J. G. Fichte: Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)

Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Book Cover Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin D. Crowe
SUNY Press

Reviewed by: Robert Seymour (University of Essex)


Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.

Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.

By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).

Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.

Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.

However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.

An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.

Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.

A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.

The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.

The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.

It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]

Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.

One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.

In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]

While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.

One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.

The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.

Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).

Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.

Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.

[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).

[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.

[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] Ibid., 51.

[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.

[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.

[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.

J. G. Fichte: Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)

Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Book Cover Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin D. Crowe
SUNY Press
Paperback $26.95

Reviewed by: Carsten Fogh Nielsen (Department of Education, Aarhus University)

The first phenomenologist?

Recent years have seen a growing interest in the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) among English-speaking philosophers. New and reliable translations of Fichte’s major works from the so-called Jena-period (the years between 1794-1800 when Fichte was employed at the University in Jena) and of his subsequent writings and unpublished manuscripts from his years in Berlin (the period from Fichte’s dismissal from Jena in 1800 to his death in 1814) have made his philosophy available to a different and broader audience than previously. Furthermore the tireless work of especially Daniel Breazeale, who have translated and written about Fichte in English for many years, has done much to dispel traditional misinterpretations and misgivings about Fichte’s philosophy.

Though Fichte is not yet (and may never be) as well-known or respected among English-speaking philosophers as e.g. Kant and Hegel, his reputation today is far better than it was just 15 or 20 years ago. Fichte is no longer viewed as merely a transitory figure within the development from Kant to Hegel, or as a radical subjective idealist who subscribes to the implausible idea the world is nothing but a projection of the human mind, but as an important and influential philosopher in his own right. In a recent book Allen Wood even goes so far as to claim that Fichte “is the most original figure in the development of post-Kantian German idealism. In fact, Fichte is the most influential single figure on the entire tradition of continental European philosophy in the last two centuries”. According to Wood most, if not all, distinctive ideas within the continental tradition can thus plausibly be traced back to Fichte (Wood 2016, Preface).

One does not necessarily have to agree with Wood in order to acknowledge the importance and influence of Fichte on the development of post-Kantian and continental European philosophy. One important, but also neglected and somewhat obscure, aspect of Fichte’s influence, is his role in the development of phenomenology as a distinct and significant philosophical approach. As is well-known there are strong links between modern-day phenomenology in the tradition from Husserl and Heidegger, and the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, although there is little agreement on the precise nature of these links. On the one hand Kant and Hegel are historical figures which phenomenologists often explicitly seek to somehow transcend or move beyond. On the other hand Kant, and perhaps in particular Hegel, presents a view of the relation between mind and world which seems to open up the possibility of, perhaps even invite, a phenomenological interpretation.

The importance (be it positive or negative) of Kant and Hegel for the development of contemporary phenomenology is thus often explicitly acknowledged. Fichte’s contribution to this development on the other hand is most commonly either ignored or simply overlooked. However a number of philosophers have recently begun to emphasize the inherent phenomenological character of much of Fichte’s work. Tom Rockmore for instance has argued that Fichte’s reformulation of Kant’s Copernican Revolution makes three important contributions which subsequently influenced the development of phenomenology: 1) a decisive elimination of the thing in itself; 2) a revisionary account of the subject; and finally 3) an incipient turn to history. (Rockmore 2006). According to Rockmore the first point leads to a theory of knowledge based on phenomena, not on appearance; the second point heralds a philosophical anthropology of human finitude incompatible with Kant’s strict anti-psychologism and the third point implies a conception of human beings, and thus also of human knowledge, which sees them as situated within and limited by their historical context.

For Rockmore Fichte’s main contribution to the development of phenomenology thus consists in his radical reformulation of certain basic Kantian presuppositions; reformulations which indirectly “opens the way for phenomenology understood as a science of phenomena that are not appearances since they give up any claim to represent things in themselves or again the mind-independent reality.” (Rockmore 2006, p. 24). Fichte may not have been a phenomenologist himself, but he paved the way for subsequent philosophical developments which ultimately resulted in the full-blown phenomenological theories of the 20th century.

There is however good reasons to think that Rockmore does not go far enough in his reassessment of Fichte’s phenomenological credentials. Most of Fichte’s work thus has an implicitly phenomenological character in so far as it is concerned with detailed analyses of the relation between human mindedness and the way certain phenomena necessarily must appear to human consciousness. For Fichte, as for later phenomenologists, world, phenomena and mind are necessarily and inextricably intertwined and the primary tasks of the philosopher is to reflect upon and describe the intricate operations and activities of the human mind through which these dependencies and relationships are simultaneously constituted and become apparent to us. This (at the very least proto-)phenomenological approach can, to some extent or another, be found already in Fichte’s major work from the 1790’s (Science of Knowledge(1794/95); Foundations of Natural Right (1795-96) and The System of Ethics (1798)), but seems to become more prominent and distinctive in his later, post-Jena writings.

One clear example of this approach can be found in Fichte’s notes for his final series of lectures on his system of ethics from 1812, which have recently been translated into English by Benjamin Crowe. As Crowe notes in his ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Fichte himself explicitly views his own account of moral normativity as a form of phenomenology (p. xx). More precisely Fichte believes that in order to account for the “ought” of morality we first need “a theory of appearance of the true and real I; a theory of the I, hence, a phenomenology that, since previously we were dealing with a theory of being, is nevertheless an absolute phenomenology, not simply a phenomenon of a phenomenon as is physics.” (Lecture 11, p. 61). To understand moral normativity we first need an account of what it is for an I to be an I, and of what it means for an I to appear to itself as an I.

For Fichte such an account is an “absolute phenomenology”, since it concerns a phenomenon, namely the I or (self-)consciousness, whose existence is defined by and constituted through its own self-appearance. The I thus differs from other phenomena (e.g. the phenomena described by physics) in that there is no difference between the appearance and the reality of the I. The I exists because and in so far as it appears to the I as an I. This, of course, is simply another way to spell out Fichte’s original insight from § 1 of the 1794 Wissenschaftslehre, which defines the I as a self-positing activity which “posits itself by merely existing and exists by merely being posited (Fichte 1991, p. 98; I, 97). “a theory of the I” is thus “an absolute phenomenology”, because it concerns a phenomenon which exists precisely because and in so far as it is a phenomenon, and not with “a phenomenon of a phenomenon”, which is what physics deals with.

What then more precisely is the relation between moral normativity and the phenomenology of the I? This question brings us directly to the center of Fichte’s ethical theory. Unfortunately Fichte is not as clear on this point as one might have wished. In fact many of the passages in the Lectures on the Theory of Ethics1812) which deals with this topic are so difficult to interpret and understand that they border on the obscure.

In the 1798 System of Ethics Fichte derives the normativity of morality at least partly from the I’s eternal striving for absolute self-determination. The I is a self-positing activity which strives to free itself from all external determination by gradually incorporating and transforming all externality so that it becomes an extension of (or at least coheres on a deep level with) the I. It is this striving for unity between subject and object, self and other, which ultimately accounts for the inherent normativity of morality. (See Fichte 2005, Part 1 (pp. 19-63; IV 14-63)).

This idea also makes an appearance in the 1812 lectures in the form of the idea of “the pure concept” as the determining ground of both the world and the I. The pure concept is “pure” (or “absolute” because it is not derived from the world but is a necessary precondition for there being a world (and an I) in the first place. The distinctive moral significance of this pure, absolute concept is, that Fichte defines “will” as self-determination through and in accordance with this concept, and believes that such self-determination necessarily involves the capacity to effect changes in the world; to bring about through one’s actions particular states of affairs. (Lectures 1, 3 and 5). Moral actions are thus actions which are determined solely by the pure concept. And since only actions determined by the pure concept are free, self-determining actions, moral actions simultaneously both determine and serve to unite the world and the I.

One problem with the pure concept is that it is purely intelligible and hence beyond what human beings can rationally cognize. Moral actions are thus only possible if the pure concept somehow appears before or presents itself to the I. In the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) it is this “appearance” of the pure concept which constitutes the basic “ought” of morality. The pure concept, Fichte argues, appears before the I as an image of a specific form of determination, which the I is to retroactively apply to itself. “This image of its determination is supposed to become its actual determinacy. […] The image of determination is supposed to become the actual being; the image is supposed to make itself into a being immediately and through itself.” (Lecture 7, pp. 39-40). Differently put: The pure concept appear as an image of a formal norm of self-determination; a norm through which the I ‘ought’ to determine its own activity.

Fichte’s account of moral normativity thus consists in a phenomenology of the appearance of the pure concept in and for consciousness, and an analysis of the I simultaneous self- and world-constituting activity. Fichte’s lectures thus represent (one of) the first explicit attempts to ground man’s practical (and, Fichte would probably argue, his cognitive) relation to and engagement with the world on an explicitly phenomenological analysis of consciousness. This is what makes (or at least ought to make) the Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) of great and enduring interest to phenomenologists.

As already mentioned Fichte’s arguments and formulations in the lectures are often extremely difficult to follow. This makes it exceedingly hard for even an experienced philosophical reader to get a grip on the text. To some extent this is because Fichte’s original text is not a finished manuscript but is precisely a set of lecture notes; notes which Fichte used as a guide-line and starting point for his lectures on ethics. As Crowe notes in his introduction “Fichte’s manuscript often reads more like a series of shorthand notes to himself than a polished text. The 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics is a challenging text; indeed, it represents some of the most difficult prose Fichte ever produced.” (pp. xxiv).

Crowe’s translation goes some way towards remedying these defects. First of all Crowe supplements his translation of Fichte’s own notes with substantial excerpts from two student transcripts: One by Jakob Ludwig Cauer, the other by an unknown author. These excerpts are included in the text as footnotes and often throw an illuminating light on the darkness of particular passages of Fichte’s own text.

Secondly Crowe’s lengthy introduction not only places Fichte’s lectures within the social, political and philosophical context in which they were originally presented, but also locates the lectures within Fichte’s own philosophical system. This makes the lectures relatively accessible to non-Fichte scholars, although the inherent difficulty of the text remains. Unfortunately Crowe only provide a brief summary of the lectures, which does not go into much argumentative detail. Furthermore Crowe’s introduction seems to suggest that Fichte’s educational theory and account of the structure and hierarchy of academic disciplines at the university somehow provides an interpretative key to the 1812 lectures on ethics. I personally do not agree with this, and while I found many of Crowe’s remarks on these topics interesting and illuminating in their own right, they did not really help me find my way through the text.

Thirdly Crowe provides a comprehensive bibliography of selected English and German literature on Fichte’s philosophy, in particular his ethics. The references to the German literature on Fichte’s later writings are particularly useful, since there is hardly any English literature available on these texts.

Finally of course Crowe’s translation itself serves to open up Fichte’s text to the reader. Crowe has done a lot of work to fill in the blanks in Fichte’s text. This of course means that he has had to make a lot of interpretative choices along the way. I have not done an extensive or systematic comparison between Fichte’s original German version and Crowe’s translation, but my general feeling, based on the overall coherence of the text, is that Crowe has gotten things more right than wrong. Given the state of the original text and the difficulty of Fichte’s thought Crowe’s translation is at any rate an impressive accomplishment which should be applauded.

In conclusion: Fichte’s Lectures on the System of Ethics (1812) should be of interest to both phenomenologists, students of German Idealism in general and Fichte-scholars. The text presents Fichte’s last words on ethics, a topic which Fichte himself viewed as central to and crucial for his own philosophical system. It also represents one of the first, if not the first explicitly and recognizably phenomenological analyses of (moral) consciousness, and raises a number of interesting questions and problems which should be of interest to contemporary phenomenological discussions. The text is extremely difficult, but Crowe has done an excellent job in making it accessible to a contemporary, English-speaking audience.


Fichte, J. G. 1991. The Science of Knowledge. Edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Fichte, J. G. 2005. The System of Ethics. Edited and translated by Daniel Breazeale and Günter Zöller, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Rockmore, Tom. 2010. ‘Fichte and Phenomenology’. In Fichte and the Phenomenological Tradition, ed. by Violetta L. Waibel, Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore, De Gruyter: Berlin.

Wood, Allen. 2016. Fichte’s Ethical Thought, Oxford University Press: Oxford.


Hermann Schmitz: Zur Epigenese der Person

Zur Epigenese der Person Book Cover Zur Epigenese der Person
Hermann Schmitz
Verlag Karl Alber
Paperback 29,00 €

Reviewed by: Corinna Lagemann (Freie Universität Berlin)

Der Kieler Phänomenologe Hermann Schmitz befasst sich seit den 60er Jahren mit einer umfassenden Würdigung und Kritik der traditionellen phänomenologischen Theoriebildung. Das umfangreiche Kernstück und gleichzeitig die Basis seines Schaffens ist das fünfbändige System der Philosophie, welches seine gesamte Konzeption umfasst.

Eine der wichtigsten Säulen seiner Theorie ist die Leiblichkeit. Der Leib, verstanden als das, was der Mensch in der Gegend seines sicht- und tastbaren Körpers spürt, bildet die Grundlage für Subjektivität, für die Konstitution von Eigen- und Fremdwelt, für die Erfahrung von Zeit und Raum und damit auch für die Genese der Person. Der Begriff der Person stellt eine weitere zentrale Größe in Schmitz’ Werk dar. Personalität zeichnet sich durch die Fähigkeit aus, etwas für sich selbst zu halten und sich bei gleichzeitiger leiblicher Verwurzelung im Hier und Jetzt aus den unmittelbaren Bezügen zu lösen.

Schmitz selbst formuliert dies in diesem Band wie folgt:

“Der Bewussthaber beginnt mit Sichspüren durch affektives Betroffensein in bloßer absoluter Identität, gefangen in Situationen, von deren Nomos er geführt wird, und befreit sich dann mit Hilfe satzförmiger Rede aus dieser Gefangenschaft, indem er sich durch Vereinzelung und Neutralisierung zur Person erhebt, die mit persönlichen Stellungnahmen in die Welt eingreift, dabei aber weder von den Situationen loskommt, aus denen sie Konstellationen schöpfen muss, noch vom affektiven Betroffensein, mit dem sie ihr Personsein und sogar ihre absolute Identität verlöre.” (S.136)

Im vorliegenden Band Zur Epigenese der Person (Karl Alber Verlag 2017) geht es um eben dieses Konzept. Es handelt sich dabei nicht um eine Monographie, sondern um eine Sammlung von einschlägigen Aufsätzen, die in den Jahren 2015 und 2016, oftmals in Form von Vortragsmanuskripten, entstanden sind. Das Buch besteht aus 9 Aufsätzen, die zwar prinzipiell voneinander unabhängig sind und die sich in Teilaspekten wiederholen, allerdings liegt hier keine zufällige Ansammlung von Texten vor, sondern die Aufsätze folgen einer Systematik, die im Begriff der Person selbst begründet liegt.

Damit beschreibt der erste Aufsatz mit dem Titel “Der Aufbau der Person” nicht nur genau diesen (nämlich den Aufbau der Person), sondern liefert gleichzeitig den roten Faden durch den gesamten Band. In diesem Text wird die Konstitution der Person geschildert, angefangen beim affektiven Betroffensein, in welchem der Mensch sich selbst spürt, jedoch noch ohne Möglichkeit der Distanzierung. Darauf aufbauend beschreibt Schmitz den Einsatz der leiblichen Dynamik, d.i. die individuelle Auseinandersetzung mit diesem Betroffensein, die sich in leibliche Kommunikation ausweitet, d.h. auf die Umgebung ausgedehnt wird. Daraus, so Schmitz, ergeben sich Situationen, in denen sich der Mensch befindet; Ganzheitliche Mannigfaltigkeiten, die durch binnendiffuse Bedeutsamkeit zusammengehalten werden, d.h. durch Sachverhalte, Programme und Probleme, die – und hier erfolgt der Übergang zur Personalität – durch die segmentierende satzförmige Rede abstrahierend vereinzelt werden können. Damit ist eine Distanz vom rein leiblichen präpersonalen Geschehen gegeben, welche der Person zu eigen ist.

In den folgenden Aufsätzen werden dementsprechend zunächst das präpersonale leibimmanente Geschehen von Engung und Weitung verhandelt (Kap. 2 “Enge und Weite”) und daran anschließend die Ausweitung der leiblichen Dynamik auf die Umgebung (Kap. 3 “Leib und leibliche Kommunikation”).

Die folgenden Kapitel dienen der Einführung der sogenannten Halbdinge, die quasi als Brücke von der leiblichen Dynamik zu leibexternen Gegenständen dienen; Phänomene, die sich gemäß Schmitz’ Theorie von Volldingen durch ihre unterbrechbare Dauer und ihre unmittelbare Kausalität unterscheiden (Vgl. S.84). Sie verfügen über eine unbezweifelbare, oftmals objektiv spürbare Präsenz, ohne dass man sie als konkrete Gegenstände dingfest machen könnte. Beispiele sind der Wind, Musik, aber auch Schmerz, atmosphärische Gefühle und Probleme, die einen nicht loslassen. Im 4. Kapitel des Bandes wird exemplarisch der Schmerz verhandelt. Schmerz stellt im leiblichen Geschehen einen Konflikt dar, er ist insofern ein Stück weit dem reinen präpersonalen leiblichen Geschehen enthoben, als er eine Konfrontation, eine Auseinandersetzung erzwingt. Dem Schmerz kann man sich nicht indifferent hingeben und darin aufgehen.

Auch im 5. Kapitel “Schall und Farbe” geht es um Halbdinge, die auf unterschiedliche Arten die leibliche Dynamik involvieren und bestimmte Arten der leiblichen Kommunikation bzw. der Einleibung darstellen und somit über den eigenen Leib hinausweisen. Hier unterscheidet Schmitz die aktivischen Eigenschaften des Schalls, der als Widerfahrnis auf den Leib einwirkt von den eher statisch-passiven Qualitäten der Farbe.

Das 6. Kapitel “Sucht als habituelle Fixierung durch einseitige Einleibung” stellt innerhalb des Bandes gewissermaßen eine Scharnierstelle dar. Obgleich Hermann Schmitz gleich eingangs seine Abneigung gegen dieses Thema betont (er hält sich nicht für kompetent), gelingt ihm hier eine sehr spannende Annäherung an dieses Phänomen. Denn er widmet sich hier nicht den Abhängigkeiten nach Substanzen, sondern vielmehr nach bestimmten Verhaltensweisen. So beschäftigt er sich anschließend an Robert Gugutzer eingehend mit der Sportsucht. Schmitz definiert Sucht als “Fixierung des affektiven Betroffenseins an etwas, das den Betroffenen fesselt, an dem er hängt, von dem er nicht loskommt.” Dies sei eine Form der einseitigen Einleibung. Die Scharnierfunktion bezieht dieser Aufsatz daraus, dass er über den Begriff der einseitigen Einleibung die präpersonalen Themen mit den personalen eng verzahnt und damit einen Übergang zu den folgenden Texten schafft.

Die nächsten beiden Texte, Kap. 7 “Bewusstsein von etwas (Über Intentionalität)” und Kap. 8 “Geschichte als Herausforderung durch das Unerwartete” lösen sich das endgültig vom Leib und beschäftigen sich zum Einen mit einer Kritik der traditionellen Phänomenologie, insbesondere mit Husserls Begriff der Intentionalität, desweiteren werden hier Konzepte von Raum und Zeit verhandelt, die deutlich dem personalen Bereich zuzuordnen sind, da sie weit über das leibliche Geschehen hinausreichen.

Der letzte Text nun, “Praxis in der Sicht der Neuen Phänomenologie”, widmet sich dem menschlichen Bereich des willentlichen Handelns, welches sich von der bloßen leiblichen Aktivität des Tieres (und des Menschen auf präpersonaler Ebene) unterscheidet. Hier spielen Themen wie Konstruktion, Werkzeuggebrauch und Begriffe wie Weltbildung und -gestaltung eine Rolle, zu denen der Mensch als personal entwickeltes, mit freiem Willen und Abstraktionsvermögen ausgestattetes Wesen in der Lage ist.

Der Band richtet sich an Leser, die mit Hermann Schmitz’ Neuer Phänomenologie vertraut sind. Die Texte sind in Schmitz’ sehr eigener Terminologie verfasst, beziehen sich in hohem Maße auf seine eigenen früheren Schriften und es gibt keine Einführung in die Begrifflichkeiten, die bei Schmitz recht originell verwendet werden und teilweise von ihm selbst entwickelt wurden.

Für Kenner des Schmitz’schen Theoriegebäudes ist dieses Buch sehr hilfreich, bietet es doch eine neue werkimmanente Aufbereitung eines zentralen Themas.

Lobend zu erwähnen ist neben dem klaren systematischen Aufbau das sehr gute und umfassende Register, das die weitere Recherche innerhalb seines umfangreichen Systems vereinfacht.

Auf den ersten Blick mag man die vielen Wiederholungen insbesondere der Leibthematik als störend empfinden. Allerdings bleibt dies nicht aus, will man den Begriff der Person von allen Seiten umfassend beleuchten; außerdem sei daran erinnert, dass es sich um eine Sammlung von Aufsätzen handelt, die unabhängig voneinander entstanden sind und jeder für sich dieses Thema in berechtigter Art und Weise behandelt.


Geoffrey Bennington: Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth

Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth Book Cover Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth
Geoffrey Bennington
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Reviewed by: Jack Robert Coopey (Durham University)

What appears at the frontier of Geoffrey Bennington’s works is an apparent insight and clarity of expression that is able to manifest itself despite the complexities in which its ideas and conceptions are embedded. And Bennington’s newest book Kant on the Frontier, Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth is no exemption to this rule, as a scholar who continues to prove vital in the fallout of Derrida and the debris of pessimism that follows his work. Any given reader of Bennington would perhaps encounter his work at a differing frontier, the present frontier in which I encountered his work was his biography/autobiography of Derrida, in which alike to the photo of himself and Derrida, seems that Bennington himself albeit pushing the frontier onwards from Derrida’ demarcation, alike to Hegel’s Owl of Minerva cannot outstep the shadow of his friend, companion and predecessor. That is not to say that, his ability to uncover the marginal, the foreclosed, and the frontier in this latest publication is not by any margin less than a feat of remarkable scholarship on Kant and the shameable hidden aspects of his thought at the frontier so to speak of given Kant readership. For that in itself is a formidable task judged by its own merit.

The central argument of the text concerns the ‘slogan’ “the end is the end”,[i] in which Bennington will examine various parts of Kant’s corpus in order to demonstrate a thinking-through of Derrida’s statement of la différance infinie est finie or the infinite difference is finite. The primary focus will be the teleological schema that haunts Kant’s corpus and examine the ways in which supposedly infinite differences or metaphysical distinctions between history and politics primarily, are indeed finite in the analogies Kant draws between the two frontiers of thought in his philosophy. The second consequence of Bennington’s formidable reading of Kant’s teleology is that the book does not present an “Idea in the Kantian sense”,[ii] such that the epigram of the end is the end cannot promise ideas but only diremption, in that can provide a new way of understanding of how we read philosophical works, but does not present new ideas for new philosophical works. Bennington’s text concerns itself with the form of reading of these works, not necessarily with the content. Another remarkable ability of Bennington is to seamlessly weave in thinkers and ideas into apparent disruptive readings, so he proposes a reading of Frege as an interstice to elaborate that “the concept of ‘concept is teleological”[iii].

The second core argument of Bennington’s text is that philosophy itself represses readings such it wants to only deal with the supposed ‘ideas’ of philosophy which are somehow divorced by the act of reading and even by the question of reading itself. Perhaps in one way or another this is the mode by which philosophy can operate only with the ideas of philosophy itself, ideas are only produced through a repression of reading, and a theory of reading cannot reproduce ideas. Additionally Bennington claims that philosophy’s best theory of reading is hermeneutics and fulfilled in deconstruction, however this claim being anything less than contentious will be the mark in which we will judge his deconstruction of Kant in, through and beyond the concept of the frontier. The final point in the preface before we enter into the body of the text, Bennington sets up an apparent disruptive analogy between the political implications of an interrupted teleology and the implications of reading philosophical works, and Kant’s ‘point of heterogeniety’ is what justifies a deconstructive reading of a Kantian critique in order to do away with the historicist reading of moral and political issues which Bennington sees as predominant in humanities discipline. Bennington then addresses the neglected nature of Kant’s Critique of Teleological Judgement, insomuch as Bennington claims that “Darwinism provided an answer to the at least apparent natural purposiveness that Kant is trying to understand”.[iv] Bennington’s main claim in investigating this aspect of Kant is to emphasize that teleological thought is not as easily abandoned in regards to nature and mechanism as once imagined. Bennington argues that even extreme forms of Neo-Darwinism with severe forms of evolutionism are bound up with teleologism. and through their own internal logic defeat themselves. One example Bennington describes is how Kant’s prescription of a natural law that gives birth to the human animal which then in turn is able to escape the natural ends of the former law. Bennington surmises this contradictory nature of teleological schema succinctly.

Either way we are faced with a structure of end- setting that interrupts the process leading up to it and demands analysis of its internal interruptions and impossibilities, the more radically so now that it seems likely to many that that end- setting interruptive of natural processes (a currently fashionable name for which is the Anthropocene) really might be tending toward the End.[v]

The next section after the Preface moves from an apparently modest, marginal investigation of Kant’s teleology to a bigger more daring exposition by Bennington in the succeeding part of the book which is entitled ‘Preliminary.’ Bennington proclaims that: “If the point here were to do metaphysics (again), my claim, which would then be extraordinarily immodest, would be that “frontier” is nothing less than the primary philosophical concept and the origin of all others”.[vi] Somewhat repudiating Derrida’s project and simultaneously pushing on his deconstructive method, this third aspect of Bennington’s argument will be the ultimate in determining whether he succeeds in fails in convincing his readers of the primacy of the concept of the frontier both within philosophy and its theories of readings of philosophical works. The key distinction Bennington wishes to construct is that whilst an understanding of the concept of the concept is an impossibility without the concept of the frontier, each concept insomuch as it is a concept requires a frontier in order to delimit itself from others. However, he furthermore suggests that the concept of the frontier by this very definition cannot be defined itself. Now, whether as Bennington claims that “all philosophical concepts rest on a nonconceptual (nonphilosophical) ground that philosophy is incapable of thinking”,[vii] and secondly that if there are no philosophical concepts apropos, then we would need a concept of the frontier to delineate which concepts we were analysing, but as put to us prior to this claim, the concept of the frontier does not exist. In conclusion, the concept of the frontier is thus, a kind of interrupted teleological, a concept of concepts which itself cannot be identified but is teleological in its nature to describe concepts. Now, it remains to be seen whether this apparent parry and dance of conceptual meandering is a truly reasonable, philosophical or conceptual discovery and Bennington’s promised investigation of Kant will prove or disprove this. The concept of the frontier Bennington will use to evaluate whether philosophy itself from the outside from an origin or point of conceptualization is a possibility, and secondly whether philosophy itself is purely just history of philosophy rather than philosophy autonomously. Perhaps given these series of contentious claims that Bennington has set himself up for a fall in reducing philosophy and history to a singular concept which is primarily not at the heart of Derrida nor his kin, deconstruction. Furthermore, any reduction to a singular concept to answer all multiplicities is a beckoning problem to any philosopher. The frontier, which Bennington then posits as almost synonymous with Being[viii] is perhaps also allergic to Adorno’s critique of Heidegger’s reduction of the history of metaphysics as the history of being as self-defeating, insomuch as utilizing the concept of the frontier to reduce philosophy to the concept of the frontier is merely a sort of intellectual posturing, or in Hegel’s terms, a bad infinity. In one sense, the demarcation of Being could be said to be a type of frontier, in so much as you in a strictly phenomenological sense, with the name of Being and its metaphysical and conceptual baggage begin to build walls, delimitations, boundaries and frontiers. However, we should permit Bennington at least the courtesy of hearing his voice speak till its last breath in order to begin investigating the extent to which his sudden discovery of a new concept at the heart of all things perhaps should be listened to after all. Additionally to these high orders Bennington has placed on himself within the concept of the frontier, he claims that it “is literally everywhere”,[ix] he notes the concepts of différend and différance as an evident allusion to his predecessors Lyotard and Derrida however distinguishing his own coinage. Bennington even goes further to argue that the word itself as well as the concept of the frontier is simultaneously both its reference and referent at the same time. He elaborates in a more general sense that metaphysics itself is no longer possible in the traditional sense, such that any practice of metaphysics so called only refers to the objects and things themselves, but that teleological practice is no longer possible because of its disruptive nature. In a sudden turn of tradition and ideas, Bennington then moves to a ‘polemical’ reading of Gottlob Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik in order to begin demonstrating the profundity of his concept of the frontier. He quotes Frege in that “[t]he concept must have a sharp boundary [der Begriff muss Scharf begrenzt sein]”,[x] which is interesting linguistically primarily because of the usage of grenzen or boundaries, frontiers, borders which Frege uses in which Bennington is evidently, immediately interested in for his own conceptual production. The use of Frege only crosses a few pages bolstering its polemical nature, however Bennington reverts back to his spectre of Derrida revealing more clarity on the nature of the frontier.

As Jacques Derrida has taught us, the foundation of an institution, its very institution, the institution of the institution, including the institution of a science, and even of a science of logic, cannot be understood by that institution, can only be violent with respect to that institution. What I am trying to show here is that the frontier is the enduring (uncrossable) trace of that violent institution of the institution in general, and that this violence marks all concepts with the trace of a constitutive nonconceptuality.[xi]

Bennington goes on to claim that Frege by committing to the distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung lends itself to a failure of his own frontier of the concept of concepts. If as Derrida suggests, the relation between the poetical and the philosophical is what forces to philosophy to think,[xii] similar to the conclusion of Heidegger insomuch as new poetry is needed to reinvigorate thinking once more, perhaps Bennington’s fascination with the frontier is aligned to this goal also. Transitioning to the sphere of political philosophy, Bennington openly admits that the frontier does not amount to much,[xiii] however he claims that such concepts as the State are defined, delimited and demarcated by a frontier which the singular object is posited and then analysed as a fact of the world. This last part of an auxilliary argument in the Prolegomena section of the text is one in which Bennington claims that the frontier is in fact a ‘primary problem of political philosophy’ and that it “cannot be resolved dialectically”,[xiv] because of its ‘absolute exteriority’ but perhaps we shall see that it is in fact Bennington’s concept of the frontier that will never be crossed. Now, we shall return to the main bodies of the text itself after the long and precise previous sections named Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena in turn. The central focus from Aristotle to Kant will be the concept of the state of nature, and what each philosopher in turns coins as a natural community which then gives rise to a community seemingly outside and beyond that natural law basis. However, Bennington puts forth that natural frontiers would only be shores, rivers, mountains,[xv] and then the frontier of the State would rise later on the basis of these previous forms of frontiers, but the play Bennington is enforcing is thus to question these apparent frontiers in Aristotle and Kant. The linkage between the demarcation of the frontier and violence is furthermore explored in conjunction with the concept of the polis, speech, zoon politikon and the state of nature in Aristotle and Kant.[xvi] However, the key point for Bennington is that violence is first needed for the separation of the natural law from the State, or from the natural community to the polis, and then within this context of violence[xvii] the drawing of a frontier is a further representative act of violence, and contracts further violence in the form of jealousy, mockery, revenge, threat, warfare.[xviii]

For the problem that is tormenting these texts of Aristotle as much as those of Kant depends on the very structure (or the nature) of the frontier itself: If we cross the frontier between nature and right by nature, by necessity and natural force, we remain short of the frontier, on the side of nature, while claiming to cross it. If, however, we cross the frontier out of duty, we do not really cross it, because we were already on the other side, in right, just when we were supposed not to be there yet. The frontier between nature and right, then, does not really exist, even if there is this frontier. The nonlinear dynamics of these relations between nature and its others—physis and nomos, necessity and obligation, violence and peace, the always- already but yet never accomplished crossing of the frontier that separates these opposing terms—is precisely what we are here calling “nature,” some paradoxical consequences of which we are just beginning to see.[xix]

In this lengthy quote, it is clear what Bennington is advocating, attempting to highlight the apparent tensions and contradictions between the natural and beyond in Aristotle and Kant. However, to what extent does this supposed contradiction actually mean in regards to how Aristotle conceived of the difference between the natural community and the polis? And the same to what extent did Kant really think and construct a difference between a state of nature and state of law? Bennington explains that politics will continue eternally attempting to solve the problems of sovereignty, legislation, the forms of government, suffrage, and private property.[xx] In the case of Ancient Greece, the singular Greek polis once established out of the relations of husband to wife, master to slave and individual to city polis, will soon come to realize that their ‘circle’ is surrounded by other circles, and so the frontiers are forever expanded outwards from nature to law, to nature again, and further onwards to law. By setting up the tensions in Aristotle leading to Kant, Bennington wishes to set up the paradoxes of the “cosmopolitan situation of perpetual peace”,[xxi] which the circles of the polis which Aristotle describes build into Kant’s internationalist state of many nation-states interacting in a wider circle altogether. However Bennington wishes to highlight how the perpetual peace in Kant is none other than death, such that the only real solution to peace between international states is only when all of “Kant’s frontiers and distinctions are threatened in the very tracing of their line, and that the definition of critique itself will not survive unscathed”.[xxii] Bennington by deconstructing Kant’s theory of perpetual peace he then moves onto the much favoured other element of Kant which is known and marked out in philosophy, Kant’s critical moment or his mode of critique. Bennington lays more suspicion on Kant in his theory of critique in that alike to the temporal, teleological interruptive nature of perpetual peace, Kant’s critique suffers from the same temporal lapse. Bennington elucidates that:

in Kant the critical moment to the doctrinal moment (and indeed everyone does prefer that) but that, as the doctrinal moment only ever arrives as the death of the critical moment, it never truly arrives, which would leave us forever in the good critical tension? But then we would no longer really understand what critique means, as the concept of critique in Kant draws its content from its teleological determination with regard to doctrine. No critique without doctrine. Without doctrine, no critical step.[xxiii]

As outlined in his Preface, Preliminary and Prolegomena the interruptive nature of teleology itself even enters into Bennington’s text in the form of a section called Interlude: The Guiding Thread (on Philosophical Reading) in which he will interject the basis of his own reading just performed in the previous section. He again refers to his polemic to philosophy in that it represses theories of reading primarily because of its primary mode of understanding its ideas of reading through hermeneutics, and that philosophy prefers to merely discuss ideas of thought rather than the philosophical readings. The problem of how to read philosophy, a philosopher, a philosophical text, a philosophical proposition, a philosophical concept is problematized by Bennington.[xxiv]

Interestingly enough, Bennington refers to Pascal and his “reader who goes too fast or too slowly, often in an uncomprehending disarray that does not stop me reading, but which puts me undeniably ill at ease”,[xxv] and coincidently one wonders whether Bennington’s text on the frontier is not reading in this way, but written in this very manner. He is therefore right in his offering of Hegel that the form of the text constructs the principle, thread and backbone of the ideas supposedly embedded within and outside the text in order to define its frontier to borrow Bennington’s concept, one believes that Derrida called it a parergon. Bennington continues, “Which is why, reading Hegel, one becomes a Hegelian (the text here is in principle already the institution of its own reading, already its own quasi- tautological saturating interpretation)”.[xxvi] Then one wonders, what is the institution of Bennington’s reading? The usage of prefaces, interludes and interjections demonstrate the frontier itself at work, in that when one reads a philosophical text one hopes to begin at the beginning perhaps at the first critique of Kant, then moves onto later texts in the next chapters divided by frontiers of titles, sections, paragraphs, sentences, words, gaps in between the words one reads here, then back out into the ideas of critique, perpetual peace, Kant and into philosophy itself. Perhaps as Bennington himself suggests that one cannot do without the history of philosophy nor read the new,[xxvii] then his reading of Aristotle and Kant are both a classical reading and a new reading seemingly melded together in an undeniably fascinating combination proving the plasticity of philosophical reading whether it focuses on the ideas and represses theories of reading, or bases itself on a theory of reading and neglects the ideas, but one wonders whether both possibilities, or potentialities are in fact possible or an actuality? Bennington concludes on Kant by outlining that the frontier “can be said to be nature, violence, warfare, radical evil, contingency, but also providence, critique, or peace”.[xxviii] However, it is the same here as well as Adorno’s critique of Husserl in his book Metacritique in that phenomenology promises to be dealing with the essence of things by pervading all forms of metaphysical constraints and systems. However, just as Adorno thought that by using the term Being as the sole reduction of Western philosophy did not in fact lead to an overturning of Western metaphysics but a facile self-evidency, that in fact by designating the word Being as a concept in fact, leads to its own meaninglessness and loss of any conceptuality. Additionally, what in fact are Bennington’s contents of his own frontier? Again, as his Preface demonstrated perhaps he can evade such a question in that the frontier itself is not a concept or an idea by itself, but one wonders what is bracketed out of Bennington’s text. The part of the argument in his investigation of Kant is attempting to frame the question of politics in Kant,Bennington’s point can be summarized in that Kant never directly or explicitly addresses the question of politics, it is located in the interstices of the frontier between the “Architectonic of the first Critique, nor in the preface to the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, nor in the introduction to the third Critique”.[xxix] Bennington puts this point in a form of dialogue, in that politics in Kant’s complete series of his system, never addresses the question of politics and yet his system concerns politics.

So to the question “Where is politics?” we reply (because Kant does not reply): On the frontier, or, rather, in the frontier, in the transitional spaces, between the great divisions of the system. As politics in Kant’s descriptions depends on a remainder of violent nature inscribed along frontiers, a remainder that cosmopolitanism does not absorb, politics will be inscribed […].[xxx]

However, Bennington does in fact identify where the frontier of Kant actually resides. He locates it in the Kantian mode of judgement, in which Kant is able to unite several disparate spheres, modes and spaces of thought within his grand architectonic system. It would seem then, that whilst Bennington at the beginning of his book and his analysis of Kant, the frontier did not seem apparent but more or less structured Kant’s reasoning in his system. Now it is revealed that Kant’s frontier is in fact, the faculty of judgement which can unite his thought.

We still do not know what a frontier is, or even what its nature is, except to be of nature. And we could even say that just that is the frontier: not knowing. We trace frontiers in order to know, but we will know nothing of the frontier itself. Kant is less interested in knowledge per se, pace the neo- Kantians, than in its frontier, where knowledge fails. If there were in Kant a faculty of the frontier, it would clearly be the faculty of judgment. The success of the operation might be disputed, but the aim of the third Critique seems clear enough: that of throwing a bridge over the abyss that has opened between the world of experience and the world of freedom, between speculative and practical reason. The abyss is, it would seem, again what we are here calling the frontier, in a peculiarly exacerbated or exasperated form. But judgment would be the faculty allowing it to be crossed, or at least allowing the two sides to be joined. Judgment would then be reason itself being rational, the pure faculty of relations that are both singular and analogous.[xxxi]

After concluding on the frontier of Kant as the faculty of judgement, Bennington deliberately jumps to Hegel’s critique of Kant into trying to “sublate contingency into necessity, without simply erasing the place of the contingency thus sublated”.[xxxii] Bennington’s sudden interruptive teleological of Hegel into his commentary on Kant is again representative of his concept of the frontier, demonstrating another frontier of Kant, be it in this case, a version of Kant as a part of Hegel’s critique of Kant himself. Bennington seems to make Hegel’s frontier the sublation of Kant’s frontier which may prove hugely problematic. Hegel’s supposed sublation is problematized by Bennington in that the end will never come, in terms of history or art such that the end is already implicit in the beginning.[xxxiii] Bennington summarizes the study of Kant in terms of two doctrines, firstly the doctrine of critique in which critique is lost in its employment, such that in its immanence it loses its immanent ability in a loss of temporality.

But what our halt around Kant will have taught us is that there are only halts and in them a certain spirit of critique that begins to be lost as soon as it becomes critique (i.e., once it is carried out in anticipation of a doctrine to come). This critical position of critique, this crisis of critique, obliges it to have quite different relations to the tradition than those entertained by Kant himself. So we have not tried to read Kant in a Kantian way (as will have been noticed), while nonetheless claiming to read Kant. Reading him, we clearly take a step outside what philosophers call “philosophy,” because philosophy in that sense is the refusal, in principle, of reading.[xxxiv]

Bennington concludes in his Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction that we must read philosophical works in a literary way to push the frontiers of our understandings and the frontiers of that thinker’s thought.[xxxv] As mentioned prior to in earlier sections, Bennington uses Derrida’s polemic of literature that it forces philosophy to think, and that the boundaries between philosophy and literature are in fact literary frontiers, such that they are mediated by philosophies of reading, not just the ideas and systems of thought of philosophy. In conclusion, one gets the formidable impression from Bennington’s latest text on the frontier, that it serves as a frontier itself as opposed to a content-filled space in between project, and that as one reads this text one should expect the next texts to come as further boundaries to Bennington’s post-deconstructive, Derridean work.

Does this mean that “analogy” is the proper name of what we are trying to articulate here? Certainly not, because there can be no propriety of analogy. The ana-logos always remains to one side of the logos, bordering or lining it without letting itself be comprehended by it, or letting itself be comprehended solely as its Grenze, which immediately relaunches the whole machinery. Reason, exposed by Kant according to a certain ana-logics of logic, speaks itself and loses itself not in the empty space beyond the frontier but at the frontier itself as pure analogy. But one senses that analogy can never be pure, as it is purely a placing in relation. Like the frontier as such, analogy as such is nothing, and so there is analogy only in a dispersion of uncontrollable, in(de)terminable singularities, always in the now of the event of the frontier. Analogy is only ever analogical, relaunches itself indefinitely as the unlimited limit of thought or as the pure relation of thought and language. The frontier, as Aristotle knew, is infinite, interminable, a term without term. Kant never finishes tracing it, putting a term to it, limiting himself to bounds, bound to limits. This is his cross, his passion, that gives rise to a reading that I cannot say is either literary or philosophical, that really starts I know not where, and finds its end I know not how.[xxxvi]

[i]               Bennington Geoffrey, Preface to the English Edition in Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics and the Ends of the Earth, Fordham University Press, (New York, 2017), p. ix.

[ii]              Ibid.

[iii]             Ibid.

[iv]             Ibid., p. x.

[v]              Ibid.

[vi]             Ibid., Preliminary p. xiii.

[vii]            Ibid.

[viii]           Ibid., p. xiv.

[ix]             Ibid., p. xv.

[x]              Ibid., Prolegomena p. xix.

[xi]             Ibid., p. xxv.

[xii]            Ibid., p. xxvi.

[xiii]           Ibid., p. xxviii.

[xiv]          Ibid.

[xv]           Ibid., The End of Nature, p. 2.

[xvi]          Ibid., p. 3.

[xvii]         Ibid.

[xviii]        Ibid.

[xix]          Ibid., p. 27..

[xx]           Ibid., The Return of Nature p. 28

[xxi]          Ibid., p. 62.

[xxii]         Ibid.

[xxiii]        Ibid., p. 84.

[xxiv]        Ibid., Interlude: The Guiding Thread (On Philosophical Reading) p. 85.

[xxv]         Ibid.

[xxvi]        Ibid., p. 92

[xxvii]       Ibid., p. 99.

[xxviii]      Ibid., p. 107.

[xxix]        Ibid., 4. Radical Nature, p. 109.

[xxx]         Ibid.

[xxxi]        Ibid., 5. The Abyss of Judgement, p. 144.

[xxxii]       Ibid., Finis p. 199.

[xxxiii]      Ibid., p. 203.

[xxxiv]      Ibid.

[xxxv]       Ibid., Appendix: On Transcendental Fiction (Grenze and Schranke), p. 205.

[xxxvi]      Ibid., p. 223.

Jocelyn Benoist: L’adresse du réel

L’adresse du réel Book Cover L’adresse du réel
Moments Philosophiques
Jocelyn Benoist
Paperback 14.00 €

Reviewed by: Dominik Jarczewski (Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne)

The recent book by Jocelyn Benoist, Professor of Contemporary Philosophy at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, in line with his previous monographs, particularly Sens et sensibilité. L’intentionalité en context (2009), Éléments de Philosophie Réaliste. Réflexions sur ce que l’on a (2011) and Le Bruit du Sensible (2013), constitutes the next step in the development of his work in reestablishing and rethinking realist philosophy. His method rests on one of building his system in confrontation with classical contemporary philosophers. In that way, the book offers both an original speculative contribution to systematic philosophy (primarily, ontology and epistemology, secondly, moral philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind) and a thorough new reading in the history of philosophy with the leading figures of Frege, Husserl and Wittgenstein.

The pretext for this newest contribution is the emergence of so-called New Realism in the continental philosophy of the first decade of the 21st century. The author asks in what sense anything could possibly be new about rightly conceived realism. The critical analysis of the positions of two eminent representatives of the movement, Markus Gabriel and Maurizio Ferraris, leads the author to postulate rather than refurbish and correct the ‘old’ realism as a proper way towards a rightful account of reality. However, to accomplish the double task of the criticism of the defective realisms and positive realist model for ontology and epistemology, Benoist must begin with formulating what criteria the sought realism should meet.

The point of the departure is taking a proper distance from the two extremities that has marked contemporary philosophy: the idealism that surrenders reality to the thought (the cognition) and the metaphysical idol of an access to the being that would be independent from the context of thinking. This double confrontation leads Benoist to the central distinction governing his subsequent considerations: the one between ‘real’ and ‘true’ that corresponds to the further distinction between ‘factual’ and ‘normative’. That approach enables him to reconcile the objectivism of knowledge with its contextuality. Epistemic realism does not have to imply a form of absolutism. Quite to the contrary, context-dependence is the necessary foundation of realism. In that line, the de-contextualisation of reference constitutes an ontological error twinned with semantic idealism, common in the analytic philosophy of the 20th century but criticized already by Aristotle. The semantic relativity (contextuality) becomes an objective point for establishing the discourse in reality. The referred thing is precisely the one as it is described but it is always given in the determined circumstances. The contextuality becomes the fundamental ontological and epistemological property of reality. The lack of ‘contextual immunity’ does not speak against realism but is its only guarantee.

Having defined preliminary of what kind of realism the author shall speak, it becomes comprehensible why he is rejecting the two programs of New Realism. The first, by Markus Gabriel, proposes an ultra-intensional (and ultra-intentional, as Benoist remarks) ontology expressed in a paradoxical slogan: ‘Everything exists apart from the world’. The phrase is not only provocative. The author proceeds to shed some light on its hidden consequences. First, he comments on the exclusion of the world from the kingdom of existence. Gabriel, following the line drawn by Kant, Husserl and Wittgenstein, remarks that if everything that exists exists within the world, there is no point in speaking about the existence of the very world. So the world does not exist in consequence. Does he not go too far? Indeed, as Benoist remarks, if that is the case, it would be equally erroneous to talk about the non-existence of the world as about its existence. One would do better pointing out just the error of category. Also, the ‘existence of everything’ is problematic. Does this not lead to the conclusion that finally nothing exists? The notion of existence excessively extended is made extremely fragile. That is in line with what Benoist criticizes further, the theory of semantic fields of Gabriel to which the German philosopher attributes illegitimately a strong ontological status. According to Benoist, we need no special intentional entities to strengthen our realism. Quite to the contrary, they would cut us from reality. What we do need is the intentionality oriented towards the reality. And that is something different from what Gabriel intends to do.

The philosophy of the second representative of New Realism, Maurizio Ferraris, can be read as a reaction to postmodern ‘culturalism’. The Italian philosopher is drawing a sharp opposition between natural and social reality, the second being constructed. Benoist notices, against him, that the social world is as immediately real as the natural one. I cannot decide whether the man I see is a policeman or not. Even if the institution concerned has been created by humans, from the perceptual point of view, it is as real as natural properties. According to Benoist, the reasoning of Ferraris is rooted in a confused notion of reality, the one that treats it as ascribed to one kind of being against another one. In contrast, reality is a categorial concept. It says nothing more nor less than that the thing concerned is the thing it is. The case of Ferraris is yet another example of the misconception of the normative aspect of knowledge that has to be corrected in the following part of the book. It should be noted that it is the very aspect of traditional realism that needs some amendment as well. Here, conversely, the norms were given a strong ontological dimension while they were treated as parts of the objects. The distinction between truth and reality is coming back. The independence of reality should be understood exactly in light of the categorial difference between reality and the norm. If renewed realism has a program, that should be it, according to the author.

The first two chapters of the book consecrated to the primordial sketch of the discussion’s ground, the next four are devoted to the commentaries on the three contemporary masters in rethinking realism: Frege, Wittgenstein and Husserl. As mentioned before, they should be of great interest for historians of philosophy as well. The Fregean distinction of sense and reference is explained and reestablished in the polemic with Markus Gabriel. The latter one, in the last chapter of Sinn und Existenz, has questioned the very distinction as well as the one between sense and representation. As a result, sense becomes a property of reference. As Benoist warns, that leads to the risk of psychologism. However, he shares the concern that the second distinction has impoverished the notion of sense. The radical antisubjectivism of Gabriel’s account on semantics is missing the intermediary position in the sense that original Fregean thought corresponded to its epistemic function. In Gabriel, the Fragean senses become a dimension of reality. Not only are they objective, but real as well. Yet again, Benoist remarks the grammatical error of confusing determination with property. It corresponds to the fundamental distinction between the normative and the factual. Sense has ontological implications but no ontological dimension. Just to note, Benoist stresses that the distinction he is defending is not an opposition. An opposition would require that its components belong to the same category. In our case, we rest always on two different categorial grounds. The real does not need the normative. It is we who need it, on the other hand, to conceive the structures within reality.

The primordial confusion of Gabriel has its further implications that fall in line with what Benoist calls, ‘phenomenological fallacy’. To exist means to him to appear in the field of sense. The project of de-subjectivization leads to the ontologization of appearances. This is however another grammatical error. Gabriel confounds two determinations of reality: the structuralization of the being itself and the notion of appearance. The second one requires its subject: the one to whom an object is to appear. The ontologization Gabriel is desperately seeking cuts off that subject. Once again, he seems to pass from the grammar of facts to the grammar of norms. As Benoist points out, the object belongs to the second one. He compares the appearance to an actor who cannot enter the stage before the rule of play has been determined. There is no objective, context-immune sense of being. We cannot apprehend the being but for the given norms.

The notion of the grammar, which enters regularly into discussion, requires a separate analysis. This one is furnished in the fourth chapter. The lesson one can learn from the late Wittgenstein is the recognition of the profound realist-orientation of language. To speak is to act, and one cannot act if not within the world. Even the language games that presuppose taking the world in brackets are played in the world. That is why, according to Benoist, a study of language games is the privileged way towards realism. Some questions however should be raised. Grammar constitutes order in itself, independent from reality. Is language-orientation not so much an escape from reality? The author maintains the thesis of the double independence of reality and grammar that are nonetheless coupled by the usage of language. A fragment of reality never has its linguistic meaning – the latter belongs to grammar (that, following Wittgenstein, contains semantics). This leads to the commentary on the §371 of the Philosophical Investigations where Wittgenstein states that essence is expressed by grammar. The passage was widely commented in the literature. It was considered as the anti-essentialist declaration of the Austrian philosopher. Anscombe, on the other hand, has proposed an essentialist lecture. Benoist revises both interpretations. He focuses on the anti-nominalist dimension of the §371. Essentialism is understood here as nominalism about the ideal. The error of the essentialist lecture of Wittgenstein consists in falling into descriptivist illusion. This Wittgenstein reminded us that grammar does not describe the facts. Anscombe confounds the naming by words with expressing by grammar. The essence should not be understood as the thing I am referring to but by what I am thinking or understanding. It stands on the side of the norm. And the norm is the norm of usage. Finally, that is the usage that determines and guarantees the realist dimension of grammar.

The fifth chapter concerns the status of impossibility. Traditionally, it was presented as the most external of the concentric circles, beginning from the ‘actual’. Benoist distinguishes two notions of impossibility: empirical (real) and logical (absolute). The negation in the first case supposes a virtual possibility. The negation in the second case seems to be of some special kind: it does not concern lack of a reference, but lack of a sense that would have a reference. Benoist stands against the ontological interpretation of the logical impossibility. He rectifies a false opinion on Husserl that would have admitted an ontological consistency to impossibilia. On the contrary, phenomenology treats the impossible a priori as empirical, but of the higher order, mediatized by the mathematical notion of the limit. Benoist’s own answer turns to the usage of norms. Squaring the circle would require changing the norms. The sought circle would not be a circle in standard meaning. Impossibility a priori has a logical signification. There is no impossibility in itself. The myth of the absolute impossibility results from the pseudo-theoretical position that would like to be both inside and outside some activity. The realism defended by the author does not need that notion. To say that there is no absolute impossibility does not mean that everything is allowed. It means rather that where anything goes, one really does nothing.

In the next chapter, Benoist continues his commentary on Husserl and revises the notion of epoché in the context of his own realist project. The theoretical epoché is seen as the anti-hermeneutical turn. Husserl absolutizes the describing that constitutes a part of the form of our life. He wants to focus on what is seen independently of any particular norm. He passes from a particular to an absolute language game. Is that possible though, given the contextual embeddedness defended by Benoist? More light is casted on the phenomenological epoché. Benoist points out that the thesis of the existence of the world is not a thesis properly speaking. Any doubt is local. As an activity, it is still in the world. (Here Benoist follows the grammar of the doubt by Peirce and Wittgenstein.) No one can question it. And Husserl does respect it. He does not invite us to abandon the thesis of the existence of the world, but only not to use it. Too often has the German philosopher been confused with sceptics. Epoché is not intended to liberate us from judgments, but their world-orientation. What epoché discovers seems not to be an independent aspect of reality, but quite to the contrary, our own activity. The methodological side of the epoché can help us to highlight the normative nature of objects. An object is not given, but is a measure of the given. And, finally, any norm can be understood only in reference to reality. This orientation, as it has already been remarked, is inscribed in grammar. In addition, Benoist presents the notion of the acousmatic sound by Pierre Schaeffer in light of epoché. He notices that even in the case of that radical reduction, we rest always within the real. The given does not precede reality. It refers to the fact that it is perceived according to a norm that has its real conditions.

The next two chapters continue the reflection towards the philosophy of perception. The first one, particularly of interest, concerns the reality of appearances and gives some comments on the use of hallucinations in the argumentation for disjunctivism and conjunctivism about perception. Benoist refers to the works by Juan Gonzalez and Katalin Farkas. In the first point, he remarks that the hallucinations used in philosophy are generally philosophical fictions. The natural hallucinations aren’t as perfect as the philosophers maintain and a less-than-perfect cognition is sufficient to recognize them from a standard perception. Nonetheless, he accepts the answer of Michel Martin who agrees that he is not speaking about empirical hallucinations, but about some hypothetical entity defined as a mental state indistinguishable from perception. Benoist leaves hallucinations for a while and proceeds to illusions. Following Austin, he maintains that illusions are perceptions. They are not deceptive as far as one can properly interpret them. Once again, what returns is the conviction of the author that apprehension cannot be abstracted from its context. Perception cannot be taken as detached from its conditions. Nor are illusions false perceptions. That approach would ignore the diversity of what perception is. Thus, against conjuctivism, perceptual illusions are not evidence for the existence of a layer of pre-perceptual appearances within perception and independent from perception. At the same time, against disjunctivism, illusions are not something radically different from perception. What can be said about illusions is that they are problematic perceptions but sensual reality is present within them on the same level as in the case of other perceptions.

Then, Benoist asks in what respect we can distinguish hallucinations from illusions. The visual hallucinations (eg. those provoked by LSD) are rather visual deformations and because of that they can be treated together with visual illusions. Austin would point out the subjective cause of the first and objective of the other, but the comparison with myopia shows that what is essential to the hallucinations is not that they come from me, but that the hallucinating ‘me’ is ‘me’ transformed. This should solve the question of deformational hallucinations. However, real hallucinations, that is those without a real object, still pose a problem. Thus, Benoist questions the indistinguishability of hallucinations. Quoting Gonzales, the author remarks that it is not the phenomenology but the etiology that provokes confusions about hallucinations. Notably, hallucinations are clinically described as extremely realistic – ‘too real to be true’. For that reason, they are phenomenologically distinguishable as surreal. Hallucinations operate on the ground of reality and not on truth. They are not false beliefs about reality, but pure experience (without belief) of reality. That experience-orientation enables Benoist to reject as well the hypothetical (philosophical) notion of hallucinations held up by Martin. The latter maintains that perceptions and hallucinations share the appearance of perception. They both appear to be perceptions. However, appearance refers to the grammar of an object. The experience (that hallucination is) has no appearance. The notion of indistinguishability results from the illegitimate absolutizing of phenomenal conscience.

The next chapter goes on to study the structure of intuition. The dispute on the conceptual/non-conceptual content of perception is reduced to the question whether perception has its content. That leads to another question: Is perception an experience? Benoist points out that perceptual vocabulary is primarily epistemic. The object is not given. It is a norm that identifies what is given. Thus, it is reality-oriented, but belongs to normative grammar. That normativity guarantees the conceptual character of any perception. That is a grammatical point (the grammar being taken in light of what has been said in the previous chapters). The perceptual syntax requires an object. The myth of the given consists in taking the object as though it was not a logical form. As if it was possible to identify anything without implying any norm. Following McDowell, Benoist makes some important distinctions. The concept cannot be non-conceptual, whereas reality cannot be conceptual. The difference between ‘conceptual’ and ‘non-conceptual’ is the difference of category and corresponds to the fundamental difference between truth and reality. Reality cannot be conceptual because it cannot be true nor false. It could not be not-itself. The distinction between reality and intentionality is fundamentally onto-logical. The first operates within the grammar of being, the second – within the grammar of truth/falsity.

One can continue and ask whether there is anything real in perception. That leads Benoist to turn to Gestalt Theory and correct some common errors around it. First, he distinguishes Gestalt from the object of perception. The latter being epistemic, the former is not. Thus, it should be treated rather as the matter of perception. Second, Gestalt is not a primitive, purely perceptual meaning. That would be an error in category. Gestalt is not corrigible since the correction concerns the grammar of validity. On the contrary, it is modifiable by belonging to the grammar of reality. Finally, the philosopher refutes any interpretation that would treat Gestalt as a sort of entity screening the perception of reality. Normally, I do not perceive Gestalt (the exceptions concern some special uses as the one of a painter). I perceive directly the object of perception. Gestalt, being a part of reality, ‘incarnates’ the perception.

The last two chapters indicate some consequences of the proposed realism for aesthetics and moral philosophy. The first one develops some ideas already presented in Bruit du Sensible. Benoist postulates to substitute aesthetics for poetics. The latter highlights the role of revelation in exploring the sensible as opposed to manifestation. The sensible has to be revealed. It does not manifest itself spontaneously. Modern aesthetics had taken the point of view of the spectator. Poetics recognizes the perspective of the artist. Benoist remarks the way how the Kantian paradigm of aesthetics has overstressed the formal priority in defining art – corresponding to his rejection of ‘pleasant’ in favor of ‘beautiful’, and of color in favor of sketch. That has led to a paradoxical de-sensualization of aesthetics. That is why the author invites us to de-epistemologize sensuality so that it could be taken in its reality and not as a mere sign of some external sense. That is what contemporary art has meant to do. Benoist focuses on the concrete music and program of Giacomo Scelsi. The avant-garde composers have negated the primacy of tones and scales as definitive to music. Reducing their scope, eg. by the effects of repetition, they have shed light on other aspects of sound. Above all, they helped to see the matter of sound that cannot be reduced to any form. That is for Benoist an excellent illustration of poiesis in action that helps philosophers to reveal the sensible as sensible.

The final chapter treats the moral implications of realism. The return to reality is drawn not only as an intellectual but as well a moral obligation. In the approach of Benoist, moral realism is not a particularization of general realism but rather its test. Thus, the question arises of what kind of moral realism corresponds to the realism presented in the work. The author takes an indirect methodology and evokes two examples of a failure of realism in morality: empirism and transcendental absolutism. The first one is represented by Buck Mulligan from Joyce’s Ulysses. The empirism of the protagonist consists in absolutizing the given and words. However, the contextual indifferentism makes the words meaningless. The death is a death in general, but never a concreate one. While commenting on the passage about the death of the mother of Stephen Dedalus, Benoist highlight that the guilt of Mulligan is not the one of reducing people to beasts, but of refusing any importance to the word used in the given context. The lack of intentionality is coupled with a contextual immunity. The immorality resides in the indifference.

On the other hand, realism can fail because of its absolutism. In fact, the contextual blindness is shared by both positions, although their ontological engagements do not seem to be more opposed than they are. Benoist quotes the Diaries of Marta Hillers from Berlin of 1945. Here the words become of greatest importance. Reality appears to be much more complicated than any fixed moral valuation would say. The narrator gives herself to a Soviet officer to earn the basic goods for living and to be protected against the private soldiers. Neither can she classify it as rape nor as prostitution. Obviously, rape is not a matter of any subjective feelings. Nonetheless, the evoked example points out that the moral reflection cannot put aside the point of view of the moral agents. Hiller’s own distinctions are inscribed in some particular context and, though they have no universal range, they are significant in that context and that signification can be apprehended from an outside point of view. As in the case of impossibility, Benoist does not maintain that the complexity of the situation given to prevent us from making a moral judgment. We are indeed justified to judge, but never independently from the context. The de-intentionalization of empirism becomes a symmetrical phantasm to the one of the de-contextualization of transcendental idealism.

The work of Jocelyn Benoist represents the best tradition of the philosophical enterprise that sees hermeneutics as its method (although, to my best knowledge, the author is far from accepting hermeneutics as a doctrine). A critical analysis of the philosophical tradition becomes the point of departure for an original speculation. Both historians and theoretical philosophers gain. Especially, because the erudition and methodological lack of prejudices of the author enable him to correct some widespread misinterpretations of the classics of contemporary philosophy. One can be skeptical whether the New Realism really is a movement important and original enough to merit a broad study. However, doubtlessly, for the sake of the realism proposed by Benoist, to which it plays a role of a departure point, it seems totally justified. The grammatical point of view, pointing out consequently the categorial distinctions ignored by not so few philosophers is one of the most important and inspiring contributions of the work that I would like to stress once more at the conclusion.


Michael R. Kelly: Phenomenology and the Problem of Time

Phenomenology and the Problem of Time Book Cover Phenomenology and the Problem of Time
Michael R. Kelly
Palgrave Macmillan UK

Reviewed by: Marcin Moskalewicz (University of Oxford/ Poznan University of Medical Sciences)

We may tell the story of the phenomenology of time in many ways, each of them evoking (and constructing) a slightly different meaning of temporality. The story’s plot does not merely depend on the style of a storyteller and historical figures he decides to cover. It is also important what we are having in mind when we talk about time. Michael Kelly’s story in Phenomenology and the Problem of Time is about a series of radicalizations of Husserl’s transcendental theory of time, those of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida. The story is based on the plot of rise and fall. It all begins with Husserl, who radicalizes himself, and is later radicalized by Heidegger who missed his teacher’s own radicalization. Soon afterwards, Heidegger overcomes not only Husserl but also himself. Similarly, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida do. They all overcome phenomenology. While the tension increases with the initial progress, it is released with the ultimate “regress”. Since the question of time is posited, and rightly so, as the most important question of phenomenology, the dissolution of time-constituting consciousness becomes the demise of the whole of the phenomenological enterprise.

Kelly’s initial point is that Husserl’s inheritors were not charitable enough in interpreting his account of time-consciousness so that a defense of Husserl is due. Heidegger’s perspective is that Husserl’s phenomenological reduction binds him to the modern subjective idealist sense of immanence, which reduces being to a construction of consciousness. It is only him, Heidegger, who finally liberates it (a view analogical to Husserl’s critique of Descartes and Kant). Heidegger’s criticism, however, is based on Logical Investigations (1900) and Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy (1913). Kelly argues that the view of intentionality as presented in these works is immature. If we want to truly examine the related notions of intentionality, subjectivity and time, we must look upon Husserl’s mature theory of genuine phenomenological immanence, originally given in his 1907 lectures The Idea of Phenomenology. This overlooked theory of immanence equals a theory of time-consciousness that is far more nuanced than the subjective idealistic reduction of transcendence to immanence, and certainly not simply synonymous of consciousness.

Many critics failed to appreciate the difference between the two notions of immanence in Husserl. But these two notions (and not just one that was misunderstood) exist. In the thought experiment of annihilation of the world, Husserl himself partly presented himself as a subjective idealist who suggests that consciousness may exist independently of the material world. Naturally, a phenomenological reduction only brackets a naïve engagement with the world and does not cut consciousness off the world. Nevertheless, there are certain “imperfections of immanence” in Husserl, to use Kelly’s catchy phrase, which Heidegger correctly points out. When intentionality functions as a bridge between the two realms of subject and object, Husserl still operates within a dualistic framework. Separating intentional acts from intentional contents creates a tension that prevents an exposition of their original unity. Such a notion of intentionality is not subjective idealist per se since a turn to lived experience has been already made, but it keeps attached to the ontological distinction between consciousness and its object.

In the ordinary or psychological conception of immanence, consciousness appears as a box of representations and, hence, yet another object. In Husserl’s early conception, on the other hand, immanence is given as a stream of consciousness and not as an object. It is real immanence. This stream of consciousness or the truly immanent is not intended. What is intended is an object transcendent to this stream. Intended objects (which exist extra-mentally) are perceived but not experienced or “lived through” (in the sense of the German Erlebnis and not Erfahrung). Acts, on the other hand, are experienced but not perceived. Kelly argues that this view is still haunted by the modern dualism since lived experience is divorced from intended objects situated outside of the stream of consciousness. The move away from objectified consciousness towards real immanence does not yet reach genuine phenomenological immanence.

In On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917) and in The Idea of Phenomenology (1907), Husserl abandons the still dualistic model from Logical Investigations and presents his new theory of intentionality. According to Kelly, immanence now becomes genuine and presents pure phenomena – being, appearances and their self-giveness at the same time. In this mode of intentionality we encounter transcendence in immanence. “Unlike psychological immanence, which the epoché puts out of play, and unlike reell immanence, which remained tied purely to the act of knowing without contact with the irreell or transcendence, genuine phenomenological immanence denotes the ‘absolute and clear’ giveness of whatever appears, intentions and intendeds, as it were” (53). Husserl thus discovers a difference between objectifying intentionality of acts and non-objectifying intentionality of absolute consciousness. The latter is understood not as a bridge between subject and object, neither of which is reducible to the other, but as a phenomenon preceding this distinction. The self is given through and across different acts and objects in terms of pre-reflective self-awareness immediately accompanying all of our experiences. In defending the concept of minimal or immediate self-awareness, Kelly to a great extent follows Dan Zahavi’s interpretation from his Self-Awareness and Alterity (1999). Such a tacit and non-objectifying awareness is finally different from Cartesian and Kantian objectifying intentionality of acts.

Kant, surely, was one of the great predecessors of Husserl, as Kelly is the first to admit. The inner intuition of time from the First Critique foreshadows phenomenological non-epistemic mode of intentionality. It is because time as an a priori feature of consciousness precedes the intentionality of acts. Through the consciousness of time, the subject intuits itself, even if it cannot see itself. Upon Heidegger’s reading at least (from his Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics), pure (transcendental) syntheses of apprehension, reproduction and recognition extend consciousness beyond the present. On the other hand, Kant never escaped the atemporal view of the subject and the concept of time as a series of atomistic impressions. The transcendental unity of apperception provides the “I” that thinks and is not an object while remaining atemporally identical. Kelly argues that, ultimately, Kant presented a transcendental version of psychological immanence, in which there is transcendental time-constituting consciousness and psychological time of the flux of appearances.

If we want to move away from the psychological model of the self and the dualistic model of intentionality towards absolute consciousness, we must not only step beyond the transcendent time but also abandon the psychological notion of subjective time as a quantity (studied by the cognitive sciences and experimental psychology). That is, we must look upon a “third” and basic level, which in Kelly’s book goes under many names. It is genuine phenomenological immanence, but also consciousness of internal time, living-present in the non-objective sense, non-objectifying intentionality, non-temporal temporalizing, etc. Such a consciousness is neither atemporal nor temporal in the sense of a sequence of moments (either of objectified clock time “nows” or the moments of a subjective flow). In lived experience, of course, the three levels – transcendental, subjective, and objective, if you like – exist in a unity. At least, such is the case of an ordinary experience in which everything goes smoothly and without major interruptions. “Consciousness reveals itself as a non-temporal temporalizing (or unfolding), that is, a time-constituting consciousness that makes possible the disclosure of temporal objects insofar as it makes possible the disclosure of the self’s temporality by accounting for our original sense of pastness in the retentional dimension of the living-present” (92).

Within the psychological model of immanence haunted by the modern dualism of inner and outer, one cannot account for self-consciousness other than reflectively. The self represents itself to itself in the same way that it represents external objects. The problem of temporal experience illustrates well the difference between the non-dualistic and the dualistic accounts (the latter often practiced in modern scientific studies of time perception). Upon the dualistic account, non-temporal impressions are temporalized through time-constituting acts. The mind – or the brain, as many empirical scientists would say – thus creates time through its elementary modes of processing information. Husserl’s early theory departs from this conception but remains close. Apprehension of the experiential content as past, present or future takes place thanks to three temporal intentional rays. Each momentary phase of consciousness contains those three rays so that past, present, and future overlap in lived experience. It might thus seem that the consciousness of succession successfully replaces the succession of consciousness. But the perception of a temporal object is not really temporal here. It is atemporal and momentary. What the early theory gives us is merely a succession of consciousness of succession (or a sequence of impressions of a sequence) and not a consciousness of succession (or an impression of a sequence). It is, therefore, still burdened by the clock time account of the sequence of “nows”, even if each of these conscious “nows” has now a triple intentionality directed towards immediate past, present, and future.

In order to be fully temporal and in each of its phases aware of its acts, consciousness must be construed as non-temporal in the ordinary sense. Upon the non-dualistic account, a living present “intends itself” without a need for a reflective – and, hence, spanning at least two different moments in time – mediation. In Husserl’s own language, the move to non-objectifying intentionality is marked by a shift in language from a primary memory, which is like an after-image of the past, to retention, which represents an implicit intentional relation between two phases of consciousness. Retention is not a re-presentation of the past in the present but a presentation of the past of consciousness. There is no ordinary temporal “distance” between the two moments. In other words, the difference between past and present does not yet come into the fore. Retention, primal impression, and protention are all inseparable moments of the living present and not pieces of a process. The whole process is passive, automatic and non-objectifying. In this way, consciousness is extended beyond the now before being temporal in the psychological sense (where the word “before” does not mean earlier in objective time). Such non-thematic time-consciousness grounds the objectifying intentionality of acts and of intended objects, including ordinary time perception. While the foundation is non-temporal in the sense of not being sequential, it is not atemporal in the sense of the Kantian subject. It is temporal because it is not “frozen” and it is atemporal because it is not a series. Consciousness persists outside of conventional (psychologically experienced) time, but since consciousness is time-consciousness it persists as a flow.

Kelly’s depiction of genuine immanence as time-consciousness is compelling. There are, however, important questions concerning the actual varieties of the lived experience of temporalizing left out of his considerations. Many forms of bodily and conscious temporal engagements with the world do not require an explanatory recourse to some deeper, underlying levels of immanence and time-constituting consciousness. There are, however, some that may lead us to worry about the absolutization of absolute time-constituting consciousness. One example are the experiences of time of the self coming to a standstill (as often reported in depression), despite the fact that the acts and contents of psychological time are largely left intact. Would such a frozen self, clearly inhibited at a pre-reflective level, equal a cessation of a primordial temporalization? It seems unlikely given that this temporal experience is still pre-reflectively self-aware and that objectifying intentionality (dependent upon genuine immanence) operates at least to some extent. The detachment of the self from the temporal flow (a self in a standstill) does not preclude the possibility of objectifying time-consciousness. On the other hand, some schizophrenic experiences seem to affect the deepest core of time-consciousness. According to the so-called ipseity theory of self-disorders, it happens when the tacit presence of the self is disrupted. Are we then talking about absolute or about “normal” time-constituting consciousness? The difference is far from being minute for an absolute consciousness should function in spite of any possible psychological disturbances.

If we take genuine phenomenological immanence seriously, Heidegger’s radicalization of the Husserlian phenomenology in Being and Time (1927) appears as still depending on Husserl. Indeed, from the perspective of Heidegger’s later work the notion of Being-in-the-World may seem fairly subjectivist. Kelly contends that the actual radicalization of phenomenology takes place when in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (1929) the self is identified with time. Only then Heidegger liberates intentionality from consciousness – a process that Kelly calls the emergence of Spinozism in phenomenology. Already in 1929, Kelly argues, Heidegger sees Dasein as depending on “clearing” (which, by that time, goes under the notion of temporality). This marks the beginning of the fall of phenomenology in Heidegger’s later work.

The fall is due to the fact that time activates itself independently of experience and that the subject depends on time’s affection of itself. Dasein as a finite mode of givenness is thus grounded in an infinite, absolute mode. Throughout the book, Kelly calls this step of radicalization the exchange of an “absolute time-constituting consciousness” for an “absolute-time constituting consciousness” – a move that gives time an autonomous ontological existence. Kelly’s rightful worry is that it implies a potential backslide to metaphysics. Another concern is that it might entail a return to physicalism and a naturalist ontology of time. Whatever the possible route, certainly phenomenology becomes an ontology. The notion of “phenomenological monism” grasps this process quite well.

Kelly’s chapter on Heidegger is partly disappointing because it wholly evades the question of finitude. It is also hardly convincing that early “Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s temporality remains tied to the now despite the emphasis often put on time coming from the future” (113). The argument is that Dasein’s temporal ecstases are a functional equivalent to the tripartite structure of Husserl’s time-constituting consciousness, which is, of course, true, but does not justify the thesis.

If Heidegger predicts and then carries out the end of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty presents an epilogue to the fall. Merleau-Ponty’s view of the subject as the movement of transcendence evades early Husserl’s (still partly idealist) account of the subject that is out of time (or contemporary with all times) and follows Heidegger’s lead from the latter’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Later on, Merleau-Ponty fully departs from Husserl and the philosophy of consciousness as such. The notion of operative intentionality in Phenomenology of Perception (1945) is still Husserlian in spirit. In The Visible and the Invisible (1959-61) a new thought appears, namely, that time constitutes consciousness and not the other way around. In Kelly’s narrative, again, it means bringing in an ontological view of time, which he calls mythical immanence.

As far as operative intentionality is concerned, consciousness is not a quasi-eternal subject transparent to itself, but a process. The self relates to itself by transcending itself. Its essence is transcendence. The shift from such an existential reading of consciousness in The Visible and the Invisible is radical. Analogically to Heidegger’s hypothesis that time constitutes itself, Merleau-Ponty observes that Husserl’s subject was not fully temporal. In Merleau-Ponty’s own formulation of latent intentionality, which is more basic than pre-reflective self-awareness, all consciousness is constituted by time. There is no privilege of the present nor of the past, because they are simultaneous. The past, therefore, must not be derived from the present, it must not have been present before it became past. “Perhaps his [Merleau-Ponty’s] thought follows the internal logic of phenomenology? Perhaps it is the realization of ‘the end of phenomenology’ or the working out of its historical destiny?” (171). Kelly’s question is, hopefully, a rhetorical one. The very idea of phenomenology is quite far from any logic of historical development. Even if a story is a property of life, life is more than just a single story, and, certainly, not a story that has its end organically prescribed in the beginning. However, several of Kelly’s claims suggest he would support such a view. Time is “the germ of phenomenology that either consumes it from within or blooms into phenomenological theology. In the case of the former, phenomenology’s quest for certainty is unrealizable. In the case of the latter, we might find an unexpected apodicticity of absence” (177). Fortunately, a hermeneutic turn easily saves phenomenology from the dilemma. We know that certainty is unrealizable precisely because we are temporal and interpreting creatures. Life cannot be fully completed but it does not mean that the self must be lost to time. A theology or a philosophy of history is needed only if we can’t dwell in the precariousness of human existence. The question is, rather, to what extent we must abandon the idea of existential becoming to account for the shift from operative to latent intentionality.

An analogical inevitability allegedly stems from Derrida’s narrative in Speech and Phenomena (1967). According to Derrida, Husserl’s idea of a self-given subject is an example of the metaphysics of presence. Husserl privileges expression over indication by distinguishing the former through its proximity to present (at the very moment) intentional consciousness. In an expression, the signifier and the signified are one, and the voice silently hears itself speaking. Consciousness is transparent.  At stake in retaining such a fully transparent meaning of one’s own expression to oneself, without a mediation of a reflective gap, is the presence of self-presence. Derrida criticizes the privilege of the voice that is supposed to provide this indubitable meaning. Every present moment is contaminated by the movement of temporalization that contradicts pure self-presence of consciousness. Implicit in Husserl’s account is that in order to retain the notion of absolute consciousness, we must speak what we are unable to speak. In this sense, mythic immanence is already contained in Husserl’s view of time-consciousness. The movement of temporalization infects consciousness in a way that it is never pure so that Husserl’s project undermines itself.

Kelly demonstrates how Derrida’s disapproval of the privileging of consciousness follows Heidegger’s insights on absolute-time constituting consciousness. Simultaneously, taking advantage of Brough, de Warren, and Zahavi, among others, he takes a position against Derrida claiming that he missed the development of Husserl’s thought, and specifically the latter’s abandonment of the scheme-apprehension model of intentionality. At the same time, Kelly thinks that Derrida is right in asserting that an apodictically given absence stems from Husserl’s account of time-consciousness.

Kelly’s position is not clear. It doesn’t seem, as Kelly tries to argue, that Derrida confuses retention with primary memory’s recollection or that he perceives primal impression as a discreet instant of time and thus overlooks Husserl’s insights on genuine immanence. Derrida’s argument would hold well in the case of properly temporalized consciousness. Even if we accept the notion of pre-reflective self-awareness, the movement of temporalization within the living presence makes a full transparency of the self to itself impossible. The self being temporal is constantly undermined by itself and therefore itself only so far as different from itself – simply through unfolding in time and not necessarily through reflecting upon itself. Hence, the movement of temporalization is what, as Derrida postulates, produces the transcendental subject, and not something that is produced by it. This movement is more primordial than consciousness. It is true that by introducing language, Derrida “places the chip of deconstruction under the skin of phenomenology” (196). But must it all end with a phenomenological theology? Upon Kelly’s reading, the inner logic of time-consciousness grounds it in the “ultratranscendental” concept of life. Since the ultratranscendental is ontologically primordial and unnamable, there can be no pure presence. The present is itself by becoming the past. What is presently absent – and not just a retention that is literally “retained” in consciousness and, therefore, still present – is the origin of what is present. The movement of temporalization itself constitutes all presence. Again, even if the ultratranscendental life destroys ahistorical certitude, must it fully destroy phenomenology?

While Kelly proves to be an expert reader of the phenomenological tradition, his own stance vis-à-vis the discussed thinkers is not always unambiguous. If Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida have partly misread Husserl’s conception of time, was the nutshell of their radicalizations already contained within his philosophical enterprise? And if so, did they just go too far with their “transcendentalizing” of phenomenology or was it an inevitable interpretative development stemming from the “things themselves”? Was the ultimate overcoming of phenomenology a regress? At times, Kelly does not take sides. At times, he seems to argue against the critics and hold to Husserl’s original position from his unpublished writings, as if it could save phenomenology from its alleged internal decomposition. It must be remembered, however, that academic phenomenology, historically speaking, did not simply decompose or develop into becoming more distant and esoteric. The return of applied phenomenology within the natural sciences during the last decades proves quite otherwise, not to mention many less transcendental paths phenomenology went through in the last century. Remaining within Kelly’s scope, it is perhaps right to say that if later phenomenologists have dwelled upon Husserl’s mature thinking on temporality, consciousness understood as self-presence would have been saved without the need to retreat to mysticism. Whether this retreat leads to some sort of Spinozism, as the author suggests, or something else, the consequences for academic philosophy are grim.

A few words about the shortcomings of the book are due at the end. For an unprepared reader, it is quite technical and difficult to follow. Scarce examples certainly don’t make it engaging. The justification of the claim that the story of phenomenology in the second and third generations is a series of misunderstandings of Husserl’s conception of time-consciousness, if we take this claim literally, is quite weak. Unfortunately, Kelly does not discuss the problems of historicity and finitude, even if the question of time begs for it. The book is also full of repetitions and lacks lightness. Kelly’s insightful work would not have lost its substance by being a half shorter. At the moment, it is an example of a dense academic, if not scholastic writing – an almost proverbial list of footnotes to Husserl. It must be also noted that secondary sources are limited to the English language only. Quite regrettably, the concept of time is restricted to its transcendental phenomenological notion. There is neither discussion nor mention of the varieties of pre-reflectively and reflectively lived temporalities – layers, modes, structures, and modalities of temporal experience, about which phenomenology has had so much to say. As a result, the view of the phenomenology of time presented in this book, despite its indisputable depth, is not comprehensive.


Paul Ricoeur: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation

Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation Book Cover Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation
Cambridge Philosophy Classics
Paul Ricoeur
Cambridge University Press
Paperback £ 14.99

Reviewed by: Francesco Poggiani (Pennsylvania State University)

  1. Introduction

The title of this anthology (originally published in 1981 and including eleven studies published in the 70’s) hints at the prospect of expanding our knowledge of human affairs in light of a general theory of textual interpretation (“hermeneutics). The more immediate purpose of these essays, however, consists in the articulation of the basic motivations for considering the “method” of the human sciences (sciences de l’esprit) as hermeneutical without renouncing their status as sciences. Indeed, according to Paul Ricœur, the psychological, social and historical disciplines constitute not so much a potential application of hermeneutics as its proper domain — hermeneutics being conceived by the French author as the “theory of the fixation of life expressions by writing” (even if, originally, it was confined to the field of biblical exegesis). At the same time, many of the essays in this collection are not merely concerned with methodological and epistemological questions. By reflecting on the nature and paradigmatic features of textual interpretation, Ricœur was engaged in the project of exploring the “subjectivity” which at once presides over and results from action as well as text-interpretation.

As Ricœur explains in his response to John Thompson’s illuminating introduction, his own hermeneutical turn, in the second volume of his first major project on the will (especially The Symbolism of Evil) was at least partially motivated by the desire to overcome a “disturbing gap” between “the essential structures of the volitional consciousness” (the subject of his first two books, Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man), and “the historical or empirical condition of the human will, prisoner of the passions and prone to evil.” That is to say, Ricœur’s interest in interpretation (of symbols and, later, of “all phenomena to a textual order”) was initially motivated by his identification and critical engagement with the tradition of “reflective philosophy” (or philosophy of reflection) – as developed by Descartes, Kant, and Husserl – which “seeks to disclose authentic subjectivity through a reflection upon the means whereby existence can be understood.”

Accordingly, and since a detailed summation would require more words than the present review can offer, I shall focus here on the way in which these essays reflect the development of Ricœur’s understanding of subjectivity. This emphasis is also justified by the fact that the anthology constitutes an important transition to Ricœur’s later studies of selfhood and narrativity. I will focus primarily, although by no means exclusively, on one essay (arguably the most significant) from each of the three parts in which the collection is organized: “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics,” regarded by Ricœur as “the real introduction” to his subsequent work; “Appropriation,” which appeared for the first time in this collection; and “The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text,” which was originally written in English and represents the most immediately relevant essay to the anthology’s topic. As Ricœur points out, “the basic analogy between text and action is the key to the relation between the theory of interpretation and the social sciences.”

In his preface to this edition, Charles Taylor writes that the similarity between “text interpretation” and “making sense” of action, as it is entailed by the dialectic between explanation and understanding, is also reflected by the “impossibility of claiming closure” in both domains. “No matter how convincing our present reading, it is always possible that someone could propose a better one. And the same applies to human action in history.” Ricœur’s overall project in these essays, as I read them, consists in showing that while all interpretation (the very means by which subjectivity can be realized as well as disclosed) entails the impossibility of “absolute knowledge,” the inherent openness of the interpretative process —its irreducible distance from its own ideal fulfillment — is at the same time the positive condition for pursuing a “science” of human life.

  1. The Central Discovery of Phenomenology

Ricœur was a Husserlian phenomenologist well before his involvement with Gadamer’s work and philosophical hermeneutics. Indeed, such an interest emerged from his realization that, insofar as all “intuition” entails “explication” (explicitation) — a coincidence which Husserl “perceived” without being able to “draw all its consequences” — “phenomenology can be realised only as hermeneutics.” At the same time, the inescapable character of explication — the fact that nothing at all can be intuited, grasped or experienced without being somehow articulated or “interpreted” in the most basic sense of this word — is itself explained by the “universality of intentionality” — the idea that, since all consciousness is consciousness of an object, “no consciousness is self-consciousness before being consciousness of something towards which it surpasses itself.” Thus, if phenomenology can only be realized as hermeneutics, it is only because intentionality, our being “outside” of ourselves “towards meaning,” is the (phenomenological) presupposition of all forms of understanding.

In particular, according to Ricœur, it is “the reference of the linguistic order back to the structure of experience” which constitutes “the most important phenomenological presupposition of hermeneutics.” Indeed, “when the latter subordinates lingual experience to the whole of our aesthetic and historical experience, it continues, on the level of the human sciences, the movement initiated by Husserl on the plane of perceptive experience.” But if experience is always already “structured” or articulated, we cannot confuse it with any sort of “ineffable immediacy;” rather, “Lebenswelt” must be understood as “the surplus of sense in living experience” which “renders the objectifying and explanatory attitudes possible.” This is why Ricœur eventually moved away from an idealistic phenomenology of “foundations” toward a speculative philosophy of ontological manifestation. As he puts it, “the concept of manifestation of a world, around which all other hermeneutical concepts are organised, is closer to the idea of the ‘self-presentation’ of the true, following the preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, than to the Husserlian idea of constitution.”

  1. Belonging, Distanciation, Appropriation

This triad constitutes the core of Ricœur’s conception of interpretation. Belonging — “the hermeneutical experience itself” — represents the positive counterpart of the experience of finitude which is entailed by the discovery of intentionality. If we cannot become conscious of ourselves without explicating features of a world in which we are already implicated, it follows that such a worldly engagement “comes before any constitution of the object by a sovereign subject.” Belonging expresses, in this sense, the Heideggerian concept of being-in-the-world, hence the “primacy of care over the gaze,” or, more precisely, the “priority of the ontological category of the Dasein which we are over the epistemological and psychological category of the subject which posits itself.”

Up to this point, Ricœur was commenting upon aspects of Heidegger and Gadamer’s hermeneutical thought. His novel contribution consists in the way he tried to overcome what he saw as the “central problem of hermeneutics,” implied in the “epistemological specificity” of interpretation: the fact that interpreting a text appears as a radically different process than, for example, explaining a natural phenomenon, as Dilthey and others had already pointed out. What makes this difference particularly problematic is that interpretation, unlike explanation, seems to involve a circularity whose hypothetical viciousness would affect the validity of its results. If the “human sciences” as a whole are hermeneutical in their method, it might be the case that, after all, no scientific knowledge of human affair could ever be attained.

According to Ricœur, both Heidegger and Gadamer partially supported this conclusion for the sake of preserving the specificity of philosophical, historical, and other forms of “human” understanding. This move, however, depended upon accepting, without questioning any of it, an opposition between “alienating distanciation”, allegedly produced by scientific explanation (alienating because it abstracts from our concrete experience of being-in-the-world) and the “participatory belonging” which is the constant presupposition of all interpretation. In light of this antinomy — which, according to Ricœur, is “the mainspring of Gadamer’s work,” as attested by the very title of his major book (Truth and Method) — all forms of objectification entail some level of falsification of the experience they intend to describe and explain.

By contrast, Ricœur wants to think of “distanciation” (or objectification) as a “moment” of belonging. To be clear, he did not intend to deny that the natural and human sciences are concerned with different “regions” of reality. His point was rather that, if we pay attention to the “paradigm of writing” and its counterpart, reading, distanciation ceases to be a merely necessary but problematic dimension of understanding — necessary because all signification requires interrupting our “lived experience in order to signify it;” problematic because thereby the problem emerges how not to distort experience in the very act of signifying it. And it ceases to be problematic because it now appears as having a “positive and productive function at the heart of the historicity of human experience.” In this respect, as Gadamer himself perceived (“without perhaps giving it the emphasis which it deserves”), “mediation by the text is the model of a distanciation which would not be simply alienating… The text is, par excellence, the basis for communication in and through distance.”

Of course, distance here doesn’t merely refer to the temporal distance of texts and other text-like monuments from the past, but also to that “positive distancing” which, on the one hand, “establishes the autonomy of the text with respect to its author, its situation, and its original addressee” and, on the other and, projects “a new being-in-the-world … freed from the false evidences of everyday reality.” With respect to the latter, Ricœur suggests that the “non-ostensive reference” or “matter” of the text, as he often calls it, can be understood or “rendered near only in and through” the distance generated by the “imaginative variations” which the text “carries out on the real.” Thus, in the last essay of the collection (“The Narrative Function”), Ricœur argues that this dialectic between the alien and the familiar “places history in the neighborhood of fiction.” Similarly, after recalling Benedetto Croce’s claim that there is only a history of the present, he suggests to modify it as follows: “there is only a history of the potentialities of the present. History, in this sense, explores the field of ‘imaginative’ variations which surround the present and the real that we take for granted in everyday life. Such is the way in which history, precisely because it seeks to be objective, partakes of fiction.”

The “consubstantiality” between belonging and (positive) distanciation has two important implications. First, as we have already seen, “there is no need to search, under the title ‘sphere of belonging’, for some sort of brute experience which would be preserved at the heart of my experience of culture, but rather for an antecedent which is never given in itself.” I belong to this or that tradition, or undergo a given experience, always according to a certain modality of participation or engagement, under a certain description or respect, and from the perspective generated by certain interests. “In spite of its intuitive kernel, this experience remains an interpretation. ‘My own too is discovered by explication and gets its original meaning by virtue thereof’,” as Husserl himself wrote. Second, insofar as understanding a text involves a final act of “appropriation” (the act of rendering near what is far), interpretation can no longer be understood as a projection into the text of the reader’s prejudices. This is because the act of appropriation is dialectally related to the experience of distanciation (of the matter of the text from the reality of our habitus) whereby, “as reader, I find myself only by losing myself.”

But how is this possible? “How can this letting-go, this relinquishment, be incorporated into appropriation?” How can it be anything more than a temporary distraction from which we must eventually recover in order to ascertain, from the perspective of our own interests and concerns, what the text means (to us)? In order to answer this question, Ricœur links the act of appropriation “to the revelatory power of the text which we have described as its referential dimension. It is in allowing itself to be carried off towards the reference of the text that the ego divests itself of itself.” Here as elsewhere, Ricœur makes clear that it is not a matter of compromising between objective meaning and personal subjectivity, but of showing how they are reciprocally generated. “The notion of subject must be submitted to a critique parallel to that which the theory of metaphor exercises on the notion of object. In fact, it is the same philosophical error which must be understood from both extremities: objectivity as confronting the subject, the subject as reigning over objectivity.”

Consequently, as writing carries out imaginative variations on the real, “reading introduces me into the imaginative variations of the ego” (Ricœur goes so far as to say that “it is the text, with its universal power of unveiling, which gives a self to the ego”). Indeed, “the metamorphosis of the world in play is also the playful metamorphosis of the ego.” And since the later “implies a moment of distanciation in the relation of self to itself … understanding is as much disappropriation as appropriation.”

  1. Text as Paradigm of Action

One of the most interesting aspects of this anthology is Ricœur’s attempt to find a concept of interpretation which could explain the foregoing experience of reading, in which a text seems to have intentions or “injunctions” of its own, independent of its author, and capable of engendering self-transformation through the imaginative variations it induces of the reader’s world and ego. A text, in this sense, is not only the embodiment of the author’s intentions, but a semi-autonomous source of potential meaning. If “to interpret is to follow the path of thought opened up by the text” — to comply with its injunctions — our concept of interpretation as a subjective act on the text must be replaced by, or combined with, an understanding of it as an objective act of the text itself (upon the reader). In this respect, Ricœur’s appeal to Aristotle’s On Interpretation and, above all, to Charles Peirce’s semiotics, become central to his argument.

Unfortunately, Ricœur’s engagement with Peirce’s work does not go beyond a superficial assessment and appears to be mostly informed by secondary sources. At the same time, he does capture a quite crucial point of Peirce’s concept of interpretation: its “synechistic” nature, namely the continuous, non-extrinsic character of the relationship between (to use Ricœur ’s terminology) “tradition” — what a text or other forms of discourse signify (tradit) — and “interpretation” — what it evokes in the mind of the interpreter. “According to Peirce, the relation of a ‘sign’ to an ‘object’ is such that another relation, that between ‘interpretant’ and ‘sign’, can be grafted onto the first.” We have here another expression of the consubstantiality between belonging and distanciation, in that a sign can signify or “belong” to an object only by determining a further sign (the interpretant). For instance, the word “chair” can only signify a chair by evoking an image of it, which is course another sign. Yet this irreducible “distance” of any sign from its object is a necessary condition for understanding it. A sign incapable of generating a further interpretant of its object would be as incomprehensible as a sign without any object whatsoever — it would indeed be meaningless.

Accordingly, the above mentioned continuity between tradition and interpretation does not entail the kind of deductive closure one might expect from it. Paradoxically, the more one enters into the actual meaning of a text, the more her insights are “open” to interpretation, not only in the sense of being revisable, but also in the positive sense of being intellectually fecund, capable of generating new ways of being read, articulated and developed (the Gospel’s notoriously enigmatic phrase might be illuminating in this context: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath [Matthew 13:12, KJV]). Ricœur clarifies this point by citing Gilles-Gaston Granger: “The sign-interpretant association, realised by whatever psychological processes, is rendered possible only by the community [continuity], more or less imperfect, of an experience between speaker and hearer,” or text and reader. But this experience “can never be perfectly reduced to the idea or object of the sign,” that is, to an immediate or “brute” notion of belonging. “Whence the indefinite [open] character of Peirce’s series of interpretants.”

We finally come across Ricœur’s argument concerning the analogy between text and action. “My claim is that action itself, action as meaningful, may become an object of science, without losing its character of meaningfulness, through a kind of objectification similar to the fixation which occurs in writing” — a fixation in virtue of which, as we have seen above, “the author’s intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide.” But how can the same dissociation take place with action? Doesn’t an action by definition require the contemporaneous presence of an agent? Isn’t here a deeper subjective irreducibility than in the case of the text? For instance, while a text can indeed become relatively independent of the original writer’s intentions, the action of writing cannot in the same way be dissociated from the agent’s intention to write.

And yet, as Ricœur insists, unless human behavior can be “fixated” or objectified without losing its significant (intentional) character — unless “the expressions of life undergo a kind of objectification” — it won’t be suitable to become an object of scientific inquiry. This is because inquiry always requires its object to be inscribed in “external marks,” in the same way in which a discourse must be written down in order be not only practically understood but also theoretically analyzed. And if it is indeed impossible for the meaning of “action events” to be inscribed, a scientific understanding of human affairs could only amount to explaining away their original significance as a subjective phenomenon (as it happens with reductive explanations of action in terms of biological and neural concepts). This phenomenon, in turn, could only be understood or interpreted in a “romantic” sense of the term, namely, in virtue of our “pretension of recovering, by congenial coincidence, the genius of the author.” This is why there might be a genuine antinomy between understanding and explanation.

On the other hand, as Ricœur points out, action does sometime appear to dissociate itself from the agent’s intentions without losing its meaningful character. That is the case of actions which, as we sometime put it, leave “traces” or “marks” — not only because they have consequences (this is true of all actions), but also insofar as their importance goes beyond their relevance to the initial situation, even if only by embodying general features (such as “desirability characters”) which may be made the object of subsequent practical reflection. Accordingly, “could we not say that the process of arguing linked to the explanation of action by its motives unfolds a kind of plurivocity which makes action similar to a text?” Thus an action-event, like a speech-act, entails “a similar dialectic between its temporal status as an appearing and disappearing event, and its logical status as having such-and-such identifiable meaning or ‘sense-content’.” On this point, I believe Ricœur’s work might benefit by an even deeper interaction with “analytic” theories of agency — an interaction he continued to pursue in his subsequent work (see especially Oneself as Another).

“But if the ‘sense-content’ is what makes possible the ‘inscription’ of the action-event… what corresponds to writing in the field of action?” In other words, how can an action become “detached from its agent” and develop “consequences of its own”? Ricœur’s answer to this question echoes the above seen concept of interpretation as an essentially open and communal process. If the inscription of discourse has a spatial dimension, it is in “social time” that the “autonomization” of action occurs. And social time, Ricœur points out, “is not only something which flees; it is also the place of durable effects, of persisting patterns. An action leaves a ‘trace’, it makes its ‘mark’ when it contributes to the emergence of such patterns which become the documents of human action.” The objectification of meaningful behavior is essentially social, and it is social in virtue of the temporal dimension of all human interactions, in which certain actions and events come to be seen as weighing more than others, and their effects are consequently more lasting and pervasive (however less discernible and thus more easily discardable).

But in order for the effect of an action to last, its capacity to be recollected is not enough. It must, on the contrary, be developed into persisting and increasingly complex patterns of behavior, so as to transcend its original address and situation. In order for an action to become important (worthy of being recollected, registered, celebrated, questioned, interrogated, institutionalized, etc.), it must be capable, like a text, of opening up a “world” whose relevance “exceeds … the social conditions of its production and may be re-enacted in new social contexts. Its importance is its durable relevance and, in some cases, its omni-temporal relevance.”

  1. Conclusion

This is only the skeleton of Ricœur’s answer to the question about the nature of “truth” in the human sciences. The essays of the third part, in particular, articulate the implications of the foregoing remarks for critical theory, psychoanalysis, and history. Most importantly, the anthology as a whole reflects Ricœur’s commitment to show how a philosophy of reflection can become “concrete” without renouncing its “scientific” aspirations. It can do that by pursuing, at all levels of analysis, the dialectical relation between freedom and necessity, distanciation and belonging, method and tradition, fiction and history or, from another perspective, critique and ideology. Thus, one the one hand, “all objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural tradition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect.” On the other hand, the impossibility of “complete reflection” is but an expression of that “potentiality of meaning” which it is our fundamental responsibility to “appropriate” by giving up our dominant world-interpretations for the sake of their impending explications.


Alexandru Dragomir: The World We Live In

The World We Live In Book Cover The World We Live In
Phaenomenologica, 220
Alexandru Dragomir, Gabriel Liiceanu (Ed.) & Catalin Partenie (Ed.)
Springer International Publishing
eBook €74,96
xiii + 167

Reviewed by: Anco Peeters (Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia)

Time, Space, and Technology in the Phenomenology of Dragomir

After studying at the University of Bucharest during the Interbellum, Alexandru Dragomir (1916–2002) opted to become a doctoral student with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg. The Second World War, however, intervened in his studies, initially by forcing him to return to his native Romania for military duty and, after the end of the war, by preventing him to return to a politically suspect philosophy supervisor. The combination of Romania’s communist regime and Dragomir’s lack of interest in publishing resulted in zero philosophical publications in his lifetime, but it did not stop him from becoming one of Romania’s most characteristic and inspirational post-war philosophers. In the period after the war, he joined a small circle of young philosophers who met to develop, or tried to develop, philosophical thoughts independent of the approved Marxist framework. Some of the participants in these meetings later came to hold important academic positions in Romania and it is through their efforts that we now have a chance to read their mentor’s ideas in the present volume.

The World We Live In contains private lectures given by Dragomir spanning a period from 1985 to 1998. Some lectures are graceful examples of ‘live’ philosophical thinking, where phenomenological investigation and philological skill are combined to probe issues concerning time, space, and technology. Other lectures are less polished and should perhaps not have been published. Almost all the lectures engage with classic philosophical texts, primarily by Plato and Aristotle, and, to a lesser degree, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Dragomir’s mentor Heidegger is more often than not present in the background, through the method of analysis. The volume is divided into two parts, with part I containing a number of shorter lectures, usually only a handful of pages long, and part II containing three larger lectures of about twenty pages each. At least three of the lectures have been previously published in the journal Studia Phænomenologica in the combined 3/4 issue from 2004, though any mention of this is conspicuously absent from the present collection. Specifically, these lectures are “Utter Metaphysical Banalities”, “About The Ocean of Forgetting”, “About the world we live in” (the title has been slightly changed). The introduction and epilogue – respectively authored by Gabriel Liiceanu and Andrei Pleşu – were previously published in the same journal issue also, but more about these later. The lectures are generally presented in a chronological order and this works well to give the reader a feel for the progression of Dragomir’s thinking. James Christian Brown has done an admirable work translating the text into accessible English prose, though my no more than elementary knowledge of Romanian prevents me from vouching for the reliability of the translation.

“Utter Metaphysical Banalities” is the most philosophically rich among the nine shorter lectures of the first part. The metaphysical ‘banalities’ in question are the spatial and temporal environment, which are named so because everybody experiences and, usually, does not question them. Dragomir does. He investigates these environments phenomenologically by relating them to the self, particularly by showing what range is being opened up by the spatial and the temporal, and what is delineated by their horizons – a key term in Dragomirean analyses. For example, he argues that familiar spatial environments are oriented towards me, not merely physically but also spiritually in the sense that I know how my environment relates to me – they are familiar precisely because I have mentally appropriated them. This is why a room that looks like chaos to one person may look familiar to another, and why a room that is ordered by someone else may remain foreign and chaotic to me because I have not yet related myself mentally to it. Dragomir introduces the concept of ‘contemporaneity’ in his analysis of the temporal. When someone lives in a contemporaneity, one lives in a certain social and cultural web. Children acquire a contemporaneity when they grow up, appropriating the pop-culture, customs, and icons of their day; on becoming adult they have acquired a contemporaneity that is contemporary or current; when they grow old, their contemporaneity stays with them and loses its synchronicity – slowly the threads that link them to the social and cultural web that is familiar to them are severed until they no longer share the same temporal environment with those around them. Though clearly dealing with Heideggerian themes, the current analysis forms an interesting contrast with that of Dragomir’s mentor. A comparison with, for example, Heidegger’s 1924 lecture on Der Begriff der Zeit is useful to note an interesting difference. While for Heidegger time is to be understood in relation to a Dasein, for which it plays primarily an anticipatory and existential role – it gains importance by its grasping toward the future – Dragomir’s analysis of the experience of time hinges on the building of a social and cultural web, and thus should be understood in relation to the past and present. Taking note of the analysis in “Utter Metaphysical Banalities” gives the reader a useful point of reference when tracing the progression of Dragomir’s thoughts on time in the other, later lectures.

Among the other lectures in the first part, “Nations” stands out as a thought-provoking and surprisingly contemporary discussion of politics. In it, Dragomir examines the notion of ‘nation’ through a phenomenological lens and, through this examination, comes to a diagnosis of the essential strong and weak points of political constructs such as the European Union. The central role is played by the understanding of a nation as composed of people’s investment in three signals: its geography, which points to ‘our country’; its history, which points to ‘our past’; and its language, which points to ‘our mother tongue’. While I am not sure I agree with the conclusion drawn, namely that a nation is irreducible by virtue of its citizens’ investment and that this makes international collaboration inherently unstable, the analysis is, as far as I can tell, highly original. Furthermore, it allows for an understanding of the tensions within the EU from the political macro to micro level. This makes “Nations” relevant for contemporary scholars that work on the EU and UN in political philosophy and theory.

The other lectures in the first part are less-developed. “The Ocean of Forgetting” – on the role of remembering and forgetting – deserves a special mention: not much new is said in here, but the argument that we forget an extraordinary amount of experiences and that this in itself should make us feel skeptical of the value of cultural canons, is sound. The less that is said about “About Man and Woman” the better. The assertion that feminism should not forget ‘essence’ is laughable and shows a thorough misunderstanding of what most feminist approaches to philosophy and politics are about. This thirst for understanding the masculine and feminine as essences makes the argument circular and, together with other statements in the volume about how “women excel” at blaming others (51), reinforce the picture of a bad case of value dissonance between public academic discourse and the relative privacy of the living room in which Dragomir’s lectures were given. Phenomenology need not be this subjective (see Gallagher and Zahavi, 2007) and any reader with a genuine interest in phenomenology and feminism would be better served by picking up Sara Ahmed’s Queer phenomenology (2006). Perhaps it is best to just conclude that the Dragomir of “About Man and Woman” is no longer synchronous with the current contemporaneity and leave it at that.

The first two of the three longer lectures that we find in part II deal with Platonic themes and in them Dragomir performs some philological heavy-lifting. In “Socrates: Philosophy Confronts the City”, we find an examination of Socrates’ famous adage of ‘knowing that I do not know” and his subsequent maieutic approach to questioning experts. This is done in the first part by a Hegelian dialectic of distinctions between types of experts, life and death, and good and evil. Later on, we witness how Dragomir intertwines several strands of his earlier work on horizons and applies them to Platonic epistemology: that what we can know is defined by the limitations of our knowing and our relation to those limitations. Phenomenologists and exegetes of Heidegger’s work might find the later part of the discussion, on how Being as understood by the ancients relates to Sein und Zeit, of use.

“Comments on the Philebus” is lauded by one of the editors as “extremely original” (114), though it is unclear to me exactly what part of the lecture deserves such praise. The Philebus is one of Plato’s later dialogues and widely regarded as one of the more difficult (Frede 1992, 425). There have been discussions on whether the dialogue is internally consistent (e.g., like Hackforth 1945), or whether the passages contradict each other (e.g., Gosling 1975). Dragomir’s conclusion that we are left “in a state of questioning” (128) suggests he leans towards the later point of view. Furthermore, commentators often try to either argue the consistency of the discussions in the Philebus with Plato’s earlier work on the Ideas (e.g., Frede 1992), or make the case that the Philebus shows a progression of Platonic doctrine (e.g., Shiner 1974). Dragomir notes the seeming discrepancy in the dialogue (e.g., on 126–127), but does not draw a conclusion either way. It is frequently asked why the titular character of the dialogue is himself so quiet during the exchange. Friedländer (1969, 309–310) proposes that since Philebus is the personification of pleasure, it would be self-defeating to engage in a discussion on the value of pleasure with Socrates, who could be seen as the personification of reason. Dragomir’s suggestion (116, 128) that Philebus’ silence serves to emphasise the difficulty of the topic looks rather inelegant in comparison. Perhaps one would argue that the originality may be found in the lecture being a phenomenological reading of the Philebus. Such a case would require a comparison of the lecture with Gadamer’s 1931 work on Phänomenologische Interpretationen zum Philebos, but there is time nor space to do so here. Instead, I propose that the two lectures just presented are a clear example of what was earlier pointed out as one of Dragomir’s key characteristics: not originality, but understanding and letting the text speak for itself is his aim here. These lectures therefore offer a student of said Platonic dialogues a useful interlocutor and should not be presented as something they are not.

“The World We Live In” is the final lecture in the present volume and it deals with a question concerning technology. In it, Dragomir develops a warning: though the power of our intellect allowed us to develop the scientific method, which in turn allowed us to enslave nature through the use of technology, this overall structure alienates us from our basic state of being. Aristotle and Descartes are singled out as humanity’s main enablers of technology dependence. The argument is reminiscent of the animosity that Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers display towards the ongoing technologisation of our existence. But where Heidegger argues the danger of technology lies in its power to reveal the world to us as raw material, available for consumption and manipulation, Dragomir instead claims that technologies hide our initial relation to the world. He argues that, because of technology’s growing prominence, the original role of the intellect as guide to the bodyi is transformed into the intellect as producer: it is the intellect that produces science and technology which leads us to a increasing abstraction of the world around us. Dragomir’s argument depends heavily on the power of the intellect and his assumption that current technologies alienate us from what it means to be human. It might be fruitful to compare his analysis to other phenomenological discussions of our technologically mediated life experiences – such as Ihde (1990) and Verbeek (2005) – which take the role of the body and the assumption of our technological nature seriously.

The texts in the middle of the book are framed by two discussions of Alexandru Dragomir’s personal life. While the introductory chapter at the front paints a detailed picture of the rise and fall of Dragomir’s professional career, the epilogue provides a more intimate portrait of Dragomir the person. The latter contrasts Dragomir with his contemporary Constantin Noica, that other pillar of contemporary Romanian philosophy and also the one who invited Dragomir to the aforementioned circle of philosophical fellows. Where Noica stressed that one should impose one’s own thoughts on philosophical texts, Dragomir was driven by an effort to let the text speak for itself and to retrace the author’s thought process, in other words, to understand what a text says.ii The introductory chapter presents a very useful and accessible introduction to Dragomir’s early career and life in Germany, but in the latter half devolves into something resembling a love-letter from the editor to the author, becoming prone to romantisation and adoration. Both reader and editor would have been better served by shortening this chapter.

I mentioned earlier that there is a curious absence of any reference to the previous publication of at least five texts in the present volume, but this is not the gravest editorial lapse. What is most disturbing is the lack of transparency with regard to the editing of the source material. Granted, it may have been practically impossible to “reconstruct” (39) Dragomir’s thoughts into readable and coherent lectures “based” (e.g., 45) on tape recordings and note scribbles without substantial intervention by the editors. It seems, however, to be a very slippery slope to then also take the liberty to rewrite and rephrase passages “in a more succinct form” (89) or even claim that other passages “are my own [i.e., the editor’s], yet I believe they have been written in the spirit of Dragomir’s interpretation” (89). Readers might rightly expect to be notified exactly which passages are those of the editors and which ones are Dragomir’s, yet there are no foot- or endnotes or other indications of this in the running text. Scholars who want to read Dragomir’s own writings now have no way of knowing which parts of the texts are Dragomir’s and which are the editors’. Perhaps there was no other way of transforming the tapes and notes into readable and coherent form without adding an overly cumbersome notational apparatus. Even then, there is no excuse for not either, on the one hand, adding at least some notes or a more extended discussion of the editorial process than we currently find in the preface, or, on the other, presenting the notes and recordings as-is, in a fashion similar to parts of Nietzsche’s Nachlaß. One cannot help but wonder why those who have displayed such passion to conserve Dragomir’s thoughts have not been more careful in separating those from their own.

Dragomir is regarded by many Romanian philosophers as one of their big heroes; I witnessed this admiration first-hand when I visited the universities of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca on a study-trip in 2008. In secondary literature, our attention is often drawn to how impressed the otherwise hard-to-please Heidegger was by his Romanian student.iii While inspiring, such adoration stands in the way of how one can best show respect to a fellow philosopher: by fairly yet critically engaging with their thoughts. Dragomir makes a prescient remark when he observes what happened to Wittgenstein’s posthumous writings: “Others came along later, took the papers from the drawer and put them in order, giving them the form of immortal ‘works’” (49). The present book seems to have suffered a similar fate and this makes it difficult to show proper respect to and appreciate the brilliance of the few lecturial gems that are covered in editorial darkness.


Ahmed, S. (2006). Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ciocan, C. (2007). Philosophy without Freedom: Constantin Noica and Alexandru Dragomir. In Ion Copoeru & Hans Rainer Sepp (Eds.), Phenomenology 2005, Vol. III. Selected essays from Euro-Mediterranean area (pp. 63–79). Bucharest: Zeta Books.

Frede, D. (1992). Disintegration and restoration: Pleasure and pain in Plato’s Philebus. In R. Kraut (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Plato (pp. 425–463). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friedländer, P. (1969). Plato: The dialogues. Vol. 3. Hans Meyerhoff (Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gadamer, H.-G., (1931). Platos dialektische Ethik: Phänomenologische Interpretationen zum Philebos. Leipzig.

Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, D. (2007). The phenomenological mind: An introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science. London: Routledge.

Gosling, J.C.B. (1975). Plato: Philebus. Translated with notes and commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hackforth, R. (1945). Plato’s examination of pleasure. London: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1924). Der Begriff der Zeit. 1995 Edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the lifeworld: From garden to earth. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Shiner, R.A. (1974). Knowledge and reality in Plato’s Philebus. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2005). What things do: Philosophical reflections on technology, agency, and design. R.P. Crease (Trans.). University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.


i For Dragomir, the intellect is that what primarily constitutes the self. He states: “For me, I am a body subordinate to my intellect. My body is an ὄργανον, an instrument guided by my intellect” (133–134). Not every phenomenologist would agree that the body is an instrument guided by the intellect and this is admitted by Dragomir a few sentences later.

ii For a more detailed side-by-side of Dragomir and Noica, see Ciocan (2007).

iii The irony of constantly being presented in relation to his famous German supervisor, even though he was not able to finish his dissertation, was not lost on Dragomir who in the present volume remarks: “Some rely all their lives on the fact of having once been pupils of Heidegger” (52).

Jean Wahl: Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings

Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings Book Cover Transcendence and the Concrete: Selected Writings
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Jean Wahl
Fordham University Press
Paperback $35.00

Reviewed by:  Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)


‘Packaged as Meat, Frenchman Jean Wahl Flees Nazi Captors in Dramatic Escape’. So reads the 1942 newspaper headline reporting one of the more sensational escapades in the philosopher’s life (6–7, n. 15). Jean Wahl is one of a number of neglected existentialist thinkers who were opponents or victims of the Nazi régime. Philosophers in this tenuous position could no longer (if they ever had) regard their philosophy as separable from the concrete life that made it possible and otherwise informed it. For this reason, the editors’ thoroughly researched introductory essay, drawing on unpublished biographical material, is one of the most valuable features of the collection under review. After the Vichy Statute that excluded Jews from teaching, as the essay explains, Wahl continued to lead seminars from his hotel room on rue des Beaux-Arts. On the day that the area was seized by the Gestapo, Wahl, who was reading Heidegger with a small group of students, is reported to have quipped, ‘If the Gestapo comes, it will not hurt to say that we are studying Heidegger. The Nazis at one time thought highly of him.’ (4).

The memorable newspaper headline refers to Wahl’s eventually successful attempt to escape from occupied France in a ‘butcher cart’, ‘wrapped in the same kind of cloth that wrapped the sides of meat’ (Green cited on 6). This earthy image of the philosopher, the archetype of consciousness and reflective thought, packaged up as inanimate, unthinking flesh is astonishing and suggestive. It may even express the quintessence of the human condition. Is there not a sense in which to be ‘packaged as meat’ is simply to be human?

The question is at the centre of the main theme of this collection of essays: the relationship between transcendence and the concrete. In the volume’s final essay, Wahl explains his and his contemporaries’ preference for the word ‘existence’ over the more archaic ‘soul’:

it is because the soul was too often considered to be a permanent substance, was too clearly separated from the body, too clearly separated from the world. The union of soul and body, of soul and world—this is what is meant by the idea of existence. (267)

As the editors point out, Wahl was ‘a sensitive and insightful reader’ and interpreter of the work of his contemporaries (2). Notably, he promoted in France German philosophers, including Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers (24–5), but his own philosophical voice can be heard in the engagements with other thinkers’ work that are presented in this collection (2). Wahl’s extensive engagement with Jaspers is of particular interest (chs. 6 & 7).

The volume partially reprints ‘The Problem of Choice: Existence and Transcendence in Jaspers’s Philosophy’ (Chapter 6), in which Wahl engages in detail with Jaspers’s complex philosophical system, focusing on those aspects which are of most relevance to his own thinking and which matter to him the most. He begins with the important observation that ‘Jaspers’s philosophy is both the negation of every system and the affirmation that a system is necessary for the intensity of the life of the mind.’ (134) Jaspers’s thought, as Wahl sees it, is based on two propositions, the first of which forms the basis for the second, even as the two propositions oppose and strive to negate one another. Wahl thus makes sense of an otherwise puzzling feature of Jaspers’s work: the tension between its apparently systematic form and its profoundly anti-systematic content. ‘There is…a struggle,’ Wahl says, ‘between philosophy and the form of the system; it always stands outside of the system and breaks it.’ (136)

Wahl’s essay on Jaspers shows just how thoroughly this collection has been edited. References are given to the German edition of Jaspers’s three-volume Philosophy and also, where possible, to E. B. Ashton’s English translation (134, n. 4). The editors also provide an English translation of Wahl’s French translations of Jaspers’s German, which can differ significantly from the published English translations of Jaspers. They also helpfully correct apparent errors in Wahl’s references. However, sections III and IV of the Jaspers essay (‘Transcendence’ and ‘The World of Ciphers’) have been cut ‘for reasons of length’ (147, n. 46). This is unfortunate, because these are the sections that are of most relevance to the theme of the volume as a whole. In these excised sections, Wahl sets out some of the formulas used by Jaspers to articulate the relationship between ‘transcendence’, which is ineffable, and the essentially ambiguous and unstable ‘ciphers’ in which, for Jaspers, transcendence is embodied in the world of concrete experience. In the conclusion to the essay, Wahl holds up Jaspers’s ‘cipher of failure’ as a major link between Jaspers’s theory and some of his own deepest philosophical concerns. But, for Wahl’s explanation of that theory (which is located in the excised section IV), the reader must look elsewhere (147 n. 46). The editorial decision to omit these two sections of Wahl’s text left this reader with the sense that the editors have at times focussed on details at the expense of the broader picture.

‘Subjectivity and Transcendence’ (ch. 7), offering a valuable transcript of the December 4, 1937 session of the Société Française de Philosophie, shows Wahl in living dialogue with some of the most important philosophers of the day. We hear Wahl’s philosophy emerging out of conversations with Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, Nicholas Berdyaev, Emmanuel Levinas and others—either in person or by letter. Of particular interest are the lengthy transcribed conversation between Wahl and his friend, Gabriel Marcel and Wahl’s insightful articulation of a particular reservation he has about Jaspers’s thought. On the latter, Wahl states:

it is a general theory of philosophies, it is the work of an observer of philosophies, it is not the act of a philosopher himself choosing his symbol, his cipher [chiffre]. Or, if it is such an act, it loses its general value and is no longer a theory of philosophies in general. (164)

While Wahl acknowledges the importance of Jaspers’s work, for the reason given above, he regards it as ‘no longer necessary to place his philosophy within the same framework as the others’ (164). Rather than being ‘one of the most serious reproaches one could make against Jaspers’s theory’, this is a profound insight into the distinctive nature of his philosophy (164). For what could ‘a general theory of philosophies’ be, if not itself philosophy? And is this not precisely the most authentic kind of philosophy that we need, as opposed to the unreflective choice of a particular cipher, made in ignorance of the fact that ciphers are what are being chosen or even (our inescapable rootedness in traditions notwithstanding) that there is a choice to make? As Jaspers says in his letter to Wahl (on a different point), ‘what you designate as dangers is exactly what I would like to achieve, at least as I conceive it’ (191).

Overall, Transcendence and the Concrete makes an important contribution to the study of the life and thought of Jean Wahl and his contemporaries. Its transcript of the 1937 session and detailed biographical essay will be of particular value to scholars and students working in the field.

Vincent Blok: Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology

Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology: Heidegger and the Poetics of the Anthropocene Book Cover Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology: Heidegger and the Poetics of the Anthropocene
Vincent Blok
Hardback £105.00

Reviewed by: Salvatore Spina (Università degli Studi di Messina/Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg)

Il volume Ernst Jünger’s Philosophy of Technology. Heidegger and the Poetics of the Anthropocene di Vincent Block non è semplicemente uno studio sulla filosofia di Ernst Jünger e sull’influenza che questa ha avuto sul pensiero di Martin Heidegger. Naturalmente i presupposti teorici e le basi concettuali del lavoro di Block affondano le proprie radici nell’analisi dei testi fondamentali dei due autori in questione, ma nelle pagine del volume è possibile trovare molto di più; esso propone, per parafrasare l’espressione di Michel Foucault, un’ontologia dell’attualità. In maniera programmatica, proprio come incipit dell’introduzione al volume, scrive l’autore: «This book studies how Ernst Jünger – one of the greatest German authors of the twentieth century – envisioned the technological age we currently live in» (1).

In altri termini lo scopo dell’autore è di mostrare come l’armamentario filosofico utilizzato da Jünger nel secolo passato risulti, nonostante i cambiamenti storici, politici e sociali, ancora attuale per descrivere la nostra epoca che, mutatis mutandis, presenta le stesse caratteristiche descritte ne L’operaio. Epoca che ha come suo attore protagonista l’uomo della tecnica, la cui incidenza sulle trasformazioni del pianeta Terra è tale da determinare il passaggio ad una nuova era geologica: l’antropocene. Scrive l’autore: «The […] reason to study Jünger’s concept of the age of  technology is, therefore, that he provides concrete strategies and methods to envision the future. Furthermore, Jünger  is one of the first authors who conceptualize this future in terms of the anthropocene» (2).

Tuttavia Block non si limita semplicemente a proporre un’analisi dettagliata del pensiero di Jünger, al fine di mostrarne il carattere profetico e attuale. Nelle pagine dell’autore tedesco egli scorge, andando al di là dell’epocale interpretazione proposta da Heidegger, la possibilità di una considerazione non metafisica dell’essere e del linguaggio filosofico; concezione che, secondo Block, è affine al pensiero di Heidegger, dello Heidegger post-svolta, più di quanto quest’ultimo sia disposto ad ammettere.

La prima parte del volume presenta un’attenta disamina dei lavori jüngeriani degli anni Trenta. In particolar modo vengono presi in considerazione due testi capitali della riflessione del giovane Jünger: L’operaio e La mobilitazione totale.

Secondo l’interpretazione di Block la Grande Guerra, esperita in prima persona da Jünger nella battaglia di Lagemark e poi raccontata nelle pagine del testo Nelle tempeste d’acciaio, non è per il filosofo tedesco un semplice evento storico; essa è piuttosto il nome di un mutamento epocale, rappresenta cioè una vera e propria categoria filosofica. Nella Prima Guerra Mondiale avviene, secondo l’interpretazione di Jünger, un vero e proprio ‘scossone nell’ordine del mondo’, così da prospettare il declino tanto dei valori borghesi, che avevano retto l’ordine sociale della modernità, quanto delle categorie filosofiche di matrice platonica, che, nonostante vari mutamenti e correzioni, avevano lo scopo di fornire un senso al divenire. Scrive Block: «Total mobilization thus primarily has the effect of engendering ontological indifference, since every connection to the transcendent essence of thing is destroyed – Jünger also speaks of a “decrease of types” –  in favor of dynamization or potential energy» (11).

In altre parole, la Prima Guerra Mondiale funge da grimaldello per scardinare un ordine divenuto ormai vetusto che aveva edificato le proprie certezze intorno all’interpretazione dell’uomo come animal rationale. Distrutta ogni connessione con l’essenza, svincolata l’interpretazione dell’umanità dell’umano dall’attributo della razionalità (almeno così come questa è pensata nell’ambito della modernità), l’uomo nell’epoca della tecnica dispiegata è da considerare in relazione a criteri del tutto inediti: l’efficienza, la funzionalità, la riproducibilità.

Detto in maniera esplicita, dalla descrizione di Jünger emerge un nuovo tipo umano; inizialmente la sua forma viene associata a quella del guerriero, successivamente, e in maniera filosoficamente più pregnante, dagli anni Trenta in avanti questo nuovo tipo umano, svincolato dall’ordine che egli stesso contribuisce a distruggere con la propria azione, avrà la forma dell’operaio.

Partendo da queste considerazioni Block si muove seguendo due vettori ermeneutici fondamentali, che in qualche modo gli studi jüngeriani danno per acquisiti da qualche decennio. Da un lato emerge chiaramente il riferimento di Jünger alla filosofia di Nietzsche, tanto nell’interpretazione del proprio tempo come nichilismo, quanto nella declinazione della mobilitazione totale (forse accostabile all’attivismo di cui parlava Nietzsche) come trasformazione della vita in energia; dall’altro lato il pensiero di Jünger non viene affrontato semplicemente nella sua dimensione narrativa, poetica, descrittiva, bensì indagato nella sua radice squisitamente filosofica ed essenziale. Utilizzando il lessico heideggeriano, potremmo dire che Block mette in evidenza lo spessore ontologico delle analisi di Jünger, non limitando l’analisi all’indagine ontica che, in qualche modo, è largamente diffusa nelle pagine del filosofo di Wilflingen.

Nella seconda parte del testo Block presenta un confronto tra la filosofia di Jünger e quella di Martin Heidegger. Il grande merito del lavoro di Block è quello di non limitarsi ad analizzare i testi in cui avviene un confronto diretto tra i due autori sulla questione del nichilismo – Oltre la linea di Jünger e La questione dell’essere di Heidegger. Da un lato, Block analizza Essere e tempo e i testi di Heidegger degli anni Trenta a partire da una prospettiva inedita, ovvero la questione del lavoro; egli mostra come tra la visone jüngeriana e quella heideggeriana vi siano dei punti di contatto ma anche delle divergenze enormi che in qualche modo rimandano al contesto generale entro cui si svolge l’intera riflessione filosofica dei due autori.

Dall’altro lato, Block focalizza la propria attenzione sul volume 90 della Gesamtausgabe in cui Heidegger si confronta direttamente ed esplicitamente con Jünger e in particolar modo con il testo L’operaio. Il lavoro filosofico di Block si muove in due direzioni parallele, mostrando sia la centralità del lavoro ermeneutico di Heidegger per poter comprendere lo spessore ontologico del pensiero di Jünger sia la possibilità di un superamento dell’interpretazione heideggeriana in virtù di una considerazione diversa della riflessione dello stesso Jünger.

Il limite della prospettiva ermeneutica heideggeriana consisterebbe, secondo Block, nell’incapacità di comprendere fino in fondo la dimensione non metafisica della riflessione di Jünger; spinto dalla necessità di far rientrare ad ogni costo anche il pensiero jüngeriano nei limiti propri della metafisica occidentale, accostandolo in tal modo a Nietzsche, Heidegger avrebbe fornito, dunque, un’interpretazione parziale e per alcuni versi faziosa. Scrive l’autore: «It will become clear that Heidegger’s reception of Jünger is biased. Because he takes Jünger’s writings a priori as philosophical reflections in light of Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will to power, Heidegger does not see that Jünger is under way to a non-metaphysical method to en vision the turning of Being, and to a non-metaphysical concept of language that is much closer to Heidegger’s than he would admit» (56).

Questa riconsiderazione del pensiero di Jünger in una prospettiva non nichilistica, al di là dell’orizzonte della storia della metafisica tracciata da Heidegger, viene condotta da Block – nella terza ed ultima parte del volume qui in esame – attraverso un’analisi del linguaggio e della poetica del pensiero di Jünger.

Come accennato in precedenza, in questo contesto il pensiero di Jünger presenta delle assonanze con la riflessione dello Heidegger post-svolta. Attraverso un’analisi puntuale del testo Al muro del tempo, Block ricava dall’opera jüngeriana una riconsiderazione fondamentale dell’essenza del linguaggio e del dire poetico, l’unico in grado di parlare realmente nell’epoca della ‘perfezione della tecnica’ in cui anche il linguaggio si riduce all’efficienza e alla funzionalità.

Nella poesia si realizza quel ‘passaggio al bosco’ che caratterizza la forma di resistenza propria nell’era del dominio incontrastato della tecnica; non una negazione dei caratteri propri della tecnica, ma un attraversamento poetante che in tal modo fornisce forme inedite di libertà. Scrive Block: «The freedom of the individual is to resist the threat of the perfection of technology and to find a way beyond the nihilist reduction and the perfection of technology, based on this individual freedom» (115).

In ultima istanza, al di là delle apparenti differenze terminologiche e contestuali, per Block risulta evidente come tanto per Jünger quanto per Heidegger l’unico modo di corrispondere all’Essere e al suo mistero nell’epoca del nichilismo dispiegato sia la poesia: «This Geheimnis of the gestalt makes clear that the new epoch of the worker is not a matter of observation but of poetry» (141).

Il volume di Vincent Block è un ottimo strumento per confrontarsi con una delle questioni fondamentali del Novecento, quella della tecnica, la cui onda lunga caratterizza il nostro tempo in maniera forse ancor più pregnante che in passato. La chiarezza espositiva, i riferimenti puntuali alla bibliografia primaria e secondaria lo rendono un segnavia essenziale, uno dei primi in lingua inglese, da un lato per comprendere la disamina filosofica della questione della tecnica e delle declinazioni che ne hanno dato Jünger e Heidegger, dall’altro per confrontarsi con le problematiche che danno forma al nostro oggi e ‘provocano’ la nostra storicità e il nostro essere nel mondo.