucault’s attempts to forget the book. Nonetheless, some have argued that if we want to examine ‘the archaeology of Foucault’s thought,’ we should consider the first edition (quoted by Elden, 78).

Summarizing his argument, Elden states that “it is striking how much of the work that Foucault undertook in the 1960s has its roots back in the period studied here (190). And he adds, ‘what seems striking in reading all of Foucault’s writings, published and unpublished, are links between periods, rather than clear breaks’ (190). Foucault himself characterized his evolution as a philosopher who moved on to psychology and from psychology to history. Elden shows that these transitions are not breaks but the reconfiguration of some initial questions and their development in new directions.

Elden’s book is undoubtedly a treasure trove for the student of Foucault. Elden says that ‘I have read what he [Foucault] read and analyzed what he wrote.’ The extent of his scholarship, the sources, and the available secondary literature are impressive. Elden benefited from access to Foucault’s papers and the work of a group of young researchers that are busy publishing critical editions of several of the documents that Elden refers to. A good example of this is the recent special issue of the journal Theory, Culture and Society, edited by Elden, Orazio Irrera and Daniele Lorenzini with the title ‘Foucault Before the Collège de France.’ And we should commend his selflessly sharing in his blog many facts, big and small, that he helped uncover.

When all is said and done, how is this going to impact our understanding of Foucault? It is too early to say how this will affect our future interpretation of the life and work of Michel Foucault. Most likely, not in a revolutionary way, but we will have a better context and insights on how some of his ideas developed and what they mean. But the philological and the reception dimensions of a work often do not run in parallel. The misunderstandings around Foucault are at least as productive as the historical record. The student of Foucault knows that a concept such as ‘biopolitics’ has a very short half-life in Foucault’s work. But we can argue that it becomes the inspiration for a renewed interest in Foucault’s work several years after his untimely death. The same is true of his criticism of the ‘repressive hypothesis,’ the idea of the ‘death of man,’ the ‘ontology of the present’ and other metaphors easy to weaponize that, tend to disappear from Foucault’s conceptual universe as soon as coined, only to reappear later in a new metaphor.

Martin Koci: Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka’s Phenomenological Philosophy

Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy Book Cover Thinking Faith after Christianity: A Theological Reading of Jan Patočka's Phenomenological Philosophy
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Martin Koci
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $32.95
301

Reviewed by: Erin Plunkett (University of Hertfordshire)

Jan Patočka is not an obvious place to go looking for Christian theology. While his writings have a clear emphasis on Europe and its Greek-Christian heritage, his explicit remarks on Christianity appear most often as a matter of intellectual history, part of the attempt to understand the intellectual and spiritual framework of modernity. The philosopher is of course best known for inspiring a generation of Czech intellectuals and dissidents in his role as spokesperson for the human rights appeal Charter 77, a role which ultimately cost him his life. Drawn to this dissident legacy and to Patočka’s vision of a post-European Europe, there has been a renewed interest in Patočka among contemporary political philosophers.[i] His work as a scholar of Husserl continues to be read and appreciated in Husserlian circles. But there have been few attempts to read him as a religious or Christian thinker.

One might expect otherwise, given Patočka’s closeness to Heidegger on a number of issues, and given Heidegger’s importance to the so-called ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology in the latter part of the twentieth century. Judith Wolfe, author of Heidegger and Theology characterises this turn as ‘an attempt to responding to the call of the divine without turning God into an idol by metaphysical speculations’ (Wolfe 2014, 193-194). Beyond what Patočka has to say about Christianity explicitly, many themes in his work—sacrifice, conversion, the nothing, care for the soul—are ripe for a theological reading in the above sense. Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida’s efforts in this direction are perhaps the best known and most thought-provoking; both read Patočka’s conception of sacrifice in a religious light, as a phenomenology of the gift. Yet a religious approach to Patočka’s work has yet to be taken up in any sustained way in contemporary scholarship.

In English-language scholarship, the special issue of The New Yearbook for  Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14 (2015), on ‘Religion, War, and the Crisis of Modernity’ in Patočka’s work, edited by Ludger Hagedorn and James Dodd, is the most substantial offering on Patočka’s religious  import and his thinking about Christianity. Hagedorn, Martin Ritter, Eddo Evink, Nicolas De Warren, and  Riccardo Paparusso have given important readings in this vein though none in a book-length study. Martin Koci’s book is therefore a welcome and important contribution to an underdeveloped field. It reflects an extensive knowledge of continental theology and offers an admirably clear view of the terrain at the present moment, as well as suggesting how Patočka may help  to shape this terrain.

Patočka as Post-Christian Christian Thinker

Koci sees Patočka as anticipating the theological turn in phenomenology that began with Marion’s Dieu sans l’etre (1982). Although, in Koci’s view, Patočka’s social and political environment did not permit him to fully explore the religious resonances in his own thought, he can credibly be read as a post-secular thinker avant la lettre. Koci’s aim to establish Patočka as a serious thinker of Christianity contrasts with the standard line taken by Czech scholarship that Patočka is ‘a pure-blooded phenomenologist with no interest in theology’ (216). Those who are sceptical of a theological approach have plenty of support from Patočka’s texts, where he insists on a definite boundary between philosophical activity and religion. However, this need not prevent a reading of Patočka as a phenomenological thinker of theological import. Furthermore, there are reasons to think such an approach is not against the grain of Patočka’s own thinking. Patočka was raised by a Catholic mother and was a believer as a young man, though he grew dissatisfied with a religious framework as he began to study philosophy. He engaged seriously with numerous theological thinkers, in particular his fellow Bohemian John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), and he maintained a long friendship with the (Barthian) Protestant theologian Josef Bohumil Souček, with whom he discussed matters of faith and the meaning of Christianity. In his later years, Patočka gave lectures on theological topics to his students. Patočka’s engagement with Christianity increases in his writings from the prolific period of the 1960s and 70s, which present his mature thought.

Following Ludger Hagedorn, Koci’s study is an exercise in what he calls ‘after’ thinking, in this case, as the title suggests, thinking what Christianity might continue to mean after the death of God, and in the face of the various (related) crises of modernity. Yet, he explains, the project is not to develop a Christianity that ‘works’ in a postmodern context. It is rather to develop a Christian theology that challenges and questions the status quo and offers the possibility for transformation. ‘Christianity after Christianity does not therefore refer to the current state of religion in a post-Christian age. The “after” is not a relation to the past but an opening to the future’ (171-172). Christianity, as Koci understands it, always involves this dimension of ‘after’, since it a way of thinking that is oriented toward the not yet, harbouring the seeds of its own undoing and remaking. Within this framework, it becomes clearer how Patočka can be of value. Patočka’s own conception of history or historical life (a life in truth) involves an awareness of ‘problematicity’, a radical openness to possibility that calls for a repeated dismantling of what one takes to be solid truths.

A single sentence from Patočka’s late work Heretical Essays provides the refrain throughout Koci’s study:

By virtue of this foundation in the abysmal deepening of the soul, Christianity remains thus far the greatest, unsurpassed but also un-thought-through human outreach (vzmach, upsurge, élan) that enabled humans to struggle against decadence. (Patočka 1999, 108).

Koci attempts to make sense of this suggestive and somewhat obscure remark by exploring a number of interrelated issues in Patočka’s thought: from the crisis of modernity, issuing in nihilism or ‘decadence’ (Ch 2) to his critique of metaphysics (Ch 3), to ‘negative Platonism’ (Ch 4), to the three movements of existence (Ch 5) to ‘care for the soul’ and sacrifice (Ch 6-7). The emphasis of Koci’s analysis of the above remark falls heavily on the notion of the ‘unthought’ dimension of Christianity to which Patočka alludes, and he interprets this along the lines that Hagedorn develops in his article ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’ (2015). Quoting Hagedorn,

Christianity unthought would then indicate the maintenance of some core of Christianity even after its suspension, and through its suspension […] in the sense of metaphorically reclaiming some resurrection after the Cross. […] It is the signal for an investigation into what is left of the Christian spirit without being confessional or credulous (Hagedorn 2015, 43).

The Anselmian understanding of theology of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—in Koci’s hands becomes both 1) an affirmation that faith is ‘a way of thinking’ and 2) an explanation for why Christian theology must involve the continual questioning of itself, must relate to its own unthought. Christianity is, in this sense, a thinking of the unthought. Yet this could easily be misconstrued. Thinking the unthought does not mean ‘neutralizing’ (59) the unthought by bringing it in into the totalising framework of closed reason (the framework of modernity). Put in Heideggerian terms, the unthought signifies an openness and responsiveness to being, beyond the metaphysics of beings. Koci reads Patočka’s account of Christianity in the context of his account of the crisis of modernity and modern rationality, which has become closed in on itself (Patočka contrasts the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ soul). In Koci’s words, ‘religion breaks with the modern enclosure precisely because it allows the others, the otherwise, and, last but not least, the Other to enter the discussion’ (60).

Regarding Christianity’s ‘abysmal deepening of the soul’ Patočka places special emphasis on the soul’s ‘incommensurability with all eternal being’ (Patočka 1999, 108) because of the soul’s placement in history and its call to responsibility by virtue of being in the world (See the fifth heretical essay for this discussion). Quoting Koci, the soul becomes:

the locus of our engagement with problematicity; it is where we experience the upheaval of being-in-the-world. The soul is the organ of reflection upon the concrete historical situation into which we are thrown; it is the flexibility to think, to question, to challenge given meaning in order to search for a deeper meaning, time and again. The soul is what leads us into thinking (194).

The final word of this exposition is key. Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ struggle against decadence, against any account that would seek to settle things once and for all and close off further thinking. This is important for the overall project here, which is, in part, to use the un-thought of Christianity to challenge both philosophical and theological thinking. The proposal is that we take Christianity seriously as a way of thinking and continual questioning that can help to awaken us from our dogmatic slumber, whether the content of this dogmatism is instrumental rationality, nihilism, secularism, or traditional metaphysics.

It might be wise to pause and return again to Patočka’s claim that Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ movement in the fight for meaning. At first glance, this remark looks like an example of what Koci calls ‘Christian triumphalism’, proclaiming the supremacy of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity does occupy a privileged philosophical position in Patočka’s thought, for reasons that have been explained in part above. But I agree with Koci’s assessment that reading Patočka as a Christian triumphalist, as John D. Caputo does in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997), mistakes his aim altogether; he is not calling for the triumphal return of Christendom as a political power (Koci surmises that the only way Caputo could make such an error is by not having read any Patočka). On the other hand, Koci’s insistence that ‘for Patočka, Christianity is not “better” than other religions’ (193) is less convincing. He claims that:

Patočka does not understand Christianity in Hegelian terms and is far from situating Christianity on top of the religious tree. Neither does Patočka understand Christianity in Kantian terms as the highest moral call […] I see the “unsurpassed” nature of Christianity [in Patočka’s remark quoted above] as referring to a recontextualization of the soul advanced by Christianity.’ (194).

It is true that Patočka does not understand Christianity in either a Hegelian or a Kantian light; these would be grave misreadings (Caputo appears to be the main target here, since he is guilty of mistaking Patočka for a Hegelian). But it is nevertheless apparent across Patočka’s texts that Christianity is the only religion Patočka takes seriously as properly historical-philosophical; others are relegated to mythical thinking. So by Patočka’s own philosophical standards Christianity is ‘better’ than other religions, better not by virtue of its confessional content but by its contribution to being in the world. In Christianity, the soul is understood in all its problematicity and openness. This is a controversial claim, to be sure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Patočka does in fact situate Christianity ‘on top’.

Koci argues that there are three features of Christianity that Patočka allows us to see which have serious bearing on contemporary philosophical and theological thinking. First, Patočka:

reintroduces the centrality of Christianity as a new “religiosity” of thinking. In thinking, Christianity overcomes both mythos [a mythical thinking is characterised by the maintenance of life and by adherence to the past] and logos [closed rationality]. (172)

This religiosity of thinking goes in the opposite direction of a demythologization of Christianity. In Patočka’s picture, the world is reenchanted, in contrast to the disenchantment of the scientific-rationalist picture. We open ourselves to the world anew. Koci reads this shift as proposing ‘more Christianity rather than less of it […] Of course, this is not a return to anything from the past. Nonetheless, something is coming, and this something is related to Christianity’ (172).

Second, Christianity ‘becomes an existential category whose basic expression is faith as openness to the future’, ‘faith that is a radicalized, philosophical notion—the care for the soul’ (172). This rather dramatically removes the specific confessional content of Christianity, a move to which I will return below. Third, Christianity is an ‘existential thinking’ that realises itself in ‘acting and living’, living as a person who cares for the soul (173). The authenticity of such an attitude is found in the willingness to take responsibility for life through self-surrender or sacrifice, ‘in the name of a truth beyond positive contents’ (173). Patočka’s emphasis on the ‘experience’ [or activity] of sacrifice, in Koci’s reading, contrasts with the language of ‘participation’ in the absolute gift in both Derrida and Marion, which he reads as more of a conceptual schema than an existential one (see Ch 6 and 7 for an extended discussion).

Does Koci make a convincing case for the value of reading Patočka theologically? I had not been inclined to interpret Patočka along these lines prior to reading Koci’s book, but I see enormous value for Patočka scholarship in opening up this line of thought. Koci’s reading of Patočka as a post-Christian Christian thinker is creative and thought-provoking for those familiar with Patočka and for anyone interested in how to think about faith meaningfully in a contemporary postmodern context.

I have two criticisms, centred around the style of exposition in the book and the unresolved tension between the philosophical and the specifically Christian.

One feels that there is a good deal of stage setting in this work: offering context for Patočka’s thought by way of an exploration of the death of God, the crises of modernity, twentieth-century phenomenological thought, and contemporary continental theology. This is all relevant and helpful to the project of thinking about what Patočka has to offer, but the sustained engagement in the details of Patočka’s own account, especially sustained reflection on the writings that are meant to be of theological interest, is less developed. Koci is well-versed in both continental philosophy-theology (see his recent edited volume on the French philosopher Emmanuel Falque) and in Patočka’s writings, yet the former threatens to swallow up the latter in this book; it is only toward the end of Chapter 5 that Koci asks the question: ‘what is Patočka’s Christianity?’ (p 165), and only in Chapters 6 and 7, in comparisons with Derrida and Marion, that one sees a sustained attention to the details of this Christianity. What I miss in the breadth of the author’s treatment is the depth that comes from close textual analysis, especially when dealing with texts as condensed as Patočka’s.

There are perhaps unavoidable reasons for the thinness of detail in the present account of Patočka’s post-Christian Christianity. It may be the result of Patočka’s own writing, which does not lend itself well to systematic treatment, especially in the case of his writings that might be deemed of theological value, which are naturally scattered across various works. Furthermore, Patočka’s writings often have a provisional quality, not lacking in depth but with a tendency toward ellipses, presenting many rich ideas but often leaving the reader wanting further explication. Whether the root of this elliptical quality is to be found in Patočka’s philosophical commitments, in his own idiosyncrasies as a writer, or in the extremely straitened historical circumstances in which he was forced to work is a question with no definitive answer. However, this quality of Patočka’s writing is especially pronounced when he speaks about quasi-Christian themes such as sacrifice and mystery (see 233-234 for an example). Koci intelligently reads these silences—pace Kierkegaard and Derrida—as pregnant with significance. One of Koci’s examples of this is Patočka’s failure to explicitly name Christ in his writings, though he makes significant allusions to him, as in the discussion of sacrifice in the end of the 1973 Varna lecture and the reference to the Passion narrative in the ‘Four Lectures on Europe’. Koci also speculates that Patočka might well have developed his post-Christian ideas more explicitly given a different intellectual and political climate. Both assessments seem plausible to me.

That said, other than the excellent description of kenotic sacrifice in Chapter 7, the present book is rather thin on the details of what Patočka’s Christianity might look like. One example is the very truncated discussion of Christian community that ends the book. These considerations were, to me, very ripe for development, and I would have liked to hear more of Koci’s own vision of what forms a Patočkian Christian community could take, what forms of worship, what shared rituals. Koci is inspired by Patočka’s key idea of the ‘solidarity of the shaken’ from the Heretical Essays, and other scholars could certainly build on Koci’s groundwork. Naturally questions of post-Christian ritual and worship go beyond the scope of Patočka’s own writings, but Koci’s reading of Patočka raises these questions and invites imaginative responses. Such exercises in filling out Patočka’s own account may risk heresy to the master, yet without them, one is left with a portrait of Christianity that does not differ very much from a purely philosophical account: each person strives to ‘care for the soul’, living in a full awareness of the problematicity of finitude, dedicating themselves to a truth that is not embodied in anything present or actual.

Beyond Patočka’s writing style, there may be another reason for the sense of thinness I noted earlier, and this is one that Koci addresses directly, namely that Patočka’s understanding of Christianity is not a positive theology. There is no content, per se, no dogma in Patočka’s understanding of the divine or in the way of relating to the world that is taken up in an attitude of faith. While this kind of theological approach has an impressive pedigree, reading Patočka in this tradition raises the question anew of how and to what extent Patočka’s Christianity differs from a wholly philosophical account. Christianity in Patočka can easily be seen as having philosophical value, value for the question of how to orient oneself in the world, but I remain unconvinced that the lessons that Patočka draws from it are fundamentally different from the lessons he draws from Socrates. A distance from true being and a recognition of the limits of knowledge are, to Patočka’s mind, the distinctly Christian intellectual contributions. This is distinct from Platonism, to be sure, but Hannah Arendt, for one, draws the same lessons from Socrates.

Koci to his credit directly tackles the question of whether the features that he identifies as Christian in Patočka’s work may just as well be called Socratic. Patočka’s ‘care for the soul’ and ‘sacrifice’ can—and have—been read either way. On the topic of sacrifice, Koci offers a comparison of the deaths of Socrates and Christ to see which best accords with Patočka’s understanding of a sacrifice for nothing, elaborated in his 1973 lecture ‘The Dangers of Technicization in the Sciences According to E. Husserl and the Essence of Technology as Danger in M. Heidegger’ and in the Heretical Essays. In Patočka, sacrifice for nothing, as opposed to a transactional sacrifice for some specific end, is a central concept; sacrifice in the radical, non-transactional sense discloses the ontological difference, elaborated by Heidegger, between specific beings or things—taken individually or as a set—and being proper, which is no-thing and is not of the order of beings (see the postscript of Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ for the origin of this discussion). In an act of sacrifice, an individual brings this ontological difference, otherwise hidden and supressed, into view. A new understanding of truth is thus affirmed.

Construed in this way, Socrates and Christ both seem equally apt examples of a sacrifice for nothing—both die for a truth that is not obvious or present (and certainly not recognised by those around them) but which they nonetheless affirm by being willing to give their lives. Neither of these deaths could be thought of as transactional. Koci’s reading of these deaths focusses on a different feature, however. Socrates is serene, even happy in the face of death, requesting that his friends remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—for ridding him of the malady of life. Koci points to this attitude and to passages in the Phaedo as evidence that Socrates thought of death as a welcome release from life, that his serenity came from the certainty that he would finally be in direct contact with higher being and would be able to know what he only glimpsed in part. Christ, by contrast, utters the anguished cry ‘eli eli lama sabachthani’. While Christ accepts that he must sacrifice himself, he does not understand it. Rather than embracing death in the certain knowledge that immortality was preferable, he holds onto finitude and it remains problematic for him. Patočka quotes Christ’s final words in his ‘Four Seminars on Europe’ (Patočka, ‘Čtyři semináře k problému Evropy’, 403–404 and 412–413), suggesting his attention to this aspect of the passion narrative. Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying is, for Koci:

a scandalous provocation to shift from a simple life and its preservation to thinking about human being. It seems that herein lies the motivation behind Patočka’s plea for fighting for the Christian legacy, albeit in a deconstructed and demythologized manner, for the post-Christian world (215).

Ultimately Koci admits that one cannot decide on a purely Greek or Christian reading of sacrifice since Patočka himself tends to read Socrates through the lens of Christ and Christ through the lens of Socrates. For Koci, this ambiguity reflects a deeper one in Patočka’s work: Christian theology is a response to (Greek) philosophy, but philosophy must learn lessons from Christianity if it to break free from its own dogma. It is only in the relationship between the two that an authentic orientation to the world emerges.

I am sympathetic to the project of this book, and I am greatly attracted to ‘Patočka’s Christianity’, as Koci presents it. However, I remain unsure of the legitimacy and value of putting this account under the heading of ‘Christianity’, or even ‘post-Christian Christianity’, I freely admit that this may have more to do with my own understanding of Christianity, and it is certainly rooted in my understanding of philosophy. Koci writes in Ch 4, ‘I am convinced that Patočka invites us to think about a certain vision of philosophical faith (147).’ I agree much more readily with this formulation. I am convinced that the texts themselves authorise a ‘post-secular’ reading; it seems to me the natural result of good philosophical thinking, that, like Patočka’s, it remain open to transcendence.

 

References:

Hagedorn, Ludger and Dodd, James, eds. 2015. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy XIV. Religion, War and the Crisis of Modernity: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Philosophy of Jan Patočka. London: Routledge.

Hagedorn, Ludger. 2015. ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14: 31–46.

Patočka, Jan. 1999. Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Translated by Erazim Kohák and edited by James Dodd. Chicago: Open Court.

Patočka, Jan. 2002. In Sebranné spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 3. Péče o duši, III: Kacířské eseje o filosofii dějin; Varianty a přípravné práce z let 1973–1977; Dodatky k Péči o duši I a II. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Pavel Kouba. Prague: Oikoymenh.

Wolfe, Judith. 2014. Heidegger and Theology. London: Bloomsbury.


[i] See e.g. Meacham, Darian and Tava, Francesco, eds. 2016. Thinking after Europe: Jan Patočka and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

*For those interested in reading more of Patočka, the forthcoming Care for the Soul: Jan Patočka Selected Writings (Bloomsbury, 2022) will offer a number of his texts available in English for the first time.

Rodolphe Gasché: Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?

Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? Book Cover Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea?
Rodolphe Gasché
Indiana University Press
2021
Paperback $30.00
256

Reviewed by: Jacob Saliba (Boston College)

Rodolphe Gasché’s latest book Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a collection of interrelated philosophical essays which employ the phenomenological and post-phenomenological traditions in order to answer the question of what it means to live in Europe or, to put it more precisely, what Europe means in itself.  The fundamental premise of the text is that many today have taken for granted the ongoing layering process of meaning within Europe since Greek antiquity. Europe, as Gasché sees it, requires an intellectual recalibration in which it can come to terms with its prior heritage, overcome its past mistakes, and enable its hopes for the future. In today’s climate that is keen on pursuing either reparations for past mistakes or protections for previous agendas, it is altogether fitting to approach these judgments on theoretical grounds thus laying bare the inner motivations for guilt or defensiveness. In so far as Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? answers the question in its own title it also helps us better understand political and cultural turmoil today. Importantly, what makes this text unique is that it is sophisticated enough to confront present problems in a manner that avoids hyperbole and remains rooted in philosophical insights. In other words, Locating Europe is a much-needed investigation of Europe’s role in not only strengthening appeals for progress and reform but also emboldening calls for self-criticism and reevaluation.

The book’s elevens chapters challenge older attempts at a phenomenology of Europe and reposition more recent ones. Indeed, as the title suggests, there are three basic sections to the text: Europe as a figurative meaning, Europe as a conceptual meaning, and Europe as an idea. Gasché constructs each sphere (i.e., figure, concept, or idea) and shows their implications in relationship to the past, present, and future. The overall argument is that Europe is more than a political or economic entity; it is a highly dynamic expanse in which all forms of life are embraced in thought and deed. According to Gasché, Europe is a mode of living and thinking which opens itself up to new beginnings and harnesses the discoverability of new paths despite threats of decay or degeneration. In the twenty-first century, some critics assert that Europe no longer has a legitimate place in the world due to its imperial projects since the onset of Western colonialism. Others, paradoxically, argue that Europe’s trajectory as a political project is too self-consumed in utopian ideals such as the European Union.  Gasché rejects the false choice between dismissal and idealization by teasing out deep continuities in European culture that have remained since ancient Greece: “rationality, self-accounting, self-criticism, responsibility toward the other, freedom, equality (including for the different sexes), justice, human rights, democracy, and the list goes on” (ix). To question these values would be to question Europe itself.

Following Maria Zambrano’s line of thought, Locating Europe begins by showing that Europe’s origins come from the periphery, namely, Classical Greece and ancient North Africa. This preliminary point is integral. If it is true to say that Europe’s way of thinking and living is conducive to the ‘new’ or the ‘different’, then one must be able to locate these standards within the structures and narratives of Western thought. The point is to say neither that Europe is privileged in nature nor that it is monolithic in scope (xi). Rather, what is imperative is showing that the plane on which this issue is discussed and debated is itself a demonstration of what Europe’s inherent purpose is all about. In other words, the make-up of Europe as debatable, as contestable, as a forum of reflection serves as the self-evidence for its redemptive qualities for the purpose of “constant renewal” (xi). It is, thus, the perennial goal of Europe to maintain an unrelenting reflection of itself without which it could not achieve a conscious understanding of its traditional inspirations, creative aspirations, and lived ambitions.

So, what does it mean for Europe to be a figure, a concept, or an idea? Which rubric offers the best representational status?  Gasché asserts that a figurative Europe revolves around notions of intuited spaces or interactive intelligible schemas such as “the archipelago, the horizon, or indistinguishable from light” (xiv). Or, perhaps Europe is more aptly understood as a concept linked to language development, idiomatic gestation, or universal communicative capacities. Lastly, Europe as an idea—which Gasché primarily focuses on as most feasible—manifests the highest form of representation in the sense that it provides a regulative function for understanding which “does not exhaust itself” and perpetually leaves open opportunity as a metaphysical possibility. As Gasché puts it: “It is, in particular, this identification of Europe as an idea that undergirds all the distinct essays collected in this volume, which also feature studies such as the intrinsic interweaving of the notion of Europe with the question of responsibility to the other, primarily Europe’s responsibility toward its twofold (and aporetic) heritage of Greek and Christian and Judaic thought” (xiv). In effect, by lending legitimacy to this last approach of Europe as an idea, Gasché allows for conceiving Europe in a more dynamic cognizable space.

Europe as a Figure

The first major section of the text involves three chapters: “Archipelago,” “Without a Horizon,” and “In Light of Light.”  Though distinct in their own rights, each chapter coheres with the first proposition of Europe as a figure.  “Archipelago” centers on the notion of plurality and diversity of figures as intrinsic to Europe’s trajectory and growth through history since its inception in the ancient Mediterranean world. For instance, drawing from the philosophy of Massimo Cacciari, the Archipelago stands as the perennial figure by which the dialogue of home and abroad, far and near, different and same all synchronize with one another to formulate an origin story of variance and similarity that can still account for progress. In other words, the ancient traditions which speak of an archipelago of nations, ports, and tribes co-existing with one another despite their differences and distances seems to suggest that it may very well still be possible today, especially in view of the fact that Us versus Them mentalities remain. The essential issue at hand is how Europe can account for basic individuality while at the same time foster interconnectivity. Can the figurative meaning of the Archipelago still be operative to answer urgent cultural questions of divisiveness today? Or, to put it in metaphysical terms: how can the part cohere with the whole, how can the One bond with the Many?  For Gasché this possibility is rooted in a conversion, a movement to self-transcendence (6). Although this movement may come with the dangers of loss of identity, of conquest of the Other, or even inter-subjective friction, the very acceptance of this kind of fractious reality may be the key to unlocking a bright future. By accepting difference as fundamental to the origin of Europe—as seen in the Archipelago—then perhaps the notion of self-transcendence will appear all the more intelligible as a purposive task rather than an accidental fate.

“Without a Horizon” further expands the notion of spatial perception as it relates to Europe’s figurative meaning. Here, Gasché employs the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy to explain the components and impediments latent in a ‘universal vision’ (15). If the gaze of the twenty-first century European is cast forward as a conscious aim, then it is also possible to redirect it as a lived reappropriation. ‘The look’ as construed by Nancy is that which can go beyond as well as move within. In short, the look has the deepest proximity with itself. “It is a seeing that before having the power of sight, ‘sees’ seeing nothing. It is seeing affected by itself in advance of all ‘itself’, and, hence, before all seeing that sees something particular” (16). Accordingly, the goal of self-identity is made further dynamic once realized as a perceptive consciousness endowed with the capacity to both look from itself as well as look at itself.  In this way, the viewer can touch the vision and maintain intimacy with the act (17-18). More than this, the viewer stretches the outer limits of the horizon, thus, going beyond what was previously held to be a self-contained universal scope. In this way, the infinite becomes intelligible and the beyond appears possible.  “At the extreme border of the horizon, the world appears in its horizonless infinity, a finite world, and hence an infinite one” (24). If there is a blind spot of the European gaze, then Europe need only to recast its look beyond the status quo horizon into darker untested spaces.

“In Light of Light” marks the final portion of the book’s first section. Though it moves in the direction of Europe as a concept, it nonetheless maintains the character of Europe a figure. Gasché starts by framing the chapter in terms of Husserl’s work “The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.” If Husserl is correct to assert that Europe is the idea of progress par excellence he inherently upgrades Europe to a conceptual level in which case the entity (i.e., Europe) represents the task of knowledge acquisition itself (i.e., philosophy or science properly construed). On the flip-side, however, perhaps Europe as an idea is nothing more than a spiritual figure with a mythical pregnancy and legendary birth. This philosophical dilemma, according to Gasché, is an intrinsic tension to Europe as figure, concept, and idea. Either Europe is a conceptual standard on universal grounds, or it is particular only to itself and its own figurative germinations. Gasché, therefore, employs Jan Patočka’s seminal work Plato and Europe in order to reorient Husserl’s conception of Europe from theoretical grounds toward more pragmatic attitudes. Patočka marks a departure from Husserl’s ‘things in themselves’ to a form of how things ‘present themselves’, most especially the human being (35). What was previously held to be non-real or non-phenomenological in the Husserlian sense now functions in a deeply human way that, as Patočka suggests, centers on the Greek conception of the soul. “The soul is what properly distinguishes the human being; that precise instance in us to which the totality of being shows itself, hence becoming phenomenon” (36). In so far as the soul is the ‘becoming’ of the human it is also that which summons a response and realization from the non-real to the real. In other words, the importance of the Greek conception of the soul was not so much its theoretical insights but rather the intimacy and transparency by which the human being manifests itself in the world through actualization. Furthermore, this manifestation process is the guiding light that the Greeks sparked first and through which hidden appearances become truly tangible. Just as the care of the soul persists, so, too, does the light continue to beam forth.

Europe as a Concept

The second set of texts deals with Europe as a concept. In “The Form of the Concept,” Gasché employs Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy as a way to frame a conceptually robust representation of Europe by utilizing the phenomenon of ‘world-shaping’. For Gadamer, Europe’s role as an arbiter on the world-stage is more than simply a political or economic intervention; it is one that holds together the fabric of higher questions in which disagreement, synthesis, and transformative change can cohere with one another in a dynamic unity.  Understood conceptually, Europe is the “differentiation that calls for science” as well as the “unifying power of science that allows differentiation to take place from within” (51). In short, a conceptual Europe is one that can account for the Other in a way that also enables a revivifying encounter with Oneself. Additionally, European philosophy and science have allowed for such progression since the birth of Greek theoria so that ‘higher questions’ maintain within themselves an inertia of enlightening proportions. Moreover, Indo-Germanic languages have facilitated a form of knowledge-seeking that relies fundamentally on the Western grammatical form. To the extent that meaning is extracted from its deep, hidden deposits by virtue of transmittable grammar, it also allows for its recognition as a continuous human affair.  Literature, religion, and history testify to this reality in the sense that they all rely on a communicability which allows for the unfolding of the meaning in an intelligible manner—whether it be in the mold of storytelling, theological mystery, or accounts of human events.  Europe as a civilization would not be what it is if it could not muster a unity between the diversity of disciplines. The form of Western disciplines is the center of gravity—the glue of togetherness—by which Europe can determine itself conceptually. “The discovery of the form of the concept is Europe’s most distinguishing trait” (57).

“Axial Time” relies on Karl Jaspers interpretation of the Axial Period, an era or event that goes to the historical root of itself. “The Axial Period is an empirically evident formation of meaning that can be intuited by everyone and can be understood as a measure against which to judge history” (67). Its purpose, or, rather its parameters, involves that of renewal or the process by which renewal can be an empirically possible reality. For Jaspers, the Axial Period is a Greek phenomenon in which for the first time Western man reached beyond itself into the realm of Being and participated in issues larger than natural life; moreover, it was mirrored by break-through ideas in the Middle East and Asia. It is “the emergence of the individual person in the shape of the philosopher, the traveling thinker, the prophet, and so forth” (69). However, Jaspers laments that twentieth century humankind has lost touch with this prior Axial Period. According to Gasché, this has occurred because modern man has forgotten that the conceptual project of Europe is as much tied to others (e.g., the East) in as much as it is linked to Europe (e.g., the West).  What was so incredible about the Greek breakthrough is that it was carried forth and intimated in ways that resembled the Middle East and Asia. In so far as the Greeks vied to go beyond practical and mythical attitudes, so, too, did the great minds of the Eastern world. Though two distinct worlds, each sphere constitutes each other on a more profound level in which cohesions succeeds not because of isolation but by an appreciation of uniqueness.  “In fact, it is a difference that is constitutive of Europe and implies the recognition that every spiritual phenomenon is divided, and comes to life only when the spiritual heeds the difference that divides it from within, thus establishing it in relation to another recognized as capable of truth” (83). The question is to what extent Europe can live up to its end of the bargain.

“Eastward Trajectories” encompasses nicely what the previous two chapters laid forth. In short, Gasché traces how major thinkers in the twentieth century shifted their philosophical lens to the East in order to improve what was most prized in the West.  The principal example is Karl Löwith’s travels to Japan during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and 1940s.  Fundamentally, Löwith asserts that to grasp Europe conceptually in the modern moment requires that it be approached from the outside looking in. What is perhaps most surprising about his account is that the more he explored Japan the more that he realized the similarities between it and Europe. The spiritual affinities at the level of the natural world, the preoccupation with the cosmos, and mythical attitudes toward the divine each resembled structures which he found to be true also in Greek antiquity. Moreover, Löwith blames the ‘new Europe’ of the contemporary situation for forgetting these essential qualities of Europe’s origin story. In so far as hyper-nationalism parallels the grave travesties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so, too, does a naïve self-love incur loss of identity on a metaphysical level. Simply put, what Europe lacks is an awareness of being wrong—of being conceptually mistaken. In dialectical terms, Europe is impoverished by its inability to accept that which is other and outside of itself—another consciousness without which its own consciousness could not realize itself (102). A renewed philosophical attitude “is predicated on a critical self-distancing of the human being that allows for a contemplation of this order in all its otherness, as other than the passing concerns of humans within the historical world, but that also makes it possible for human beings to be, as Hegel put it, with themselves precisely in being-other” (106).

Europe as an Idea

The third and final section of Locating Europe is that of Europe as an idea; it is the largest and most intellectually striking part of the book. Each chapter is preoccupied with the challenge of Europe as an idea which, for Gasché, is either a doubtful illusion or an empowering authenticity.

In “Feeling Anew for the Idea of Europe,” Gasché sets the stage for what an idea of Europe might possibly look like and if it can hold as the identity of Europe. Following Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive focus on difference, Gasché asserts that Europe as ‘a heading’ (i.e., trajectory) cannot ignore the possibility of there being another ‘heading’ that proliferates all around us in everyday terms (114). If the goal is to achieve an idea of Europe that can account for all modes of living and thinking, then perhaps it is worthwhile to destabilize the previous concept of Europe and bring about new ideas of it. In so far as Europe differs from its own Europe-ness as well as from Eastern cultures, it discovers what kind of identity it could be tomorrow rather than remain with its conceptual stagnation of yesterday. As Gasché writes: “It is about the always possible change of that identity” (116). In short, feeling for a new Europe amounts to what it is as much as what it is not. “Differently put, this feeling that registers an essential debt to the other heading, and the other of the heading, a debt so essential that the possibility of change is intrinsically tied into the positivity of identity, hence, that an element of unpredictability is inevitably part of identity, is the ‘new’ felt identity of what it means to be European” (117). Although Europeans may feel their identity, they feel it in differences and not in sameness. Alas, they have lost sight of what is unique about all perspectives available in the landscape of the everyday.

Gasché also permits the reader to consider Kant’s definition of the idea or, as the title of the next chapter suggests, ““An Idea in the Kantian Sense?.” The premise is that if Europe is a task to be fulfilled, then it follows that one must have ‘an idea’ of what needs to be done. In this way, Kant’s notion of the idea as regulative might shed some light; the idea is not self-contained slice of information but rather the ground for further reflection. Or, as Gasché defines it: “an idea in the Kantian sense is not only a representation to which no congruent sensory or empirical object corresponds but which, nonetheless, is necessary to the function of reason” (135). Kantian ideas supposedly maximize psychological space and push the boundaries by which reason can operate, irrespective of empirical reality.  However, Gasché argues that to accept an idea of Europe in the Kantian sense presupposes that all regulation of reason succeeds in its aims towards systematic unity. In other words, Kant misunderstands that purposive unity cannot account for all thoughts and deeds; what it forgets is the everyday. And, to Derrida’s point, it is the everyday that Europe has forgotten.

“Responsibility, a Strange Concept” appears to be Gasché’s own way of answering the call to the everyday, suggested in the previous chapter. In short, this chapter demonstrates the inner complexity of an appeal to responsibility—meant absolutely as well as inter-personally. In this way, Europe might be better positioned to balance its heritage of moral philosophy, on the one hand, and current demands for decentering arcane laws of morality, on the other. The modern subject is indebted to previous notions, but it does not de facto obey them. “Our relationship to heritage is a critical relationship” (153). To render an ethics proper to the contemporary situation requires that it be put in doubt, that is, experimented and tested for its cultural endurance. If Europe is to have a future, it must be responsible. At the same, however, responsibility is not synonymous with obedience. Rather, it is more germane to the notion of response. By stepping outside of rules and duties and into the domain of intuitive contact, one opens up what a response could and ought to be. The goal is to meet the Other as the Other rather than to create or define them. Therein, lies the truth of responsibility.

Importantly, if the previous conception of responsibility is compelling, then it follows that Derrida’s phenomenological approach deserves more investigating. Or, to put it differently, what actually remains of Derrida’s deconstruction of Europe? Such is the subject-matter of “An Immemorial Remainder: The Legacy of Europe.” According to Gasché, there is something that remains with us from Derrida: “It is a legacy that concerns the formal possibility of legacy itself, or, more precisely, since without such remaining no such thing as a heritage would exist, it concerns the very (‘performative’) imparting of legacy itself” (169). What is crucial to the legacy of Derrida is the way in which he pushes abstraction into contestation with itself in order to render lived experience more conducive to the inter-subjective world. His goal is to open up a khora (i.e., a place of middle-ground) so indefinable yet indispensable that it resists appropriation and therefore remains a place of sacredness. Indeed, this place’s unconditional purpose is that of tolerance which respects singularity and allows for distance.  Moreover, it is: “a place where each discrete singularity would be able to have a place, or rather, to take place” (188). For Gasché, the khora allows for the idea.

Having considered Gasché’s three options of Europe as figure, concept, and idea, it is necessary to point out a significant tension within the text. This tension is not an adverse feature of Gasché’s phenomenology, rather its appearance serves more as a reminder of the deep complexity within his question. Gasché admits that he is partial to the notion of Europe as an idea (xiv). However, he also confesses that if Europe is taken as an idea in the Derridean sense and not in the Kantian sense, then the stance leaves itself vulnerable to vague representation or naïve abstraction, even if the idea of Europe is grounded in responsibility to the Other as Other.  “It reveals itself as incapable of sufficiently and adequately thematizing what responsibility is and must be,” he writes (165). In this case, the Derridean idea of Europe as responsible cannot provide logical cohesion for its future operations; it becomes mere accident. A proper idea of Europe would have to meet the richness of what Europe actually means. It would need to go beyond itself in this regard.

According to Gasché, it is precisely phenomenology itself that not only tolerates this dilemma but also is equipped to respond to it. In other words, to be able to identify the problem (e.g.., the idea of European decay) necessitates a discourse that can support this endeavor for all its intricacies, rather than subsuming the problem into traditional philosophical positions (e.g., Kant’s definition of the idea of reason). “This is the very reason why [phenomenology], more than any other one, has the necessary resources to think responsibility otherwise. Paradoxically, it is the motifs of giving and appearing that are so dominant in phenomenology that permit us to bring our attention to what it is in responsibility that necessarily escapes thematization and phenomenology itself” (166). Moreover, it is due to phenomenology that responsibility has attained such a championed status in the history of Western thought.  “Given all that we have seen, it now seems obvious that if responsibility has been able to become a thematic priority in phenomenological reflection, then it is because the character of its response to a prior demand—one that emanates from the other— corresponds to a structure of phenomenal being insofar as the latter offers itself to an intuitive look and issues the demand to understanding as such that which then manifests itself” (164). The issue is not that Europe is an idea, the issue is what we have turned the idea of Europe into (216). “The end of Europe and the beginning of a post-European world makes it incumbent on Europe, which has understood itself so far from the idea of reason and universality, to revisit the concept of the idea with which it represented itself” (217). This is fundamentally the essential character of phenomenology in the twentieth and twenty-first century—to open up the totality of lived experience and enter into the various essences that comprise it for the betterment of each.

Overall, Locating Europe: A Figure, a Concept, an Idea? is a superb addition to the European phenomenological tradition. The collected essays demonstrate the multiple attitudes one might take in responding to the European question as well as defend the privileged role of phenomenology in reflecting on that question. In so far as the reader encounters divergent positions, they also become familiar with major streams of Western thought in a new and improved lens. Gasché further emboldens continental philosophy to assert its ability to ask profoundly urgent questions in the hopes of arriving at sound conclusions. Indeed, this text is a testament to the effort necessary to unveil the inner brilliance of such an approach.

Hartmut Rosa: The Uncontrollability of the World

The Uncontrollability of the World Book Cover The Uncontrollability of the World
Hartmut Rosa. James Wagner (Translator)
Polity
2020
Paperback €18.10
140

Reviewed by: Andrei-Valentin Bacrău (former graduate researcher at the University of Zurich)

Rosa’s “Uncontrollability of the World” is an accessible read, regardless of philosophical background and training. The minimal use of jargon and social analysis remain engaging through the text, while providing a fresh outlook towards what it means to be an individual in the 21st century, surrounded by constant notions of “progress”, which we do not sufficiently examine towards our well-being. As consumers of goods, we often engage with financially unreliable planning and aspirations. Simultaneously, even the notion and strategy of being a good parent is undergoing significant transitions (64-65). The growing concern of parents has changed from trying to offer children what is best, to at least ensuring that they are not falling behind in terms of financial security and professional success.

The initial German for “uncotrollability” is translated from “unverfügbar”. Rosa clearly acknowledges the peculiarities and minimal use in the German language of such concept. He begins the book with a nomological investigation about “unverfügbar”. Although the translation of “unpredictability” has also been considered, Rosa eventually defers to “uncontrollability”, for thematic reasons:

This is exactly what this book is about: modernity’s incessant desire to make the world engineerable, predictable, available, accessible, disposable (i.e. verfügbar) in all its aspects (viii).

Additionally, Rosa is also examining the extent to which we enjoy unpredictability and uncontrollability as well. If we look at sports or board games, it seems that part of the reason why we continuously practice and engage in these activities, is because we do not know who the winner is eventually going to be (3). The randomness involved in all combinatorial possibilities, strategies and moves by a team or individuals within a game, are unpredictable: and that is what instigates our curiosity and desire for continuous re-construction of such playful events.

Although the book is strictly discussing our modern age, these notions of predictability, engineering and disposability have been within the minds of Western Europeans since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, respectively. The constant desire to manipulate nature, events and our social ecosystem has resulted in a change of how our families, work space and countries interact. Rosa does not specifically address the aforementioned events and their relationship to modernity. However, he does mention that our resultant modern ecosystem has been emerging for the past three centuries, due to our human nature’s disposition to expand relentlessly (8). Rosa’s transition into his central arguments is the position of a realist in political science: regardless of boundaries, walls and other political aspirations, the international world remains anarchic, uncontrollable and unpredictable (20).

Prior to explaining the five main theses of the book, there is a secondary, auxillary concept evoked almost as often as uncontrollability itself. The notoin of resonance plays a significant role in showing the instrumental limits of control, as well as how we socially cope with the uncontrollable aspects of our experiences in the world. “Resonance” itself does uptake multiple meanings, and in some points it could be as easily substituted with the use of “uncontrollability”. However, it seems that the primary role of “resonance” is to evidentiate what makes our experiences “uncontrollable”, and which features of these can become, eventually, within our reach and hence “semi-controllable” (44). Resonance is not as elusive as uncontrollability (4), so it rather behaves as some sort of intersubjective dynamic that enhances our experience of the world.

Gradually, the concept of resonance also uptakes an existentialist baggage. By evoking Merleau-Ponty (31), we as subjects mainly respond and react to experiences, others and events. Rosa further extends this responsiveness as an outcome of resonance. Resonance is a necessary precondition of experience, for an individual to have the reactionary capacity Merleau-Ponty is describing. Consequently, Rosa frames the notion of resonance as a “mode of relation”, which displays the following four features (32-36):

  1. Being Affected: Primarily explained as some inward, aesthetic experience- a song can have such capacity.
  2. Self-Efficacy: An emotoinal and outward movement or reaction. The exchanges of gaze, or a warm dialogue would satisfy such denotation.
  3. Adaptive Transformation: There are numerous examples illustrated under this particular denotation. In summary, it can have something to do either with the gap between expectations and satisfying one’s desires, or the typical imprint we think of when we are changed or influenced by someone.
  4. Uncontrollability: Rosa uptakes the rather conventional use of uncontrollability in this case. It is the dynamic itself of experiencing a change from knowing someone or a particular event. The uncontrollable aspect of it is not only epistemic, in the sense of often not knowing what the experiential outcome is of the transition, but also the difficulties and novelties of adjusting to the particular change.

There are segments, as exemplified by the fourth denotation, where it can be unclear whether or not Rosa evokes uncontrollability as a denotation of resonance or not. It seems that in most uses, “uncontrollability” is unexplainable without some entailment relationship to “resonance”. Both of these concepts, however interchangeable they might be through Rosa’s book, definitely attempt to guide us through the same social phenomena. The more we try to engage in meaningful discussions about predictions, control and the satisfaction of our desires (however these dispositions themselves might in turn be controlled by the invisible hand of the market), our experiences as consumers and beings in the world are not fully satisfied- simply said, unhappy. To further elucidate the relationship between “uncontrollability”, “resonance” and our human experience, Rosa advances five primary arguments through the book:

§1 The inherent uncontrollability of resonance and the fundamental controllability of things do not constitute a contradiction per se (41).

In this passage we can notice additional clarification between the two main concepts of the book. We have a human disposition to react towards what we are affected by, a sensorial experience which is mediated by resonance. Rosa argues that both other subjects, as well as objects (in themselves) have such embedded property of “somehow” projecting “resonance” towards us. Although it is not quite clear how or why other features of the world beyond us have this “resonance” to them, the conclusive remarks of the unit is that there is some sort of relationship towards an “inherent uncontrollability” both in ourselves, as well as in the external world. This thesis becomes slightly difficult to really grasp, especially since the verbatim of the first assertion is that there is no contradiction between the uncontrollability of resonance and the controllability of things. We may uncontrollably become attracted to a wonderful piece of music, wich we eventually resonate to. Afterwards, we can play the song whenever we desire, which does seem to be in our control. Hopefully this elucidates what Rosa was trying to convey with the first thesis.

§2 Things we can completely control in all four dimensions lose their resonant quality. Resonance thus implies semicontrollability (44).

Once we obtain some sense of controllability over what we resonate with, it becomes “semicontrollable”. This is quite a fascinating approach for balancing between the things that are and are not within our control. Therefore, the external world with subjects, objects and events, do possess this feature of resonating with us. Once we correctly internalize this experience and resonate with it, both the external manifestations, as well as resonance itself, becomes semicontrollable. According to Rosa, there are conditions for response from our own subjective side via the sensorial mediation of resonance, and once we have gained some mastery over these phenomena, resonance transforms its features from uncontrollable to semicontrollable. This outcome would also suggest that there is some feature of the external world and others, which will remain uncontrollable, despite any potential conditions of transforming resonance into something semicontrollable.

§3 Resonance demands a form of uncontrollability that “speaks,” that is more than just contingency (48).

Now Rosa is guiding us through the aspects of resonance which remain uncontrollable, despite any transformative conditions. Rosa himself admits this is the most difficult one to demonstrate. He further elaborates on some feeling that we establish towards a song or natural sight (49). The terms chose to describe such relationship, however unexplainable, include “harmony and beauty”. By deferring to Erich Fromm, during the contact phase with natural beauty, for example, the modes of existence shift from “being” to “having” (51).

§4 An attitude aimed at taking hold of a segment of world, mastering it, and making it controllable is incompatible with an orientation toward resonance. Such an attitude destroys any experience of resonance by paralyzing its intrinsic dynamism (52).

Although §2 was emphasizing that eventually, we can obtain some mastery over resonance which leads to a semicontrollable relationship to the external world, §4 has a normative reading to it. Firstly, Rosa introduces a mechanism through which this intrinsic dynamism happens: subjective dimension, object dimension and process dimension (53). This was surely an interest addition to his work, and it would have been helpful to understand what he had in mind with the dynamics of resonance, controllability and uncontrollability via this particular explanation. Rosa does guide us through some fundamentals. The subject dimension is our willingness (and perhaps, openness) to be touched or changed in unpredictable ways. This argument could have been further explored to understand what Rosa thought about the limits of our self-control and autonomy, in relationship to the extent to which we ourselves can transform the external uncontrollable circumstances into semicontrollable ones. At the same time, §4 suggests that once we do obtain that state of semicontrollability, resonance changes its functional applications and interaction with us, thus overall, the entire dynamic of mind and world experiences something else.

Additionally, resonance here is argued as “vulnerability and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable” (53). We must exercise our autonomy in such a way that we allow ourselves to be opened to vulnerabilities and unpredictable, uncontrollable changes from the external world. The object process seems quite difficult to understand, though hopefully the readers see it as an invitation to further explore Rosa’s work for themselves:

On the object side, uncontrollability means that what we encounter must resist us in at least one of the four dimensions of calculation and control. There must be at least one “obstinate remainder” that has something to say to us, that is meaningful to us in the sense of a strong evaluation (53).

What makes resonance dynamic, is that we cannot control it either with our beliefs or desires. Wanting to be happy on Christmas, or excited for a first date, are not attitudes within our reach or control (56). Now we turn to the fifth thesis:

§5 Resonance requires a world that can be reached, not one that can be limitlessly controlled. The confusion between reachability and controllability lies at the root of the muting of the world in modernity (58).

For the rest of the book, this fifth thesis becomes the most significant one. Rosa argues that Hermann Dueser initially coined the term “Unverfügbarkeit(uncontrollability), by looking at Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy, while attempting to show an opposition to humanity’s complete technological takeover (58). The book continues to be filled with numerous sociological examples about the implications for resonance theory in our daily activities, work, family lives, and religion. The readers should also be wary that in the religious context, Rosa uses “uncontrollability” and “inaccessibility” interchangeably. Whereas inaccessibility can denote the same kind of “unreachability” or “unavailability” that “uncontrollability” does, “unreachability” could also denote that it is not resonant at all, since it is completly beyond our reach or comprehension. Two other significant examples are about modern medical and political practices. Our methodology to any disease is to control it, subdue it and overcome it as quickly as possible (76). In the political ecosystem, however, voters become quite surprised when policies do not go their way. We expect our institutions to control and correctly predict the outcome of political events, in such a way that there are not any unwanted surprises and everyone achieves their respective agenda (91).

The rest of the book is filled with daily, relatable examples of how these dynamics of resonance and uncontrollability affect aspects of our lives. I would highly suggest this book to anyone that wants to further understand some difficult predicaments about modernity, whether at the individual or collective level. The smoothness and approachable language of the text is quite clear and engaging.

James G. Hart: Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology

Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology Book Cover Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology
Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, Vol. 5
James G. Hart. Rodney K. B. Parker (Ed.)
Springer
2021
Softcover 67,59 €
XII, 272

Reviewed by: Matthew Clemons (Stony Brook University)

As James G. Hart notes in the opening chapter of his Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology, the German phenomenologist and Naturphilosophin Hedwig Conrad-Martius is a marginally known figure. Prior to the last half decade, what limited consideration she received in the English-speaking world is primarily in the context of her relationship with Edith Stein, particularly in the role that she played in Stein’s conversion to Catholicism in the early 1920s. There are several plausible reasons for Conrad-Martius’ obscurity: the absence of translations of her work; the political and bureaucratic challenges and sometimes outright opposition she encountered as one of the first women to enroll in and complete studies at a German university; the personal and professional hardships—including the death of numerous colleagues and a publication ban due to Jewish ancestry—that resulted from the socio-political upheavals of the early 20th century; the ascendency and predominance of the hermeneutical-existential mode of phenomenology to the exclusion of phenomenological realism movement of which she was a leading figure. Whatever the reasons for her obscurity, the quality of her work is certainly not one of them, even a passing familiarity with which would confirm.

I am the sort of reader of Hart’s monograph on Conrad-Martius that qualifies as having passing familiarity with her work. I know enough about her lifelong project, the Realontologie, or the investigation into the essence and metaphysical foundations of reality, to want to know more. But resources for knowing more are limited. A cursory search of the Kösel-Verlag archives, the publisher now owned by Penguin Random House that originally printed Conrad-Martius’ work, yields no results. To the best of my knowledge, her work is no longer in print and only available only second-hand via private handlers. There are no translations. As far as secondary material, at the time of its publication in 2020, Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought available in English. According to Hart, the only other monograph, which is in German, is Alexandra Pfeiffer’s Hedwig Conrad-Martius: Eine phänomenologische Sicht auf Natur und Welt. A monograph on Conrad-Martius, then, is a welcome contribution. A monograph on Conrad-Martius by James Hart is even more so. Hart’s work is consistently of the highest level, combining an immense scholarly and philosophical comprehensiveness with clarity and a sharp eye for the germane in the matter-at-hand. His two-volume work Who One Is (Springer 2009) is an absolute gem, a must-read for anyone interested in any number of themes even remotely related to transcendental and existential phenomenology. Needless to say, I anticipated Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ Ontological Phenomenology with excitement, and it mostly met those expectations.

The book itself is composed of eight chapters and an appendix. The appendix is a selection translated by the book’s editor Rodney K.B. Parker of HCM’s unfinished and eventually abandoned manuscript Metaphysik des Irdischen (or Metaphysics of the Earthly). Hart tells us that she originally intended the work to be a “unifying opus magnum” (4), but that it remained incomplete due to extenuating health and financial circumstances. Parker implies that disagreements with the publisher were also a contributing factor. As for the body of the book, chapter one is a general introduction to Conrad-Martius’ life and thought, presenting relevant biographical material and acquainting us with her project and its primary influences; the final chapter is a conclusion. Chapters two through five contain the bulk of the exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought and are the most challenging of the book. Chapters six and seven are Hart’s own creative appropriation of one of the basic theses of Conrad-Martius’ work, namely that theological-cosmological categories have an ontological-metaphysical referent, which he applies to the theme of heaven. In what follows, I’ll summarize (by no means exhaustively) Hart’s presentation of Conrad-Martius’ thought and conclude with a few reflections on the work and on its contemporary relevance.

Conrad-Martius as Naturphilosophin

All of the subsequent analysis depends on Hart’s exposition of Conrad-Martius’ thought. HCM is a philosopher of nature in the ancient sense. Her notion of nature as “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” (80) reflects a more typically Aristotelean designation: nature as “that which by virtue of itself…and out of itself (the founding hyle) brings forth itself (its eidos and morphé)” (80). She employs familiar philosophical notions such as substance, potency, and entelechy, and makes use of well-known medieval distinctions like that between essence and existence. HCM asks typically natural-philosophical questions: what is time; what is space; what is mass? What are the constitutive features of matter or of light? How do we conceive of the phenomenon of organic life on both a macro and micro scale? Her work demonstrates deep familiarity with the natural sciences of her day and with the revolutionary 20th century developments in, e.g. physics. There are, however, at least two features of her general approach that make it unique: 1) her commitment to eidetic-phenomenological analysis; 2) her fundamentally Christian cosmological outlook.

1) In chapter two, Hart details Conrad-Martius’ involvement in the early phenomenological movement and its effect on her methodological and philosophical commitments. HCM was a member of the Munich and Göttingen circles of phenomenology. Members of these circles had in common an admiration for Husserl’s rejection in the Logical Investigations of philosophical psychologism and the overcoming of epistemological standstills and reductivism of all kinds that it represented. Freed from these concerns, they were able to take up Husserl’s exhortation to return to die Sachen selbst and embody his vision of a community of interdependently working researchers conducting investigations into the essential features of the various regional ontologies. For Conrad-Martius, a philosophy of the region of nature meant, as stated above, investigating nature in an effort to discover its essential sources and structures.

Aiding this task was the method of the eidetic-reduction in which the existence of an actual object (but not the world as such) is bracketed so as to investigate the object via ideation, a process of imaginatively altering an object to bring its essential structures into relief (cf. section 2.2.). For Conrad-Martius, this involved a second aspect, namely a horizon analysis in which the limiting presuppositions and prejudices that predetermine what counts as legitimate are brought to light. In relation to the natural sciences, the general interpretive framework tends to be one of quantification and mathematization.

As an aside on method, the early phenomenologists were as a rule not concerned with epistemological questions. They unanimously lamented Husserl’s “transcendental turn” and his forays into the subjective sources of meaning as a regression into the bogs of critical philosophy. One of the merits of Hart’s presentation of HCM’s method is his pointing out the challenges that the products of Husserl’s genetic investigations, particularly the role of temporality and history in the constitution of meaning, present for her conception of essences and the kosmos noétos. For more on this, see sections 2.4-2.6.

Phenomenology’s insistence on attending to the thing in the fullness of its appearance produced, according to Hart (10), the fundamental convictions in Conrad-Martius that the way in which nature appears is reflective of what it is. There can be no irreconcilable conflict between what appears and the way it appears. This means, “on the one hand, that there was no abyss between nature as it appears and the positions of the physical sciences, and, on the other hand, that appearing is, as such, not a veil of some unknown ‘in itself’” (53). Given, for instance, the developments in quantum physics that contest the more intuitive conceptions of matter found in classical, Newtonian physics, this is quite the radical thesis. But the thesis also represents a break from the temptation of dividing nature’s appearing into primary qualities, or the real features of the physical, and secondary qualities, or sensible, merely mental features, as a consequence of which the secondary qualities are dismissed as irrelevant and the primary are conceived of inertly and mathematically. Against this quantification of nature, Conrad-Martius insisted on a qualitative analysis in which all modes of appearing are appearances of something. Conrad-Martius’ nature is a cosmology, an ordered whole of interwoven regions and parts that Hart compares to a tapestry or symphony (157).

2) If the predominant horizon of the natural sciences is quantification and mathematization, HCM’s is Christian. One of the dominant trends in the theology of her day was demythologization in which “the content of the ontological referent [of cosmological notions] is fully replaced by an existential and symbolic interpretation” (205). In contrast to this tendency, Conrad-Martius sought to “remythologize” the cosmos, i.e. to affirm a cosmological meaning and referent for Christian cosmological notions, for example, heaven as a region of world space (see 7.3). Hart quickly adds two qualifications: a) that this doesn’t mean that we should altogether reject the fruits, much less the impulses and motivations, of existential and hermeneutical theology; b) that this in no way implied for Conrad-Martius a fundamentalism that eschews the evidence of, e.g. paleontology, and seeks to return to the pre-Copernican picture of a storied-universe of heaven physically above. As I mention above, chapters six and seven contain Hart’s attempt to appropriate this move with regard to heaven. While the content of these chapters is undeniably interesting, it seems to me disproportionately focused on existential and hermeneutical meanings of the religious cosmological categories. This is an issue only insofar as the Hart’s main objective is to show that Christian cosmological notions can be interpreted cosmologically.

In accordance with these two unique features of Hedwig Conrad-Martius’ approach, Hart seems to discern two promises: 1) a qualitative philosophy of nature that is the product of essence-investigations and integrates the developments of the natural sciences into an overarching cosmological unity which leads to 2) the possibility of giving Christian cosmological notions an ontological-cosmological foundation rooted in a serious philosophy of nature.

The Realontologie at a Glance

A. Substantiality and Time: If chapter two delineates Conrad-Martius’ method, chapters three through five deal with her thought as such. Chapter three begins with an analysis of the various kinds of being that culminates in the decisive distinction between ideal and real being. This distinction is the point of departure for the Realontologie, or ontology of the real, and for the philosophy of nature insofar as nature is, as we saw, “reality under the aspect of its radical ‘basic motion’ of self-genesis.” The section in which the distinction is introduced (3.2) is a bit convoluted. I get the impression that Hart has here the unenviable task of mapping out the critical theme that is at once the juncture of several intersecting trains of thought and the point of departure for the whole show. Probably for this reason, the terms of explanation seem to shift just as you begin to get your teeth into them. It can feel a bit like biting air. At any rate, the gist of the distinction is clear enough. Whereas “the ‘being’ of ideal objects is exhausted totally in their ‘being something’ or being such” (66)—in more traditional metaphysical parlance, in their essence—real being exists. Inherent in the meaning of real being is not just the essential moment (what something is) but also the existential moment (that something is) without which a real being would not be real. By existence, HCM seems to mean the brute thereness, the in-the-flesh character of facticity. This leads her to the notion of substantiality, which for her refers to being that is self-grounding. A being exists, is “really there” because it stands in itself. Substantial being, for Conrad-Martius, is real being.

To be self-grounded is sometimes characterized as standing-in-itself, and other times as stand-under-itself: “Substance as such stands under its own being; it is the self-grounding of itself which is the standing under (sub-stans). It stands under (grounds) itself…Substance is a being’s standing in its own existential potency to its own being” (79). Although it seems like an unintentional equivocation or an exploitation of the etymology of substance, it is actually a purposive and important equivocation. It takes some rearranging to figure out why. As far as I can tell, “itselfness” is for Conrad-Martius both a technical term and an operative concept, the meaning of which changes depending on context. Hart confirms the latter (cf. 78) and implies the former. I note that one of the difficulties with the use of “itselfness” as a technical term, beyond its being an operative concept, is the possibility of its conflation with the reflexive pronoun “itself.” This is probably less of an issue in the original German.

One of the meanings of “itselfness” in the case of real being is “the potency to exist, to be or not to be.” What makes a being “stand-in-itself” is its having “itselfness” (technical sense) within itself (this second use of “itself” has a slightly different meaning), i.e. it has within itself the potency to be or not to be. But “itselfness,” insofar as it means the potency to exist, grounds or is the source of the actually existing being. The formulations standing-it-itself and standing-under-itself foreground different aspects of substantiality. The second is crucial. Insofar as the potency to be “stands under” an entity, the theme of potentiality as the real, but not actual source of actual being is emphasized. It is that from which real, actual being comes to be. Moreover, it implies that the actually finished being, insofar as it is potential, precedes itself. Potential being is not finished being; it is pre-finished being. This leads to the central question for Conrad-Martius of the “place” of these potencies themselves. If the cosmos is an ordered whole with various kinds of regions, we here have an indication of what one of the regions would be. In short, in the analysis of real being, we are led to substantiality. The essence-analysis of substantiality leads us to the notion of pre-actual potential sources that generate and sustain actual being. Investigating these sources is the project of the Realontologie. As Hart puts it, “for the full constitution of real substances, the form-giving active (entelechial) and passive, purely potential powers must be studied” (47)—I’ll say more about the “form-giving active powers” in the next subsection.

For Conrad-Martius, that an entity is grounded in its possibility to be does not mean that it has absolute power over its potential to be. Such a capacity belongs only to absolute being. Insofar as potential being is a form of non-being, she can say that to be real is to be suspended over an abyss of nothingness that requires an ontological motion of “incessant flight from nothingness” (70). Its existence is something which is incessantly “slipping away” (78) and simultaneously won anew. This is an important observation because, for Conrad-Martius, this motion inherent in the mode of existence of real being is that which constitutes time. Time is not some pre-existing container into which being steps. Time follows on existence and not the other way around. As Hart puts it, “time is a mode of the existence of something” (137). Again, “time is a dimension corresponding to the being or existence of something” (150). In contrast to this real-motion of time is what she refers to as the transcendental imaginative time—think Husserl’s time-consciousness in which the present is held onto in retention and on the basis of this holding arises protention, an expectation of what is to come. In this context, it makes sense to speak of past and future and of a motion between the two through the present. For HCM, this flowing time along with the categories of past and future are not real, but only features of transcendental imaginative time. The real motion of time is not one from the past into the future or vice versa. Just as a being is incessantly losing and winning its existence, the real motion of time is a discontinuous “relentless coming forth of the world into being as it is a constant vanishing from actuality” (76). An analogy with number is helpful:

The number, e.g., 5, means more than that it stands in line at the fifth place after preceding rows of unities. The eidos of the number lies in its being a complex unity which contains the total series of numbers leading up to its place of order. Only secondarily does it indicate its place of order in the series of numbers. The number is the expression of a quantitative monad-like ‘sum value.’ One value cancels out the preceding by including it and going beyond it [Aufhebung]. Conrad-Martius’ point here is that the nows are analogous to numbers. And as numbers are monadic sum-values, so are the moments of actuality monadic being-values. And as with each individual number the preceding (and coming) numbers are conceptually and terminologically negated, because this number presents a sum-value which is valid only for it, so with each definite moment of actuality [Aktualitätsjetzt] are all other moments ontologically negated. (77)

Theologically, that real being is situated on the “knife-edge of nothingness” (190) is indicative of nature’s being non-integral, i.e., being fallen. If incessantly negated time follows on the mode of real existence, HCM speculates on what a different mode of “eternal” or “blessed” existence might mean for time (see section 5.1 and 5.3). As for the question of the source of this motion, Hart returns to it in chapter five.

B. Matter (hyle) and Space: I noted above that “itselfness” seems to be an operative concept. Beyond referring to the potency to exist that underlies real being, it also seems to refer to the potency for an entity to be what it is, to be its essence, which it also stands in. The “‘basic motion’ of self-genesis” by which Conrad-Martius delimits the region of nature would then signify that substantial being both stands in its possibility to exist and has its potency within itself to be what it is. This sheds light on obscure locutions like nature’s definition as “that which is by reason of its own power to be—to be itself. That is, to be what it is in its own essence” (80), which Hart follows up by quoting HCM as saying “existential substantiality is essential substantiality” (again, the major difficulty with these locutions seems to be that the terms shift, e.g. if we say that something constitutes itself out of itself, we could mean several different things (out of its hyle, out of its potency to be, etc.), and all of them might highlight different aspects of constitution. This is probably a difficulty inherent in ontology).

This consideration prepares us for Hart’s remark that there are two different modes of standing-in-itself that are constitutive of the cosmos, the hyletic and the pneumatic. As constitutive of actual, finished entities, Hart cautions us against thinking of these modes themselves as actual, finished entities. Again, the notion of regions is not far. Conrad-Martius refers to the region of these potentialities that are the source of actual entities as the trans-physical potential realm (see section 3.5). In some sense, the distinction between the hyletic and the pneumatic seems to cut along the lines of living and non-living, although pneumatic in the strict sense refers to “the eidos of I-ness” (section 3.7)). Two qualifications are necessary: 1) we are talking about the sources of living and non-living beings, and so not of a living or non-living being. The basis for, e.g. the essence-analysis of matter is not empirical matter (e.g. the chemical elements). 2) It would be wrong to think of matter along the lines of dead, brute stuff. As Hart insists, finished material being like all nature is self-generative. The difference between living and non-living is more that essences of living beings are uniquely delivered over to them to become (88). The analysis of organic nature occupies much of the beginning of chapter four, which unfortunately I can’t consider further here. That discussion treats HCM’s position in debates within biology between wholism and preformism, her understanding of evolution and genetics, and the important concept of entelechy and related notions of causality, power, and energy. If interested, see sections 4.1-4.4.

Whereas not all finished entities share in pneumatic substance, all of nature participates in hyletic being (83). According to Conrad-Martius, there are two paradoxical but intertwined moments of material being. One is an ecstatic self-othering such that nothing remains behind; the other is an absolute sinking inwards. The first is a potency that “inexhaustibly releasing or scattering, the other is inexhaustibly sinking or centering” (102). The two are intimately bound together in a reciprocal relationship such that Hart can dub hyle a “selfless being-burdened-with-itself.” The primary reason for highlighting this distinction here is the important role that it plays in the context of several other discussions. It is crucial for her interpretation of quantum physics and the notion of aether (section 4.5), is generative of her conception of space, and representative of the various metaphysical regions of the cosmos. The treatment of space begins with a modified version of the Kantian antinomies. For her, the problem of infinite space—that I can neither conceive of space as ending nor of it as endless—is a product of the transcendental given-along-with of the milieu in perception. But it does indicate a paradox in the act of making space, namely that of how the untraversable because immeasurable, what HCM calls the apeiron, becomes traversable and measurable, or turns into metric space. I think what she is getting at is the problem of how, without a pre-existing definite dimension, a being comes to have definite dimensions. The solution is similar to the one we saw in the case of time. Just as time follows upon the mode of existence of a being, space follows upon the kind of being that something is (e.g. 182). More specifically, “space is the dimension created by hyletic being in its substantial self-transcendence” (84). Hart points out that the German verb räumen, the nominative of which [Raum] is German word for “space,” can mean to clear out or to make room, which is the fundamental meaning of space as the dimension that follows outwardly upon the ecstatic self-othering and inwardly on the sinking inwards of hyletic substance (85). For more, see section 3.8.

C. The Fundamental Structures: The Aeonic World-Periphery and World-Center. I have outlined HCM’s position that time follows on the mode of existence of a thing and space on the kind of being something is. I have pointed to the notion of “itselfness” as the potential for a being to be (existence) and to be what it is (essence), and have indicated that in each case, the question of sources, structures, and regions is not far. All of these topics together led to what is maybe the central topic of HCM’s philosophy of nature, namely the pre-finished sources, both actual and potential, that are responsible for nature’s coming to be and the regions that they inhabit. In chapter four (4.4), Hart treats the notions of causality and the relationship between actuality and potentiality. Central to the notion of causality is that the cause must be proportionate and appropriate to its effect. Otherwise, the effect can never come about. One of the ways in which a cause is proportionate to its effect is that in order to be capable of setting the power into motion, it must itself be in motion. This rehashes the ancient doctrine of actuality and potentiality. The question then arises: whence these trans-physical, trans-empirical pre-finished actualities that set the corresponding potentialities into motion such that we have, e.g., the motion of time, the paradoxical duality of matter, the generation of particular entities? Whence the potencies themselves? As Hart puts it, “a question that is at the heart of the cosmology and ontology of Conrad-Martius: What is the ontological place or point from out of which substantial being or the whole of nature unfolds itself into the essential forms of the cosmos? This is not meant to be a genetic question within or previous to finished nature. It is a question about essential structures” (80).

There is no way to do this question justice here. It’ll have to suffice to indicate in broad strokes the architecture of these regions. It’s worth saying again that the notion of “region” is metaphorical. The structures of finished nature are not themselves finished nature, and so are not 3D. Generally, all motions require an actualizing feature and a hyletic ground on, in, and through which to act. The motion of nature’s self-genesis with all of the other motions that this implies is no difference. For this, HCM conceives of two foundational regions (which correspond to matter’s ecstatic and instatic moments) of the world-center and the world-periphery. The world-periphery is the place of the essence-entelechies that actualize the world, as well as the ever actual source of the real motion of time (there is an interesting parallel here to Aristotle’s prime mover). The world-center, on the other hand, is the hyletic dimension on which the actualizing powers act. With the notions of regions, we come back to the theological promise I pointed to in the previous section, namely, that of finding ontological referents for Christian cosmological notions. Related to these regions are, for example, referents for the notion of the New Heaven and New Earth. This is a crude sketch of the cornerstone of HCM’s thinking, but it’ll have to do here. See chapter five for more.

Concluding Remarks

The remarks of the last section are by no means exhaustive, but give an overview of the major themes of Conrad-Martius’ thought as Hart presents it, which the interested reader should be able to use for orientation in the book. While I get the impression that Hart faithfully portrays Conrad-Martius’ thought, and while I don’t envy the task of summarizing the life’s work of a metaphysician, there are a few facets of the book that are underwhelming. As I indicated at points in the previous section, Hart’s exposition can be hard to follow. In a certain way, this is unavoidable. Part of the difficulty lies in becoming acquainted with HCM as a thinker, any evaluation of whom demands a thorough familiarity with the natural sciences. It’s also necessary to get used to her idiosyncratic terminology. In another way, however, there are sections in which terms are confusing, formulations are exchanged without explanation, and the explanandum sometimes seems to drop out of sight. It is not always clear when Hart is paraphrasing or providing commentary, so it can be difficult to parse out exactly what his contribution is verses what a given thinker is arguing (though I stress that materials are always adequately cited). I suspect that this is the culprit behind errors such as the one in the first full paragraph on pg. 11 in which the example changes halfway through from “cabinet” to “table.” On that note, there are numerous and frequent typographical errors that, because of their frequency, can be distracting. For stretches of the book, errors in punctuation occur on nearly every page and sometimes multiple times per page. One of the most frequent errors, substituting the word “or” when the context calls for “of,” occurs four times in the concluding five sentences of the book. Hart tells us in his preface that the book is the belatedly published version of his 1972 doctoral thesis and that, for practical reasons, he couldn’t update it. Many of these errors I think, are reflective of that.

At any rate, I am grateful to have the dissertation in published form. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that HCM is a marginally known figure, and that at the time of its publication it was the only extended treatment of Conrad-Martius’ thought in English. If the last few years are any indication, the situation is changing. Since the publication of Hart’s book, the Springer Series Women in the History of Philosophy and Sciences, of which Hart’s work is the fifth volume, has published another book-length collection of essays by Ronny Miron on Conrad-Martius’ thought.[1] The Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists at the Universität Paderborn whose director, Ruth Hagengruber is an editor for the Springer Series, is conducting a project called “Women in Early Phenomenology,” one of the goals of which is to foreground and make available Conrad-Martius’ oeuvre.[2] There is also, of course, anecdotal evidence—a panel dedicated to her thought at a prominent conference, a reading group dedicated to her work, etc.—of an increasing interest.

Can her work gain broad traction? Hedwig Conrad-Martius is as unconventional a thinker as she is comprehensive and profound. As far as I know, she is the only western philosopher of the 20th century (besides maybe Whitehead) to attempt in conversation with the natural sciences a comprehensive philosophy of nature in terms of its essential structures. We may have to go back as far as St. Thomas to find someone else who attempts it from an explicitly Christian perspective. The climate in academia may not be amenable such a project. In an era of specialization, of general (warranted or not) suspicion of eidetic claims, following a century of the devaluation of philosophy in scientific practice, with all of the old doubts concerning the possibility of a Christian philosophy, this explicitly theological, comprehensive philosopher of the essence of nature might seem like an odd one out. In some ways, that is precisely what makes her extremely refreshing. And beyond the vicissitudes of the Zeitgeist, there are the perennial questions of the whence and whither of our coming to be, questions that Conrad-Martius is asking. I, for one, am eager to see her answers heeded.


[1]     Ronny Miron: Hedwig Conrad-Martius: The Phenomenological Gateway to Reality (Springer 2021).

[2]https://historyofwomenphilosophers.org/project/women-in-early-phenomenology/