Thomas Fuchs: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind Book Cover Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press
2017
Paperback
370

Reviewed by:  Elodie Boublil (Alexander von Humboldt Fellow-Universität zu Köln)

What makes us persons?

By developing an “ecological approach” of the brain, Thomas Fuchs, who is Karl Jaspers Professor of Philosophical Foundations at the Psychiatry Clinic of the University of Heidelberg, demonstrates the powerful illustration that phenomenology is not only relevant for contemporary neurosciences; it also provides human and natural sciences with an accurate description of the phenomenon of embodied cognition. Indeed, Ecology of the Brain. The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind, which is a revised version of a book published in 2007 (Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan), is faithful to the Husserlian claim that considers phenomenology as a grounding science.

Fuchs rightly shows that the phenomenological analysis of the brain he undertakes impacts not only on intellectual endeavors in contemporary neurosciences but also displays significant results for medical sciences such as psychiatry, and human sciences such as cultural studies and developmental psychology. The book displays two central theses: the brain is “an organ of relation, interaction, mediation, and resonance”; the mind-body problem is solved by Fuchs’ “theory of the dual aspect of the living being: both as a lived or subjective body and as a living or objective body.” This holistic yet differentiated approach ultimately leads to a libertarian conception of free will, embedded into —yet not reducible to—its biological, social and cultural determinants. Consequently, Fuchs’s book is not only a breakthrough in the philosophy of cognitive sciences. It also opens up a decisive ethical reflection on the worldview that underlies contemporary epistemology. As Fuchs boldly shows it: “The acid test of every epistemology is, when all is said and done, the intersubjective relationship” (27).

The first part of the book aims to defeat the arguments that support neurobiological reductionism and the representationalist concepts that support it. The representationalist paradigm considers that what we call reality is always reconstructed in the brain thanks to neuronal processes. According to such framework, the world is a fictitious entity reconstructed by the subject’s brain. Fuchs refutes this theory by showing the relevance of three phenomenological key ideas: embodied perception, the distinction between the lived body and the physical body, and the co-constitution of the life-world that is an objective shared reality. As Fuchs states: “human reality is therefore always co-constituted or, as we might say, “interenacted” (…). We live in a shared objective reality because we continuously “interenact” it through our joint activities and participatory sense-making.” (27).

The first chapter titled “Cosmos in the head?” denounces the contradiction inherent to neurobiological reductionism, namely the idea according to which world’s perception is reducible to some representations the brain would produce.  According to Fuchs and following ecological theories (Gibson, Thompson, Varela), perception relies on enaction, which is the capacity of a living organism to co-create its environment and constantly adjust to it. This capacity of self-production named autopoiesis requires the contribution of our body, making the embodied nature of cognition a prerequisite to any form of perception. Subjectivity is irreducible to brain processes. As Fuchs puts it:

“nowhere is the subject found in the brain. Rather, the brain is the organ, which mediates our relationship towards the world, to other people, and ourselves. The brain is the mediator making the world accessible to us, and the transformer connecting our perceptions and movements. However, in isolation, the brain would be just a dead organ.” (xvii).

The second chapter demonstrates that intentional consciousness indeed is not reducible to neuronal processes. In phenomenological terms, “consciousness is the presence of the world for a subject” (33). Drawing on the notions of self-affection and intentionality, Fuchs shows that consciousness shall not be reified, as it is always oriented toward goals and meaningful actions, able to integrate the spatiotemporal features of its environment. Perception amounts to the living body’s engagement with the world, not to the “picture” her brain would make of reality. Moreover, our conception of free will is contingent upon the description we make of the causal relations between the mind and physiological processes. Fuchs warns us against the ethical risk conveyed by the determinism proclaimed by neurosciences: “De-anthropomorphizing nature would turn into the complete naturalization of the human being” (xv). The challenge is then to give a scientifically accurate description of the brain while making room for free will and the co-constitution of the lifeworld.

The notions of “dual aspectivity” and “circular causality” developed in the second part of the book are meant to overcome neurobiological reductionism, by introducing a “mediated monism,” able to describe the “integral causality by which living beings become the causes of their conscious enactments of life” (xix). Indeed, in the following chapter, Fuchs elaborates, and ecological theory of the brain understood as “an organ of a living being in its environment” in order to make possible a scientific theory of the brain that is compatible with our first and second person experiences in the lifeworld.

Chapter 3 focuses on the notion of embodied subjectivity and introduces the idea of “dual aspectivity.” The living person is a “dialectical unity of the “subjective body” (Leib) and the “objective body” (Körper)” (91). Relying on phenomenological conceptions of the lived body (Leib) and self-affection, Fuchs recalls that the subjective body is the background of all experiences. Drawing on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Fuchs explains that: “the subjective body is the ensemble of all skills and capacities at our disposal. As “habitual body” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 71), it contains the preliminary drafts of our enactments of life and thus conveys the founding experience of “I can” (Husserl 1989, 266)” (73). However, persons “are also lived body for others,” and his phenomenological description rightly stresses this intersubjective aspect of the embodiment. Intercorporeity is the basis of our experience, whereas objectification – for instance in the scientific examination of the body of others – is secondary. The subjective body and the body apprehended as “living organism” are not opposed to each other. Rather there is a “fundamental coextensivity of subjective body and physical body” (211). This unity is most articulated in the concept of “capacity” that Fuchs takes up from Aristotle: “on the basis of existing capacities a new situational coherence of organism and environment is created” (101). Therefore, as autopoietic systems, living organisms are both differentiated from and continuously related to their environment. Each stimulus leads to the reconfiguration of the entire system thanks to a circular causality that links together the various levels of experience. The brain consequently plays a crucial role in this process, as an organ of mediation and transformation.

Chapter 4 investigates what Fuchs calls the phenomenon of “resonance” between the brain and the living organism. Indeed, after relying on the phenomenological experience to put forward the idea of embodied cognition, Fuchs goes back to the reductionist argument he is opposing and designs the role and status of the brain anew. Fuchs notices the persistence and prevalence of the representationalist concepts even in the neuroscientific frameworks that aim to take our lived experience and intercorporeity into account. An accurate description of the brain’s functions and its relation to the living organism is required in order to escape the representationalist paradigm and to overcome the idea that consciousness is located in the brain. Bodily resonance is strongly at play in inter-affectivity and emotional responses and leads one to think that consciousness is an overarching structure of the living person that involves the entire organism. In such a context, the brain operates as an organ “of regulation and perception for the entire organism” (147). As Fuchs puts it:

“The central function of the brain for the experiencing and acting living creature consists in transforming configurations of individual elements into resonant patterns that form the basis of integral acts of life. Thus, the brain becomes the organ of mediation, between, on the one hand, the microscopic world of material-physiological processes and, on the other, the macroscopic world of living creatures” (169).

Chapter 5 then focuses on this “macroscopic world of living creatures” by exploring the “brain as an organ of the person.” By looking at contemporary findings in developmental psychology, Fuchs aims to demonstrate the validity of his theory of “resonance” in the context of the development of inter-affectivity. Experiences concerning the role of intercorporeity in early childhood and attachment theory as well as studies related to the development of secondary intersubjectivity through joint attention strongly back up Fuchs’s claims. Locating the mind “in the brain” constitute a logical and naturalistic fallacy. Rather, the brain becomes the “organ of the mind” in the sense that it mediates its interactions with our environment and other living beings, including most importantly other human beings. Indeed, Fuchs’s account shows that intersubjectivity is key to the development of the brain, considering its neuroplasticity and recent findings in epigenetics. Such theory bears significant ethical and social consequences regarding education theory and cultural studies. As Fuchs states: “the brain becomes a social, cultural, and biographically shaped organ” (175). The biological level and the social and intercorporeal levels are intertwined from prenatal development:

“in neural terms, this means that every interaction with others, by means of synaptic learning, leaves traces at the neural level; of course, not in the form of localizable, stored “memories”, “images”, or “representations” of the interactions or attachment figures, but in the form of dispositions to perceive, feel, and behave in certain ways” (203).

In Chapter 6, Fuchs goes back to the concept of dual aspectivity in order to draw its implications for a theory of free will. The brain is thus presented as an “organ of relations,” and the mind-body problem rephrased as “body-body problem,” that is to say as a matter of articulating the subjective body (Leib) and the objective body (Körper) in personal individuation. A phenomenology of decision-making shows that the mind is not disconnected from its environment and physiological background and does not intervene and modify reality, as a deus ex machina would do. Claiming the embodied nature of any decision does not mean denying freedom. Rather, it shows that one is potentially free provided she learns through her development to acquire sufficient capacities for inhibition and reflection, which are decisive to personal emancipation and responsibility. The brain supports such a process, as it is an “organ of capacities.”

Consequently, “taking a decision is not the intervention of an autonomous self, but the activity of an embodied subject which must have learned and incorporated the capacities for inhibition and reflection in the course of his biography. Free will is thus a complex capacity of human agents whose components can only be acquired and practiced through a self-cultivation in the course of social interactions” (263). Such understanding impacts on medicine and particularly on psychiatry and its therapeutic practices. Indeed, if the mind is neither purely spiritual nor material but the complex and individuated expression of a mutual implication of the subjective body and the objective body, then medicine should take into consideration both the intercorporeal basis of any encounter and interaction and the plasticity of the brain due to its biological, ecological and personal embedding.

Chapter 7 addresses thereby, more specifically, the implications of the ecological theory of the brain for contemporary psychiatry and psychological medicine, which are mostly influenced by neurobiological reductionism. As Fuchs explains, neuropsychiatry considers that mental illness results from brain disorders that seem to be localizable in the brain. Moreover, the patient is seen as an autonomous individual separated from her environment and relationships. In light of the previous refutation of the dualist framework, Fuchs aims to provide here a new understanding of mental illness able to encompass all the aspects aforementioned, namely the mutual implication of the biological, psychological and intersubjective levels. Therapeutic practices should be grounded into a relational medicine that grasps the meaning associated by the patient with her relationships, situation or condition. As Fuchs puts it: “Depression results from a perceived loss of meaning and social resonance, not from a lack of serotonin” (285). An ecological conception of mental illness must address the dual aspect of the person, “as the living unity and personal organism.” “The existential dimension of self-recognition, relationship, and meaning, which is crucial for every type of intensive therapy, is beyond the reach of neuroscientific methods. Thus, psychotherapy will never become a branch of applied neurobiology. Its essential grounding sciences remain psychology, hermeneutics, and the social sciences and humanities overall” (299).

Chapter 8 summarizes the main achievements realized throughout the book and recalls the most important claim made by Fuchs:  “It is erroneous to identify the brain with the human subject and to look inside for what makes up the person. What essentially characterizes a human person is being in relationships. (…) A person is not a localizable part of the body but is embodied and animate. We do not exist a second time inside ourselves. Human persons have brains, but they are not brains” (301). The brain mediates the various levels of experience but is not equivalent to concepts such as subjectivity, self or personhood. The naturalization of the concept of the human person leads to “self-reification” and represents an ethical danger that does not even fit with the reality of our interpersonal relations. Fuchs’s enterprise shall be praised for its clarity, rigor but also for reminding us of an evident yet dangerously lost experience:

“to truly become themselves, human persons must become real for one another. This is arguably the most profound reason to regard the conception of the subject as a construction of the brain as nothing else but the human person’s depersonalization. For persons are the primordial phenomenon: that is, what shows itself, and what it is present in its very appearing. I hear the other’s thoughts in his words. Grasping his hand, I give him my hand. Looking into his eyes, I see him. We are not the figments of our brains, but human persons in the flesh” (291).

At the end of the first chapter, Fuchs declares: “In the last analysis, the question of what is “really real”—physical matter instead of animated bodies, brains instead of selves, neural computation instead of conscious experience—is an ethical question.” Indeed, it seems that the ethical impact of The Ecology of the Brain should not be underestimated. Four ethical implications should be briefly discussed:

1/ Fuchs’s work recalls the fact that an anthropological and metaphysical picture of the human being lies behind any scientific account of the latter;

2 / a reductionist account of the human being based on neurobiology could lead to new individual and social forms of alienation, especially considering its prevalence in the design of new therapeutic practices which deny the role of intersubjectivity and social interactions in the mental disease;

3/ the picture of the human being presented in the book echoes Simondon’s work on individuation. Simondon explicitly elaborated a concept of “resonance” that builds ethical and existential considerations onto an analysis of perception that is ontogenetic and that draws on Aristotle’s notion of capacity;

4/ Finally, in the context of contemporary moral issues, the reader would benefit from a particular focus on the differences between the notions of living beings, human beings and persons and notably their ontological implications.

The contributions of the German philosophical anthropology to the debates on the ethical significance of the scientific picture of the human being—as evidenced by the reference to Plessner—constitute indeed productive resources to reconsider the self-proclaimed ethical neutrality of neurosciences. As Edith Stein explained in her lessons on the human person, every picture of the human being implies a metaphysical worldview whether it is a nihilistic, an existentialist, a religious or a political one has to be determined. Nevertheless, reflecting on the human being implies meaning ascription and providing a general framework to make sense of her development and her social environment and relations. This is, even more, the case when one has to design therapeutic practices that draw—consciously or unconsciously—on a preconceived distinction between what is normal and what is pathological. In such a context, The Ecology of the Brain questions the pervasiveness of chemical treatments when they are not associated with psychotherapeutic practices taking into account inter-affectivity and the history of the patient and her relations. The relational dimension of any human reality, as described notably by Fuchs in the second part of the book calls inevitably for further reflections in medical ethics and investigations into the medical policies implemented by states, notably in the care strategies related to psycho-trauma. The powerful demonstration in support of a relational ontology featured in this book echoes the works written by French philosopher Gilbert Simondon who developed a conception of individuation that explicitly takes into account these ethical and social implications. To Simondon, one must overcome the hylemorphic and dualist framework that does not capture the reality of individuation processes. Drawing on a renewed conception of information Simondon explains that the person is the result of a “metastable” process of individuation. The pre-individual is a creative and generative force that perpetually decenters and recomposes its individual instantiations. The living organism is characterized by its plasticity, and the challenge is to think together the individuating movement of life and the instantiation of meanings that impact on it and transform potentialities into actions:

“The living being preserve in it an act of permanent individuation; it is not only a result of individuation, like the crystal or the molecule but a theater of individuation. So every activity of the living being is not, like that of the physical individual, concentrated at its limit; there exists in it a more complete regime of internal resonance requiring permanent communication, and metastability which is a condition of life.” (L’Individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information, p. 28)

Drawing on Aristotle in his lessons on perception, Simondon explains further that the idea of “capacity” does not amount to a logical possibility or a representation. It is a “force that becomes a tendency of the living being,” a “desire.” “The individual life relies on differentiation insofar as it relies on integration” (IFI, p. 163). Simondon calls this process “transduction.” “Transduction” describes the operation by which a system passes from one state to another by re-articulating the stages of its development, transindividuality designates this capacity of the subject to adapt and transform, thanks to pre-individual potentialities, and according to the crises which destabilize its existence and punctuate its psychic individuation. It is therefore not a question of objectifying or actualizing a possibility, but rather of potentiating an existing structure in order to extract a new relation to oneself and to the world: “Perception is not the seizure of a form, but the solution of a conflict, the discovery of a compatibility, the invention of a form.” (IFI, 235)  “All the functions of the living are ontogenetic to some extent, not only because they ensure an adaptation to an external world, but because they participate in this permanent individuation that is life. The individual lives to the extent that it continues to individuate, and it individuates through the activity of memory as through imagination or abstract inventive thinking” (IFI, 209). Therefore, it seems that Simondon provided us with a philosophical and anthropological conception of life that would complement Fuchs’s account or at least bridge the gap between the relational ontology that is here phenomenological uncovered yet not explicitly addressed, and its ethical implications for science and technology. Indeed, our picture of embodiment and embodied cognition impacts on any debates on the dignity of the person and the respect of life. The materialistic and reductionist views of embodiment seem to lead to a new kind of Gnosticism fantasizing about an invulnerable subject disconnected from its intercorporeal reality. Fuchs’s book makes a decisive breakthrough in leading us to question the grounds and legitimacy of our technological and “ethically neutral” postmodern lives, as well as the urgency to reflect on what makes us persons, namely becoming free, in the world, with others.

Maria Baghramian, Sarin Marchetti (Eds.): Pragmatism and the European Traditions

Pragmatism and the European Traditions: Encounters with Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology before the Great Divide Book Cover Pragmatism and the European Traditions: Encounters with Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology before the Great Divide
Routledge Studies in American Philosophy
Maria Baghramian, Sarin Marchetti (Eds.)
Routledge
2017
Hardback £92.00
294

Reviewed by: Devin R Fitzpatrick (University of Oregon)

Academic philosophy’s self-conception has long been dominated by divisions: between “analytic” and “Continental,” Frege and Husserl, Russell and James. In Pragmatism and the European Traditions, editors Maria Baghramian and Sarin Marchetti offer an alternative narrative of 20th-century philosophy, one defined by meaningful exchanges and intersections rather than clearly defined opposing camps. Analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology are presented as “three philosophical revolutions,” as the editors write in their Introduction, whose “comprehensive story” of “multivoiced conversations” has gone untold (3). As the title suggests, the editors unite these divided histories by emphasizing pragmatism’s historical role “as a facilitator” of “dialogues and exchanges” (5). This structure lends welcome coherence to the collection: pragmatism’s influence on both phenomenology and analytic philosophy allows a narrative that intertwines all three traditions to naturally unfold.

But the editors do not see pragmatism’s role as mediator as an accident of history. Rather, they argue, pragmatism “possesses a distinct intellectual temperament that lies equidistant between the analytic demand for clarity, rigor, and respect for the natural sciences and the Phenomenological emphasis on lived experience and its subjective manifestation” (2). The implication seems clear: pragmatism as a methodology may serve us today in bridging the silent chasms that still divide academic philosophy. This volume’s purposes are thus both descriptive, as a history of forgotten connections, and normative, as a guide to forging new connections today.

I believe that Pragmatism and the European Traditions largely succeeds in its first task but less so in its second. I accept their distinction between analytic philosophy, pragmatism, and phenomenology as three traditions as articulating a reality of how philosophy is often taught. For a scholar of any of the three traditions under discussion, many chapters are thus illuminating, particularly Chapter 5, by James Levine on Russell, and Chapter 9, by James O’Shea on Lewis and Sellars. It is also understandable to position pragmatism as a mediator: this is pragmatism’s self-conception. But several articles on classical pragmatism are undermined by their lack of attention to neopragmatic criticisms. The editors intend to write a “companion volume” (6) that focuses on neopragmatism. But in this volume, they neglect a pressing problem for their normative task of mediation: as the volume exposes, pragmatism itself remains a house divided.

In Chapter 1, Richard Cobb-Stevens argues that the divergent readings of William James by Husserl and Wittgenstein better explain the methodological differences between phenomenology and analytic philosophy than the more commonly cited Husserl-Frege debate over psychologism. Cobb-Stevens convincingly shows not only the well-known connections between James’s concept of “fringes” and Husserl’s “horizons,” but between their accounts of time-consciousness. The “first-person” methodology beginning in lived experience which the pragmatist and phenomenologist share in this account is contrasted with Wittgenstein’s claim that linguistic competence better explains our sense of time. Wittgenstein’s approach yields a “third-person” methodology that rejects intuition, in Wittgenstein’s quoted words, as an “unnecessary shuffle” (34). Cobb-Stevens bridges this divide by defining a concept as “the intuited intelligibility of a thing or situation (its look) as disclosed in language” (32) and suggesting, following Thomas Nagel, that the task of philosophy is to reconcile these two methodologies, perhaps thereby reconciling the traditions under discussion.

I note two criticisms. First, Cobb-Stevens’s discussion of Husserl and James’s views on the ego does not distinguish between the transcendental and empirical egos, a distinction central to Husserl’s transcendental method and arguably in tension with Jamesian pragmatism. The notion of a “first-person” methodology may be overly reductive if it blurs this difference. Second, Cobb-Stevens’s criticism of Wittgenstein misses the distinction between causal mechanism and normative justification. It may be that the structure of perception has some causal effect on the structure of predication. But does “intuitive intelligibility” count as knowledge? Is a discursive appeal to it necessary to make the use of a concept count as correct? If not, isn’t inserting intuition into the definition of a concept an “unnecessary shuffle”? This is the gist of Sellars’s critique of the “myth of the given.” Cobb-Stevens cites Sellars positively without acknowledging the possibility of this Sellarsian criticism. Cobb-Stevens claims that James, unlike the British empiricists, is not vulnerable to Wittgenstein’s similar “shuffle” objection, but his defense of James centers on claims like: “We have something to say only because we have pre-linguistic experiences that we bring to language” (32). This is a claim about how knowledge originates, not how it is justified. At stake in this methodological divide is the justification of knowledge claims. If what counts as knowledge is settled in the public domain of linguistic concepts without appeal to intuition, then “first-person” philosophy will take at best a subordinate role in this philosophical reconciliation.

In Chapter 2, Kevin Mulligan shifts the focus from Husserl’s reception of pragmatism to Scheler’s lesser-known but comprehensive response. Mulligan neatly categorizes Scheler’s position: distinguishing between the “world of common sense and the world of science” (37), Scheler concedes to pragmatism that objects in both worlds are relative objects, the former relative to human bodies and drives and the latter to living beings in general. This “essential interdependence of types of act and types of object” (46) is for Scheler a truth of phenomenology and an insight for which he praises pragmatism. However, Scheler counters pragmatism by claiming that truth and knowledge are absolute and, moreover, that the objects of philosophy are these absolute and essential truths.

I welcome Mulligan’s sophisticated analysis of Scheler’s still-relevant perspective on classical pragmatism, long untranslated into English. As to Mulligan’s legitimate concerns with the epistemic or ontological status of existential relativity in Scheler, it may help to consider that the objective truth that Scheler defends against pragmatism is what grounds his ethics. If Scheler is thinking of values when he discusses existentially relative objects of which we have absolute knowledge, then Mulligan might look to Manfred Frings, who cites Scheler’s dissertation to claim that there cannot be for Scheler an ontological account of value.[1] I add only a gentle note that in rigorous scholarship, I hope authors will cease to use, or editors will question, phrasing like “crazy” (37) and “wears the trousers” (59).

Chapters 3 through 5 are thematically linked and so I will not consider them individually, but instead reflect on how their authors might inform one another’s positions. In Chapter 3, Colin Koopman sidesteps the traditional conflict between classical pragmatism’s emphasis on experience and neopragmatism’s emphasis on language, asserting that James and Wittgenstein’s most relevant commonality is their emphasis on conduct. To think in terms of conduct is to think contextually and, in contrast to metaphysical idealism, to think of context-change or expansion as contingent and not logically necessitated. Koopman contrasts this resistance to idealism and emphasis on contingency in Wittgenstein and the early James against Brandom’s focus on the semantic. Conduct is for Koopman not reducible to speech-act pragmatics: there is “conceptual richness” even where we “remain rapt in our silence” (81). But he also claims that this comparison exposes a divide between the earlier pragmatic James and the later metaphysical James, whose radical empiricism succumbs, like classical empiricism, to the Sellarsian critique of the myth of the given. If pragmatism “cashes out metaphysics into practical differences” (73), then, according to Koopman, James should reject his Bergsonian appeal to pure knowledge disconnected from use.

In Chapter 4, Tim Button considers the contrasting responses of James and Schiller to the Russell-Stout objection and concludes that Schiller’s humanism falls to the objection whereas James surmounts it by an appeal to naïve realism, at the cost of undermining a pragmatic argument for God’s existence. The Russell-Stout objection concerns an account of the content of the claim “Other minds exist”: if the validity of this claim depends on a fact external to my own experience, and if its truth is distinct from that of the claim “For me, other minds exist,” then a “locked-in phenomenalist” (86) account of truth and meaning which cannot appeal to external facts is erroneous. Button argues that Schiller is effectively a locked-in phenomenalist and that his distinction between primary (internal) and secondary (external) reality is an inadequate defense against Russell-Stout because, for Schiller, references to secondary reality are still references to what I have constructed. James, despite some mixed messages, overcomes the objection by identifying as a naïve realist and enabling reference to a reality external to the individual subject’s constructions. However, Button continues, if the claim that other minds exist appeals to an external reality, then plausibly so too does the claim that God exists. To be consistent, then, James must reject a pragmatic justification of claims for God’s existence.

In Chapter 5, James Levine provides a comprehensive history of the evolution of Russell’s thought that portrays him not as an implacable foe of pragmatism, but as eventually and intentionally incorporating pragmatic ideas to become a forerunner of linguistic pragmatism. Levine categorizes Russell’s thought into three periods: after his Moorean break with idealism, in which he strongly opposes pragmatism; after the Peano conference, wherein he rejects the foundationalism of his Moorean epistemology in favor of fallibilism and coherentism; and during and after prison, in which he begins to privilege use over meaning and, further, claim that meaning “’distilled out’ of use” is ineluctably “’vague’ or indeterminate” (112). Russell initially makes a strict distinction between the meaning and the criterion of truth, arguing that the latter depends upon the former’s having precise content. But this hierarchy inverts as Russell comes to reject his theory of acquaintance, for which acquaintance with an entity is a prerequisite for labeling it, “thereby securing a precise meaning for the word we now use to stand for that entity” (130). By claiming that meaning follows use, Russell trades precision for vagueness and anticipates the insights of Quine and the later Wittgenstein by taking a, in Quine’s words, “’behavioral view of meaning’” (112). On this basis, Levine challenges Brandom’s history of philosophy, which emphasizes Russell’s early views in opposition to pragmatism.

Taking the previous three chapters together raises two questions for Button. First, if Koopman is right that James’s radical empiricism conflicts with James’s pragmatism, then does naïve realism not also conflict with pragmatism? If so – if one of the strengths of pragmatism is its rejection of what Rorty calls “sky-hooks,” guarantees of discursive truth that are external to discourse, which naïve realism serves to provide and which are notoriously vulnerable to skepticism – then the problem that ascribing to naïve realism raises for a pragmatic justification of God’s existence extends to pragmatic justification in general. Moreover, if James’s overcoming of Russell-Stout comes at the cost of an unwitting rejection of pragmatism, I would hesitate to call it a success. Second, does not the weight of the Russell-Stout objection depend implicitly on Russell’s theory of acquaintance, which secures the precise content of “Other minds exist”? If we reject the theory of acquaintance, as Levine says that Russell eventually does, then the proposition “Other minds exist” may not be functioning as a direct reference to an external reality, in which case I suspect that the objection could be defused. Perhaps pragmatism must reject naïve realism to remain coherent, and perhaps that is a strength.

In Chapter 6, Cheryl Misak discusses Ramsey’s reception of Peirce’s pragmatism and how, were it not for Ramsey’s untimely death, the analytic reception of pragmatism and the debate over the relation between truth and success might have been reshaped for the better. Misak compares Peirce’s account of truth to deflationism and claims that Peirce contributes the normative insight that asserting truth means also “asserting that [the belief] stands up to reasons now and we bet that it would continue to do so” (159). Ramsey, following Peirce, does not think that claiming that one’s belief is true is merely redundant, but distinguishes between what Misak refers to as “the generalizing and endorsing functions of the truth predicate” (164). Ramsey thus teaches the contemporary disquotationalist to become a pragmatist and to consider the multiple functions of the concept of truth. Misak’s account is a succinct and compelling summary of a neglected and informative intersection between pragmatism and the analytic tradition.

In Chapter 7, Anna Boncompagni hones in on an overlooked 1930 remark by Wittgenstein on pragmatism and develops the historical account of Wittgenstein’s reception of pragmatism and of Ramsey’s influence on Wittgenstein. In the remark, Wittgenstein identifies “’the pragmatist conception of true and false’” with “the idea that ‘a sentence is true as long as it proves to be useful’” (168). Boncompagni explains that Wittgenstein is concerned with accounting for the “hypothetical nature of sentences” (170) in ordinary language: propositions point to the future, not to the present moment of verification, because they embody “expectations of future possible experiences” (172). She concludes that though Ramsey’s conversations with Wittgenstein likely induced the latter to be more receptive to pragmatism, considering Ramsey’s positive reception of Peirce, Wittgenstein continued to reject pragmatism as “an encompassing vision of the real meaning of ‘truth’” (179) due to the influence of the prevailing Cambridge response to Jamesian pragmatism. Boncompagni adds nuance to the historical account of the analytic reception of pragmatism and encourages greater attention to Ramsey’s role, which Misak’s previous chapter elucidates.

In Chapter 8, John Capps refocuses the relation between pragmatism and expressivism away from Dewey’s rejection of Ayer’s emotivism and toward C. L. Stevenson’s 1944 Ethics and Language, which was shaped by Deweyan pragmatism. Dewey’s Theory of Valuation objects against Ayer that ethical assertions do not merely express feelings because there is no “mere” expression of feeling that does not also involve a response to circumstances and a request for a response. Capps rightly observes that this conflict comes down to the fact/value distinction: whereas for Ayer science “deals with facts alone” (194), for Dewey science can play a normative role in developing ethical judgment. Capps positions Stevenson as reconciling this conflict: though ethical judgments are primarily attitudinal rather than expressions of beliefs, ethical judgment may also serve a “descriptive function” that is “sensitive to evidence and argument” and “tempers the idea that ethical assertions are neither true nor false” (Ibid). Capps attributes Dewey’s strong position on science’s ethical relevance, and thus his greatest difference from Stevenson, to his working with the logical empiricists on the topic of unified science.

While I appreciate Capps’s attention to this philosophical juncture, I worry that he underrates the significance of the divergent Deweyan and logico-empiricist views of science. This divergence arguably drives the rise of neopragmatic accounts of normativity. It is tellingly Rortyan for Stevenson to turn to persuasion over science as driving the rational development of ethical judgments. Consider: How is Dewey’s belief that science can drive ethical development to be understood? It’s one thing to claim that science is a practice of inquiry itself normatively structured by values such as coherence, undermining a strict fact/value distinction. But it would be another thing, which does not follow from the first, to be able to leap from a scientific conclusion to an ethical conclusion. For example: No matter how precise an account of climate change a scientist offers, that account alone will not show that climate change is “bad.” That value judgment is justified otherwise. So how exactly does scientific explanation bear on ethical (or political) justification? It may be that a broad definition of science-as-inquiry obscures more about ethical judgment and deliberation than it reveals. As a Deweyan, I think the burden is on the Deweyan to carefully distinguish naturalizing ethics from committing the naturalistic fallacy.

In Chapter 9, James O’Shea offers a highlight of the volume: a clearly presented account of how Sellars improves on C. I. Lewis’s Kantian epistemological account of alternative a priori conceptual frameworks. The possibility of change in conceptual frameworks does not square easily with Kant’s claim for the universality and necessity of synthetic a priori principles. Lewis affirms the possibility of holistic conceptual redefinition that “must ultimately appeal to broadly pragmatic grounds” (208) while also recognizing that some generalizations have the status of inductive hypotheses open to falsification by evidence, not a priori criteria. However, O’Shea argues, contra Misak, that Lewis relies upon a flawed analytic/synthetic distinction that blurs the line between logical analyticity and the pragmatic a priori, and further upon an immediate grasp of a “real”/”unreal” distinction in experience, which is vulnerable to Sellars’s critique of the myth of the given. Sellars replaces the Kantian synthetic a priori with “material inference principles” that rest on his view of conceptual content, whereby having a concept is a “a matter of one’s perceptual or ‘language entry’ responses … and one’s relevant intentional actions, conforming to certain overall norm-governed patterns” (219). O’Shea concludes that Sellars provides a plausible alternative to Lewis and Quine’s views on analyticity and a priori knowledge. The chapter demonstrates significant historical and theoretical links between thinkers sometimes divided between pragmatic and analytic camps.

In Chapter 10, Alexander Klein defends a Jamesian epistemology of discovery against Quine’s epistemology of justification, stating approvingly that unlike Quine, “James cannot draw a sharp distinction between discovery and justification” and that this is essential to pragmatism itself: “all pragmatists share an emphasis on discovery as a (perhaps the) crucial locus for epistemological inquiry” (229). Though both Quine and James view knowledge as holistic and agree that “pragmatic considerations like simplicity and elegance” (228) may determine what beliefs to adopt, Quine rejects James’s position that emotions may also play a role in adopting beliefs. Klein rightly notes that this is because Quine is concerned with the justification of beliefs and does not see the emotional appeal of a belief as an acceptable justification for it. Klein argues for a “strong reading” of James as a “wishful thinker” that is incompatible with Quine: emotion is not only “useful for hypothesis generation” but may influence “belief choices” (236). In defense, Klein cites the example of Barry Marshall, a scientist who was emotionally driven to take a personal risk on research that led to his earning a Nobel Prize. According to Klein, this demonstrates that an epistemology of justification must not reject the emotion that can be central to discovery: he compares such a dispassionate epistemology to “an evolutionary explanation of a biological trait” (243) that does not account for that trait’s history and so is incomplete.

I am persuaded that Klein’s “strong reading” of James is correct, but I am not persuaded that James’s position is defensible. There are three major problems with Klein’s argument. First, even if Marshall was led to his scientific discovery by his emotions, his emotions played no obvious role in justifying his findings as true to the scientific community, which is the process of “belief choice” that concerns Quine. If I make a lucky guess about a fact, the reasons why I make the guess have nothing to do with what makes the guess true or false. Only if one denies this claim does one blur the discovery-justification distinction and engage in “wishful thinking.” Second, in defense of his view of justification, Klein cites an explanation, which is not a justification. This confusion is an unfortunate pattern in this volume. Explanations involve descriptive claims about causal mechanisms, not normative accounts of why one should take those claims to be true. If I’m asked why it rains, I describe the rain cycle; if I’m asked how I know, only then am I called to make normative claims about what one should believe and why. This double conflation of the descriptive and the normative intensifies the third problem: the implication that “all pragmatists” define epistemology in terms of discovery excludes neopragmatists like Rorty. Intentional or not, this gatekeeping serves to preserve the aforementioned confusion and evade a critical challenge. Do emotions themselves make scientific claims true? If not, how is it epistemologically relevant if emotions happen to lead to someone making scientific claims that come to be otherwise verified as true?

I cannot overstate the importance of pragmatists taking these questions, and the distinction between the descriptive and the normative, seriously in our current intellectual climate. Consider, as Klein does, evolutionary biology. The claim that values like fairness or mating preferences might causally trace their origin to our evolutionary history does not straightforwardly justify those values or preferences in any way. Why, absent a teleological (anti-Darwinian) view of nature, should what is natural be what we take to be good? This question is left unasked by influential public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson.[2] It is worth our asking.

In Chapter 11, Sami Pihlström develops a historical narrative that presents logical empiricism as developing pragmatic ideas and themes, focusing on the less-considered relations between neopragmatism and logical empiricism. Pihlström considers what he calls “Putnam’s residual Carnapianism” (253): though Putnam rejects the logical empiricist doctrines of the analytic/synthetic and fact/value dichotomies, Putnam inherits his critique of metaphysics from that philosophical legacy. Pihlström argues that scientific realism unites the concerns of pragmatism and logical empiricism, citing the Finnish logical empiricist Eino Kaila, whose embrace of James’s “will to believe” highlights the tension shared by those traditions between advocating for scientific realism and a “romantic” concern with “the possible dominance of science over other human practices” (260). This chapter weaves together seemingly disconnected themes in an intriguing and illuminating manner. I was, however, left unsure why Pihlström takes it to be necessary that pragmatists reinterpret and engage in metaphysical theorizing.

In Chapter 12, Dermot Moran surveys two intersections between phenomenology and pragmatism, detailing the Husserlian reception of James on consciousness and the neopragmatic reading of Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein. Moran notes that both intersections involve a shift toward greater contextuality, the former away from Brentano’s theory of object-intentionality toward Husserl’s horizon-intentionality and the latter away from “Cartesian style representationalist ‘spectator’ thinking” (270) toward Dreyfusian skillful coping. Moran is also careful to point out tensions between pragmatism and phenomenology. He cites Schutz’s observation that Husserl’s transcendental method is antithetical to James’s empiricism, and on neopragmatism, he emphasizes that the analytic of Dasein involves more than Zuhandenheit or readiness-to-hand: Heidegger’s “contrast between authenticity and inauthenticity” (280) suggests he is less concerned with the functioning than with the overcoming of implicit practices of the sort that Brandom theorizes or the “socially established and mutually accepted norms” (282) that operate in Rorty’s ethnocentrism. This balanced piece would have served well as an introductory chapter. Unfortunately, Moran only hints at the deeper tension between pragmatic naturalism and the transcendental phenomenological method or Heidegger’s later anti-humanism. He might have elaborated on what Husserl and Heidegger share: a transcendental move away from the starting point of everyday experience, from which one departs to discern the structures that constitute said experience.

For many analytic philosophers and neopragmatists, those experience-constituting structures are linguistic. From their perspective, an appeal to lived experience in defining a concept can be an “unnecessary shuffle” when that experience only informs discursive practices to the degree that it is already subsumed under linguistic concepts.[3] There are potential counters to this criticism: perhaps not all relevant practices are discursive or not all of what we should call knowledge is conceptual. But this conversation can only be developed to the degree that tensions are taken seriously: not only between pragmatism, phenomenology, and analytic philosophy, but within pragmatism itself.

The normative project of this volume is vital and promising. I think its promise can only be fulfilled in the coming companion volume, where neopragmatism is said to take center stage. If pragmatism’s intersections with analytic philosophy and phenomenology are more than historical curiosities, if pragmatism also provides a method for meliorating current divides between philosophical traditions, it must show that it can meliorate the divide between classical and neopragmatism still visible in this volume.


[1] Frings, Manfred. S, The Mind of Max Scheler: The First Comprehensive Guide Based on the Complete Works (Marquette University Press, 1997), 23.

[2] Pinker was challenged on this point directly by Rorty in “Philosophy-Envy,” Daedalus, Vol. 133, No. 4, On Human Nature (Fall, 2004): 18-24.

[3] This critique of classical pragmatism by neopragmatism parallels the post-structuralist and deconstructionist critiques of phenomenology. I hope this parallel is considered in the companion volume to come.

Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy: German Philosophy: A dialogue

German Philosophy: A Dialogue Book Cover German Philosophy: A Dialogue
Untimely Meditations
Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy. Edited by Jan Völker. Translated by Richard Lambert
MIT Press
2018
Paperback $12.95 T | £9.99

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan

On January 30, 2016, Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy conducted a public dialogue at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) moderated by Jan Völker. The agenda for the dialogue was Badiou’s and Nancy’s perspectives of German philosophy and of its influence on French philosophy. This book records their conversation.

In his “Afterword”, Völker wonders if something like a dialogue is ever possible between philosophers. While skeptic that a dialogue in the strong sense is possible among philosophers, he suggests that to have a philosophical dialogue is to “exhibit the presence of philosophy, to share its essence, to develop problems by debating shared concepts…it is always an address, a praxis—an invitation, a letter” (81). What a philosophical dialogue does not seem to be, is a shared effort to reach an agreement and mutual understanding.  With that in mind, we need also to remark that this book is not a discussion about the reception of 19th and 20th Century German philosophy into French philosophy in general, but a reflection on Badiou’s and Nancy’s personal and highly original relationship to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger. It is not the history of German philosophy in France, which would have to include also the influence of the different strands of neo-Kantianism, but an attempt to map the convergences and divergences between two leading French thinkers, which also happen to be the last representatives and inheritors of the great “Philosophical Moment of 1960’s”.

Völker opens the conversation stating that German philosophy plays an important role in the thought of Badiou and Nancy, while at the same time both subscribe to the idea of the timelessness of philosophy. Based on that, Völker asks from Badiou and Nancy to assess the philosophical relationship between Germany and France.

Badiou replies that philosophy is not really timelessness. There are discontinuous philosophical periods that we can locate historically and geographically.  We can speak of a Greek, an Arabic, a French (which starts with Descartes, and includes Spinoza and Leibnitz, both not French as he acknowledges), an English, a German (German Idealism), and finally a German-French period which seems to be reaching its end. This German-French period includes thinkers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy and Ricoeur, and continues in Lacan’s and Foucault’s influenced French structuralism. Characteristic of this “French period”, which represent the last stage of the German-French philosophical constellation, is the effort to release Philosophy from its academic restraints and infuse it with new life, and to orient it towards a more political role, drawing inspiration from Psychoanalysis, the Arts and Mathematics.

Nancy adopts a more historical approach. He first comments on the fact that while Völker asked about the French-German philosophical relationship, both interlocutors are French, and they represent the French tradition. Nancy stresses that the influence of German philosophy dates from the interwar period, while the Second World War and its aftermath saw the departure of Philosophy from Germany and the invigoration of French thought.  What French philosophy inherited from the German tradition was the idea that the saying of Philosophy should be present in what it is said (7), which he opposes to a Cartesian tradition advocating a neutral language.

The second movement of the dialogue pertains to Badiou’s and Nancy’s relationship with Kant.  Badiou doesn’t like Kant.  He does not like the idea that there is a limit to human cognition, nor does he like the notion of a categorical imperative or the distinction between sublime and beautiful.  Nancy offers a nuanced rebuke to Badiou. Indeed, he also finds Kant “unlovable”, but this can be explained by the fact that Kant is writing in a language which is not mature enough to express his thought. Nancy also rejects Badiou’s understanding of Kantian epistemology as placing limits to knowledge. The “thing-in-itself” is not a something unknowable hidden behind the phenomena but, in a Heideggerian spirit, the “positing of the thing as such” (15). Nancy further explains that this is pure reality, which pushes reason to seek the unconditional, even if Reason knows that it will not find it.  Badiou declines this position. Everything can be absolutely known (17).  The “thing-in-itself” is nothing but “the general system of the possible forms of multiplicity”, one that we can explore mathematically, and therefore come to know (18). To say otherwise is to open the door to obscurantism and to political enslavement.

The question of limits to knowledge serves as a cue to Völker to steer the conversation to Hegel and to the question of the negative. Völker asks: “How much system is necessary to think negatively” (21). Nancy interprets negativity as mobility. Hegel’s system is one that does not cease to systematize itself.  Even when Hegel engages into fields that seem odd today, like in his Philosophy of Nature, his purpose is to give voice to all things or to “traversing all things through language” (23).  Badiou, for his part, expresses his passionate relation to Hegel, but also his impatience with Hegel’s encyclopedist drive, which does not leave room for what is to come.  But Hegel is also a true thinker of an affirmative negativity. In this, he is, in spite of his shortcoming, our contemporary.

Nancy objects to Badiou’s affirmation of contemporaneity. We come after Hegel, and we reread him.  For Nancy, the relationship is one of reception. There is no direct encounter with a text but through those reading that already influenced our encounter. Nancy’s own reading of Hegel is mediated by a chain of tradition constituted of Derrida, Bataille, and Kojève. Nancy also objects to Badiou’s emphasis on the “exhaustive” impulse in Hegel. Nancy prefers to speak of a “process of coming to fulfillment”. He sketches the difference through a succinct discussion of Hegel’s presentation of the modern state as a “moral idea”, which already contains the idea of the disappearance of the State and its replacement with a more adequate form of “ethical idea in action”. On a more general way, Nancy reads Hegel’s like a philosophy of “infinite jouissance”.

Badiou rejects Nancy’s characterization. The “jouissance” we find in Hegel is a relationship internal to the spirit. Therefore, does not exclude the exhaustion of possibilities. Furthermore, Badiou believes that there is a big difference in the way in which he and Nancy relate to texts. Badiou characterizes his own reading as “naïve”, as seriously taking into consideration what it is said, and then to rewrite it in his own terms (30). Nancy feels compelled to defend his hermeneutical approach, shifting the question to the relationship between history and thought, and to Marx.

At this point, the moderator steers the discussion to Marx and to Marxism.  Völker asks the panelists to address the questions that Marx poses to philosophy: the question of practice, the question of the absence of Marx in contemporary critical discourse.

Badiou asks if it is adequate to characterize Marx (and also Freud) as philosophers.  Marx’s oeuvre contains philosophical ingredients but is not primarily a work of Philosophy. Furthermore, Badiou criticizes the notion of philosophical praxis and the idea—which goes back to the “Theses on Feuerbach”—which reduces philosophy to the interpretation of the world.  Badiou understands interpretation in a narrow sense, e.g., the production of myths, religions, wisdom. Philosophy, on the other hand, belongs to the realm of the rational and is based on science and mathematics.

Nancy concurs that Marx is not a philosopher because he does not push his questioning to the end. Marx is happy with pointing out to a future state of humankind but does not push forward to say what that future state would be. Marx is a philosopher which at a certain point got caught into something more urgent.  Interestingly, Badiou retorts that while not a philosopher himself, Marx indeed elaborated in the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the concept of “generic humanity” (Badiou’s rendering of Gattungswessen, generally translated as “generic being”), and the “problem” is to identify in existing societies the seeds of this generic humanity (39).  It is noteworthy that Badiou is quoting here from the same 1844 Manuscripts that his master Althusser banished to the realm of the pre-Marxist. Badiou concludes this answer with the observation that on this point he feels that they both agree and that he is happy that such understanding was reached in reference to Marx.

Nancy and Badiou agree on the claim that philosophy is not interpretation but something else, but their agreement is only nominal. And their conversation turns to the question of the beginning of Philosophy which becomes the question of the beginning of Mathematics. Badiou’s position seems to shift during the conversation. He begins asserting that the birth of Mathematics is an event, an exception to the laws of a given situation (41).  But finally, he accepts Nancy’s hypothesis that Mathematics, as well as Philosophy and Tragedy, had their origin in the de-mythologization of the world. Badiou prefers to formulate this using the formula: “to speak the truth is no longer a question of a prescribed enunciative position” (44). But under the insistence of Nancy, he finally sums up his position beautifully saying that Philosophy needs to find rational and shareable protocols so that humanity is not poisoned by its mourning the death of the Gods (46).

The book concludes with two questions which were added by Völker after the discussion, one dealing with Adorno and the second with Heidegger. Völker asks about the disconnect between Critical Theory and post-structuralist French thought, particularly at a time when the questions asked by Adorno are again relevant.  Badiou rejects the idea of “negative dialects”, preferring an affirmative form of dialectics that can be the basis for a measured, controlled, and creative form of negation. Nancy’s position is more nuanced. He acknowledges that Adorno is not well known in France. This is in part because of his difficult style but is also related to the divorce between radical political movements which emphasized “workerism” at the expense of theory, and a university where Positivism was hegemonic. This split left room only for marginal forms of Marxism (he offers as an example, Bataille and Lefebvre). Nonetheless, Lyotard, Abensour, and others were interested in Adorno. From an English reading perspective, it is noteworthy that Habermas and the thinkers from the third generation of the Frankfurt School are airbrushed from the discussion and also from the conference that provided the framework for this dialogue, though the conference shows extensive examination of Adorno’s philosophy.

The last question refers to Heidegger. Völker refers to the renewed debates on Heidegger’s antisemitism and entanglements with Nationalsocialism.  Badiou offers a succinct response based on three points: (a) that Heidegger’s merit was to bring back the question of being; (b) that he brought it essentially as a historical question; (c) that Heidegger brought the question of being in what is essentially an identitarian context. Nonetheless, his crude nationalism and antisemitism do not erase the importance of bringing back the question of being (53-54).

Nancy disagrees. It is not enough to say that regarding the question of being Heidegger was a great philosopher but that otherwise, he was an uninspiring human being.  Nancy also rejects those interpretations of the work of Heidegger that focus exclusively on his criticism of technology. Nancy believes that there is something more, which was deeply attuned to his time. He refers to the infamous Black Notebooks in terms of “philosophical hyperbole” and “unbelievably hysterical”, that has to do with the “overwhelming within Europe” of the relationship to what we know as “politics”. But he does not elaborate further, turning instead to “being” in what can be taken as a silent rebuke to Badiou’s affirmation of the importance of the question of being.  Badiou begs to differ and offers an autobiographical observation: “it was only in a space opened by the Heideggerian question that I was able to arrive at this mathematical vision of the indifference of being” (59).  He then summarizes their discussion as follows:

“…after the French infatuation with German thought (exemplified by Sartre and Derrida) and the distance separating French structuralism and German hermeneutics, what we can now expect to emerge is a new form…of thinking…that…will address the following problem: how are we to reconstruct an affirmative dialectic on the basis of an ontology that accepts the indifference of being” (64).

It befalls to Nancy to pronounce the closing sentences of the discussion, but it is doubtful that these last words should be taken as a summation of the whole conversation.  Ultimately, Völker is right in arguing that what was productive in this debate was the debate itself, and not some implausible coincidences between the parties. French philosophical thought in mid 20th century was intertwined with German Philosophy in complicated ways, and resonated differently in different philosophers, constituting their distinctive oeuvre. Völker created the opportunity for this wide range exploration

Aaron James Wendland, Christopher Merwin, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.): Heidegger on Technology

Heidegger on Technology Book Cover Heidegger on Technology
Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy
Aaron James Wendland, Christopher Merwin, Christos Hadjioannou (Eds.)
Routledge
2018
Hardback £96.00
346

Reviewed by: Florian Arnold (Heidelberg University and State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, Germany)

Releasing Gestell

Our daily life is influenced deeply and massively by technical devices, while their effects on our economic, social or even political behaviour are largely unknown. It seems obvious that we are not yet at the end of the story regarding technology but rather at the very beginning of an unforeseeable change, a downright revolution whose real import only the future will show. Given that technologies always had a crucial impact on human mindsets we have now entered a new realm of reality in terms of a global digitization. What determines this new era as truly new relates to intricate challenges on every field of human activity or thought, touching upon our very self-image as human beings. Can we still take for granted that we only change our equipment without, in turn, being equally changed by it? How can we cope with this new situation? And how can we develop a proper understanding of what is going on around us – or even with us?

In this state of affairs Heidegger’s reflections on technology and his equally famous and opaque notion “das Gestell” have gained renewed attention. For addressing our current situation on an “ontological”, or to be precise: a “seinsgeschichtlichen” level, his approach provides the reader with deeper “insights in that what is” than a mere description of surface phenomena. Philosophically speaking, we are dealing with a technical mode of unconcealing that not only transforms both our practical and theoretical encounters with a mostly concealed world. For in doing so it increases the same concealment to an extent such that we even forget about its very “nature” or “essence” (“Wesen”, or rather “Unwesen” in this case). According to this setting the expectations run high where a publication like the present “Heidegger on Technology” is concerned, which not only lays claim to clarifying Heidegger’s relation to technology but even engages in a broader discussion, following the editor’s appeal “to apply Heidegger’s analysis of technology to some of the most pressing ethical and political problems we confront today.” (8)

“Heidegger on Technology” contains instructive contributions that provide its readers with plenty of insights concerning Heidegger’s development of thought, whether it be its breaks or its continuities. Like any other companion it offers useful hints, much needed clarifications, even congenial interpretations; but also mere recapitulations of already prominent ideas. The book contains 17 articles, starting with a former presentation by Mark A. Wrathall, first given at the University of Sussex in 2016 which is representative for the inner tension between “Gestell” and “Gelassenheit” (“releasement”) both in the outline of the volume and of our time in general.

In The Task of Thinking in an Technological Age Wrathall argues for a reconfiguration of the academic curricula based on a late Heideggerian approach which abandons homogenisation, forgetfulness, and efficacy in favour of what Heidegger calls “thinking”. Wrathall advocates a certain “sensibility” (“Besinnung”, 31) towards contingency and whatever is questionable in our lifeworld, a kind of sense for possibilities and options that we are to choose for the purpose of an alternative way of life: “to accomplish Heidegger’s purposes, an education in history needs to highlight the discontinuities in style, and emphasize the breaks and ruptures between worlds which show those worlds to be lacking in determinate foundations.” (33)

It is worth mentioning, however, that Wrathall does not stop at this point. May teaching first be conceptualized as a close collaboration of learning subjects (which finds an echo in Iain Thomson’s article)[i], he hereafter goes deeper into a “apprenticeship in skilful behaviour” (34) by stating: “All of this suggests that an education in thinking requires a curriculum that includes fostering bodily skills, even if–especially if–those skills have no ready value in the global economy. For instance, the inclusion of sports in educational curricula […] should not be on training a few athletes to play a role in the entertainment industry”. (36) Should “releasement” from the Gestell finally lead to sports in terms of a “non-calculable” flow, representing “the surprising, the genuinely risky, the open-ended”? (36)

In fact there is some evidence that this is indeed a genuinely Heideggerian line of thought, considering his affections for the former German team leader Franz Beckenbauer but also his attempts during his rectorship to militarize the academic curriculum. The latter rather foils Wrathall intentions but at the same time it sheds some light on the inherent dialectics of this case: playfulness seems to be an essential condition of releasement but when it comes to a normative structuring for the purpose of social engagement, like in the case of an academic schedule, the Gestell comes nearer and, finally, the game could be over before it begins. In other words: Unless we are not willing to serve the Gestell, could Gelassenheit remain something else than an end in itself? For taken as a means, instead, we have been already caught in the trap of gamification, understood as the post-industrial revenge of the Gestell, instrumentalizing creativity, inspiration, flow etc. for its own ends. From this perspective the question whether there could be other ways to (re)interpret Heidegger’s notion of releasement, and what they should look like becomes crucial.

Bret W. Davis’ reading of the Country Path Conversations appears to offer such a way: Heidegger’s Realeasement From the Technological Will. In a well-informed recapitulation of Heidegger’s intellectual development since Being and Time Davis shows that the concept of the will plays a central role during all periods. For the will is already literally present in the “umwillen” of Dasein’s care-structure, and thus marks an episode directly leading into Heidegger’s commitment to National socialism.[ii] But it was only after Heidegger resigned from his rectorship and his deeper study of Hölderlin and Nietzsche that he saw clearer: his own existential voluntarism had in a way imitated the ‘will to will’, carried out to its devastating consequences in WWII especially by the Nazis but also by the Communists or even the ‘Americans’. According to this late insight Davis states a “second turn”: “Heidegger’s thought-path also underwent a ‘second turn’ around 1940, a turn from a tendency to think the relation between human being and being (beyng) in terms of will, and a turn to a sustained attempt to think this relation in terms of a non-willing releasement and letting-be.” (136) This willing, however, exhibits a well-known dialectic: the “willing to/of non-willing”, in order to be successful, requires a releasement from quasi any “to”. And while releasement “to” is not under the dictate of being or a result of our mute obedience, every releasement “to” remains a willing, even in the case of a “non-willing” and is therefore no proper releasement (We will come back to this point later).

Following the Country Path Conversations, Tobias Keiling compellingly demonstrates that only in respect to particular beings a ‘will to thinking’ in terms of generalising subsumptions can be overcome. In his radical reading of Heidegger’s “Seinsgeschichte” the notion of “being” itself tends to occupy the horizons of possible interpretations when it comes to singular beings. By presupposing that there is one final horizon of all horizons, we fail to recognize (the basic insight of set theory) that the plurality of things is accompanied by a plurality of ontologies (108), settled in a strictly open “horizon”, and, therefore, open to a transfinite series of encounters. We only get in touch with “things for themselves”, instead of “things in themselves”, or things for us, if we learn to let things be in such a way that we cease our ontological commitment (104). Releasement in this sense means letting, not even letting be – and thus enables, in turn, the freeing of thinking from its own will to think only for itself.  Correspondingly, one could say, released thinking is letting things be ends in themselves, and what is more: a thinking on behalf of things.

So far, so good. But does this apply only to a released thinking in Heidegger’s sense or also to a released thinking of the Gestell itself – a thinking that thinks on behalf of the Gestell by letting it be for itself? Looking for an answer, one of the first things that comes to mind could be the reply: Like science, the Gestell doesn’t think. But like in science, there is still a calculative intelligence at work, even if Heidegger is not willing to call it thinking. But then “was heißt denken”? Heidegger’s general answer amounts to letting beings be as well as thinking led by being. Now, Technology is a mode of disclosure, and the Gestell is the very “Wesen” of technology, a “Wesen” of being, thus even if the Gestell itself does not think, it lets think for itself by leading our thoughts (into itself). So, the question arises: Must we distinguish a ‘good’ from a ‘bad’ thinking – as two modes of being’s disclosure?

In fact it is not Gelassenheit whose opponent is the Gestell, but the “Geviert”. And so releasement turns out to be a mere vehicle of transition on the way from Gestell to Geviert. According to this characteristic of Gelassenheit, as a vehicle or device, it shows striking resemblance to Husserl’s epoché, understood as the enabling condition of a phenomo-logic. As Christos Hadjioannou reconstructs in his text Heidegger’s Critique of Techno-science as a Critique of Husserl’s Reductive Method Heidegger’s early notion of a “formal indication” lays ground to his critique of a so-called “care about certainty” (66) in Husserl’s concept of phenomenology as transcendental science: “So, formal indication lets everything stand as is, without referring, without imposing on things any pre-judged order. By indicating phenomena, it unassumingly releases them into the open, allowing them to show themselves from themselves. Thus, with ‘formal indication’, Heidegger attempts to replace Husserlian phenomenological analysis with a hermeneutic praxis that does not objectify, that does not posit any sort of order or classification, that does not assume an indifferent stance towards the content of phenomena, hiding the enactmental character of the philosophical praxis, and that does not slip into an attitudinal/theoretical comportment.” (71)

Sounds familiar. But here we see now that Heidegger, right from the beginning, is engaged in the methodological question of how to let things be, in order to let them show themselves. “Hermeneutical praxis” in this sense shall overcome “phenomenological analysis” by giving things a voice in the conversation of being, whereas Husserlian phenomenology seems to objectify things by quasi scrutinizing them only in respect of its own ‘worldview’. In other words: Heidegger’s methodological ground (or unground) is language, rather than the supposed ocularcentrism of Husserlian phenomenology. Therefore, Heidegger’s own philosophical praxis approaches poetry. Until this reversement from scientific classifications to the inner heart of the named holy, the Geviert, is executed, there will be no releasement from the Gestell according to Heidegger.

A deeper discussion of this relation is found in Susanne Claxton’s Poetry and the Gods. From Gestell to Gelassenheit, and here again, the emphasis lies on Gelassenheit. While not being wrong, this constitutes only one half of the way towards Heiddegger’s language as a phenomenology of poetry. As Claxton herself knows, Heidegger’s evoking of gods, the mortals, sky, and earth within the Geviert is not metaphorical in a pejorative sense. Instead, he truly believes in gods that rise to speak through their prayer-like addressing by mortals. As Claxton puts it: “For myths are not explanations, but rather ways of creatively conceptualizing experiences, experiences felt and perceived by mortals to be encounters with something outside themselves, something that has force.” (238) And later: “A given god, as such, can feel nothing in himself; the god needs a mortal to feel for him. Understood in this way, divinities may be seen as affective powers intending toward manifestations via mortals as embodied expressions thus experienced. In the coming together of mortal and divinity, fullness of experience is achieved.” (239) In other words: What is to be saved from the Gestell are certain extraordinary “feelings” (“Stimmungen”) that are conveyed, articulated, and experienced through a quasi-divine poetical language. These “Stimmungen” need “Stimmen” (“voices”) in order to not be ignored and forgotten. And so, it is not only for the sake of the gods that “Dasein” shall listen attentively to what ‘his’ experiences tell him.

Yet as we have already heard, gods are not the only ones who “need” or “use” (“brauchen”) Dasein as a kind of resonator. Moreover, the question seems to be whether gods simply do not feel or whether they do not think either. If the latter, there could very well be other gods than the mythological ones – for instance, technical ones or what we tend to call artificial intelligences. Without going too much into detail here, it seems quite obvious that they (still) need and are (already) using (“brauchen”) us, as well. Whereas the Geviert, in Heidegger’s view, stands for the holy shrine of the mystery (“Geheimnis”), the Gestell could turn out to be the secular shrine of the “need of needlessness” (“Not der Notlosigkeit”)[iii]. To put it another way: Are we still in need (and use) of Heidegger’s gods? – I’m not sure. Maybe in need and use of others? But why call them gods any longer?

Moving on from the gods some of the contributions to the volume rightly stress the point that there is still a lot to concerning big issues of our time such as the need for a new ecology (Michael E. Zimmerman and Trish Glazebrook) or the outcomes of an “audit society” (Denis McManus). In all the three cases Heidegger’s notion of the Gestell (or its forerunner “Machenschaft”) functions like a guideline to conceptualize what is going wrong, even if there might be no complot or genius malignus behind the scenes. Especially in the case of the audit society we are facing developments that foil the intended results: “So despite audit’s ‘promise of accountability and visibility’ (Power 1997, 127)[iv], there is reason to think it makes it significantly harder to see where power actually lies.” (277) If we cede our powers of decision to anonymous evaluation systems or even algorithms we get lost in our own lifeworld when it comes to human politics.

To be clear on this point, I do not deny that it is crucial to engage in such critiques as supported by Heidegger’s conceptual framework. Releasement is fine and I acknowledge the policy of emphasizing this notion in place of the Geviert. Yet I side with McManus here when he asks at the end of his chapter: “even if we accept that Heidegger’s diagnosis of our contemporary situation sheds light on the phenomena that Power describes, is it the best diagnosis?” I think it is one of the best, and two out of four names which McManus mentions subsequently even based their own diagnosis on Heidegger’s (Foucault and Arendt, while Marx and Weber undergo Heidegger’s critique). The only question I am asking here is, how far one can get, sticking to Heidegger original attempt. Of course, there are still points to be made, for instance, against Habermas, when Julian Young points out that a Habermasian communicative rationality ignores a certain “need for dwelling” (205 et passim). Or when Aaron James Wendland shows that the Kuhnian concept of “paradigm shifts” still emphasizes assimilation tendencies after the break where Heidegger rightly sees a needful release (297). And even when Taylor Carman, regarding the controversy between Heidegger and Heisenberg, argues that ‘science still doesn’t think’ because of its reductionist concept of “physis” (309 et passim). But does this lead to Heidegger’s final insight that only a god can save us–a god of poetry and a poetry of gods?

I am afraid it does, but only if we accept that Hölderlin is the greatest poet and that dwelling means to ensconce oneself in Heidegger’s ‘house of being’, viz. in his private language of thinking under the advice of being, including his idiosyncrasies, wrong etymologies, and ‘mystery’ lecture performances. Then we might believe that we live in times of the “Not der Notlosigkeit” in an era of a self-accomplishing forgetfulness of being, of self-deceit, which manages to ignore its own need to be saved. And even today there are still several believers among Heidegger’s readers. But maybe (according to Heidegger’s late reticence) there will be no saving needed anymore. Not because everything is just fine, but because the Gestell, along with its essence, the “danger” (“Gefahr”), could be in itself already the saving (“Rettung”)–not the saving from it, but the saving for itself. In other words: Could there be a saving of the Gestell by letting it be (for itself)? Having said this, what would this actually mean?

There is one moment in his Bremen Lectures where Heidegger comes close to this point: “Das Wesen der Technik ist das Seyn selber in der Wesensgestalt des Ge-Stells. Das Wesen des Ge-Stells aber ist die Gefahr. […] Die Gefahr ist das Ge-Stell nicht als Technik, sondern als das Seyn. Das Wesende der Gefahr ist das Seyn selbst, insofern es der Wahrheit seines Wesens mit der Vergesslichkeit dieses Wesens nachstellt.“ (GA 79, 62)

Can being be forgotten, or even forget itself? In this passage Heidegger reflects on the essence not only of the Gestell and on what is meant to be the Gefahr, but also on the essence (or ‘the essenceing’ = “das Wesende”) of the Gefahr: “das Seyn” being after itself (“nachstellen”), and in so doing, disguising (‘verstellen’) itself with the “Ge-Stell”. Hence, the danger is, according to Heidegger, that there seems to be no danger. Like the “need of needlessness”, Heidegger conceives of a danger of “safety” (“Gefahrlosigkeit”, literally ‘dangerlessness’). According to its own dialectics, the essence of danger is un-essence (“Unwesen”), an essence (“Wesen”) that denies itself and in doing so finally would become the ‘essencelessness’ (= “Wesenlosigkeit”) of being, if it is not recalled by Dasein anymore as the danger of being or the threat of its own forgetfulness.

To let the Gestell be for itself would therefore mean not to ignore the danger of forgetting, but to recognize the danger of forgetting as that what it truly is: our fear of death, angst. The real danger seems to be that not even danger will remain when we are gone. But that is probably going to happen. In contrast, the inherent ‘nihilism’ of the Gestell reminds us not of death, but of the forgetfulness of death (expressed through the loss of angst). As a result, the threat to Heidegger’s own thinking, as a permeant contemplation of the meaning of death, is simply that it could be pointless–because of the meaninglessness of death. This, in turn, doesn’t mean that there is no being and yet it means that the meaning of being is not necessarily the being of meaning, or what Heidegger would call the “Ereignis” of meaningfulness.

To conclude I return to the Country Path Conversations and listen to what Steven Crowell has to say about the correlation between “Sein” and “Dasein” in his chapter: The Challenge of Heidegger’s Approach to Technology. A Phenomenological Reading: “The first thing to note is that Heidegger’s attempt to overcome representational thinking does not abandon correlationism […]. Heidegger is quite clear about this: ‘das Seyn braucht den Menschen’ (GA 65: 261), the worlding of world requires the thinking being (GA 77: 147). But one might wonder whether Heidegger’s late notion of thinking as the ‘indwelling releasement to the worlding of world’ retains the feature of the care-structure that […] is the phenomenological ground of meaning–namely, trying to be (Worumwillen). Is the ‘relation to the essence of the human being’ that allows the Open ‘to be as it is [wesen…wie es west]’ (GA 77: 146), a relation that involves my being at issue in trying to be a thinker?” (89)

In the last sentence before this passage Crowell added an endnote. In this endnote Crowell replies to Quentin Meillassoux in defence of Heidegger’s correlationism: “Calling something an arche-fossil or a hammer or an electron–or a jug or a Gegnet or a Geviert, for that matter–has a determinate meaning only in a normative context grounded in the speaker’s commitment. The ‘realism’ which opposes this is perfectly suited to Ge-stell since, by denying the correlational conditions of meaning, it does away with meaning altogether and bottoms out in nihilism.” (94)

This punchline is remarkable, not primarily, however, as a critique but rather in the sense that Crowell laudably clarifies the relation (or correlation?) between a so-called “speculative realism” (or in the case of Meillassoux: speculative materialism) and the prevailing Gestell. Indeed, we are living in the Gestell, and Meillassoux somehow approves this insight by transcending every correlationism stemming from an anthropocentric vision of thinking. Now, is there a contradiction implied in what Crowell refers to? So far as I can see, none that Meillassoux hasn’t already dealt with elsewhere. Instead, there are consequences that concern not least the Heideggerian concept of releasement. Whereas Heidegger tries to free thought from the Gestell in order to gain a free relation to technology, speculative realism takes the opposite view: the freeing of thought from “Dasein”.

There still might be “the correlational conditions of meaning” but only for us as a species which cannot cease to make sense of everything, even nothing. But unfortunately that does not guarantee that beyond human comprehension meaning exists at all. Instead, we are today facing a situation wherein an intelligent form of calculation takes command without any proper understanding of its own agenda. And the same holds for philosophical speculations on the necessity of contingency, necessitating us to think the end of thinking as a possible, although unthinkable event (or rather “Enteignis”). Therefore, to talk about releasement under present conditions points, if anything, to a releasement into “nihilism” – according to our human, all-to-human presuppositions and expectations. Even though this does not mean that meaning does not mean anything to us, we find ourselves alone, surrounded by silicon and silence.

The German term “Gelassenheit” has its Latin equivalent in the Christian notion of “resignatio”. What in English still echoes the expression “resignation” or “resign” is translated into German as “Entlassung” – another, often unmentioned morphological derivation of “lassen”. Could it be that Heidegger’s own “releasement” from onto-theo-technology only renamed his resigning, his resignation by the Gestell, seine Entlassung durch die Seinsgeschichte? In this case he would have been the first and last thinker of the complete “Enteignis”: ‘The end of philosophy and the task/capitulation (“Aufgabe”) of thinking’ within the Gestell…a releasement from a self-annihilating being (“Sein”), and into a new substantial commitment with beings (“Seienden”)…the reversal from resigning to designing?


[i]See Technology, Ontotheology, Education, p. 185: “At the heart of Heidegger’s reontologization of education is a rethinking of what is called ‘learning,’ in which teaching itself becomes ‘the highest form of learning,’ an exemplary art of ‘learning-in-public,’ from which students learn how to learn by example, and learning comes to stand higher than being learned or knowing. (In what I have called ‘the pedagogical truth event,’ teachers learn to come into their own as teachers by showing students how to disclose the being of entities creatively, responsively, and responsibly, thereby helping students, things, and being all come into their own together.)” This “pedagogical truth event”, as Thomson calls it, seems to be already a common praxis, especially in demographic societies where youthfulness represents a rare good, whereas maturity is believed to be a kind of sale out.

[ii]For a closer reading of Heidegger’s thinking having an affair with National Socialism see Aaron James Wendland contribution to the present volume: Heidegger’s New Beginning. History, Technology, and National Socialism.

[iii]The German expression “Not” has also the connotation of “misery”.

[iv]McManus is quoting the inventor of the term “Audit Society” Michael Power in his book: The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.

Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer & Stefano Micali: Das überforderte Subjekt – Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft

Das überforderte Subjekt - Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft Book Cover Das überforderte Subjekt - Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft
Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer, Stefano Micali
Suhrkamp Verlag
2018
Paperback 22,00 €
403

Reviewed by: Jaakko Vuori (University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland)

Byung-Chul Han claims in his philosophical bestseller Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (2010) [“The Burnout Society”] that the psychopathological landscape in the beginning of the 21st century has shifted in contrast to the 20th. It is dominated by what he calls “neuronal” illnesses and ailments: depression, burnout syndrome and attention-deficit disorder (Han 2010, 7). Han’s diagnosis is confirmed by the fact that such conditions are increasingly on the focus of public interest. “A 26 year old university graduate developed a burnout syndrome and the stress did not ease even on sick-leave – Researcher: ‘I am worried of the work ethos of our generation’,” “Half of the working age population today cannot relax properly after work – Employees perform more than required and are burdened by exceeding demands,” and “The whole Finnish society is in slumber, says [the psychologist] Tommy Hellsten, who has recovered from burnout”. These are merely a few randomly selected titles from major media outlets from the author’s native context[1]. They all point to a growing public concern on illnesses and pathologies related to exhaustion.

It is such psychopathological and social landscape that the book Das Überforderte Subjekt: Zeitdiagnosen einer beschleunigten Gesellschaft edited by Thomas Fuchs, Lukas Iwer, and Stefano Micali seeks to tackle, in the words of the editors, by providing “a diagnosis of the times” of “an accelerated society”. The editors inform the reader that the aim of the book is to provide “a psychogram of contemporary society” and for this purpose, “a phenomenology of experiences in mental and physiological overload (Überforderung)” is needed (14). Even though they do not define the concept of a psychogram, I take it that in the context of the book it refers to a presentation of the distinct aspects and intertwined elements of a complex whole, in this case the modern or late-modern subject in her social and experiential organization.

The book is divided into three sections dealing with philosophical and historical perspectives of “Überforderung,”[2] epidemiological and sociological aspects, and clinical perspectives, respectively. Each of the sections is followed by a summarizing and critical review of the contributions included in that section. This is a welcomed introduction because it brings coherence to the book, which is not completely methodologically or stylistically consistent. In the first instance, it is somewhat surprising that while the concept “social acceleration” (Beschleunigung), made famous by Hartmut Rosa, features in the subtitle of the book, no single contribution is devoted to Rosa’s theorizations per se.

As Hartmut Böhme emphasizes in his essay, “the modern tiredness” is essentially a product of highly organized labor (31). Accordingly, many of the contributions of the book are focused on the concepts, discourses and phenomena surrounding changes in the organization of labor, working life and employment, as much as for example on “social acceleration”. “Gainful work” (Erwerbsarbeit) is explicitly the focus of one third of the contributions. On hindsight, however, this fact might not be that surprising after all, since many of the current political and social disputes in highly developed countries are centered on the changing practices and discourses related to the organization of labor due to globalization and digitalization. In this respect, it is perhaps precisely in working life and in its increasing pace and precarization that the pressures and demands created by social acceleration manifest themselves most emphatically.

In contemporary sociological and politological discourses such a shift in the understanding of work is thematized in many ways, of which the following by Rolf Haubl is one example. As he writes, “differently than in Fordism-Taylorism, [today] it is not the life after work that appears as the domain of freedom, but rather the life in work” (370). Correspondingly, based on the contributions collected in the book, it seems that it is a specific Gestalt borrowed from the discourses on working life and organization of labor that serves as the guiding ideal for late-modern processes of subjectivation as a whole. The ideal type is the self-responsible, self-optimizing, and ever innovative entrepreneur, who knows no distinction between labor and leisure, as becomes clear especially in the contributions by Stefano Micali, Cornelia Klinger, and Friederike Hardering and Greta Wagner. The last-mentioned demonstrate convincingly that also the increasingly popular techniques for stress-management, such as mindfulness, serve the purpose for self-optimization and maximal mobilization of resources of a person.

Since it would be impractical to provide an assessment of all the contributions and diverse approaches gathered in the book, in the remainder of this review I will proceed as follows: First, I will reconstruct “the psychogram of contemporary society” in its relevant aspects. Then I will move to offer a few critical remarks regarding some of the approaches and analyses from a methodological perspective.

***

Even though the editors emphasize the role of phenomenology, it is mainly the essays by Thomas Fuchs and Stefano Micali that provide phenomenological analyses in the strict sense. Both Fuchs and Micali build their essays on their previous work and on the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology. In the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology mental distress is characterized primarily as a “chronopathology” (15), that is it is analyzed and understood with regard to its temporal aspects. Hence, in analyzing pathologies of Überforderung in the context of acceleration societies, classical phenomenological psychopathology offers an important starting point.

Fuchs and Micali emphasize especially the importance of Hubertus Tellenbach’s analyses of melancholia and the conceptualization of an experience that Tellenbach deems “remanence”. Tellenbach introduced the concept already in the beginning of the 1960s to identify specific vulnerability factors and triggering situations of the subject for developing severe depression. Thus conceived, remanence refers to a “feeling of being left behind,” “guilt” (Schuld), and generally to an experience of “remaining short of something or other” (schuldig bleiben), for example of obligations and commitments regarding other persons and of experienced demands set on one’s performance by the social environment and interpersonal world (e.g. 67; 104). In specific situations, remanence can transform into depression or melancholia proper, into an experience of being “tied up to the past,” of being irredeemably guilty, and having no future.

Especially Fuchs seeks to further Tellenbach’s conceptualizations with regard to a general theory of “chronopathology”. According to Fuchs, experiences of remanence should be understood as distinct manners of “desynchronization”, literally as temporal manners of disconnection from the intersubjectively mediated and sustained reality (67; cf. 57–59). In his analysis, individual life consists in processes of synchronization, which aim to maintain a sense of resonance and contemporaneity between an individual and her environment. Already the interaction between an infant and the caregiver is characterized by patterns of mutual affective attunement or “rhythmic melodic interactions” (57). However, also the life of an adult is governed by a similar principle, for example in the case of performing major transitions and role-changes between different stages of life. From Fuchs’s perspective, these are not mere subjective experiences or projects, but in essence relational processes. The intersubjective and social world is structured according to temporal norms that regulate, for example when and how a person should leave her childhood world behind and enter adulthood along with its rights and responsibilities. When the basic sense of resonance is disturbed, or the performance of a life-stage transition left incomplete, a feeling of being left behind or remanence ensues. Following Tellenbach, Fuchs argues that the most extreme form of such an experience is depression or melancholia. In this way, “depression can be conceived as a general desynchronization between organism and environment” (71).

Whereas Fuchs grounds his analysis in a general anthropological and philosophical account of different forms of temporality, according to Micali the temporal norms in acceleration societies are themselves products of specific processes of socialization and subjectivation guided by the ideals of personal initiative, responsibility, and self-optimization (92–93). In other words, due to demands of dynamization of individual life, the subject is dominated by an ever-increasing degree of social demands such as “to catch up,” “to update one’s knowledge,” “to seize the moment until it is too late”. By analyzing the temporal aspects of a society that emphasizes personal initiative and psychic emancipation, Micali is able to give a phenomenological justification to Alain Ehrenberg’s (2010) classical analysis of the conceptual development of modern depression. Echoing Ehrenberg, Micali argues that contemporary depression appears as the mirror-image of a society where “the entrepreneur has become an anthropological paradigm” (92).

By following and reinterpreting Tellenbach’s analyses the largely complementary accounts by Fuchs and Micali are able to provide extremely fruitful analogies between Überforderung and depression in acceleration societies. Tellenbach’s analyses indeed seem fit in further clarifying the experiential and temporal aspect of social acceleration, which in Rosa’s description produces temporally indebted subjects: “subjects of guilt,” “who almost never succeed in working of their to-do lists” (Rosa 2018, 39). However, to speak of the entrepreneur as the anthropological paradigm or of an esthetic manner of subjectivation in late-modern societies, like Cornelia Klinger maintains in her essay (125), amounts to a highly abstract level of reflection. Moreover, as emphasized in the contribution by Vera King, Benigna Gerisch, Hartmut Rosa, Julia Schreiber, and Benedikt Salfeld, analyses that focus on exhaustion-related pathologies from a general philosophical and anthropological perspective at times give the impression that the societal demands in question were imposed on the subject merely “from the outside”. Thus, the focus on pathologies of Überforderung is in danger of giving an oversimplified picture of the complex mediation between “culture and psyche” (227).

To avoid such simplifications, King, Gerisch, Rosa, Schreiber, and Salfeld argue that the demands experienced by the subject are not merely imposed on her performance, but rather “translated” by the subject into her individual patterns of self-understanding and -formation (ibid.). In other words, practices that aim at self-optimization, self-improvement and personal innovativeness are products of complex social and individual processes of normalization. Hence, such social processes are also subjectively affirmed and perhaps even perceived as desirable for the person in question. On the one hand, then, the individual value and experience of self-worth depends on the person’s positioning on “different markets” (229). On the other, the distinct practices of self-optimization offer and are perceived by the individual as practices of self-realization and social participation (230).

In further clarifying such processes of normalization and their pathology inducing character, the more empirically oriented contributions included in the volume offer valuable insights. They also, even if mostly implicitly, open up possibilities for a critical social philosophical reflection on Überforderung that differ from the rather Foucauldian character of Micali’s analysis.

As already implicated, one of the key institutional structures of late-modern societies affected by processes of social acceleration is the organization of labor. In his essay, Johannes Siegrist refers to empirical studies in order to answer the question whether increasing demands in working life makes subjects fall ill. His aim is to identify stress-inducing factors in late-modern working life with the help of two theoretical models that seek to recognize such stressors and enable an empirical testing of their effect. Siegrist’s motivation is sociological. Changes brought about by globalization and digitalization of work become manifest in the growing global competition in costs of labor, which in turn forces companies and employers to intensify the pace of work, to initiate organizational restructuration and reduce personnel (213–214). Moreover, decrease in long-term full-time employment and in the corresponding increase in atypical forms of employment ensues from such changes (ibid.).

The theoretical models Siegrist employs stem from stress-theory. In stress-theory, “stressors” are understood as exceeding and pressing demands that the subject has to cope with and manage yet cannot avoid or elude (215). In this way, such stressors are accompanied by an awareness of a possibility of failure and thereby induce fears of loss of control.

The first of the two models, the so-called “demand-control model,” characterizes and seeks to make empirically accessible the relationship between work-related demands and the range of control a person enjoys over her work environment (216). An imbalance between demands and control manifests, to use a term not employed by Siegrist, in the diminished experience of self-efficacy of the person and thereby induces feelings of anxiety and fear. Since it was developed in the beginning of the 1990s, the demand-control model concentrates on work environment and industrial labor. The second model, the so-called “effort-reward imbalance model” developed by Siegrist himself, seeks also to take into account more distant macro-economic labor market conditions. For this reason, it can be seen as more suitable in identifying stressors of the late-modern increasingly precarious working life. As Siegrist argues, since work is a form of exchange regulated by contract, the principle of equity or fairness is important (217). From this perspective, the focal point of his model is the balance or imbalance between spent effort at work and the received reward in the form of salary, esteem or appreciation, and career opportunities including security of job.

In addition to these factors, in the effort-reward imbalance model, conditions are identified where the expected reward frequently remains missing: such as when the person must defend her position amidst tough competition, or when no alternative possibilities exist for her in the labor market. Yet, regardless of the conditions, when an expected reward stays missing, this results not only in negative emotions such as anger and frustration, but also in psychophysical stress-reactions (ibid.).

As Siegrist demonstrates, extensive empirical research has been conducted based on both models and a heightened risk to fall prey to illnesses such as depression under stressful conditions has been established. In the present context more important is to emphasize that as the sense of security of job can be understood as a form of control, that is, a fear reducing factor, the two models can be combined. Hence, both a sense of self-efficacy and the feeling of self-esteem of the person are in the danger of being eroded under circumstances identified by Siegrist. Importantly, Rolf Haubl in his essay describes the experience of a person who attended Haubl’s coaching session in a way that confirms Siegrist’s analyses. “It became evident, that his limitless efforts at work … were the result of the panic and fear that he himself could be the next one to be dismissed. He constantly sought to convince himself that only tireless working would guarantee his further advances in life.” (379)

In this way, as the very phrasing of Haubl’s case study indicates, Siegrist’s analyses can be read in the overall context of Fuchs’s and Micali’s accounts. Hence, they do not merely characterize specific harmful practices in contemporary working life, but rather the societal situation of individuals in contemporary societies as a whole. The factors identified by Siegrist also remain closer to empirical reality than the rather far reaching analyses of Fuchs, Klinger, and Micali. Still, in Siegrists essay as well as in the contributions by King and others, it remains somewhat open why and how such clearly harmful conditions are normalized, and their effects downplayed or even trivialized. In this respect, it is important as Sabine Flick points out in her commentary that the crises of effort-reward imbalance that Siegrist identifies and King and others also seek to describe can be interpreted also as “crises of recognition” (Anerkennungskrisen) (282).

Freely following Flick’s suggestion, one promising manner of explicating how societal and systemic demands are translated into individual patterns of self-understanding would be to examine how recognition is granted in contemporary societies based on individual merit, innovativeness, and personal initiative. Understood in this way, the conditions described by Siegrist would not amount merely to a lack of recognition, but rather to a specific form of recognition, albeit perhaps itself a pathological one. In other words, conditions of late-modern working life described above could very well also be seen to motivate struggles for recognition in the form of reward or esteem regarding efforts spent at work. Correspondingly, it could be hypothesized that subjects who are constantly threatened by the fear of “being left behind” are produced through such processes of esteeming performance, innovativeness and self-optimization. Yet, the very same processes, by establishing esteem and appreciation based on performance, also fulfill the promise of self-realization and social participation. In this way, Überforderung would amount to a social pathology that could be analyzed and criticized not only by means of Foucauldian analyses but also with the help of critical social philosophy. Such a possibility is hinted at in some of the contributions, most notably in the essay by Martin Heinze and Samuel Thoma, yet not thoroughly cashed out.

***

Such is, given in broad outlines, the psychogram of contemporary society as it is provided in the volume. As mentioned, the general theme of the book and the focus of many individual contributions is on pathologies of Überforderung. Of these, especially depression acquires a prime importance, even though also burnout and even such conditions as Hikikomori and “Cocooning” are mentioned.

When it comes to depression Siegrist demonstrates convincingly that there exists an elevated risk for persons under high work-related stress to fall ill on depression. Yet, a major difference exists between a claim of an empirically established relation between depression and work-related stressors on the one hand, and an understanding of depression as a social pathology or a mirror-image of the neo-liberal subject on the other. Moreover, as Josua Handerer, Julia Thom, and Frank Jacobi argue, an increasing prevalence of cases of clinical depression has not been established through epidemiological studies (190). On the contrary, the contemporary prevalence of depression can be explained through the global increase in population and in life expectancy (187). Such is the case, for example, with the often-cited estimate of the WHO that major depression disorder would become the leading cause for the global burden of disease by the 2030s. Hence, claims that experiences of Überforderung would simply be the cause of an epidemiologically established increase in cases of clinical depression are not warranted.

In addition, also the corresponding theoretical claims put forward by Micali on the one hand and empirical scientists on the other are fundamentally different in nature. That neo-liberal governmentality or late capitalism amounts to a “cult of guilt” (vershuldender Kultus) (93) is a claim that obviously cannot be verified empirically. Micali himself takes into account such discrepancy between empirical and sociophilosophical analyses of Überforderung by distinguishing between the “social relevance” of a psychopathology and its epidemiological prevalence (86). However, in many other contributions of the volume such discreetness is not sufficiently practiced.

This fact is partly due to the rather general level of anthropological reflection employed in some of the contributions. Even though the socially and interpersonally oriented approach to psychotherapy advocated by Martin Heinze and Samuel Thoma is a welcomed suggestion, one asks how useful generalizations such as the following are in recognizing critically relevant social pathologies or empirically established factors for Überforderung in contemporary societies: “that the modern subject suffers under exceeding demands results also from the fact that she misunderstands her place in the world: by taking herself to be above nature, she fails to notice the fact that she can be free only by recognizing her naturalness and sociality” (356). To freely paraphrase the commentary by Matthias Flatscher, contrary to what Heinze and Thoma suggest, Überforderung is perhaps not a matter of a misguided self-understanding of the modern or late-modern subject, but rather a “calculated aspect of modern capitalism to make subjects under precarious conditions obedient and compliant and thereby further advance their exploitation” (154). For if a person is made to fight for her plain survival, then the danger of a genuine solidarity between groups of people and a struggle for a reform of the prevailing societal conditions can be avoided (ibid.).

In the case of Fuchs’s account, similar anthropological generalizations lead to downright problematic conclusions. In distinguishing between a cyclic form of temporality of pre-modern societies and the linear form of time in modernity and arguing for “an attitude of melancholy” as an antidote to “the frantically optimistic culture of universal communication and consumption” of today (75), Fuchs comes dangerously close to such conservative approaches to modernity as the cultural-pessimistic theories of Mircea Eliade or Karl Löwith.

Thus, such anthropological generalizations as are found in Heinze and Thoma’s and in Fuchs’s accounts at times undermine the emancipatory and social critical potential of an analysis of Überforderung. They also seem counter-productive for establishing empirical relations between depression or burnout and processes related to social acceleration in the domain of organization of labor. In this respect, the manner the diagnosis of the times is cashed out in some of the non-empirically oriented contributions seems at times problematic.

However, perhaps such shortcomings point only towards a more closely realized collaboration between phenomenologists, social philosophers, and most importantly, empirically oriented researchers in fields such as medical sociology. In opening up these horizons for discussion and demonstrating the social relevance of Überforderung as subjective suffering, the book serves its purpose more than well.

Bibliography:

Ehrenberg, Alain. (2010). The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Han, Byung-Chul. (2010). Müdigkeitsgesellschaft. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

Rosa, Hartmut. (2018). “Available, accessible, attainable: The mindset of growth and the resonance conception of the good life.” In Rosa, Hartmut & Henning, Christoph (2018) The Good Life Beyond Growth: New Perspectives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 39–53.


[1] These titles stem from the newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat” and the news outlet of the Finnish public broadcasting company (YLE), respectively. All are published in the year 2018.

[2] As the possible English translations for Überforderung (“mental and physiological overload,” “exceeding demands” etc.) are somewhat clumsy, in the following I will employ the German concept for the sake of readability.

Mauro Senatore: Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida

Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida Book Cover Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Mauro Senatore
SUNY Press
2018
Hardback $80.00
202

Reviewed by: David Maruzzella (DePaul University)

Mauro Senatore’s first book in English, Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida, is a compact and ambitious reading of a significant portion of Jacques Derrida’s philosophical work from his earliest writings on Husserl to unpublished seminars from the 1970s and 1980s. Divided into 5 chapters (2 on Platonism and 3 on Hegelianism), Senatore’s book aims to provide “a systematic elaboration of how Derrida develops the Husserlian concept of genesis through a critical engagement with Plato’s and Hegel’s legacies as well as with the biological thought of his time” (xii). Indeed, if the chapters’ explicit focus are on Derrida’s on-going engagement with Platonic and Hegelian accounts of genesis, life, transmission and inheritance, the book’s toile de fond is no doubt the place of Derrida’s thought in larger debates and developments in contemporary biology and the life sciences more generally. By reading Derrida in light of the transformations that took place in these scientific fields—a shift, broadly speaking, from the genetic paradigm to the post-genetic or epigenetic paradigm—Senatore makes a convincing case that Derrida’s writings constitute nothing less than a significant contribution, “nonphilosophical and nonpreformationist,” to a “post-genetic interrogation of life” (xii). The stakes of this reading are high, since, if Senatore is correct, it would perhaps make Catharine Malabou’s abandonment of the Derridean language of writing premature and unnecessary. What Derrida will have meant by writing and programme, for example, as early as 1967 in De la grammatologie where he already speaks of biological writing and the biological pro-gramme[i], would in fact be quite close to what Malabou will call plasticity in reference to contemporary neuroscience.[ii]

In many ways, the center of gravity around which Senatore’s book turns is the recent wave of interest that Derrida scholars[iii] have taken in Derrida’s unpublished 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort[iv], which in turn makes clear the connection between deconstruction and the life sciences proposed by Senatore, since Derrida devotes a substantial portion of his seminar to discussing the French biologist François Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant[v] as well as the work of Georges Canguilhem. Senatore, with this seminar in mind, reads the Derridean notions of writing, dissemination, trace, etc. as responding to the latent teleological and metaphysical presuppositions that still structured the philosophical musings of biologists such as Jacob. But if Derrida shows how the then recent discoveries in genetics seem only to be a repetition of biological preformationism, this time without a divine creator—and thus of philosophical teleology more generally—, he also attempts to show how the contradictions and aporias in the biological text point necessarily beyond themselves to a new thinking of life, one more in line with the work of the biophysicist Henri Atlan who emphasizes the necessity of living beings not to simply repeat pre-inscribed genetic instructions, but to be submitted to the “aleatory perturbations” of the organism’s environment (xii).

Though a fair amount of attention has been recently given to Derrida’s engagement with mathematics and the formal sciences[vi], Senatore’s book opens up new debates and will certainly path the way for future research trajectories that seek to re-inscribe Derrida’s thought in larger historical and scientific contexts, thus avoiding the typical readings of Derrida that made his work a staple in English and Comparative Literature departments. It is perhaps not even an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift—if not at least a renaissance (to which Senatore’s book no doubt belongs)—in critical studies on the work of Jacques Derrida. Beginning with Martin Hägglund’s influential Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, 2008) and even continuing into the field of intellectual history with Edward Baring’s The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, 2011), as commentators have come to insist more and more upon the authentically philosophical nature of Derrida’s project.

Indispensable to this philosophical revival of Derrida is of course the meticulous editing and translation of Derrida’s seminars of which Senatore avails himself. This in turn has given scholars access to Derrida’s teaching as a philosophy instructor where he was often tasked with preparing young students for the competitive agrégation de philosophie. This meant that it was Derrida’s job to prepare students to work through the major philosophical problems of the Western tradition as treated by this tradition’s classical figures. Deconstruction was, it must be said, indebted to these close-readings of canonical texts that are to this day central to French philosophical training. In other words, Derrida is being read more widely as making original contributions to philosophy and no longer merely to literary theory[vii], where deconstruction was seen as one possible grid of literary analysis among others (psychoanalytic criticism, historicism, etc.), or, more generally, as an interpretive method applicable to any field whatsoever (i.e. deconstruction and architecture, deconstruction and legal theory, etc.). Indeed, this new turn in Derrida scholarship is making it quite clear that deconstruction does not consist simply in one possible hermeneutic strategy or analytic framework, nor is it a purely negative or critical project, but rather it uncovers and names in some sense the very movement of Being itself, the quasi-ontological conditions of possibility of all beings, the minimal and necessary structure of meaning and experience as such.

Senatore, rightly, does not shy away from such bold claims and asserts this at the outset: “I argue that Derrida conceives of the inscription-seed as the minimal structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis. This structure constitutes the element of a geneticism of sense in general—that is, of an analysis that accounts for the genesis of the discourse as well as of the living” (2). But this is not all. Derrida’s originality, according to Senatore’s account, is that this account of genesis in general is strictly “post-genetic,” by which he means that it is a thinking of genesis that is non-teleological and therefore breaks with the model wherein arche and telos coincide, the latter being simply an outgrowth of a potentiality present in the former. If the philosophical tradition from Aristotle to Hegel and beyond—albeit a particular reading of Hegel that has been largely discredited today[viii]—conceived of genesis as essentially the internal playing-out of instructions or a programme present already at the origin (a conception that is mirrored in the biological discourses from preformationism to modern geneticism whereby an organism is nothing other than the result of a set of pre-determined instructions transmitted from one generation to another), a post-genetic theory of genesis that takes seriously the irreducibility of the movement of necessary externalization that defines all beings. Indeed, it is Derrida’s contention that a kind of spontaneous Hegelianism was present throughout Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant. Yet Derrida’s engagement with the life sciences is not simply critical and destructive, but also seeks to to elaborate another thinking of life beyond the opposition life/death. Derrida in turn prepares the ground for the elaboration of a post-genetic thinking of life or what Derrida will come to call “life death”, one that anticipates more recent developments in biological epigenesis.

And yet while reading Senatore’s book, as well as Derrida’s seminar itself[ix], it is unclear how Derrida conceives of the relationship between philosophy and science. At certain moments, one gets the impression that Derrida is suggesting that philosophy, in particular deconstruction, can itself theorize certain objects and structures before the biological and life sciences, that is, that it anticipates discoveries and theoretical developments in various scientific fields. This would appear to make deconstruction a kind of science[x]—or a non-philosophical science? At other moments, it appears that the textual structure that necessarily conditions the life sciences as well as any being whatsoever, renders scientific objectivity both possible and impossible. Deconstruction, insofar as it is attuned to the particularities of the trace structure of beings in general, would be a paradoxical non-science of this most general condition of scientificity as such. Or put differently, and this is Senatore’s claim, it is indeed possible to generalize the notion of dissemination that unconsciously guides the text of biology into a quasi-transcendental structure that accounts for all genesis, “from biological to cultural genesis” (2). And in other moments still, Derrida’s position seems to be close to Althusser’s position in his 1967 lecture course Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants, where he explicitly takes up the biological theories of Jacob’s partner, Jacques Monod, in order to argue that there is a salvageable materialist tendency in Monod’s otherwise idealist discourse and that it is the text of philosophy to intervene politically within the scientists to help eliminate unquestioned ideological intrusions that hinder the practice of scientists. But what Althusser takes issue with is precisely Monod’s attempt to generalize his biological findings in order to explain genesis in general. Derrida, for his part, writes in the sixth session of his seminar:

The activity of the scientist, science, the text of genetic science as a whole are determined as products of their object, if you will, products of the life they are studying, textual products of the text they are translating or deciphering or whose procedures of deciphering they are deciphering. And this, which appears as a limit to objectivity, is also—by virtue of the structural law according to which a message can only be translated by the very products of its own translation—the  condition of scientificity, in this domain, of the effectuation of science (and of all the sciences).[xi]

Not surprisingly, this session begins with a reference to Gödel, since once we see textuality as a general structure, a paradox of self-reference immediately arises wherein the biological text studied by the life sciences (the genetic code or inscriptions) necessarily refers to other texts, to a text without a non-textual outside. And it is the paradoxical structure of textuality all the way down, so to speak, that seems to legitimate deconstruction’s capacity to outstrip the sciences, if not at the very least, guide their future researches into the textuality that they necessarily study, and which moreover conditions their object of study, but which the science’s fail to thematize. All of this by way of introduction not to delegitimate Derrida’s project, or Senatore’s remarkable interpretation of it, but rather as serious questions and challenges to attempting to think the relationship between philosophy and science from within a transcendental or post-phenomenological framework.

*****

Senatore’s book begins with an introductory chapter that proposes a reading of Derrida’s 1963 essay “Force and Signification”, in particular, a passage where Derrida refers to the Leibnizian scene of divine creation wherein God necessarily brings about the existence of the best possible world. This will then be linked to the more or less contemporaneous translation and commentary that Derrida published on Husserl’s late manuscript The Origin of Geometry. What Derrida develops across both works is a rethinking of genesis that is fundamentally different from what Senatore, following Derrida, calls the logos spermatikos whose biological analog is preformationism, the doctrine according to which an organism develops out of an initial germ which contains already in itself that which it will only later become. Derrida argues, as is now well-known, that meaning or sense cannot be seen as pre-existing the act of inscription, and, in turn, that the moment of inscription should not merely be seen as an external, secondary, and empirical accident, but rather, as an essential condition of possibility for meaning in general. It is in Husserl’s late writings where Derrida finds the basic structure of a rigorously non-theological and non-classical thinking of genesis. Here, meaning must await its inscription, and does not precede the act of writing. Ideality is thus a result of the process that writing names, “only writing permits the full accomplishment of the ideal objectivity of ideality by unbinding the latter from an actual subjectivity in general” (9). And so if ideality is only produced in some sense retrospectively after the event of writing, genesis must be conceived of as a fundamentally creative and productive, and not as an act of revelation of some pre-existing meaning or essence. Since nothing precedes inscription, there is strictly speaking no ideality without writing. This understanding of a generalized writing, as Derrida will later call it, is what Senatore calls “the most general geneticism” whereby writing is conceived as “the structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis” (14). With Husserl’s account of writing in mind, Senatore turns to the structuralism espoused by Jean Rousset in his reading of Proust, the main subject of Derrida’s “Force and Signification.” It is clear in what way structuralism will necessarily presuppose and repeat the classical scene of Leibnizian creation, which is itself analogous to biological preformationism. The structure of which the work is an expression seems to suggest that literary work is nothing but the fully developed form of what was once a germ latent in the structure itself. In the same way, Leibniz’s God moves from essence to existence, inscribing the former in the latter, and in so doing avoids what Derrida calls the anguish of writing, that is, the necessity of essence being produced not before the act of creation, but only in and by way of the genesis of existence itself. Derrida writes, “the metaphysics implicit in all structuralism, or in every structuralist proposition…always presupposes and appeals to the theological simultaneity of the book, and considers itself deprived of the essential when this simultaneity is not accessible” (19-20). Put differently, the classical notion of genesis makes meaning the result of internal transmission, rather than meaning having to necessarily be constituted as the result of passing through an essential moment of exteriority in the act of writing taken in a general sense, a movement that in turn erases the “externality” of this process of exteriorization.

Senatore then turns to Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” in the first of two chapters on Platonism in order to differentiate Derrida’s notion of dissemination from the Platonic theory of genesis. Like Leibniz’s scene of divine creation, Platonism “tends to annihilate what Derrida identifies as its anagrammatic structure—namely, the site of the concatenation of forms, of the tropic and syntactical movements, which precede and render possible the concatenation or movement of Platonism itself as well as of philosophy in general” (26). Reading Derrida’s famous essay alongside the recently published seminar on Heidegger from 1964-65 Senatore insists upon the necessity of refusing to “tell stories”, that is, to assimilate being and Beings and to nominate one particular being to be the cause or ontic explanation of the origin of beings. Indeed, the early sessions of Derrida’s lecture course are devoted to investigating what he calls “ontic metaphors” and the necessity to think with them—what is needed most of all is not that we simply abandon these metaphors, as if that were possible, but rather think their necessity and introduce new ones into philosophical discourse. The discussion of metaphoricity brings Senatore to a discussion of the notion of a living logos in Plato’s text. Despite Plato’s attempt to describe the genesis of the logos without recourse to an ontic metaphor, the origin of logos is nevertheless inscribed in the zoological and biological metaphor of generation—Plato is necessarily forced to think speech’s difference from writing as the result of the former’s having a father, that is, its being accompanied or even chaperoned by the direct source of its emission. Whereas writing is orphaned, a dead letter left to circulate without the possibility of response and responsibility, the voice is a living logos that can answer directly and respond to all inquiries addressed to it. Senatore writes, “This suggests once more that the structure of the logos constitutes a metaphor borrowed from a certain understanding of the living and thus that the relation to its father (the noble birth, the body proper, etc.) hinges on a genetic and zoological explanation” (34). But Derrida’s argument is stronger: it is not simply that Plato appeals to the metaphor of paternity and biological generation to explain the origin of the logos in the voice of the speaker, but rather that the casual order of determination is precisely relational. The existence of logos produces the familial relation and not the other way around such that “the concepts of the living and of the zoological process of generation are grounded on the concept of logos and on the relationship between the logos and its subject respectively” (35). Now this conception wherein the logos is the logic of the living is precisely what Derrida seeks to rethink. Indeed, the problem is less that metaphors were imported into the text of philosophy whereas they should be ideally left out of it, but rather that the chosen metaphor makes the production of living logos in speech into a general theory of genesis. Turning to later sections of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Senatore convincingly shows that what Derrida sought to uncover was the irreducibility of writing or the anagrammatic structure of the text is itself an even more general geneticism. This is how we should understand Derrida’s famous interpretation of the signifier pharmakon: its inscription in Plato’s text makes it the untranslatable site of a condensation of multiple, contradictory meanings that are necessarily obscured in the moment of translation. Senatore quoting Derrida writes, “The effect of such a translation is most importantly to destroy what we will later call Plato’s anagrammatic writing…and, in the end, quit simply of the very textuality of the translated text” (37). Platonism is then the attempt to suppress the effects of the written trace, which necessarily carries with it these possible deviations and disseminations,  “the irreducible synthesis of grammatical concatenations and stories that make up the grapheme pharmakon constitues the very element of Platonism, the vigil from which it wishes to dissociate itself” (37). We see again that writing, the process of inscription itself, cannot be seen as a derivative or secondary moment in the production of meaning, as if we passed simply from intention to expression in language, but rather meaning is the effect produced by writing. And since writing is taken as the general condition of the production of meaning this means that it necessarily carries within itself, from the very start, the irreducible possibility of its going astray as its essential possibility. Logos spermatikos and logos-zoon are then both attempts by Platonism to neutralize the necessary and aleatory effects of writing, which are in fact the minimal conditions of possibility of all beings: “…the grapheme-seed is the element of linguistics, zoology, politics, and thus of all regional discourses” (44).

Senatore’s second chapter on Platonism turns to a reading of the Derridean notion of khora as developed in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Timaeus. Senatore here makes extensive use of Derrida’s unpublished seminars from 1970-71 (Theory of Philosophical Discourse: Conditions for the Inscription of the Text of Political PhilosophyThe Example of Materialism) and 1985-86 (Comparative Literature and Philosophy: Nationality and Philosophical Nationalism). What is at stake is pushing this previously elaborated thinking of writing to its extreme by considering its implications for the notion of origin.  It is a question of going beyond the opposition of paradigm/copy or father/son to what precedes and makes possible oppositionality as such. Philosophy, as Derrida suggests in the 1970-71 seminar, deals exclusively with the oppositional, but is not able to think what makes oppositions possible in the first instance. But khora names the very condition of these oppositions in general, the very possibility or opening for beings. Quoting Derrida’s unpublished seminar we read, “Being absolutely figurable, the receptacle escapes all figures, it does not let itself be captured by any figure and necessarily exceeds the trope or the representation that are intended for it [quon lui destine]” (60). Senatore will then connect this to Derrida’s final essay on khora wherein the originary opening and receptivity that this Platonic notion is meant to designate is thematized as the minimal condition for understanding history: history is possible only on the basis of the originary openness that khora names, that is, the empirical succession of events that we call history, wherein all thing come to be called historical, presupposes precisely this originary opening and condition of possibility, this formlessness that gives form. And it is here that Senatore suggests that Derrida discovers in Plato’s text a thinking of history irreducible to Platonism. We are no longer thinking in terms of generational succession, of direct and risk-free intergenerational transmission, but rather thinking on the basis of something—though certainly not a being— pre-originary, or as Derrida writes “before and outside all generation” (67). This thinking of the pre-originary, as Derrida understands it, is both the unthought of philosophy, what cannot be thought in the discourse of philosophy, but also philosophy’s necessary excessiveness: “Khora withdraws from the field of philosophy, as meta-philosophical necessity that remains unheard-of or is removed, that bears within itself another thinking of history, the only thinking of the concept and historicity of history” (68).

In the final three chapters Senatore moves on to discuss Hegelianism, that is, Hegel’s philosophical considered as the most radical attempt to think through the textuality of philosophical language that Platonism had denied in order to constitute itself as philosophical discourse (69). Now, according to Derrida in his 1969-70 seminar, his goal is to call “into question what constitutes the essence and telos of philosophy, that is, holding [tenir] the most general discourse, and thus the most independent one, in relation to which particular discourses (determinate domains) would be hierarchically ordered” (70). In other words, it will be an attempt to show the impossibility of philosophy constituting itself as a completely originary and independent discourse, that is to say, one which makes no recourse to metaphoricity or language imported from other discourses. This will in turn make possible a criticism of philosophy as the most general discourse whose task it is to order regional discourses and produce “the sense of sciences” (73). In this way, the concept of life and life of the concept in Hegel repeat the Platonic logos-zoon, which makes not biological reproduction the foundation of all transmission and generation, but rather biological reproduction is understood on the basis of the philosophical logos spermatikos wherein life is understood as “the generation of consciousness and thus as the nonmetaphorical and originary relation between the father and the logos-zoon, as the removal of the mother, self-reproduction, etc.” (73-4). To affirm against this position the Derridean thinking of dissemination or the anagrammatic structure of writing is tantamount to “pointing to a minimal structure (or an element) that would be diffracted into the transcendental signification and the natural one, and thus would remain behind their difference” (79). To think the textuality of the text is thus what Hegel gets closest to doing—after all Hegel is declared in  De la grammatologie the last thinker of the book and the first thinker of writing[xii]—when reflecting upon the speculative nature of the German language, that is, its ability to think with words whose meanings are antithetical. Hegel would then be the first philosopher to consciously accept and affirm the anagrammatic structure that Plato repressed when faced with signifiers such as pharmakon. Aufhebung, for example, is the metaphorical hinge that binds the concept of life and life of the concept together, but what Hegel precisely risks is reducing the generation of life to the generation of the concept and consciousness, in turn repeating the Platonic structure: “the process of Aufhebung, which he [Derrida] understands as the scheme of the organization as well as the development of the Hegelian system, accounts for the solution of the equivocity of philosophical language” (88). In other words, the speculative identity that the signifier Aufhebung establishes between life, concept, and consciousness reduces the irreducible equivocity of language as inscription, of the anagrammatic structure of writing, or the textuality of the text.

Turning to Hegel’s explicit usage of the term germ (der Same), from which the book gets it title, Senatore focuses on Derrida’s reading of Hegel’s natural images and metaphors. It is again the speculative identity between life and concept that allows Hegel to see the movement of the concept as analogous to the development of life from seed to organism that then goes onto produce more seeds. The seed alienates itself in the process of its very development only to return to itself. Hegel’s system functions by building larger and more comprehensive accounts of this same developmental process since spirit too is self-reproducing and returns to itself as shown in the Phenomenology of Spirit. This discussion continues to include Hegel’s image of the family tree and the book of life, in various texts such as The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate and Reason in History. Again, what is at stake is the apparent covering-over by Hegel of his discovery of an irreducible difference, a remainder or excess, that cannot be included into the movement of the concept-life. Senatore goes on to discuss Derrida’s treatment of this issue in the opening text of Dissemination, which questions the role of the preface as traditionally understood. Derrida’s most experimental writing practices were developed in this period as the unorthodox opening “preface” of Dissemination bears many relations to the form and content of Derrida’s Glas that would be published two year later following the contemporaneous seminar La Famille de Hegel. If the traditional preface is intended to prepare the reader for what is to come, to make the future present at the outset, Derrida’s text is meant to draw attention to the work of dissemination as an irreducible or minimal structure as such. Senatore writes: “Dissemination is the name given to a project that he [Derrida] has started elaborating in “Force and Signification…and further developed in Of Grammatology, where he thinks of writing as the general structure of genesis and thus as the element [or minimal structure] of history and life” (132-33). Dissemination is thus what cannot be appropriated in the self-movement of the concept or life since it is the latter’s irreducible condition of possibility. Meaning, as Derrida discovered in Husserl, thus cannot be signaled or indicated in advance (by a preface or pre-text), but must awaits its moment of empirical inscription or embodiment as an “irreducible delay” that Hegel describes as an “external necessity” (121). The preface is then the attempt made by philosopher’s to suture this originary structure of delay that is immanent and necessary to the unfolding of the concept, an attempt to reduce this essential “out-of-jointness” by making the sense of what is to come present in the present, that is, at the origin.

The preface to Hegel’s Science of Logic perfectly encapsulates this tension: it both does not proclaim in advance what is to come, since logic, for Hegel, can only emerge at the end of the text and cannot be seen as an empty formal method that is discovered at the outset and applied throughout. Yet this admission makes the preface itself superfluous in some sense since it is external to the work itself and is excluded from the immanent unfolding of the concept, that is, from the logic itself. But Derrida wants to read this double status of the preface as being itself a figure of the structure of genesis in general, as that element that resists being folded into the logic of the text itself, and yet is structurally necessarily. This discussion leads Senatore to directly address Derrida’s reading of François Jacob’s La Logique du vivant from the unpublished seminar La Vie la mort. Indeed, Derrida’s “Outworking, Prefacing” is thus the “protocol for a non-Hegelian and non-genetic understanding of genesis” (135). Jacob addresses directly, by way of Claude Bernard, the way in which modern biology has reconciled the contradiction between scientific explanation and teleology: the notion of “genetic programme” allows Jacob and other modern biologists to think the developmental logic of an organism as it follows out genetic instructions inscribed in itself. Heredity viewed as a coded program in chemical sequences dissolves the paradox. But for Derrida, this is not the problem. Whether divine creator or genetic inscriptions, both appeal to and are determined by the logos spermatikos insofar as modern biology posits a preformationism without intention. In other words, dissemination, inscription, anagrammatic writing and textuality are once again repressed.

Senatore’s book then quickly concludes by turning to Derrida’s writings on philosophy, philosophical education, and teaching, which were written during a time when educational and pedagogical reforms were being proposed in France. But in the provocative final pages, Senatore analyses Derrida’s reading of Marx in an unpublished GREPH seminar where it is suggested that ideology is produced necessarily as a result of the originality of sexual difference and thus belongs to the “space of biological and natural life” and not to the superstructure as Marxists have typically held (144).

*****

I began this review by suggesting that what makes Senatore’s book so valuable is its insistence on Derrida’s thinking of a general or minimal structure of genesis, and that recent scholarship on Derrida, which is of a very high quality, also has been seeking to reclaim Derrida as an authentic philosopher against the many decades he was appropriated as a literary theorist and critic, a post-modern or post-structuralist thinker of the insuppressible play of meaning and language or who celebrates the absence of universals or essences. Indeed, I think these new readings are not only correct, but necessary. They find in Derrida a strong and essential thinking of what is necessary, or, a thought of the necessary minimal structures and conditions for the existence and experience of beings as such. Senatore’s claim is that Derrida thinks a general or minimal theory of genesis as such, one that accounts for the genesis of anything whatsoever, from cultural products to biological organisms. Yet throughout Senatore insists on the “nonphilosophical”[xiii] nature of Derrida’s deconstruction insofar as it is non-genetic or breaks with the classical idealist conception of the logos spermatikos. But what precisely is nonphilosophical about uncovering an absolutely general condition to which all beings are necessarily submitted? Or making clear this minimal element that is presupposed not only in all previous philosophical discourses, but also in all scientific discourses? Even if this condition is paradoxical, self-effacing, or never fully present. This strikes me as a quite typical gesture of transcendental philosophy, which is constantly seeking more and more minimal, but absolutely necessary structures, that all beings (cultural, biological, or otherwise) conform to in all cases. Recent French thinkers have even pushed this further, for example, Michel Henry, who claims that the supposedly originary difference of someone like Derrida or Deleuze in fact presupposes an even more originary identity or presence that he calls “life.” At the same time, however, Senatore quotes from unpublished seminars where Derrida seems acutely aware of this problem and criticizes philosophers for attempting to organize and hierarchize all other discourses in an attempt to theorize the meaning of sciences in general. Indeed, this was the general problematic of phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger that Derrida was steeped in and in many way ways continues and radicalizes. This, as I understand it, is Derrida’s insight in his La via la mort seminar, namely, that the biological sciences must come to terms with a necessary condition-obstacle, namely writing, that they at once unknowingly theorize (since they had just begun to speak of a “genetic code”) and yet fail to thematize as such for if they were to do so their investigations would have to be fundamentally altered to account for the irreducibility of the trace structure. Only deconstruction provides such an insight and can think science’s unthought conditions of possibility-impossibility.

But there is another philosophical tradition that runs counter to the one that Derrida deconstructs most often, namely, materialism. Rarely does Derrida engage in-depth with Machiavelli, Spinoza, Althusser[xiv], not to mention Marx, Engels, and Lenin and other canonical “Marxist philosophers.” Derrida himself admitted to not understanding Spinoza[xv] and Warren Montag has argued that this supposed distance covers what is in fact an extreme proximity.[xvi] In other words, my hunch is that precisely what Senatore calls the “nonphilosophical” is what, in other circles, simply gets called materialism or to be more precise, and borrowing an expression from Althusser, aleatory materialism. Indeed, Althusser had proposed, in his innovative reading of Marx and Spinoza, as early as 1966 (if not earlier), a renewed materialist conception of the “encounter” [“théorie de la rencontre] or of “conjunction” [théorie de la conjunction] that is fundamentally different from the genetic theory of genesis.[xvii] This thought of a non-genetic genesis was also at work in Machiavelli and Spinoza, Freud too, when he theorized the overdetermination of dream elements. And Althusser will later seek to establish an entire “underground current” of thinkers who belong to this materialist tradition.

None of this is to suggest that Senatore is unaware of these issues. On the contrary, I take it that Senatore is in fact pushing Derrida in the direction of  productive encounter with thinkers like Althusser and philosophical materialism more generally. And this potential encounter to come is perhaps the one best suited for re-thinking the relationship between philosophy and science, that is, to break with the tradition that Derrida has identified according to which it is the task of philosophy to make sense of the sciences for them or to assign to them their ultimate meaning. But to what extent does this effort in Derrida remain restricted, if not stifled, by his Husserlian inheritance? Or by transcendental philosophy more generally? These are questions that I hope will spur further consideration and future philosophical inquiry and Derrida’s inclusion in these debates is highly anticipated.


[i] De la grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967), pg. 19

[ii] See in particular Malabou’s 2005 book La plasticité au soir de l’écriture (Éditions Léo Scheer) as well as her 2004  Que faire de notre cerveau? (Bayard) and more recently Ontologie de l’accident: Essai sur la plasticité destructrice (Léo Scheer, 2009), Avant demain. Épigenèse et rationalité (PUF, 2009) and Métamorphoses de lintelligence: Que faire de leur cerveau bleu? (PUF,  2017).

[iii] I have in mind not only Senatore himself, but also Francesco Vitale, whose 2018 book Biodeconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Life Sciences (SUNY) was translated by Senatore, but also the work of Dawne McCance who is preparing a book on this seminar and has been publicly lecturing on it for some time now.

[iv] The Derrida Seminars Translation Project, consisting mainly of Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington, Elizabeth Rottenberg, David Wills, Michael Naas, and Pascale-Anne Brault, has published translations of Derrida’s final two seminars The Beast and the Sovereign and The Death Penalty, as well as an early seminar on Heidegger and an 1970s seminar Theory and Practice. The English language translation team is also now in charge of preparing the French manuscripts for publication, which will mean a faster rate of publication in both French and English. The La vie la mort seminar will soon be published in French by Éditions du Seuil in the new series “Bibliothèque Derrida”, having been edited scrupulously by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf. The English translation has already been completed by Brault and Michael Naas and is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.

[v] François Jacob, it will be remembered, along with Jacques Monod and André Lwoff, won the nobel prize for medicine in 1965 and wrote La Logique du vivant as a kind of vulgarisation of his award-winning discoveries. Monod will do the same in his book Le Hasard et la Nécessité: Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne.

[vi] See, most recently, Paul M. Livingston’s excellent book The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism (Routledge, 2012) or Christopher Norris’ Derrida, Badiou, and the Formal Imperative (Bloomsbury, 2014).

[vii] The major early philosophical reading is no doubt Rudolph Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Gasché explicitly writes in the opening pages, “Indeed, Derrida’s inquiry into the limits philosophy is an investigation into the conditions of possibility and impossibility of  a type of discourse and questioning that he recognizes as absolutely indispensable” (2).

[viii] For example, in the work of Slavoj Zizek, Adrian Johnston, Frank Ruda, Rebecca Comay, and others.

[ix] The author of the present review had the honor of working on the translation of the first half of this seminar with the Derrida Seminars Translation Project in July 2017.

[x] Indeed, this paradoxical quasi-scientific character, or non-philosophical scientific character of deconstruction was precisely Derrida’s discovery in reading Husserl, namely, that phenomenology is necessarily led to posit writing as the most minimal condition for the historical transmission of ideal meaning, but in so doing, is forced to study a non-present “object”, that is to say, one that puts into question the very notion of objectivity as such. Derrida reiterates this logic in the beginning of the section “De la grammatologie comme une science positive”, where he suggests that the possibility of grammatology being a science, a science of writing or traces, rests upon its own impossibility since it would shake or make tremble (ébranler) the very concept of science itself (see page 109).

[xi] My translation.

[xii] De la grammatologie, pg. 41. This quotation is preceded by the claim that Hegel, despite appearing as, in some sense, the metaphysical teleological thinker par excellence, he is “also the thinker of irreducible difference.”

[xiii] Senatore uses this language on pages xii, 57, 63, 69, and 143.

[xiv] The recent publication in French and forthcoming translation of Derrida’s 1976-77 Théorie et pratique seminar certainly changes this. But for as much as Derrida engages with Althusser here, the seminar ultimately turns on a reading of Heidegger and the question of techne.

[xv] “Dialogue entre Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe et Jean-Luc Nancy.” Rue Descartes 2006/2 (no. 52), pg. 95.

[xvi] “Immanence, Transcendence, and the Trace: Derrida Between Levinas and Spinoza.” Badmidbar: a Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 2, Autumn 2011.

[xvii] See Althusser’s text from September 1966 “Sur la genèse”, where he explicitly attacks the genetic theory of genesis where the result is contained “en germe in the origin. Available through décalages:

https://scholar.oxy.edu/decalages/vol1/iss2/

Roberto Malvezzi: The Archetype of Wisdom: A Phenomenological Research on the Greek Temple

The Archetype of Wisdom: A Phenomenological Research on the Greek Temple Book Cover The Archetype of Wisdom: A Phenomenological Research on the Greek Temple
Roberto Malvezzi. Preface by Giovanni Piana
Mimesis International
2018
Paperback $ 14.00 / £ 10.00 / € 12.00
140

Reviewed by: Benjamin Carpenter (The University of East Anglia)

A text as ambitious as Malvezzi’s The Archetype of Wisdom provides a particularly challenging subject for review – precisely because of the wide aim and reach of this project. Far from considering the ambition of this work pejoratively, my intentions in this review are to make explicit the way in which Malvezzi’s text opens (or at least attempts to open) space for a philosophical project of much greater length. The text itself, standing at roughly 100 pages (omitting the use of illustrative plates) is very short, especially when this length is considered alongside the breadth of Malvezzi’s interest. Indeed, he acknowledges this explicitly when he states that the work’s wide angle makes impossible a certain level of comprehensively (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 15). It is therefore my view that The Archetype of Wisdom should be read as a kind of philosophical manifesto – as the extended opening remarks of a much larger philosophical project. As such, my review seeks to bring out the key components of Malvezzi’s position in light of the project this work seeming precipitates. Given the breadth of his project, it is perhaps understandable and forgivable that Malvezzi does not always tease out the full conclusions of many of the comparative claims he makes within his work. This review shall draw out these claims, particularly attending to the similarities and difference between Malvezzi’s project and Husserl’s phenomenology, as well as to how orientation figures within his work.

The Archetype of Wisdom is a bold unification of several distinct areas of scholarship. Not only is it a work of phenomenological philosophy, but it is explicitly concerned with classical architecture, and philosophy of religion – with the latter’s role in the text specifically concerned with questions of cosmology and metaphysics. Given its classical subject matter, the text raises further questions pertinent to history and archaeology – though these concerns are largely outside of my field of expertise, so shall not be central to my appraisal of this work. Malvezzi makes explicit that his primary concern throughout the text is with the spatial metaphysics of Greek spiritual thought, specifically with their conceptualisations of the relationship between what is considered human and divine. To paraphrase this, we could suggest that Malvezzi’s concern is with the constitutive relationship between practices of worship – with their explicit concern, in the Greek context, with wisdom – and the embodiment of these practices within physical space. In order to understand this, he insists, we must begin with the spaces within which this relationship was placed and enacted: the Greek temple. Yet no sooner than this project has established its central concern as architectural, it immediately problematises this notion, at once insisting that we must understand the temple as constituted both by its architecture and by the lived experiences of the Greeks. Through his early invocation of Schulz’s observation that “temples are regarded as “individual concretizations of fundamental existential situations””(Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14), Malvezzi’s project comes to rest its interests on the site of worship as a phenomenologically constructed space. The primary implication here is that Malvezzi’s project is concerned with how the Greek temple is a site wherein meaning and significance are constructed, mobilised, and proliferated – that the temple should be understood as the staging ground for particular religious practices that are primarily concerned with phenomenological experience. We are thereby implored to reject any understanding of the temple as a static system, as a fixed concretisation of some transcendent divine power, but as a site wherein and upon which “the changing conditions of life from all around are unceasingly acting” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 74). It is on these grounds that he presents his work as applied phenomenology. In so far as the temple itself represents the divine (and, for Malvezzi, on some level it clearly does) Malvezzi’s approach encourages us to consider the temple as an experience, which is to say in relation to those that use the site. As such, Malvezzi’s work foregrounds the relational aspects of the temple and the divine to human experience.

Perhaps the most overt point of continuity between Malvezzi’s project and the standard canon of phenomenology is his invocation of the term erlebnis. One of the central terms deployed with Husserlian phenomenology, erlebnis is experience in and of itself – the product of his specific schema of philosophical reduction (Husserl, 1982). The direct parallel within the context of the Greeks is the stress placed on the role played by pre-rational elements of thought when considering the wider, universal existential structure embodied within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14). Though some of us may be sceptical of this division between pre-rational experience and cognition, the Greeks – according to Malvezzi – mirror Husserl quite closely when they suggest that the point of their project is to investigate universal structures. Yet within this similarity is the implicit, yet stark, distinction between the erlebnis of Husserl and the erlebnis of the Greeks: the latter has an explicitly existential concern. As aforementioned, Malvezzi’s project is – at least in part – a work of the philosophy of religion, at least in so far as the focus on Greek life is within the conceptual framework of religious metaphysics. Taken together, these elements frame The Archetype of Wisdom as attempting to provide a phenomenological account of Greek religious experience, yet precisely what this project reveals is that these experiences express a clear existential attitude of humanity’s relationship to the divine.

This deep link between existential erlbenis and the Greek religious experience of the divine is further explored within Malvezzi’s brief treatment of other aspects of Greek architecture (loosely conceived). He speaks of monumental statues, those that depict mortals and Gods, represented in the like form of the human being. Their prevalence, for Malvezzi, speaks to the true object of reflection for Greek thought: “man himself” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For any concern the Greeks may have had with a transcendent divine, the transcendent becomes intimately connected to human experience – it works to ground the divine whilst also working to unground the everyday. In his consideration of these statues, Malvezzi focuses on the prevalent pose many of these monuments took –  depicting the figure as taking a step forwards (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For Malvezzi, this is not to be read as a mere hint at movement, but instead allows us to read this statues as having intermediate dimensionality, as neither rooted nor moving, and this challenges the very idea of human stability. This becomes implicitly existential for Malvezzi, specifically in so far as it comes to challenge the advice of Tirtaeus: that one should “have both feet planted on the ground” (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 53–4). This picture of the fundamental existential condition as one of rootedness is thereby overcome by a new image: that of a youth looking at the world around him and attempting to find his path (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Though Malvezzi does not explicitly illuminate this as an existential dimension to his work, it is explicitly concerned with action. To extend Malvezzi’s reading of this example, we can regard the intermediary status of man – as expressed through the statue – as core to his reading of the Greek’s as phenomenologically oriented, for the youth is attentively considering the relationship between the world as he experiences it and his action. Though Malvezzi does not use the term, I think it useful to consider this image in terms of the language of orientation, specifically in the phenomenological sense explicated within Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (Ahmed, 2006). Upon this reading, we can see Malvezzi present us with a reading of Greek architecture as furnishing us with a series of anchors upon which their philosophical practice hangs, with statues and temples acting as both sites of practice but further as points of reference, through which the Greek individual could find their orientation.

This notion of orientation, specifically as part of a process of disorientation and reorientation, becomes more overt (though is never actively avowed), within the Greek sense of the divine as Malvezzi explicates it. Importantly, his reading stresses that for the Greeks wisdom is rooted in experience itself, not upon the accumulation of information (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Again, we can see the clear link to Husserl’s project – in so far as the investigation concerns experience rather than specific objects of knowledge – but also, I hope, a clear point of divergence: the Greeks do not present this as a project with an end, their practice is innately sceptical of the codification of this experience. Greek spiritual practice never overcame the need for novelty, it cannot be codified precisely because this codification would be its end (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 79). This scepticism, on Malvezzi’s reading, is foundational within the very building of the temple itself, for the temple was to act as a site of provocation, as a reminder of the ‘divine experience’ at the root of Greek wisdom (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 13). Indeed, the temple itself is as far as the Greeks can go in terms of codification, for the temple is an approximation and a reminder of the divine experience itself, an experience that – being pre-rational – cannot be clearly expressed within language, and thus resists standard forms of philosophical codification (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 66). Expressed more succinctly – the temple itself is the best codification of this experience. Attempts at the rationalisation of this experience must, at least on Malvezzi’s account, be considered definitively as moving away from the experience itself. Whereas we may read Husserl as seeking what can be codified within experience, what rational structures we can tease out of the experience itself, Malvezzi’s account of Greek divine experience resists this kind of determination.

This is precisely expressed within the division between the two worlds: mortal and divine. The former is primarily characterised by peras, by ephemerality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 31). The mortal world is limited and determined, it is the realm of what dies. Conversely, the divine is characterised as apeiron, as that which cannot undergo any kind of determination (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 32). The world of mortals is limited just as the world of the divine is infinite. Understanding divine experience in this way, we must read Malvezzi’s as strongly differentiating between this experience and attempts at codification through rational thinking. Divine experience – being so limitless – challenges the limits of everyday life and thus cannot be approximated to them. We must recall that divine experience is fundamentally pre-rational for Malvezzi, and it cannot be rationalised without the experience itself becoming essentially changed.

Indeed, the opposition between rationalisation and the divine is most keenly expressed within Malvezzi’s treatment of chaos, which is considered as “unknown divinity” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Malvezzi appears to suggest a certain temporal structure to one’s relationship with the divine, as one at first encounters the divine as an unknown. One’s initial experience of the divine is presented in terms of unveiling – as aletheia[1] –  wherein the mind is opened to truth (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). Malvezzi expresses this by drawing on Hesiod’s account of the genesis of the divine: “at first Chaos came to be” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Hesiod presents this as a mythological account, as a creation myth for the Grecian pantheon. Malvezzi understands this as a part of the phenomenological process. Chaos is a logical opening, it is at once aletheia and epoche – it is the collapse of one’s preconceived ideas. But this collapse is an exposure to truth, not as a series of universal structures of thought or propositions about reality, but as a direct experience of harmonia. If we are to experience harmony – the divine truth, “an underground weaving from which everything can rise and vanish” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 35) – we must first experience chaos. Both are core aspects of the divine experience. For Malvezzi, divine experience is at once terror and beauty.

To best explicate Malvezzi’s view, I return to the notion of orientation. How he presents the phenomenology of the divine appears to follow a movement from orientation to disorientation, a movement engendered by the chaotic component of divine experience. Having passed through chaos, we arrive at harmony, we move from disorientation to reorientation. This reorientation is not a return to one’s original perspective, but a transformation of one’s relationship with the world. This new relationship is rooted in understanding, not as rationalisation, but as facing the divine substratum – as rootedness in one’s phenomenological experience of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). The movement to reorientation is the taking up of a divine orientation, the availability of which depends directly upon this experience. But this experience is transitory, its impression fades and we return to our original, everday orientation – and this precipitates a need to return to the temple, to relive our encounter with the divine. We must once again pass through chaos to reach harmony. Malvezzi does not provide an extended treatment of orientation in this way, though he does mention the concept in connection with Prometheus, who “showed men what to see and hear in order to get oriented” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). This is to say that Prometheus provides us with a shift in perception through revealing a fundamentally element of the world: fire. Through extending this metaphor of orientation, I have attempted to more clearly demonstrate Malvezzi’s position and its implications.

I regard Malvezzi’s project as heavily relying upon these notions of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation even if these are rarely avowed. Indeed, his project appears to suggest that the distance between the mortal and divine worlds is a precisely the distance between two forms of orientation. To be situated in one world or the other is a matter of one’s attitude, as to whether or not one is oriented towards the divine substratum or merely to the surface appearance. This is not to suggest that Malvezzi regards the surface as superficial in such a way as to dismiss it. Instead, the suggestion is that the Grecian model implies that the surface can only attain its full relevance and meaning through an appreciation of its divine support (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37).

Indeed, the fundamental distinction between the mortal and divine worlds becomes blurred in his discussion of Ananke. As a Goddess, Ananke is the divine personification of fate – she is at once a divine being and a constraint on divinity itself, for not even Gods fight Ananke (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 47). As a figure, Ananke comes to represent a divine limitation, she is at once apeiron and peras – blurring the distinctions between the divine and mortal worlds. The blurring of this distinction enables man to understand the divine through a new form of codification. For Malvezzi, Ananke is thus the possibility of accumulating knowledge about the divine, for her status is precisely that of a boundary. Accordingly, it is through her that we move from the fluidity of the divine to the solidity of the Gods – aspects of the divine personified and settled into entities. Malvezzi considers Ananke – and what is made possible through her – to be an advancement in the ontological status of the human being (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). By allowing the divine to settle into human shapes, mankind is given a framework through which they can conceptualise their relationship to the divine in a clear manner. A mythos is born and settled. The pre-rational experience is given a multitude of faces to facilitate its encounter with humanity.

But though the Gods are a result of this experience, though they are a codification of this experience into a more ready-to-hand framework of understanding, the Gods exist to be transcended. The very reason that the Greeks can afford not to resist the codification of the divine experience into Gods and yet could not afford to allow this experience to be claimed by reason is precisely because the Gods can point us back to the originary experience in a way that reason cannot. This is to say that rationalisation pulls us directly away from the divine experience, it leads us only into abstraction. As a form of codification, rationalisation keeps the experience itself at bay. The Gods, however, like the temples in which they are spatially located, become sites of experience in and of themselves. This is to suggest that the Gods return us to the divine experience, that they enable us to experience harmony.

On Malvezzi’s account, the Gods thus become vehicles for experiencing the divine, which at once return us to this experience of chaos and then harmony, but which also foreground a human element of this harmony. This is fundamentally why the Gods are concerned with wisdom, not because they provide codified doctrines of teachings, but because each of them provides human beings with access to wisdom. Wisdom, on Malvezzi’s account, is the phenomenological experience of, and ability to interact with, the invisible harmony of the world. Wisdom fundamentally depends upon this phenomenological experience, which in turn depends upon the conditions embodied within the temple and its Gods. As such, it would be appropriate to extend Malvezzi’s use of architecture to suggest that temples and their Gods are themselves the architecture of wisdom, as well as the archetype.

To extend Malvezzi’s project into the claim that the Gods serve as an architecture of wisdom is to foreground the temple as a catalyst for a phenomenological encounter with the divine. Malvezzi’s project has a strong historical thread through which he provides a reading of the origins and development of the Greek temple. Though I provide a summary of his account here, this subject is beyond my specialism and thus I am in no position to appraise it. Malvezzi’s history begins with the tѐmenoi, the “cut out lands” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 19) that serve as the predecessor’s to the Grecian temple structure. These were sites of worship in the open air, closed off spaces that were dedicated to a God – sacred spaces surrounding an altar. Such spaces are closed off in the sense that they are set apart from the corresponding outside: the mortal world. The structure of the tѐmenoi as closed off establishes the sanctity of these spaces as grounded in a shift away from everyday life. Central to this shift is that the tѐmenoi served as thresholds between civilisation and the natural world. Indeed, the location of these were not considered as accidental or as part of civic planning – but as chosen by the Gods. What marked these locations as chosen were their natural features, and thus we can see the roots of the temenoi and the divine within the natural world. Malvezzi notes that for the Greeks, nature was not to be regarded as a “dead”, for nature was alive (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 21). What this means philosophically is the suggestion that for the Greeks, nature was more than a factic state of affairs, not merely a collection of creatures and plants to be regarded merely as resources, but that the Greek spiritual life has its origins within the divinity of nature. Due to its association with the divine, however, it is unsurprising that the natural world was considered as distinct from the mortal world: from the civilised world of the polis. Malvezzi’s therefore regards the temenoi as sanctuaries that sat at the margins of the polis, marking the physical and psychological thresholds between civilisation and nature (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 22), between the known and the unknown, between the mortal and the divine.

Therefore, Malvezzi’s proposes that the general structure of the temple is that it constitutes an interstice between the two worlds – but this is not to suggest that each temple is identical. Malvezzi stresses the observations of other scholars who suggest that temples are each unique, that their construction cannot be entirely reduced to a singular schema (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 65). Despite this, Malvezzi asserts that there is a clear commonality upon which we can comment, and this is the use of light within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70). His treatment of the phenomenological experience of the temple comes to focus on the act of entering the temple and approaching the altar. Typically, the temple would have a single entrance, acting as the sole aperture through which light could enter the building. As this entrance was at the opposite end of the building to the altar and the God – herein represented as a statue – the procession towards the architectural representation of the divine would have been a walk into gradually intensifying darkness (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 80). One’s entry into the space was occasioned by the placement of the columns, which would again come to divide the internal sections of the building. Importantly for Malvezzi, the placement of these columns deliberated evoked a sense of a permeable boundary (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 69), crossed by the worshipper entering the holy site. Due to the single entrance, Malvezzi describes the temple as a prism, diffracting not only light, but also reality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70).

This image of worship amounts to what I regard to be Malvezzi’s most original claim within this project: that the temple demonstrates how the act and practice of worship was itself implicitly spatial for the Greeks. The temple is a space that one moves through, it is a path out of the mortal world and into the divine, a sojourn of discovery. The sculpted stones of the temple were regarded as living, as imbued with soul through the art of construction – all united within the secret recipe for arousing a sense of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 76, 81). It is for these reasons that Malvezzi speaks of the temple as grounded within a human hope that it was possible for all men to have this experience.

The Archetype of Wisdom is an ambitious project, drawing on resources from myriad disciplines across the academy. As a synthesis of these perspectives, Malvezzi’s work provides a compelling suggestion as to how we can productively read the Greek temple, as to how these sacred spaces can provide us with testimonies about Grecian practice, experience, and cosmology. Philosophically, Malvezzi draws several productive connections between Greek practice and later works of phenomenology – especially in his treatment of erlebnis and, in my suggestion, his implicit comments on orientation. Though I consider the text to provide a convincing demonstration as to the utility of pursuing a phenomenology of the classics, it remains limited in the amount it can achieve given its relatively short length. On these grounds, I consider The Archetype of Wisdom as a proposal for additional work – a proposal that implicitly calls for a collaborative effort across those disciplines with which it interfaces. In particular, it would be productive to consider this project alongside archaeology, which is mentioned somewhat sparingly in the text. Finally, another element that is somewhat absent from this text is a consideration of the temple as a political site, thus any further work within this area may wish to consider what contribution could be made by political philosophy. None of these omissions are damning to the central thesis of the text – but each could be addressed in whatever projects Malvezzi’s work precipitates.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S., 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, Durham.

Husserl, E., 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Nijhof, The Hague.

Malvezzi, R., 2018. The Archetype of Wisdom: A Phenomenological Review of the Greek Temple. Mimesis International, Milan-Udine.


[1] Malvezzi does not expand upon any connections between his use of this term and its place within the work of Heidegger. This may be another fruitful comparison for any future work.

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

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

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Drummond Young (University of Edinburgh)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giorgio Lando: Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction

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

Reviewed by: Anton Killin (Australian National University)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by: Georgios Tsagdis (University of Westminster)

“For Architecture no longer defines a domain.”

(Derrida)

Opening

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

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

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

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

Law of the Oikos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics of Architecture

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

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

Mythographies

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

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

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

Writing Space

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

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

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

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

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

Eisenman the Apostate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spacing Architecture

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

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

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

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