Wayne Waxman: A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism – via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein Book Cover A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein
Routledge Studies in Eighteenth-Century Philosophy
Wayne Waxman
Hardback £96.00

Reviewed by: Alma Buholzer (University College Dublin)

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism (2019) is presented as a more accessible and to-the-point delivery of the interpretive theses Waxman lays out in Kant’s Model of the Mind (1991), Kant and the Empiricists: Understanding Understanding (2005), and Kant’s Anatomy of the Intelligent Mind (2014). This comparatively compact 351-page book promises a unique angle on Kant’s theoretical philosophy for a range of philosophical and scientific audiences. The work is original both in its iconoclastic style and its thesis, which defends Kant’s ‘psychologism’ and interprets the titular empiricist philosophers as precursors thereof. Kant’s account of objective representation in terms of the interrelations between sensation, pure intuition, logic and concepts is argued to be firmly rooted in problems brought into the spotlight by the empiricists, such as animal consciousness and multimodal sensory perception. The book thus combines a historical sensitivity to the genealogy of Kant’s philosophy with the systematic ambition of a new interpretation, not merely of one isolated aspect of Kantian theory of mind but of the way its various doctrines fit together, from pure intuition to apperception to judgment.

The book is organized into two parts. After an introductory chapter preparing the reader for a radical departure from what Waxman presents as an anti-psychologistic consensus in Kant interpretation, Chapters 2-4 chronologically introduce key thinkers from the empiricist tradition and their contributions to the book’s central concept of psychologism. In chapter 5, Waxman uses Wittgenstein to illustrate Hume’s conventionalism, which in Waxman’s view Kant targets no less than rationalist platonism. Chapters 6-10 guide the reader through Kant’s theoretical philosophy. The sequence of chapters, “The Kantian Cogito” (6), “The Logical I” (7), “The Aesthetic I” (8), “The Objective I” (9), and “The I of Nature” (10) is prescribed less by the text of the Critique of Pure Reason than by the conceptual layers of Waxman’s reconstruction. While regularly referring Kant’s insights back to their empiricist lineage, the progression from the ‘I think’ to the objectivity of physical nature also points to Cartesian and Leibnizian influences in Kant’s treatment of logical universality. The chapters on Kant additionally argue that the doctrines of pure intuition and logical form, interpreted as elements of an ‘a priori psychologism’, can accommodate post-Kantian scientific developments in logic, geometry, mathematics and physics. The concluding chapter assesses platonism and conventionalism as the only possible routes of refutation of Kant’s psychologism, as well as indicating how Waxman’s interpretation may be illuminating for contemporary study of the mind.

One of the most original features of the book is that it makes the compatibility of Kantian doctrines with subsequent scientific advances a matter of first importance: “naturalistic theories like Kant’s and those developed by his British empiricist forebears were intentionally crafted to leave open a place for future science on which philosophy can never impinge” (12). The scope of the book is not only to radically overhaul received opinion on Kant’s methodology, and the relation of his ideas to the sciences, but to defend a biologically plausible version of Kant’s account of logical form. In the remainder of this review I will address in turn: (1) Waxman’s definition of ‘psychologism’ and how his use of this concept situates him with regard to other interpreters; (2) his reading of Kant, with a focus on the logical forms of judgment according to the psychologistic approach; and (3) some questions emerging at the interface of Waxman’s naturalistic reading of Kant and the sciences, especially neuroscience and evolutionary biology.


Waxman stresses that Kant’s ability to resolve skepticism about the objective purport of (some of) our representations is rooted in his radicalization of the British empiricists’ methods to accommodate logical universality, modality, and relational concepts. Thus, the book’s overarching thesis about the relationship between its titular figures is that Kant continues what Locke, Berkeley and Hume started, expressed as their common adherence to psychologism. Waxman has in mind a quite specific interpretation of this term:

[T]he task of psychologism is to explicate meanings, with special emphasis on identifying psychological ingredients essential to notions that, in language, are free of any tincture of psychological content. There can therefore be no expectation that the psychological contents adduced as essential to the meaning of familiar notions will themselves be familiar. (147)

Waxman’s compelling take on the psychologistic philosopher’s undermining of rationalist metaphysics is thus that psychologistic elucidation makes us distrust the appearances of the natural language of metaphysics, thereby overturning realist intuitions that the qualities we discern in appearances are properties of mind-independent objects (33f). Psychologism in this sense, Waxman is clear, is not to be confused with the fallacy of explicating the non-psychological psychologically (305). According to Waxman’s use of the term, psychologism means giving contents which are in fact psychological their due explication in terms of mental representations. Kant’s account of how we are capable of “cognitive representation of sense-divide transcending external objects” (264) equips empirical psychologism with the resources to explicate the objectivity and logical universality of our representations, where this is possible. Hence, “any representational content that neither empirical psychologism nor conventionalism can explicate, a priori psychologism can, and what the latter cannot explicate, nothing can” (147).

Waxman introduces his interpretation as a novel defence of Kant’s theoretical philosophy which rejects two pervasive trends in its reception: an anti-psychologistic consensus, and a more general obsolescence consensus that due to revolutions in logic, geometry, and physics, Kant’s philosophy is “a once formidable structure long since reduced to ruin, fit only for piecemeal salvage” (24ff). The latter engenders attempts to clear the respectable theory behind Kant’s project of its psychologistic methods, resulting in a range of approaches to ‘updating Kant’ e.g. by explaining conscious representation using anything from post-Fregean mathematical logic to Chomskyian linguistics, or Roger Penrose’s quantum theory of consciousness (15). Against these kinds of salvage attempts, Waxman argues that a properly psychologistic account of Kant’s theory of objective representation reveals its compatibility with subsequent developments in logic, geometry, physics, as well as neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Kant scholars may suspect that the anti-psychologistic consensus is by no means universal: for instance, Andrew Brook’s Kant and the Mind (1994), and Patricia Kitcher’s Kant’s Transcendental Psychology (1990) (see also Falkenstein and Easton 1997) make similar critical points about the anachronism of understanding Kantian theory of cognition ‘anti-psychologistically’. For example, “Kant clearly held that his ‘logic’ of the mind is part of what we would now call psychology” (Brook 1994, 6). Waxman takes note of these authors in a footnote, nonetheless signalling his substantive interpretive differences from Kitcher and Brook as well as Lorne Falkenstein and Scott Edgar. The problem, Waxman explains, is that these authors refer to ‘psychology’, which is concerned with “whether and how a representation comes to be in us (empirically, innately, etc.)” rather than ‘psychologism’, which is concerned with “how the representation itself comes to be” (17n). This distinction, in my view, is not as straightforward as Waxman needs it to be in order to distance himself from other interpreters as far as he claims to.

Waxman himself says in the aforementioned footnote that he agrees with Beatrice Longuenesse’s (1998) work on Kant in its essentials, despite her not using the term psychologism (16). This fosters doubts about exactly what defines Waxman’s psychologism as an interpretive approach. If we stipulate that an anti-psychologistic reading foregoes any reference to mental activity in explicating the meanings of objective representations, psychologistic approaches still come in stronger and weaker flavours, which come down to how the genesis of “the representation itself” is construed.

If ‘psychological’ is interpreted weakly, any view that endorses Kant’s references to mental activities such as synthesis and apperception as non-negotiable parts of the story about objective representation, not wholly translatable into an analytic argument, is “identifying psychological ingredients” (147) in discourse which does not overtly suggest them. I believe most interpreters today would uphold this kind of psychological account. Any particular view on what informs Kant’s psychology need not be empiricist in orientation, as one may instead emphasize the scholastic heritage of Kant’s references to mental acts (e.g. Sellars 1967). On stronger versions, e.g. Kitcher (1990), Kant’s ‘psychologism’ qua account of the genesis of objective representations is a ‘proto-cognitivist’ theory which can be re-formulated in light of contemporary experimental methods and results. Waxman’s qualifies as a weakly psychologistic interpretation, in my view, since nowhere in the book does ‘psychologism’ imply ‘experimental psychology’. In the first chapter and the conclusion, Waxman seems to reject mainly Neo-Kantian attempts to place Kant in the service of twentieth century analytic semantics, philosophy of mind and epistemology—explicitly confronting Strawson (1966) in the conclusion (306), but probably also thinking of authors such as Evans (1982) McDowell (1994), and Cassam (1997). However, they present their work as critical reconstructions and selective adaptations of Kantian ideas. Given that Waxman accuses Strawson’s interpretation of Kant of reverting to a kind of platonism, it would have been interesting to hear more about where Waxman agrees and disagrees with existing criticisms of these Neo-Kantian projects, including McDowell’s (1994) ‘naturalized platonism’.

Let us consider the specifics of Waxman’s use of the term ‘psychologism’. Psychologism is presented as a mode of conceptual explication concerned with the psychological content of the meanings of traditionally metaphysical notions, rather than the psychological mechanisms underlying conceptual meanings. Consciousness turns out to be the key ‘psychological ingredient’ reference to which constitutes a psychologistic account. Waxman stresses that all representation requires some degree of consciousness, but that for Kant and his predecessors consciousness is graded from ‘dark’ to ‘bright’ to ‘clear’ (41) and is hence ubiquitous, reaching down to the sensory representations of basic organisms such as molluscs. Another notable feature of Waxman’s psychologism is its gloss on the normative dimension of Kant’s inquiry into our transcendental justification for applying concepts:

instead of proceeding by defining notions in terms of other notions without regard to whether there is, or even can be, any corresponding conscious representation, psychologism [has] the express aim of seeking out such representations. If the search reveals that a notion owes none of the contents indispensable to its meaning to consciousness, then its scope of application is nowhere limited by it (10).

Conversely, if the notion “can be shown to be beholden to consciousness for any of the ingredients essential to its meaning—ingredients at least implicit, but often explicit, in definitions—then its scope of application is limited accordingly” (10).

In general, the distinctiveness of Waxman’s approach lies in his wholesale engagement with Kant’s more unwieldy terms and concepts, and readiness to endorse Kant’s claims as literally about psychological reality—rather than about concepts, the brain/organism, or the objective world. Despite his psychologistic approach having a foot in psychology and a foot in explication, Waxman is content neither with purely conceptual or exegetical arguments, nor ‘proto-cognitivist’ claims that Kant anticipated cognitive science on this or that front. But he ultimately agrees with many other interpreters that any staunchly ‘anti-psychologistic’ reading is a non-starter, as well as joining Kitcher (1990) and Brook (1994) in thinking that a naturalistic perspective on Kant may be able to contribute to contemporary (experimental) psychology and theory of mind.


I now turn to Waxman’s reading of Kant and his empiricist forerunners. Chapter 2 argues that Locke sets the stage for the psychologistic approach by conceiving consciousness on a scale starting with primitive animals: “Since in the entire absence of sensation no consciousness of any kind seems possible … its terrestrial advent would presumably have coincided with the appearance of the first sensation” (54). In Chapter 3, Berkeley is credited with “extending imagination into the cognitive sphere, thereby for the first time crossing the line separating reality from fiction (where Hume and Kant would follow). This is because the ability to represent space as transcending the divide between sight and touch is indispensable to all cognition of the physical” (85). For Kant, this consideration leads to the thesis that there is nothing in sensation (visual or tactual) that is intrinsically spatial, so the representation of space must be constructed in pure intuition (201). Chapter 4 links the foregoing to Hume’s well-known skeptical challenges to relational concepts:

By shifting the basis of belief in relations from objective experience to subjective feeling, Hume moved the topic from epistemology to psychology where, instead of needing to be justified by evidence and to follow as a conclusion from premises, belief is determined purely affectively, by association-constituting feeling, and nothing else (96).

For Waxman, Hume was the first to psychologistically attribute fully general concepts such as the uniformity of nature and the general causal maxim to humans and non-human animals alike (114). Waxman illustrates the theoretical development from associationism to Kantian a priori psychologism in terms of a speculative evolutionary development from a creature

capable of the kind of highly sophisticated, behaviourally efficacious conscious mentation that Berkeley and Hume devised their associationist psychology to explain. Thanks to some fortuitous mutation or other alteration in its genome, its progeny included creatures capable of the representation ‘I think.’ Having no evident selective advantage by itself, this neural capacity presumably could have established itself in the population only as a spandrel piggy-backing on some genetically connected trait that earned its evolutionary keep. (177)

Eventually enabling complex propositions and inferences, Waxman contends, the ‘I-think’ representation would have enabled behaviours with adaptive value. This evolutionary story complements Waxman’s interpretation of Kant’s logical forms of judgment as more basic than language and indeed making language possible:

The ability of linguistic propositions to blend with non-linguistic is, in its way, no less amazing than the mathematizability of nature. But isn’t this exactly what we should expect if language was originally crafted by creatures already fully conversant in the use of non-linguistic propositional representation, transcendental judgments included? (315).

The chapters of Part II centre around Kant’s psychologization of logic in relation to sensory and propositional representation. Waxman details how Kant adapts from Descartes the contentless representation ‘I think’, which “in and of itself, has no content [and hence] cannot be suspected of having borrowed any, whether from language or anywhere else” (158). Being non-linguistic, it is not attributable to convention and thus provides a purely psychological basis for logical generality that synthetically unifies all possible representable contents (174). According to this notion of pure apperception, Waxman argues that Kantian logic is based in a universal self-consciousness which includes “the totality of logical structures universals enable us to form—propositions, inferences, narratives, et al.” (149). Unfortunately, Waxman doesn’t elaborate on whether self-consciousness is for Kant always a form of ‘bright consciousness’, or could exist in ‘darker’ shades as he argues it does for Hume (120).

Kant brings what Waxman calls “intelligence”—which amounts to consciousness of universality and modality—to Humean representations of general relational concepts which lack any awareness of the “logical universe of possible representations” (171). Kantian concepts “enable us to consciously represent each and every associative combination as a grouping of denizens of the logical universe that are thereafter sortable not only by their sensible/imaginable properties but by their logical ones as well” (171). According to Waxman, Kant’s logical forms of judgment are what “make any ‘I think’-generated concept combinable with any other such concept in a single act of thought, or propositional representation” (167). Conceptual representation is thus explicated as the gradual elimination of degrees of “logical freedom” (150) by restricting the space of logical possibilities to what is representable given the content supplied by sensation and association.

According to Kant’s psychologization of logic, fixing the position of a term as subject or as predicate in a categorical judgment is a psychological act starting with the bifurcation of the logical universe (170). However, such a “logical form by itself cannot guarantee that a proposition will result. In particular, even if a would-be proposition is logically well formed, it would still fail to be a genuine proposition if, for other than strictly formal logical reasons, it cannot be thought without generating not just falsehood but one or another species of impossibility, e.g. … ‘water is not always H2O’” (175). For Waxman’s Kant, categorical form permits the unification of concepts in a single consciousness, but it does not allow a unified representation of the resulting propositions (175). In addition to the assertoric modality, then, we need Kant’s problematic modality, which asserts merely the relation between two propositions, suspending judgment on the propositions themselves. The logical form this assumes in us, hypothetical judgment, relates problematic propositions as ground to consequent in the assertoric modality. Together, hypothetical and categorical forms enable any combination of the totality of possible propositions to be unified in a single conscious act (175f).

Waxman mobilizes this account to show that Kant (1) does not restrict intelligence to language-using organisms, nor (2) does he impose our parochial linguistic structures on his model of the basic “building blocks of propositional thought” (22). Waxman takes his elucidation of Kant’s transcendental logic to counter both misconceptions:

Intelligence can be accorded to any creature, actual or possible, that is capable of pure apperception … even including beings so asocial as to be devoid of anything remotely analogous to language or socially grounded symbolic communication of any kind. This is not to deny that Kant regarded all non-human animals known to him as incapable of apperception and therefore unintelligent. (172)

But, Waxman adds, “that does not mean he would have persisted in that view had he known what we know today” (172). This is an interesting speculation, implying that animals have some form of awareness of universality and modality—not in Hume’s sense, but in Waxman’s more demanding Kantian sense of apperception—“an a priori logical universe that quite literally encompasses all possible conscious representations” (169). I fully agree that Kant’s logic is non-linguistic, but I want to know more exactly how Waxman understands our present knowledge of animal intelligence such that it could make Kant change his mind on this controversial topic.

Waxman regularly refers to his lengthier engagements with Kant’s first Critique in footnotes. These references will be necessary for scholars seeking to determine Waxman’s position on exegetical debates. Part II succeeds in presenting Kant’s account of logical forms and concepts as centrally relying on consciousness, and hence psychologistic, while emphasizing that propositional representation need not be construed as an evolutionary leap separating humans from other animals. The combination of these theses makes for an original, stimulating addition to works on Kant’s first Critique.


I now have some remarks on the book’s intriguing but somewhat ambivalent references to the sciences. Waxman’s general stance that the insights of Kantian psychologism extend beyond their own scientific and philosophical context is very ambitious, and I’m not sure his case is equally strong for each of the sciences he addresses. Waxman makes a convincing case that non-Euclidean geometries cannot falsify any of Kant’s statements about pure intuition, as the latter pertain to the necessary features of any representation of space, rather than any particular geometry:

the formal intuition of space is not only neither Euclidean nor non-Euclidean but completely indeterminate as regards number, limit, distance, metric, part-whole relationships, and everything else that makes space suitable for properly mathematical representation or objective representation of any kind (208-9).

When it comes to the life sciences, however, Waxman’s perspective is (perhaps inevitably) more in tension with the scientific context Kant was writing in.

Waxman is clearly not neutral on matters of philosophy of consciousness, stating at the outset that consciousness is for his purposes identical in existence to its neural correlates (13-14), but that there is nonetheless a distinct psychological reality (14, 57, 159, 162, 177f). As this commitment is not compared to any alternatives, I am curious as to why he has opted for this particular form of identity theory to defend the biological plausibility of Kant’s psychologism, rather than functionalism or some form of emergentism. Polák and Marvan (2018), for example, defend the view preferred by Waxman that neural correlates are not in a causal relation to conscious states but an identity relation—a position which philosophers of mind might like to see defended more explicitly in connection with Kant’s views. Also, they may ask whether there is a specifically Kantian motivation for understanding the “mystery of consciousness” as Waxman does, that is, “a purely physical existence that is at the same time irreducible to physical reality” (14). Waxman clearly wants a naturalistic position to complement his psychologistic interpretation, but he also does not want to impose too much recent theory on the historical theories. Given this concern, psychophysical parallelism—an early form of identity theory espoused in different (including Neo-Kantian) versions by German philosophers from Fechner to Feigl via Riehl and Schlick—could illuminate Kantian psychologism from this side of Darwin and experimental psychology (see Heidelberger 2004, Ch. 5). Of course, it would be possible for most Kant scholars to profess neutrality with respect to these debates, but Waxman has—to his credit—set different standards.

Waxman’s decision to adhere to Kant’s original terminology and to steer clear of issues of translation in one sense makes the book smoother. The book conveniently contains a glossary, and tailor-made terms such as ‘AUA [analytic unity of apperception] concepts’, and ‘dark consciousness’ helpfully remind us that a term is not being used in its familiar sense. Waxman’s capacious use of ‘consciousness’ clearly works in his favour insofar as Modern and Kantian philosophy become much more relatable simply by lowering the threshold (as we understand it) on what sensory and cognitive states count as conscious. Yet it would have helped for Waxman to illustrate the general features of (what Descartes, Locke and Kant viewed as) ‘dark consciousness’ in more descriptive neural or psychophysical terms—not simply because readers may have difficulty forgetting the current meanings of such terms and the controversies attached to them, but because it would improve the book’s case for making psychologism compatible with contemporary biology.

One of the book’s most interesting features is its rapprochement between Kant and Darwin. Frequent references to phylogeny and the evolutionary plausibility of psychologism (as contrasted with platonism and conventionalism) evidence Waxman’s eagerness to integrate Kant’s insights into a post-Darwinian landscape, which I take to be a very important, relatively neglected project:

[N]ot only is Kant’s psychologism consistent with evolution, it actually spotlights suitably primitive forms of empirical consciousness that would gain adaptational advantages from a priori consciousness. Most basically, formal intuitions can easily be conceived to be of use to minds grappling with the challenge of combining external sensations into a single, unified external sense capable of providing immediate access to sense-divide transcending objects. (306)

This illumination does not go both ways, however, since Waxman also says that transcendental consciousness is entirely outside the scope of scientific explanation (295)—“because the subjectivity constituted by apperception … becomes part of the explanation of the physical, it cannot itself be explained physically on pain of circularity” (23). This claim recalls circularity charges against naturalized epistemology and logic, which in my view can be convincingly refuted by pragmatic and holistic considerations. It also blatantly contradicts the book’s initial claim that “[t]he mental is causally and in every other way fully determined by its physical underpinnings, and so is in principle fully explicable by science” (21). This is surprising, after seeing Waxman go to great lengths to argue that although a priori, the most innovative aspects of Kantian philosophy are features of our natural constitution, different in complexity but not radically different in kind from the sensory sensitivity of an oyster. Placing a priori elements of Kantian psychologism beyond the reach of current and future biological explanation strikes me as a missed opportunity, and again makes me doubt what is meant by psychologism. Empirical research in animals can indicate how consciousness might have arisen, and in a footnote Waxman considers but then discards a few such accounts based on their comparatively restrictive definition of consciousness (63n). The reader may suspect that casting the net more widely would reveal theories more congenial to Waxman’s evolutionary take on subjectivity, such as Godfrey-Smith (2016).

The following passage is a good example of Waxman’s ambivalence towards his own naturalistic outlook:

The connection between the subjective psychological reality of consciousness and the objective physical reality of neurophysiology is a complete mystery in both directions, today and quite possibly for some time to come. Thus, Kantian logical forms of judgment pose no special mystery but instead are best regarded as simply an additional species of phylogeny-dependent neuro-psychological reality in addition to sensations, emotions, dreams, and the rest. (178)

Because Waxman has not restricted himself to purely exegetical argument, or the Kitcherian ‘proto-cognitivist’ angle described earlier, the reader may wonder how literally such claims are to be taken. One cannot but agree that (something similar to) Kantian a priori capacities such as the logical forms of judgment must have evolved somehow, just as there must be some neural correlates for the empiricists’ associative psychologies, as indicated in Part I. But the empirically-minded reader will want to know in more detail how forms of judgment (or their successors in contemporary science of mind) could be modelled and studied, if they are on a par with sensations and emotions.

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism is bound to appeal to diverse philosophical audiences for its fresh take on Kant’s theoretical philosophy as a priori psychologism. It is also a lively, articulate instance of philosophical storytelling. Waxman avoids approaching Kant through the lens of contemporary philosophical problems where semantics, epistemology and metaphysics are concerned. When it comes to the sciences, however, the book makes us acutely aware of pieces of the puzzle of the mind in nature that Kant simply cannot have anticipated. Kant’s understanding of his current science needs to be confronted with today’s sciences in order to address all of the questions raised by an interpretation of Kantian philosophy as naturalistic a priori psychologism. Over the course of Waxman’s book, frequent references to neural correlates and phylogeny habituate the reader to seeing our biological reality in the same conceptual space as Kantian doctrines, which is surely a step in the right direction. As is perhaps Waxman’s intention, it is left to the reader to ponder the convergences and divergences between Kant’s account of the mind and current scientific knowledge, perhaps especially the life sciences. The book offers its non-Kantian readers a challenging, raw encounter with Kant’s theoretical philosophy, and will leave Kant scholars much to think about both on the old problem of psychologism and new ones arising from Waxman’s brand of naturalism.


Brook, Andrew. 1994. Kant and the Mind. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Cassam, Quassim. 1997. Self and World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans, Gareth. 1982. The Varieties of Reference. Edited by John McDowell. Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press.

Falkenstein, Lorne and Easton, Patricia, eds. 1997. Logic and the Workings of the Mind: The Logic of Ideas and Faculty Psychology in Early Modern Philosophy. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2016. “Mind, Matter and Metabolism.” Journal of Philosophy 113 (10):481-506.

Heidelberger, Michael. 2004. Nature from Within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his Psychophysical Worldview. Translated by Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1998 [1781/1787]. Critique of Pure Reason. Edited and translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, Patricia. 1990. Kant’s Transcendental Psychology. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Longuenesse, Béatrice. 1998. Kant and the Capacity to Judge: Sensibility and Discursivity in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Charles T. Wolfe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Polák, Michal and Marvan, Tomáž. 2018. “Neural Correlates of Consciousness Meet the Theory of Identity.” Frontiers in Psychology 24:1269. DOI https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01269.

Sellars, Wilfrid. 1967. “Some Remarks on Kant’s Theory of Experience.” The Journal of Philosophy 64 (20), Sixty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct. 26, 1967): 633-47.

Strawson, Peter F. 1966. The Bounds of Sense. London: Methuen.

Timo Miettinen: Husserl and the Idea of Europe

Husserl and the Idea of Europe Book Cover Husserl and the Idea of Europe
Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
Timo Miettinen
Northwestern University Press

Reviewed by: Tommi Hjelt (University of Turku)

Husserl’s Phenomenology as Philosophy of Universalism?

In academic discussions of the past decades – at any rate in disciplines linked to the so-called continental philosophy – it has become common practice to view universalistic notions with extreme suspicion. After the Second World War, the insight into the oppressive character of western rationality and the realization that “the project of modernity” has not delivered and cannot deliver on its promise of an ideal society have led to a conviction that all cultural formations, even when (or rather, especially when) making claims to universality, are inevitably partial and contingent. Monolithic teleological models of world history that depict the present as a legitimate moment in a process of inevitable gradual advancement towards ideality have lost their credibility. Universalism has come to be associated with illegitimate expansionism and homogenizing tendencies of western culture, motivated not by innocent benevolence but by fear of indeterminacy and striving for dominance. And yet, while western rationality has been criticized for its false pretensions, there has been a deliberate push for more universality, most notably in the form of universal human rights and international political co-operation (ideals, one has to add, that in the light of current global crises have once again shown their precarious nature, but perhaps also their indispensability). And remarkably, the push for more universalism has gathered most of its impetus from the same tragedies of modernity that seemingly delivered the irrefutable evidence against universalism. As we have witnessed in the last decade or so, the internationalist tendencies have found a new adversary in the right-wing nationalist movements that in their turn call for cultural inviolability often deploying the argument that different cultures and value systems are irredeemably incommensurable. This argument is strikingly reminiscent of postmodernist ideas of pluralism, albeit with one major difference: in setting the nation-state as its reference point it implies cultural uniformity where a postmodernist view would already recognize incommensurable diversity. All in all, what one can gather from present political and theoretical debates is that there is a massive disagreement over universalism, which not only concerns the desirability of it but the definition of the concept itself.

These tensions are the underlying motivation of Timo Miettinen’s study Husserl and the Idea of Europe. Miettinen sets out to formulate a novel understanding of universalism, which could respond to the current “general crisis of universalism” (4) without losing sight of the problems related to universalist attitudes. As Miettinen argues, a similar interest can be seen as the driving force of Edmund Husserl´s late transcendental phenomenology. For many, Husserl still represents a rigorous philosopher of science, who aimed at establishing a methodological foundation of all scientificity on an unhistorical transcendental structure of consciousness, and in this sense, his phenomenology is easy to understand as a universalist undertaking. But Miettinen shows that as Husserl delved ever deeper into the constitution problematic, the simple image of a self-sufficient transcendental structure had to make way for a more complex and nuanced account of situatedness of all human experience, which at the same time called for a radical rethinking of the concept of universalism. The necessary situatedness of experience is, in fact, reflected already in the title of Miettinen’s book. If the book is ultimately about universalism, one might ask, why not call it “Husserl and the idea of universalism”? First of all, Husserl regarded Europe as the broad cultural space where a special kind of universalist culture was established and developed – a culture of theoretical thought, to which he felt obliged as its critical reformer. In this sense, for Husserl, the idea of Europe is the idea of universalism. But the point is more subtle than that: by omitting the notion of universalism from its title the book implies that what follows has European culture as its starting point and as its inescapable horizon. In other words, what is promoted from the very first page onward, is an idea of universalism that constantly reflects on its own situatedness. “To acknowledge Europe as our starting point,” as Miettinen notes later in the book, “means that we take responsibility for our tradition, our own preconceptions.” (133–134).

In keeping with the idea of situatedness, the first part of the book deals with the historical context in which Husserl was developing new ideas that came to be associated with his late transcendental phenomenology. Like many intellectuals of the early 20th century, Husserl interpreted the present time in terms of a general crisis. Even though a “crisis-consciousness” was sweeping Europe at that time, there was no common understanding as to what was the exact nature or the root cause of the present crisis and what conclusions should be drawn from it. This indeterminacy was, in fact, part of its success, for it made the notion viable in different political and philosophical settings. Nevertheless, some common features of the crisis discourse can be delineated, as Miettinen demonstrates. First of all, the idea of a general crisis was not used in a descriptive context, but rather it “was now conceived as a performative act. For the philosophers, intellectuals, and political reformists of the early 20th century, crisis not only signified a certain state of exception, but was also fervently used as an imperative to react, as a demand to take exceptional measures” (27). By the same token, the idea of a crisis was not solely seen in a negative light but at times – as was especially the case with the First World War in its early days – greeted with enthusiastic hope. There was also a certain depth of meaning attached to the crisis. For example, the war wasn’t interpreted as an outcome of some current historical or political development but rather as a “sign” or a “symptom” of “something that essentially belonged to the notion of modernity itself, as a latent disease whose origin was to be discovered through historical reflection” (31).

The need for a historical reassessment of modernity’s past already points to the question, which Miettinen singles out as the most crucial for Husserl’s considerations. Some notable intellectuals of the time viewed the ongoing crisis as evidence that fundamental ideas of modernity, which up to that point had laid claims to universality, had shown themselves to be finite and relative. For instance, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West conceived the development of different world-historical cultures in terms of an ever-repeating lifecycle analogous to that of living organisms and implied that the current crisis was a natural end stage, “the death-struggle” of the western culture: “This struggle was something that all cultures descend into by necessity without the possibility of prevailing through a voluntaristic renewal” (33). In addition, Spengler perceived every culture to have a radically distinct worldview incommensurable with others and encompassing spheres that many would consider as universal, for example, mathematics. While Spengler went to extreme lengths, he was by no means alone in promoting a cultural relativist view. From the early nineteenth century onward a tradition of “historicism,” as it came to be known, had established itself and by the early 20th century it was mainly seen as an idea of radical historical relativism, “that all knowledge is historically determined, and that there is no way to overcome the contingencies of a certain historical period” (38).

According to Miettinen, Husserl had a twofold attitude towards the crisis discourse. In relation to the present-day debates he characterized his own position as that of a “reactionary,”but this did not stop the discourse from having an impact on his thinking. Yet, as Miettinen points out, the impact of popular debates on Husserl’s phenomenology should not be exaggerated either, since the idea of a crisis can be seen at least in two important ways “as a kind of leading clue for Husserl’s whole philosophical project” (45). Already Husserl’s critique of the objectivist attitude in natural sciences can be interpreted this way. For Husserl, the crisis of the western rationalism was linked to the “radical forgetfulness” regarding the experiential origin of its abstractions. In other words, the modern scientific attitude, just like the “natural attitude” of our every-day-life, takes the objective existence of the world for granted without reflecting the activity of meaning constitution, which makes such an “objectivity” possible in the first place. Although this “transcendental naïveté” is already present in the prescientific domain of the natural attitude and hence an unavoidable feature of human experience in general, for Husserl the real reason behind the present crisis was to be found in the triumphant natural scientific attitude of the nineteenth and 20th centuries, which not only forgot but actively attacked the other side of the transcendental relation, the notion of human subjectivity as the domain of self-responsibility and rationality.

On the other hand, however, the possibility of a positive interpretation of crisis was also built into the basic structure of phenomenology: For Husserl, self-responsible theories and cognitions should be ultimately founded on experiential evidence, on the “originary givenness” of the content of consciousness. But if our way of relating to the world nevertheless tends to “habituate” past experience and forget originary givenness, it follows that our judgments need to be constantly led back to the immediate intuitive evidence. If judgments then happen to reveal themselves as unfounded, a crisis ensues: “From the perspective of acquired beliefs, judgments, and values, a crisis signifies a loss of evidence, a situation in which our convictions have lost their intuitive foundation” (49). At this point the underlying argument of the whole book begins to shine through. Husserl saw the crisis as a possibility of cultural renewal, which called for a self-responsible, i.e. self-critical attitude towards values, convictions, and beliefs. The idea of renewal opposes “false objectivity” by reinstating the relation between genuine human agency and objectivity. But most of all it combats the passivity and fatalism inherent in theories of radical cultural relativity and finitude endorsed by the likes of Spengler. Husserl argued that even though cultural limits must always be considered in self-critical assessments of one’s own situation, these limits are not set in stone but redefinable through self-responsible, self-critical human agency.

In summary, the first part of Miettinen’s book gives an account of Husserl that seeks a balance between cultural situatedness (crisis as “crisis-consciousness”) and inherent logical development of phenomenology (crisis as an overarching theme in Husserl’s project in general). The contextualization does offer an interesting perspective on Husserl’s late phenomenology by drawing comparisons between some main features of the crisis discourse and Husserl’s thoughts. But there is still a certain one-sidedness to the narrative. Miettinen follows the general crisis discourse only up to the point where it becomes possible to distinguish Husserl’s reflections on the crisis, which, as we saw, concentrated amongst other things on the issue of “false objectivism.” However, false objectivism was not an exclusively Husserlian idea, but rather one of the most central themes of the intellectual debate of the early 20th century, and, in fact, of the crisis discourse itself. It was, after all, the problem of objective spirit assuming an independent existence from subjective spirit, which constituted for Georg Simmel “the tragedy of culture” (see Simmel 1919). And it was the issue of reification, which Georg Lukács situated at the core of his History and Class-Consciousness. For Lukács, one of the most disadvantageous effects of the capitalist society was the emergence of a contemplative attitude, which takes the surrounding world as an objectivity that has no intrinsic connection with the subject – a very similar strain of passivity that Husserl was opposing. (See e.g. Honneth 2015, 20–29). One is compelled to ask, then, whether a more thorough comparison of Husserl’s ideas with those of his contemporaries could have shed some new light on the historical situatedness of phenomenology itself.

Even though Husserl did not accept the thesis of radical cultural relativism, he had to reevaluate the role of situatedness in the phenomenological problem of constitution. The second part of Miettinen’s study gives a concise overview on topics related to these questions. First, Husserl became exceedingly aware that acts of meaning-constitution have their own historicity, that they are made possible by prior achievements. The domain of “static phenomenology” needed to be complemented with “genetic phenomenology,” which was to concern itself with descriptions of “how certain intentional relations and forms of experience emerge on the basis of others,” or more broadly “what kinds of attitudes, experiences, or ideas make possible the emergence of others” (62). This opened a set of phenomena that Husserl addressed with a whole host of new concepts. Miettinen manages to introduce this terminology remarkably well by giving concise yet intuitive characterizations that make the general point of genetic phenomenology come across. A reader only superficially acquainted with phenomenology might still take exception to the fact that there are hardly any practical examples of these abstract concepts, and when there are, some of them seem unnecessarily complicated. Take, for instance, the illustration of the term “sedimentation,” which, as Miettinen explains, “refers to the stratification of meaning or individual acts that takes place over the course of time” (64). However, he illustrates this by referring to development of motor skills in early childhood: “children often learn to walk by first acquiring the necessary gross motor skills by crawling and standing against objects. These abilities, in their turn, are enabled by a series of kinesthetic and proprioceptic faculties (the sense of balance, muscle memory, etc.)” (64). As much as acquiring new skills on the basis of prior ones has to do with sedimentation, the emphasis on abstract motor skills leads to a set of problems concerning the complicated topics of “embodiment” and “kinesthesia,” which are quite unrelated to the questions that Miettinen is principally addressing.

Nevertheless, Miettinen describes comprehensibly how questions related to genetic phenomenology led Husserl ever deeper into questions of historicity and cultural situatedness. As the phenomenological problematic expanded to encompass the genesis of meaning-constitution, the notion of transcendental subjectivity had to undergo a parallel conceptual broadening. The abstract transcendental ego made way for a more concrete and historical account of the transcendental person: “We do not merely ‘live through’ individual acts, but these acts have the tendency to create lasting tendencies, patterns, and intentions that have constitutive significance” (64–65). In other words, the transcendental person evolves through habituating certain ways of experiencing that, once internalized, work as the taken-for-granted basis for new experiences. But Husserl’s inquiry to the historical prerequisites of meaning constitution did not stop there either. What becomes habitual to a transcendental person, goes beyond the historicity of the person itself, for the genesis is not a solipsistic process but an interpersonal and intergenerational one, where ways of meaning constitution are “passed forward.” Husserl’s umbrella term for problems of this kind was “generativity.” As Miettinen points out, it was the notion of generativity that really opened up a genuine historical dimension in Husserl’s phenomenology, with far-reaching consequences: “Becoming a part of a human community that transcends my finite being means that we are swept into this complex process of tradition precisely in the form of the ‘passing forward’ (Lat. tradere) of sense: we find ourselves in a specific historical situation defined by a nexus of cultural objectivities and practices, and social and political institutions” (68–69).

In this way, generativity points to another turning point in the problem of constitution, the constitution of social world through intersubjectivity. Unlike natural or cultural objects, other subjects are given to me as entities that “carry within themselves a personal world of experience to which I have no direct access” (72). This “alien experience” nevertheless refers to a common world and in doing so “plays a crucial role in my personal world-constitution” (72). That is to say: the meaning of a shared and objective validity is bestowed on my world only in relation to other world-constituting subjects. The lifeworld, which is constituted as the common horizon of intersubjective relations, acquires “its particular sense through an encounter with the other” (75). It is easy to see what Miettinen is driving at: if a lifeworld emerges in intersubjective relations, then it is not only in a constant state of historical change but also, especially in the case of an encounter with an alien tradition, open for active redefinition and renewal. However, this renewal cannot just be a matter of transgressing the boundaries between different traditions, as Miettinen makes clear by pointing to the constitutive value of the division between “homeworld” (i.e. the domain of familiarity or shared culture), and “alienworld” (the unintelligible and unfamiliar “outside”). According to Husserl this division belongs to the fundamental structure of every lifeworld, and in a sense, the homeworld acquires its individual uniqueness, its intelligibility and familiarity only in relation to its alien counterpart. It follows, that if the distinction between the home and the alien were to be destroyed through one-sided transgression, the experience of an intersubjectively constituted, shared cultural horizon of meaning would vanish with it, or, as Miettinen sums it up: “In a world without traditions, we would be simply homeless” (78).

This poses a question: if a tradition by necessity has its horizon, i.e. its limits, which cannot be simply transgressed without losing the sense of home altogether, how is universalism thinkable? The third part of Miettinen’s study suggests that Husserl’s generative interpretation of the origins of European theoretical tradition provides the answer to this question. Miettinen gives a manifold and nuanced account of the historical origins of Greek philosophy and of Husserl’s interpretations thereof. Obviously, this account cannot be repeated here in its entirety; an overview of such defining features that point directly to the underlying problematic of universalism will have to suffice.

In this regard the key argument of Husserl, which Miettinen accordingly emphasizes, is that philosophy itself is a generative phenomenon. What makes this idea so striking, is the fact that for Husserl philosophy denoted a “scientific-theoretical attitude,” which takes distance from immediate practical interests, views the world from a perspective of a “disinterested spectator,” and in so doing seeks to disclose the universal world behind all particular homeworlds. However, according to Husserl, even such a theoretical attitude emerged in a specific cultural situation, namely in the Greek city-states, which, as Miettinen points out, were at that time in a state of rapid economic development that called for closer commercial ties between different cultures: “Close interaction between different city-states created a new sensitivity toward different traditions and their beliefs and practices” (95). The encounters did not lead to a loss of the home-alien-division but to a heightened sense of relativity of traditions, which in turn promoted a theoretical interest in universality and a self-reflective attitude towards the horizon of one’s own homeworld: “Through the encounter of particular traditions, no single tradition could acquire for itself the status of being an absolute foundation – the lifeworld could no longer be identified with a particular homeworld and its conceptuality” (97).

Another important generative aspect of this development was the emerging new ideals of social interaction. The Greek philosophy gave birth to an idea of “universal community,” which, at least in principle, disregarded ethnic, cultural, and political divisions and was open to all of those who were willing to partake in free philosophical critique of particular traditions and striving toward a universal and shared world. Moreover, the emerging theoretical thought organized itself as a tradition of sorts, as an intergenerational undertaking that was aware of its generativity. Miettinen avoids calling this new form of culture “tradition,” for it “did not simply replace the traditionality of the pre-philosophical world by instituting a new tradition; rather, it replaced the very idea of traditionality with teleological directedness, or with a new ‘teleological sense’ (Zwecksinn) which remains fundamentally identical despite historical variation.” (111) This unifying idea of an infinite task meant that what was ultimately passed forward from generation to generation, was not some predetermined custom, ritual or even a doctrine but a common intergenerational commitment to the task itself. In other words, the theories of earlier philosophers were in principle open for criticism and had to be assessed always anew in relation to the shared goal of universality. Philosophy was generative also in the sense that it didn’t cast the world of practical interests aside, but rather called for a new kind of rational attitude towards it. Philosophy understood its own domain of interest in terms of universal ideals and norms, which were ultimately to be made use of in the practical sphere of life as well. As philosophical ideals came into contact with practical life, for example with political or religious practice, they changed the surrounding culture itself. As Miettinen puts it, “politics and religion themselves became philosophical: they acquired a new sense in accordance with the infinite task of philosophy” (114).

As stated, Miettinen offers a detailed discussion of Husserl’s views on the origins of European universalism, which, among other things, acknowledges that Husserl’s interpretations of classical Greek philosophy and culture are heavily influenced by his own philosophical ideals. Miettinen’s portrayal does suffer a bit from the multiperspectivity implicit in the subject matter itself. It is not always clear, which parts are meant as presentations of genuine Greek philosophy, which as Husserl’s idealistic interpretations, and which as Miettinen’s own contributions. But the main idea is still quite clear: Husserl interpreted European history from classical Greek culture all the way to his own time in terms of an infinite task that consists first and foremost in critically reflecting and relativizing traditional horizons of meaning constitution. The intergenerational collectivity unified by this task subjects its own accomplishments to the same criticism and strives through infinite renewal towards a universal world behind all traditional homeworlds, towards the “horizon of horizons” (75), as Miettinen calls it with reference to Merleau-Ponty. As the formulation “horizon of horizons” implies, the point of this universalism is not to destroy or occupy but to make the universal lifeworld visible, of which particular traditions, particular homeworlds are perspectives. This is the understanding of universality that Miettinen wants to bring to the contemporary theoretical and political discussions.

But if Husserl conceived the whole of European history within the framework of one massive idealistic undertaking, it seems that Husserl’s understanding of history and historicity amounts to nothing more than a new version of the age-old teleological model, which interprets – and simultaneously legitimizes – historical events as part of a monolithic and predetermined process. In other words, maybe Husserl’s generative interpretation is just another “grand narrative.” In part 4 of his study, Miettinen offers a twofold argument against this assumption. First, Husserl did not understand his teleological model as one that ought to correspond with empirical reality, but rather as Dichtung, as “a poetic act of creation” (145), which has its relevance only in relation to the present situation. Second, Miettinen argues in reference to Marx and Engels that narratives are necessary in criticism of ideologies, for “[i]t is the common feature of dominating ideologies that they seek to do away with their own genesis, for instance by concealing the historical forms of violence and oppression that led to the present. For this reason, historical narratives are needed in order to criticize the seeming naturality of the present moment – in order to show its dependency and relativity in regard to the past” (139). This idea is perfectly in tune with the Husserlian problem of constitution in general and it reinforces the critique of “false objectivism” and the call for self-responsible human agency at the core of Husserl’s late phenomenology. In other words, his notion of teleology should be understood as a critical tool for understanding the finitude of the present and the possibility of going beyond it, or as Miettinen succinctly puts it: “Teleological reflection is crucial, because we are ‘not yet’ at the end of history, or, more precisely: because we constantly think we are” (144).

While this argument is compelling, it still seems to neglect one important aspect in the complicated relationship between ideology and narrative. Not all ideologies are aimed at legitimizing the present as a natural order; on the contrary, some rely on a narrative structure that depicts the current state of affairs as a fall from grace and shows the way out by defining clear-cut ideals to realize. Instead of serving the purpose of legitimizing the present and making subjects passively accept the alleged naturality of it, ideologies of this kind, as Peter V. Zima (1999, 14–21) points out, serve to mobilize people for certain goals, to make them able to act. And precisely ideologies of this kind came under suspicion in the interwar period. As one can read from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, the ambivalence of all “grand ideas” undermines the credibility of ideologies, narrative structures, and goal-oriented agency all at once (see Ibid., 55–69). This connectedness of narrative form and ideology shouldn’t be taken too lightly in the present political climate either: the most pressing ideological challenges of Europe aren’t, as they perhaps once were, concerned with the loss of ideals in politics or in individual life, arguably facilitated by neoliberalist and postmodernist ideologies, but rather with its dialectical counterpart: the threat of ideological mobilization. The critical potentiality of Husserl’s notion of teleology doesn’t quite seem to allay the suspicions concerned with ideologies of this kind, or if it does, Miettinen doesn’t make clear how.

What obviously makes Miettinen’s study stand apart, is its unique position at the crossroads of traditional Husserl scholarship, history of ideas, and contemporary political philosophy. It not only shows how Husserl’s ideas about historicity, situatedness, and teleology emerged out of the interplay of his phenomenological endeavor and the cultural context saturated with crisis-consciousness; it also seeks to bring these ideas to fruition in the contemporary political and philosophical setting. This kind of hermeneutical approach to Husserl’s philosophy is of course to be whole-heartedly endorsed, but on the other hand, the “in between” -character of the undertaking does also raise some issues: If Miettinen wants to promote a new kind of universalism, which aims at addressing contemporary questions in a novel way, then a more thorough discussion on newer developments in philosophical and political thought might be in order. In keeping with the idea of situatedness, it would be interesting to see Miettinen seriously engaging with contemporary theories, starting perhaps with a more systematic treatment of postmodernist notions of pluralism and going all the way to ideas attributed to the so-called post-humanism, which seems to once again challenge “alien-home”-distinctions in a profound way. In order to highlight the distinct character of his ideas on relativization of horizons, communality, and normativity, he might do well to also define his relation to some contemporary “kindred spirits” (for example, Habermas comes to mind). All in all, one can look forward to Miettinen developing his theory of universalism further, and as he does, he will undoubtedly address these minor issues, too.


Honneth, Axel. 2015. Verdinglichung. Eine Anerkennungstheoretische Studie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Simmel, Georg. 1919. “Der Begriff und die Tragödie der Kultur.” In: Philosophische Kultur. Gesammelte Essais. Leipzig: Alfred Kröner, 223–253.

Zima, Peter V. 1999. Roman und Ideologie. Zur Sozialgeschichte des modernen Romans. München: Wilhelm Fink.

Paul Downes: Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur: Inclusion of the Other

Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other Book Cover Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricoeur: Inclusion of the Other
Paul Downes
Hardback £115.00

Reviewed by: Steven DeLay (Christ Church, Oxford)

The heart of the human experience is suffering. Such, at least, is Arthur Schopenhauer’s abiding thought. For Schopenhauer, in fact, our own personal suffering is just a microcosm of the whole world’s plight, which itself is, as his writings never cease trying to remind us, one characterized by brutality, cruelty, agony, despair, and ultimately death. Our situatedness in the phenomenal world (which is but the illusory shimmer of a primal Wille), he says, is that of a sailor who “sits in a small boat in a boundless raging sea, surrounded on all sides by heaving mountainous waves, trusting to his frail vessel; so does the individual man sit calmly in the middle of a world of torment, trusting the principium individuationis” (49). If the world we experience is in many ways a house of horrors, then, so Schopenhauer argues, it falls to each of us to do what he can to diminish the suffering we find in it—and how else, so he suggests, will accomplishing that be feasible except by having compassion for others? Compassion, hence, it would seem to follow, is the foundation of ethics.

As Schopenhauer says of Mitleid in On the Basis of Morality, when this “compassion is aroused, the weal and woe of another are nearest to my heart in exactly the same way, although not always in exactly the same degree, as otherwise only my own are. Hence the difference between him and me is now no longer absolute” (31). The ethical imperative to die to one’s egoism, and to thereby identify with others rather than only with oneself, however, is for Schopenhauer paradoxically infused with a thoroughgoing fatalism: just as the individual and his ego are themselves illusions, so too is free will. “The person is never free,” claims Schopenhauer, “even though it is an appearance of a free will, because it is the already determined appearance of the free willing of that will” (39). It is the search for life’s justification even in the face of its immense suffering that later drove Friedrich Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, to reflect on these matters of freedom, value, and meaning. Art consistently proves central to those resulting reflections. For on one plausible interpretation of the matter, Nietzsche’s idea that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon” that existence is justified is itself a formulation to be understood as a variation of Schopenhauer’s own pessimistic insight into the purportedly inherent pointlessness of suffering.[1] Existence requires justification precisely because it is not immediately self-justified. As for life, as the Nietzsche of the Birth of Tragedy notes, it cannot be affirmed strictly for what it is—“the truth is terrible,” after all—but rather must be tolerated by way of placative lies. On the view Nietzsche sets out during this period of his thinking, art accordingly presents us with a palatable world, a beautifully transfigured version of what is a reality otherwise too ugly to be embraced unadorned.

Many scholars have examined the numerous, fascinating connections between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on points of art, ethics, and metaphysics. Many, too, have done so with the aim of locating both figures in their shared intellectual and historical milieu. Paul Downes’s Concentric Space as a Life Principle Beyond Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur: Inclusion of the Other, does both of these things, with an eye to philosophical ambitions of its own that make the work remarkably original. Downes is not interested only in telling us what these three key post-Kantian European figures think, but, more vitally, in getting us to identify and think about the important subtleties they themselves have left unthought, or at least unsaid. For Downes, who is interested in our relation to the other in its full ethical and metaphysical complexity and richness, the correct point of departure lies, with Schopenhauer, in seeking “a basic orientation of openness” breaking with egoism (43). The task for thinking, here in turn, demands a form of inquiry that he calls a “spatial phenomenology”: an account of experiential space in all its variegation, including the peculiar spatiality of thought itself.[2] Through a series of close and constructive readings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Ricœur too (among others like Kant, Lévi-Strauss, and Heidegger to name a few), Downes undertakes a comprehensive analysis of the relation between oneself and the other, a spatial alterity ethics, as it were. As he puts it, “There is a spatial system of relations, a primordial spatial discourse pertaining to life that is embedded in the seminal works of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Ricœur —and yet overlooked by each of them” (1).

Before turning to Downes’s account of “concentric” and “diametric” spaces, it is valuable to linger over the problem of empathy, or compassion. Nietzsche’s philosophy of will to power, for instance, by rendering the picture of self-consciousness and human flourishing that it does, rejects the deeply humane perspective above for which Schopenhauer is famous. Compassion for the Übermensch is out the window, with cruelty assuming the pride of place. It is somewhat surprising that Nietzsche’s thought, which does begin by acknowledging the role of suffering in existence, nonetheless abandons compassion. How does it end in cruelty? As Downes says, to start with, Nietzsche’s view of tragedy correctly recognizes the deep pain of existence, what the latter himself terms “the eternal wound of life” (55). Dionysianism seeks relief from this primordial suffering in a countermovement of ecstasy, or rapture. And if the world of individuated consciousness is one giving rise to ineradicable suffering, this consciousness itself must be dissolved if suffering is to be vanquished. What results, Downes writes, is “a purported expansion as annihilation,” an “obliteration of boundaries” whose quest consists in the desire “for no boundaries” (54). A Nietzschean pursuit of rapture leads to the monism of the Dionysian, “a collective ritual, the fusion” of one’s diffusion of oneself “with the crowd” (55). In the end, however, this entire economy of desire only spells trouble. Its “intoxication as obliteration of self, as annihilation of boundaries,” says Downes, “whether wine-fueled or through other intoxicatory substances such as hallucinatory drugs,” risks a collapse of self. An assessment of this economy invites the question of what mediating pathways explain the passage from this collapse of identity in the early Nietzsche’s Dionysian, on the one hand, to the subsequent cruelty of the Dionysian in the later Nietzsche, on the other hand, a cruelty including eventually even the lust to inflict it. The desire to expand (or at least this mode of expansion: the dilatio explicated by Jean-Louis Chrétien, for one, is not the same), to be powerful, to ever grow beyond one’s current limits, eventually in Nietzsche’s thinking transforms into the satanic desire to inflict suffering on others, to dominate and control them. As Downes notes, following Károly Kerényi, whoever travels this road ends up psychologically mimicking the cruelty of the sacrificial Dionysian rite in which the victim “was first boiled and then roasted” (95).

According to Nietzsche himself, “cruelty constituted the great joy and delight of ancient man” (109). In turn, as Downes puts it, “joy becomes a celebration of cruelty” (Ibid.). Now as anyone familiar with what Nietzsche says can attest, nothing about such cruelty is said by him to be ethically censurable. After all, the fact that, ordinarily, cruelty is something condemned while compassion is praised is only so, maintains Nietzsche, because of the “slave morality” from which the moral categories of good and evil themselves originated, a moral and psychological economy that his account of will to power presumes itself to have dismantled. But Downes detects a problem waiting to surface. For even if it is possible to overlook the fact that Nietzsche’s characterization of “blissful annihilation” is perhaps just an unwitting variation of the very same pessimistic impulse behind Schopenhauer’s “ascetic negation of the will” that he wishes to reject (43), it still remains the case that, for Nietzsche, “hell is not so much other people as connection with other people” (100). Ultimately, this urge for domineering isolation, which is mobilized in pursuit of self-gratification, undermines itself, for it never finds the satisfaction it is seeking. The Nietzschean impulse to flee from connection (100), to dash the bonds of our ordinary ethical relations and the Apollonian mode of self-consciousness underpinning those relations, culminates in a lust for power that replicates, in the form of a straightforward inversion, the two original terms of the ethical relation it sought to overcome. Where before one was encouraged to have compassion for another’s suffering, now one instead takes delight in inflicting it. At times, Nietzsche appears to attempt to defend this mode of existence by emphasizing that this is simply the way of the world, that “all happening in the organic world consists of overpowering and dominating” (89). As Downes explains, the will to power, which was said to originate as a life principle, instead becomes a will to death, one that accordingly “finds infliction of pain and suffering ‘magical’” (90), so much that the “actual infliction of suffering is elevated into being an end of itself” (Ibid.). The “fundamental monism” recounted in the Birth of Tragedy’s account of an “unmediated life will in music,” a surpassing of the ordinary boundaries of the Apollonian principium individuationis (107), ultimately elevates the psychology of “Dionysian sacrifices” (94) to a “wider cosmological principle” (93), thereby justifying psychological hate and destruction. One here might naturally call to mind Freud, whom Downes does: “Freud’s account of ritual” as an “obsessional neurosis” rooted in the “compulsion to repeat” (97), and which gives expression to a death drive, seems a plausible explanation for the psychology of the one who comes to be dominated by his compulsive desire to dominate others. What began as the attempted liberation from the cultural construction of good and evil leads to little more than an insatiable, self-destructive sadism. “Why,” for example, Nietzsche asks, “is knowledge … linked to pleasure? First and foremost, because by it we gain awareness of our power … any new knowledge … makes us feel superior to everyone” (90). Perhaps Nietzsche really just is more perceptive and honest than the rest of us, when he claims to identify the desire to know as one whose end consists in the satisfying pleasure of feeling superior to others who don’t know what we do. Some people, I suppose, may well desire to know for that reason. But everyone always?

This stated diagnosis of what motivates our desire to know raises a deeper question of whether knowledge itself is even possible at all, a skeptical worry that for its own part leads to further questions concerning the nature of the experienced world and the nature of reality as such. For Schopenhauer, for example, who basically grants the Kantian division between the world in itself and the world of appearance, there is a sense in which any human discursive knowledge is illusory. From this radically Kantian perspective, the spatiotemporal world of individuated entities is itself a deformation of the real—whatever it may be. In a move that will anticipate the work’s subsequent treatment of Ricœur, Downes observes that, in the wake of “the linguistic turn” associated with structuralism, realism goes by the wayside. The structuralist commitment to the “primacy of language” leaves us with conceptual schemes, and that is all. As an heir to Kantianism, such an approach denies that we have access to things as they are in themselves. Here in response to the linguistic idealist, Downes like Claude Romano holds that there is a domain of meaning more fundamental than that which is shaped and structured by language or concepts. It is, he says, “a language of space that is itself prior to language—a spatial protolanguage or discourse” (7). Or more precisely still, “Space is a precondition for language; language is not a precondition for space. Space is itself a system, a system of meaningful relations through the contrasts between diametric and concentric spaces” (156). This space is experientially prior to anything language is able to mediate or structure. To begin bringing into focus what Downes wishes us to see, to see what he means by this spatiality, it is important to recognize that the relevant notion of space is not Cartesian. Descartes’s notion of empty space, a geometrically extended field for scientific abstraction, is not what is at issue (6). Nor is the conception of space at issue Kantian either, for it is not “a transcendental condition as a necessity for thought” (7). Initially, Downes explains what such space is by characterizing both concentric and diametric space in terms of what they are not:

“[Concentric and diametric spaces] are not to be reduced simply to a flawed appeal to the ‘natural’ […] Life is not being treated as a substance, it not ousia as presence but as a relation, a relational space as a directional movement and tension” (9).

“Concentric space is not being postulated as an ancient primordial experience to be re-enacted. Concentric space is not a nostalgia for the premodern or for some period of history lost in the mists of time; it is a current, ongoing experiential possibility [concentric and diametric spaces] are not mere categories, static forms, collections of sterile classifications, schemes or cognitions corresponding to particular ideas, life goals or world views. Rather they are proposed as being prior framing conditions for understanding as projections of primordial experience structured through these spaces—and as such these spaces are not monoperspectival exhortations, but rather conditions for a vast plurality of perspectives to grow and thrive” (11).

“Primordial here is not being invoked in terms of some ancient prehistory. The spatial dimension is proposed as ontologically prior and primordial as a more fundamental truth or experience; a direction of unity for experience; a truth and experience prior to socially constructed realities; a cross-cultural truth; being beyond the limited schema of causal explanations” (27).

Alternatively, sometimes he offers a description of these spaces in positive terms:

“Moving space is the breath of thought” (6).

“Spatial breath is the pulse of thought, not a denial of spatial breath in the inert space of monism. Space is indelibly interactive and immanent in thought” (Ibid.).

“Diametric spatial structure is one where a circle is split in half by a line that is its diameter or where a square or rectangle is similarly dived into two equal halves” (17).

“In a concentric spatial structure, one circle is inscribed in another larger circle; in pure form, the circles share a common central point” (Ibid.).

“A concentric spatial relation is a structure of inclusion compared to diametric spatial structure of exclusion” (20).

“These spaces are being examined as fundamentally directions of movement rather than to be treated as simply static structures” (21).

“They are precognitive framing spaces and are prior to metaphor” (24).

Returning to Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s handling of compassion and cruelty shows how these issues are to be understood in terms of Downes’s spatial phenomenology. From this perspective, Nietzsche is “locked into a diametric spatial understanding” (12). In at least two senses. To begin with, diametric space is oppositional, sometimes exclusionary to the point that one of its binaries cuts off all contact with its opposite term. Taken in an ethical register, to say that Nietzsche’s Dionysian account of self-understanding is underwritten by diametric space is just to say, whatever else it also means, that the self excludes the other. The self who is locked in diametric space lacks compassion and empathy for the other: precisely what Nietzsche himself extols when he valorizes cruelty. Furthermore, there is the second sense to this diametric spatial understanding, one which concerns the thought itself responsible for attempting to conceptualize the ethical relation. Here again, Nietzsche’s thinking is itself diametric: in struggling to subvert the ordinary terms of good and evil, he ends up re-instantiating binaries, either to prioritize one of the original terms over the other, or else to introduce a new dyad in substitution for the original pairing. Thus, according to Downes, “the more [Nietzsche] seeks to break away from the diametric spaces underpinning this, the more he is locked within them in different forms” (86).

Hence, “Inclusion of the Other” requires a “concentric spatial relation” (2). And here again, in both of the two senses established above. Because the “exclusion process in the us/them projection rests on a diametric binary opposition” (2), it will be necessary to overcome this binary in a way that allows the self and other to exist harmoniously, rather than as adversaries. Schopenhauer’s own position can be explained in terms of the spatial terms that frame it: just as compassion “internalises the other as an extension of the self” (33), so here a concentric spatial relation “is not an obliteration of self but a moistening of boundaries between self and other as a governing precondition for compassion” (37). Such a concentric relation depends on an assumed connection rather than an assumed separation (32). Nietzsche’s will to power, as Nietzsche himself says, is a process of expansion, which is seen to be spatial: “Its object thereby is the incorporation of new ‘experiences’ … growth; or more properly, the feeling of growth, the feeling of increased power—is its object” (84).[3] This process, however, as we have seen, is haunted by its inherently egoistic topos, what in turn erects a “thick partition” (37) between oneself and the other. It could be argued that Nietzsche’s account of the Dionysian possesses sufficient conceptual resources to overcome this “diametric oppositional spatial split between self and other, where the individual internalizes the other with stark divisive boundaries of a diametric dualistic spatial relation” (41-42). After all, is not the point about such Dionysian self-consciousness that it entails a sort of orgiastic, monistic fusion, whereby boundaries between oneself and others are dissolved? Downes acknowledges that the Nietzschean position could be initially construed as embodying a form of concentric space, insofar as it articulates a connective notion of “monistic fusion as unity” (43). But, as Downes notes, there is a difference between “destruction and dissolving generally” (37). Nietzsche’s account proposes a dissolution of ordinary self-consciousness so extreme, that, despite overcoming a form of the ordinary oppositional split characteristic of diametric space, it nevertheless fails as an ethical solution to the problem of egoism. It lapses into the annihilation of self. This form of monistic connective space does not make room for the inclusion of the other, then, because there remains no individuated self capable of exercising the recognition necessary to welcome that other. This, it should be noted, is one of the main troubles with crowd psychology and mob mentality, which absorb the individual into a mindless monism. If I am to identify successfully with your pain and so empathize with you, I must so exist as an individual. Nietzsche’s Dionysianism, which refers to “drunkenness and mystical self-abandonment, Dionysian festivities,” and which bring “an effusive transgression of the sexual order,” and with that the “annihilation of the usual limits and borders of existence” (133-34), may escape the diametric separation of Apollonian self-consciousness, but it ushers in an ethical void.[4]

In fact, the Apollonian and Dionysian, Downes writes, “is a response to experience of an existential void” (74), what Nietzsche himself identifies in On the Genealogy of Morals as the suffering incurred “‘from the problem of [finding one’s] own meaning’” (74). On the subject of the void—or the “nothing,” one might say—it is Heidegger whom Downes discusses most extensively. But it is a different aspect of Downes’s engagement with Heidegger that I would like to highlight instead. In the spirit of Being and Time’s existential analytic, might not one claim, with Heidegger, that the entire problem of the relation between self and other has heretofore been misconstrued? While the spatial phenomenology on offer does well to have highlighted how experiential space is not Cartesian (or even Kantian), has it not, so the argument continues, failed to eliminate perhaps another classic residue of Cartesianism, the vision of intersubjectivity that envisions self and the other as essentially disconnected? Put differently, is to characterize compassion as an achievement, as Schopenhauer does, to overlook the deeper ontological bond between oneself and another? As Heidegger famously claims when explaining why traditional skepticism about the “external world” and other minds is misplaced, Dasein is Mitsein, a being for whom its mode of being always already includes others being with and alongside oneself. The other, thus, “is in some way a dimension of the primordial structures of self” (174). This Heideggerian line of objection will resurface down the page, when turning to Downes’s treatment of Ricœur’s use of metaphor.

As for the failure of Nietzsche’s account of the relation with the other to reach any satisfying ethical solution, this is so, as Downes says, in part due to the fact that, trapped in one’s egoism, the individual who rejects compassion in the name of will to power thereby confines himself to the “dungeon of diametric space [operating] as a sealed compartment” (87).[5] Understandably, we want to say this is bad, and for many reasons. But does a spatial phenomenology allow us to reject such egoism on genuinely ethical grounds? In considering this question, I want to mention a potential tension that emerges in Downes’s view. When, for instance, it is written in the book’s introduction that a spatial phenomenology “is paving the way for a question of wellbeing for all people” (11), the thought naturally arises: precisely what view of man is at issue here? How are we to understand the notion of wellbeing, what is our measure of good in doing so? On the one hand, the work’s language appears to endorse a full-blown realism about human nature when remarking that space is “a truth and experience prior to socially constructed realities; a cross-cultural truth” (27). On the other hand, sometimes the language suggests something less universal but pluralistic or even relativistic: “these spaces are not monoperspectival exhortations, but rather conditions for a vast plurality of perspectives to grow and thrive” (11). The tension between these statements is most evident, as just mentioned, I think, when focusing specifically on Nietzsche’s own metaethical critique of good and evil. Sometimes, Downes appears to endorse Nietzsche’s rejection of the claim that there is any absolute notion of good and evil worth preserving: “Nietzsche challenges the good-evil diametric opposition and is aware of the need to seek a more fundamental understanding” (108). A similar point seems to be made when criticizing oversimplistic binaries, including, evidently, that again of the one between good and evil: “Nietzsche perceives the limitations of the diametric oppositions, good-evil, pleasure-pain and seeks to overcome them for a purportedly more fundamental level of reality and experience” (111). And the apparent historicity of values—including morals—is stated explicitly two pages later: “Morals derive from emotions and experience, thus a shift in experiential habits can bring a transformation of values” (113). On one reading, it appears that Downes wants to reject Nietzsche’s diametric spatial account of the relation between self and other in order to retain the ethical importance of compassion, but I wonder whether compassion’s value can be truly affirmed without also endorsing the kind of metaethical realism from which Downes’s spatial phenomenology seems to decouple itself. When Nietzsche says, “Who is really evil according to the meaning of the morality of resentment? … just the good man of the other morality, just the aristocrat, the powerful one, the one who rules, but who is distorted by the venomous eye of resentfulness” (85), I think those of us who see the value of compassion are inclined to condemn Nietzsche’s exaltation of power and cruelty as not simply being mistaken in just any sense, but as wrong morally. I am not sure how an analysis of compassion in strictly spatial terms will accommodate that judgment. It is also worth mentioning in this same context that despite “the death of God” being a central lodestar for Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Ricœur, Downes does not explicitly say anything about the issue. Addressing this theological horizon of their thinking would perhaps be one way of also addressing the metaethical questions to which spatial phenomenology’s account of compassion and alterity ethics gives rise.

It is, I think, to this task that the the work’s third figure, Ricœur, is meant to answer. Just as with Ricœur himself who takes Husserl’s side against structuralism by denying the primacy of language, so too Downes holds that there are “structures of relation prior to metaphor” (146). Because concentric space operates “at a preconceptual, precognitive, prerepresentational framing level” (58), there is room for the establishment of an ethical relation prior to the interference of power-relations or any of the other potential complications attending language and tradition. A truly empathetic face-to-face encounter with the other is possible. Against the “monistic tendency” (63) of Nietzsche and the pessimism of Schopenhauer, Ricœur sets out a conception of alterity ethics that is capable of grounding a constructive dialogical exchange, a true sharing of views and perspectives in good faith, one that is in principle oriented by the ideals of truth, reason, and justice, rather than manipulation, power, and oppression. The trick, in short, says Downes, is to appreciate with Ricœur that a “concentric relation allows for distinction and difference that does not have to lead to opposition” (147). Here, Ricœureaen metaphor is to be understood as a spatial “precondition or prior system of relations to language interacting with language” (145), opening onto, as Husserl and Romano each say, “an autonomous system of meaning and relations” before language (146), and that accordingly invites us to “seek[] structures of being” (Ibid.). To return to Heidegger again (and the language of his phenomenological ontology), what is at stake in a work such as Basic Problems of Phenomenology, for example, is an “interrogation of the copula” (146), an inquiry entailing the recognition of a “domain of truth prior to [the] apophantic judgment of Aristotle” (163). Spatial phenomenology is an heir to that sort of effort.

In a theme which recurs throughout the work, Downes claims that whatever the analysis of experience happens to be on offer (whether from Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Heidegger), it fails to prioritize space in favor of something else. The most obvious example of this tendency to downplay space would be in Heidegger’s own prioritization of temporality. One response to this subordination of space, it might be suggested, would be instead to adopt a hybrid approach: one that, for example, synthesizes the role of space and time in structuring experience and thought. In a word, why not see place—rather than just space or time—as the fundamental structure of experience? Downes acknowledges this position explicitly (Jeff Malpas’s work on place is discussed) but ultimately rejects the claim that place is prior to space—such an approach, he says, “[collapses] the subtlety of space into mere place” (162). I cannot adjudicate this important debate, nor the related question of how concentric and diametric spaces relate to one another, adequately here, so I must simply note it in passing.

To conclude, it should be said that some readers may be frustrated with Downes’s dense formulations that require multiple readings. What he means is not always immediately clear. But that, I don’t think, is because what Downes is saying is inherently muddled, but rather because we are today too often superficial, inattentive, and distracted readers, so we are less and less accustomed to authentically thinking as we’re reading. It can be disorienting and unsettling to encounter a text that expects serious effort from us. This, maybe, is I think part of what makes Downes’s book enjoyably challenging. In a time when the space of discourse is increasingly less a space of reasons, a work as this, sensitive and subtle and deeply humane, is a thoughtful refuge from the shrill and shallow, one that repays the attention we provide it.


[1] For one excellent statement to this effect, see Julian Young, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art (CUP, 1992).

[2] This question will not be foreign to those familiar with analytic phenomenology, for which the phenomenality of thought has been a topic of attention for some time. See Charles Siewert, The Significance of Consciousness (Princeton, 1998) and David Pitt, The Quality of Thought (OUP, in progress).

[3] Downes, quite accurately, summarizes the nonconformist psychology typifying the one who sincerely rejects the morality of “the herd,” thereby hovering above and beyond good and evil. Such an individual’s concern, says Downes, “is to challenge flattened notions of comfort and security underpinning some conceptions of wellbeing, while he quests for an experiential intensity connected with risk and danger of destruction of self” (110). As a sociological observation, it bears noting that recent events surrounding Covid-19 have revealed something of an irony, that many of those in our universities who self-avowedly claim to live as Nietzschean “free spirits” have themselves instead embraced the logic of “safety and security,” and quickly succumbed to mass panic and hypochondria.

[4] It should be noted Downes anticipates that somebody might object to his phenomenological interpretation of the Dionysian in terms of concentric and diametric spaces by claiming that such an account is itself a quasi-Apollonian attempt to impose form on what Nietzsche treats as a formless expansive sea (76). His reply, which strikes me as correct, is that this is not an imposition of form, but rather the uncovering of “structural regularities in Nietzsche’s own habits of thought and experience” (Ibid.). The fact that the work identifies many other instances where Nietzsche’s thought exemplifies the same diametric opposition it notes in this context strengthens its position.

[5] As Downes observes, some of Nietzsche’s readers such as Walter Kaufmann have recognized the implicit binary structure of Nietzsche’s thought, noting in this context that monistic fusion and diametric closure are themselves inverted diametric images identified as power and impotence, respectively.

Gerhard Kreuch: Self-Feeling: Can Self-Consciousness be Understood as a Feeling?

Self-Feeling: Can Self-Consciousness be Understood as a Feeling? Book Cover Self-Feeling: Can Self-Consciousness be Understood as a Feeling?
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 107
Gerhard Kreuch
Hardback 83,19 €
XVII, 266

Reviewed by: Maik Niemeck (Philipps-Universität Marburg)

In Self-Feeling: Can Self-Consciousness be Understood as a Feeling?, Gerhard Kreuch offers a well-expressed theory of self-consciousness that largely builds on insights from the so-called Heidelberg School – including such authors as Manfred Frank, Dieter Henrich, and Ulrich Pothast – and from the theory of existential feelings – developed by Matthew Ratcliffe, Achim Stephan and Jan Slaby, among others. His central claim is that understanding self-consciousness as an affective phenomenon – namely as a self-feeling – helps to overcome problems that beset other prominent theoretical branches in this area of research, such as various higher-order representationalisms or theories of pre-reflective self-consciousness. Besides providing a justification for this claim, Kreuch also aims to develop a model that allows us to build a theoretical bridge between basic, non-conceptual self-consciousness and its more sophisticated forms, such as full-blown first-person thoughts about one’s own character traits or values. In addition, Kreuch explores how feelings in general can have a fundamental impact on our self-interpretations, and analyzes the conditions under which we would evaluate such interpretations and self-feelings as appropriate or misguided.

Before going into further detail, allow me to sketch the overall structure of the text. The book is divided into four parts. The first chapter provides a brief but helpful overview of various current theories of self-consciousness and the alleged challenges they face. The second chapter discusses human affectivity in general and introduces the reader to the theory of existential feelings. The third chapter brings the two fields together. Kreuch explains why the theory of existential feelings can be very useful in research on self-consciousness and how the features that these kinds of feelings apparently exhibit fit the description of pre-reflective (or as Kreuch also calls them, “same-order”) forms of self-consciousness identified in the first chapter. The fourth chapter seeks to provide an adequate description of the relationship between self-feelings and those first-person thoughts which are attempts to explore one’s own identity.

In Part I the book begins with a comparison of what Kreuch terms “Higher-Order and Same-Order Models of Self-Consciousness”. Higher-order models maintain that a mental state can only become conscious if it is represented by a numerically distinct state, whereas same-order models hold that there is no need for such higher-order representation. Kreuch’s terminology could be considered somewhat misleading since many of the theories to which he refers (such as those of Armstrong, Gennaro, Carruthers or Rosenthal) are not primarily concerned with self-consciousness but with consciousness. Of course, some of them – such as Kriegel’s and Williford’s self-representationalism – are also intended to provide an adequate account of what is nowadays known as the subjective character, or the mine-ness or me-ishness of experience, but the central purpose of introducing these ideas is to give an informative explanation of consciousness. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to talk about consciousness, since self-consciousness is, after all, also a case of consciousness. Kreuch then presents reasons for preferring a same-order view of self-consciousness over a higher-order one. Central to this decision are the various regresses and vicious-circular explanations which, according to Kreuch, beset higher-order approaches. For instance, he claims that if we assume that a mental state (A) can only become conscious or self-conscious (Kreuch shifts between these two descriptions) if it is represented by a different mental state (B), then there also needs to be yet another mental state (C), which represents B to make B conscious/self-conscious, and so forth. Moreover, Kreuch maintains that genuine self-consciousness is not just a consciousness of something that happens to be oneself, but includes an additional awareness of the identity-relation holding between oneself and the object of which one is conscious (he uses Manfred Frank’s notion of De Se Constraint to denote this condition). Yet, the crucial question is this: how can a representation ensure genuine self-consciousness (or to use different terminology, fulfill the De Se Constraint)? It seems that in order to be able to recognize a representation as a representation of myself, I already need to have some prior knowledge about myself which enables me to do this. Hence, theories which attempt to explain self-consciousness in terms of self-representation presuppose what they try to explain, or so Kreuch claims.

For this reason, Kreuch sympathizes with pre-reflective theories of self-consciousness, which share his diagnosis and argue that not all cases of self-consciousness can be self-representations. However, these theories also provide a couple of other negative characterizations, such as the idea that self-consciousness is non-objectifying and non-relational. Kreuch adopts this characterization, and states that “[s]elf-consciousness is a pre-reflective, non-relational, single-digit phenomenon. There is no duality, inner perception, representation, etc., involved. Every conscious state is in itself self-intimating” (20). I am not entirely sure what “non-objectifying” or “self-intimating” mean, but I take to be the core of this approach the claim that some instances of self-consciousness have to be understood as non-relational properties rather than as relations one entertains to oneself (such as specific propositional attitudes). However, this is not a particularly rich description of these types of self-consciousness, as Kreuch rightly stresses: “Looking closer at alternative pre-reflective theories from the Heidelberg School and Zahavi/Gallagher we saw that they suffer from the ‘ex negativo’ challenge. They focus on refuting what self-consciousness is not and give little account on what it is.” (50). This is the theoretical gap Kreuch wants to close in the remainder of his book.

In Part II, Kreuch provides a general introduction to the philosophy of emotions and an account of existential feelings. He claims that one has to investigate what he calls fundamental human affectivity to come closer to an adequate theory of self-consciousness. Fundamental affective states, according to Kreuch, include moods, background feelings, and bodily feelings. He contrasts these with short-term, object-oriented emotions such as anger or fear, on which most of the contemporary philosophical literature focuses (67). While fundamental human affectivity has been discussed occasionally in the literature on emotions (e.g. in the work of Else Voigtländer, Edith Stein, Max Scheler, Bernard Waldenfels or Antonio Damasio), until recently it has never been the focal point. Kreuch maintains that Matthew Ratcliffe’s theory of existential feelings represents the most elaborated attempt to explore this dimension of affectivity and notes that he therefore relies heavily on Ratcliffe’s prior theoretical work on these issues (73ff.). Kreuch describes existential feelings as bodily emotional states which constitute “the affective background of all our experience” (74) and “shape our space of possibilities” (76). According to Ratcliffe, as Kreuch reads him, existential feelings shape our way of being in the world and are in this sense “about the world as a whole and our relationship with it […] They constitute our way of experiencing the world as a whole. Existential feelings are not about specific objects, and neither are they a medium through which something else is experienced” (80). As such, they shape “our sense of what is possible for us. Thus, they are background orientations that structure all our experience and thought.” (82). To illustrate how these existential feelings define our “space of possibilities”, Kreuch discusses a variety of cases: “In depression, the whole world feels deprived of possibilities, nothing is worth pursuing anymore. […] Similarly, a case can be made for more usual everyday situations. Imagine you had a very hard night with your baby crying for hours. You are tired and feel weak. […] Then you go to work where you are about to give an important presentation for a committee that decides on financing your long-time planned project. Under normal circumstances you would feel a bit nervous but fairly confident about it. This time, however, everything feels harder and less doable.” (84–85).

Although I find Kreuch’s idea rather intriguing, it is not entirely clear to me in what ways these feelings are supposed to define our space of possibilities. In the quotation above, for instance, Kreuch uses the words “feels deprived of possibilities” or “nothing is worth pursuing”. These are quite different things: I can believe that almost anything is possible for me while still thinking that none of these possibilities are worth pursuing, and I can believe that I am deprived of all possibilities while having the feeling that any possibility would be better than none. Do these existential feelings make me epistemically blind to certain possibilities, while presenting others as especially salient? Or do they present with a particular valence those possibilities of which I am already aware; that is to say, as possibilities that may or may not be worth pursuing? Later on, it seems as if Kreuch has in mind something along the lines of the first characterization, when he writes: “Self-feeling shapes what appears as possible action for us, it is a sense of what we can do or cannot do. For instance, when we feel vulnerable and rejected, it is unlikely that we find ourselves capable of holding a speech in front of a large audience” (137, my emphasis). However, it would be helpful to have a more precise description at some point of exactly how these feelings work and how they shape a person’s “space of possibilities”.

In Part III of his book, Kreuch seeks to develop a theory of self-feelings to overcome the problems outlined in Part I. This section can be seen as the theoretical heart of the book. Here Kreuch claims that self-feelings are not a subclass of existential feelings and existential feelings are not specific types of self-feelings, but “[i]nstead, existential feeling and self-feeling are two aspects of the one unitary phenomenon of fundamental human affectivity. Every existential feeling is always a self-feeling, too. At the same time, every self-feeling is always an existential feeling, too.” (122). As a first step, Kreuch summarizes the essential features these self-feelings are supposed to have. They are pre-reflective, non-reducible, pre-propositional, single-digit and irrelational De Se phenomena (124). As pre-propositional mental states they do not have complete propositions as their intentional objects but they always include the possibility of full articulation in one’s overall self-narration occurring in thought and speech (131). As bodily mental states, self-feelings integrate experiences of one’s own body with a feeling of the world and they also combine bodily aspects with cognitive ones. Kreuch explains: “When you touch the tip of a pencil there are two aspects involved: You feel the changes in your finger (as part of your body), your skin and tissue is deformed by the hard pencil. At the same time, you feel the pencil, you have a feeling of this object in the world. […] The situation is similar with self-feeling. In self-feeling we feel how we find ourselves in the world. It is at the same time a ‘world-feeling’, we feel our being in touch with the world.” (135). Later on, Kreuch introduces two additional features of these self-feelings. They also include a feeling of one’s own existence and one’s individuality. By virtue of entertaining them we become aware of the fact that we exist and thereby gain somehow an awareness of how we exist as this specific individual in the world. Kreuch mentions feeling healthy or welcome as examples of this how-aspect (139).

After this in-depth discussion of the essential characteristics of self-feelings, Kreuch addresses the problems he identified with higher-order (or reflective) theories of self-consciousness in Part I. He takes the following claims as the key conclusions to be drawn from Part I: (A) “mental states must be self-intimating” (i.e. “they must be conscious by virtue of themselves”); (B) “[a]ll feelings are mental states”; and (C) “all feelings are self-intimating” (150). I am not sure whether I understand Kreuch correctly here, but (A) cannot be true unless we assume that all mental states are conscious, since self-intimation is usually considered to be sufficient for that. And because not all mental states are self-intimating, the argument is not sound and provides no justification for the proposition that all feelings are self-intimating. The argument is more likely to work if we substitute “mental states” in (A) and (B) with “conscious states”, though I am not sure that all feelings are conscious (it also depends, I suppose, on one’s preferred terminology). Later on (153), Kreuch maintains that he does not necessarily have to defend (A) as it stands and that it would be sufficient for his theory if only self-feelings were self-intimating. This, however, seems to be in tension with the assumption that something like a pre-reflective self-consciousness is a universal feature of experience. Kreuch then addresses the circularity and regress problems which, he claims, beset higher-order theories of (self-)consciousness. According to Kreuch, theories which appeal to self-feelings do not entail a regress since these feelings are conscious by virtue of intrinsic properties (or as Kreuch puts it, because they are “self-intimating”) and not because they are represented by other mental states (151).

However, he rightly questions whether his theory is able to explain self-consciousness, since it seems to rely on the rather mysterious notion of “self-intimation”, which appears to presuppose some sort of self-consciousness without specifying or explaining it any further (152). Kreuch admits that he cannot completely avoid such circularity problems but that his theory, like all same-order views, is nevertheless superior in many respects to higher-order theories of consciousness and that therefore the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. First, the theory of self-feelings at least seems to avoid the problem of regress, since a conscious state does not have to be represented by numerically distinct states. Moreover, he argues that it “is plausible that it is advantageous for creatures if their most important mental states are self-intimating and do not need an additional mechanism to become self-conscious. For example, a creature that had to undergo a lengthy and exhausting process of self-reflection in order to be able to conclude that it is hungry would be disadvantaged from a creature that had the feeling of hunger right away.” (152–153). I don’t think that this is a particularly strong argument, since it is still rather unclear what consciousness is good for, and one might even hold that an unconscious hunger is better suited to trigger an immediate reaction, as consciousness might only be present during the performance of cognitively more demanding tasks (like complex decision-making or reporting one’s hunger). Finally, Kreuch claims that higher-order theories of consciousness also fail to explain why some mental states are accompanied by meta-representations while others are not, and therefore that they presuppose something they do not explain (just as his own theory of self-feelings does). Hence, even if Kreuch’s theory might contain some explanatory black boxes, this is a feature that it shares with every other currently available theory of self-consciousness (153).

In the final major section of Part III, Kreuch explores the appropriateness conditions of the self-feelings his theory posits. According to Kreuch, we cannot be mistaken in self-feelings about our own existence but these feelings can, on the basis of a number of criteria, be more or less appropriate or inappropriate (171, 194). In order to be appropriate, self-feelings may have to be balanced, stable over time (176), open to intersubjective reasoning (174), include an awareness of their own contingency (173), need to be biologically (180) or socially effective (181) and consistent, to some extent, with the network of other mental states in which they are embedded (182). However, none of these criteria alone is sufficient or necessary for an adequate evaluation of self-feelings, since this task is highly context-sensitive and in different contexts the distinct criteria are considered to be more or less relevant (183).

The final part of the book, Part IV, provides an account of how self-feelings are connected to first-person thought. It concerns the question of how these kinds of feelings inform our thinking about ourselves and influence our understanding of our own identity. Kreuch first provides some terminological clarifications which form the basis for the claim that a theory of self-interpretation should take theoretical center stage in the philosophy of self-consciousness, rather than the epistemological considerations which are usually associated with the notion of self-knowledge. Referring to the work of Cassam, Schwitzgebel and Lawlor, Kreuch suggests that research should focus more on interpretative, self-reflective activities which are pursued to “mak[e] sense of our own individual lives and create synthesized, general narratives about who we are” (204). This is also, Kreuch maintains, the theoretical field in which the concept of self-feeling can contribute valuable insights. While our self-interpretations or self-narratives are, to a certain degree, open and are unlikely to ever end, they are not based in mere imagining and therefore require a hermeneutical foundation that provides some clues as to which direction the interpretations should take. Building on Krista Lawlor’s concept of internal promptings, Kreuch proposes that self-feelings can provide such a hermeneutical base for our self-narrative thoughts (208). Later on, Kreuch writes: “[A self-feeling] offers a direct, affective experience of one’s overall being in this world. As affective resonance of one’s individual existence it can itself function as source of evidence for self-interpretation” (215). Moreover, self-feelings do not only shape our space of possible actions, as Kreuch has argued in Part II, they also determine the way we think about ourselves: “Thus, given a particular self-feeling there are thoughts that are possible and others that are not. For example, in the case of severe depression our self-related thoughts are predominantly concerned with our insignificance and disability. We believe that we are worthless and unable to live a normal life. Thoughts like ‘Things will become better for me again’ or ‘I have strengths and skills, too’ are likely to be impossible in severe depression” (211). Hence, self-feelings guide, limit, and provide evidence for our self-interpretations.

The next major section of Part IV analyzes how the evaluation of self-feelings and self-interpretations are related to one another (217). For this purpose, Kreuch discusses four different evaluative combinations of these mental states and how we might interpret them (220). According to Kreuch, there are: 1) inappropriate self-feelings with fitting self-interpretations (e.g. depression); 2) appropriate self-feelings with non-corresponding self-interpretations; 3) inappropriate self-feelings with misguided interpretations (as in narcissistic personality disorder); and 4) appropriate self-feelings and adequate interpretations (which Kreuch calls “authenticity”). A self-interpretation is only fully appropriate (or authentic) if it somehow captures the nature of the self-feeling on the basis of which it was formed. In addition, the underlying self-feeling has to be appropriate, too. If I feel a deep sadness for no good reason and understand myself as a melancholic person, both the feeling and the interpretation seem to be misguided, even if the interpretation resembles the feeling. Or, as Kreuch ultimately puts it: “There cannot be appropriateness on the higher levels if something is wrong in the foundation” (251).

Overall, Kreuch’s Self-Feeling is an important contribution to current debates on self-consciousness and addresses pressing issues which are rarely discussed within those debates. The author succeeds in demonstrating that it is worthwhile to investigate the neglected relations holding between self-consciousness and emotions more deeply. The book provides a novel account in a tremendously complex area of research and generally presents its ideas very clearly. While Self-Feeling covers a wide range of topics and appeals to different analytical and continental traditions, one never feels lost since the author is an excellent guide throughout the book. Yet, the broad scope of the book obviously comes at the cost of more detailed discussion of particular arguments, especially those which are presented as motivations for Kreuch’s own theory. Let me offer a few examples and thereby end this review on a constructively critical note.

The regress argument, which Kreuch presents as a problem for higher-order theories of consciousness, is highly debated in the literature. The crucial claim that needs justification or has to be accepted by higher-order representationalists to get the regress going is as follows: only conscious mental states can make us conscious of the things they represent. This, however, is an assumption that most of these theorists will not accept. David Rosenthal, for instance, writes: “Nor must a HOT [Higher-Order Thought] itself be conscious to make us conscious of its target. We’re conscious of things even when we see them subliminally, though we’re not in such cases aware that we’re conscious of those things. Similarly with HOTs and their mental targets. We’re seldom aware of having HOTs, which is what we should expect” (Rosenthal 2005: 9). And even philosophers who explicitly argue against higher-order models, such as Rowlands (2001), agree that at least some types of unconscious mental states, such as perceptions, can make us conscious of things they represent. Thus, in order to provide a comprehensive justification for a critique along these lines, Kreuch would need to put a lot more work into the argument.

Similar issues apply to the circularity critique Kreuch raises against higher-order theories of consciousness (or reflective theories of self-consciousness)[1]. Kreuch writes: “The challenge is then about how should self-consciousness emerge out of a set of completely unconscious states? The only explanation seems to be that self-consciousness was implicitly already there. Otherwise it remains dark how the combination of two unconscious states should make for self-consciousness” (15). I am not sure why there is supposed to be a circular explanation here. Higher-order theories of consciousness maintain that a mental state becomes conscious in virtue of being adequately represented. The meta-representations themselves, they claim, are most often unconscious. Hence, according to these types of theories, the only thing needed for consciousness to emerge is meta-representation. And we might add that quite often when two things stand in appropriate relations (such as a representation-relation), they can gain properties (such as being conscious) that they would not have on their own. Therefore, higher-order theories at least prima facie seem to offer a non-circular explanation of (self-)consciousness and therefore more detailed discussion is required in order for this criticism to work.

Yet, as I explained earlier, Kreuch identifies another circle. According to him, any theory which understands self-consciousness merely in terms of representation presupposes other (unexplained) forms of self-consciousness, because a subject would already have to know something about itself to recognize itself as the object of representation. Kreuch concludes, therefore, that some cases of self-consciousness cannot be representations, but must be understood as non-relational properties or, as he puts it, as “single-digit phenomena”. It is not absolutely clear, I think, whether one really has to know something about oneself to entertain genuine De Se representations (or, as people say, “representations about oneself as oneself”), since we might also be able to have proper De Re representations without having any knowledge about the objects in question. And I am also not sure that we have to accept completely non-relational forms of self-consciousness in order to account for De Se representations, since even those non-representational instances of self-consciousness are supposed to be about me and my mental states and, hence, appear to exhibit some kind of directedness or intentionality. We could simply introduce some form of non-representational self-acquaintance instead. I believe that Kreuch is correct in pressing the question of how genuine De Se (or first-person) representation is possible and that this should be the focus of a theory of self-consciousness. However, it would be useful to be provided with a deeper understanding of exactly how Kreuch’s concept of a single-digit self-feeling can help answer this question.

Rosenthal, David. 2005. Consciousness and Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rowlands, Mark. 2001. “Consciousness and Higher-Order Thoughts”. Mind & Language. Vol. 16 (3): 290–310.

[1] As stated earlier, Kreuch seems to use these names interchangeably. However, it is not clear whether these notions usually denote the same types of theories in the literature, as a theory of self-consciousness may not be expected to give any hints about the conditions of consciousness in general.

Michel Foucault: Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972

Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972 Book Cover Penal Theories and Institutions: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1971-1972
Michel Foucault, Lectures at the Collège de France
Michel Foucault. Translated by Burchell, G.
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 40,65 €
XXIX, 322

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Penal Theories and Institutions contains the lectures delivered by Foucault in his second-year tenure at the College de France (1971-2). It is also the last volume of this series, concluding a publication cycle of close to twenty years. The publication of Foucault’s lectures started mid-way with the 1976 course and then proceeded sideways, preventing us from grasping the development of his thought during the last fifteen years of his life.

Foucault did not prepare his lectures for publication, and their initial publication in 1997 was initially considered a transgression to Foucault’s last wishes for his posthumous writings not to be published. However, the proliferation of unauthorized versions of the lectures, based on transcriptions from audio recordings of unequal quality, decided the family and friends to allow their publication.  After the first tentative publications, a sophisticated protocol developed. First, the editors give priority to the transcription of Foucault’s oral teaching. Any additions, such as materials from the preparatory notes, and bibliographical references, are dealt with as footnotes.  The editor’s additions and amplifications are recorded in the endnotes. Foucault’s summary published yearly in the Yearbook of the College is then printed.  A general introductory essay, with the title “situation du cours” follows, which provides contextual information for Foucault’s lectures.  Finally, a detailed index of names mentioned and of concepts. While this is the general model for each one of the publications of the lectures, there are some variations.

In the case of Theories and Penal Institutions (thereafter: TPI), there are no extant recordings. Therefore, the editors had to use Foucault’s preparatory notes. This volume also makes more use of additional materials from Foucault’s unpublished papers than previous volumes.  In addition to the ‘Course Context’ essay, this one includes two interpretative essays, one by É. Balibar and the other by Claude-Olivier Doron that provides context for the lectures. Doron was also responsible for the endnotes, which provide useful bibliographical information and also excerpts from the preparatory materials.

François Ewald and Alessandro Fontana refer in their introduction to the problems faced in the preparation of this volume. First, the lack of recordings required them to work directly with Foucault occasionally cryptic and tentative notes, which sometimes leave us wondering about Foucault’s intentions. To clarify those, the editors decided to bring as footnotes text that Foucault crossed out in his preparatory notes. An additional difficulty signaled by the editors is specific for the translated text, insofar as Foucault refers to old and today little-known French institutions and practices.

The English version includes an introduction by Arnold I. Davidson, a distinguished scholar of Foucault’s work.  He enjoins us to ‘read everything,’ i.e., to forget the hierarchy between a binding statement by Foucault, and the more tentative reflections contained in his sprawling archives. Ultimately, what Davidson is evoking is the tension between a scholastic effort to reconstruct Foucault’s corpus and a more creative appropriation of his insights. The latter is, according to Davidson, closer to Foucault’s thought, which Davidson labels as ‘atopos,’ unclassifiable according to the academic standards (xxvii).

The course itself consists of thirteen lectures, which we can divide into three groups. Lectures one through seven, deal with the emergence in the 17th century of the absolutist State with its specialized institutions. Lectures eight to twelve deal with Germanic law, which preceded the absolutist one, and finally, in lecture thirteen, Foucault addresses the question of the ‘knowledge effects’ of the newly instituted penal practice that emerges from the feudal order.  This last lecture connects with the subject-matter of the previous year, and more in general, with Foucault’s long-standing interest in the emergence of the human sciences.

Lecture One starts establishing the subject matter of the course and its methodology. The subject is to study the peculiar forms of repression of a popular riot that took place at the beginnings of the 17th century and is known as the revolt of the Nu-pieds (barefoot). By placing repression in the center of his analysis, Foucault expects to be able to overcome the dilemma between an approach based on the study of penal theories versus an approach based on the study of penal legislation or institutions. It is as a system of repression that penal theories and institutions emerge (2). Foucault speaks of a continuum of ‘refusal of the law,’ whereas it is difficult to identify the purely criminal from the political.  To some extent, we can say that Foucault’s purpose is to study the separation between criminal and political, to show that is characteristic of modern penal systems and that it is a relatively new development.

A central stage in Foucault’s account are the events of the repression of the Nu-pieds revolt (1639) by Chancellor Séguier.  Foucault analyzes, in great detail, what he characterizes as a ‘penitential ceremony,’ a ‘theatrical representation of power,’ a ‘manifestation of power in his repressive pomp’ (5).

According to Foucault, the Nu-pieds revolt was different from previous revolts in the Middle Ages. Not only peasants participated in the uprising, but also workers and journeymen in the towns, and a certain number of nobles and bourgeois (9).  Even the local Parliament (at that time a judicial and not a legislative body) adopted an ambiguous middle ground between the rebels and the tax authorities that they targeted.  In the endnotes to this first lecture, the reader can find detailed information on Foucault’s sources and on the chronology of the events to which Foucault refers (11-13).

The second lecture introduces the notion of ‘armed justice’ and asks how to write a history of this new form of repressive apparatus.  Foucault also emphasizes the revolutionary nature of the revolt, which not only protests against the tax authorities but introduces a new legality and a new authority, though one that refers to their authority as derived from the King. The rebellion and the bourgeois and nobles’ lack of enthusiasm to suppress it provokes the military response from the Monarch and leads to the formation of a new royal justice, which eventually will be adopted by the bourgeoisie. Justice will become State-controlled, juridical, and exercised by a specific state organ: the police (23).  This justice appears as an order which stands as a neutral arbiter between the social classes (24), while in reality, it is a representative of the capitalistic order.

In lecture three, Foucault further develops the notion of ‘armed justice.’  ‘Armed justice’ is a transitional stage, which will evolve into a specialized armed repressive apparatus, different from the army, but like the army, State-controlled (37).  What retains Foucault’s attention is not so much the fact that the army was used to suppress the revolt, but the unusual interplay between the army and Chancellor Séguier, who represented the State. Once the army defeated the Nu-pieds in the city of Caen and the countryside, it took time before taking Rouen, which was not the scene of grave disturbances.  Then, it took time for Séguier to enter the town, and he did so in a very protocolar way. In a lecture that Foucault delivered a short time after the course and is reproduced in this volume (‘Ceremony, Theater, and Politics in the Seventeenth Century’, pp. 235-239) he explores these ambiguities in search for clues for the process of emergence of a distinct state repressive apparatus. In this context, Foucault characterizes his approach as ‘dynastic’ (this is the first time that the term shows), a notion that is loosely equivalent to ‘genealogy’ (cf. 52-3, note 16).

Lecture Four explores in detail the theatrical nature of the repressive tactics employed by Séguier. He first attacks the Nu-pieds. They are not acknowledged as a foreign power, and therefore the rules of war do not apply to them. But they are not recognized as having a place in the civil order, and therefore they are not entitled to due process (58). Foucault sees a continuity between these repressive measures and the 1639 and 1670 ordinances which dealt with unemployed, beggars, and vagabonds.

Nevertheless, the repression does not end with the Nu-pieds. It is also exercised against those who attempted to place themselves between the King and the insurgents. Séguier rejects the ‘theory of the three checks’ (religion, justice, and the privileges granted for different social groups), which sets limits to the King’s power. According to Foucault, Séguier’s proclamation: ‘The innocent have nothing to fear; only those who have failed will feel the effects of the King’s just anger and indignation’ (62), is an explicit rejection of the ‘three checks’ theory.  Séguier is declaring that the King is not subject to the laws of his kingdom because the law is identical to his will (62). What we see here, claims Foucault, is an ambivalent outcome, a redistribution of repressive instruments and powers, but one that ultimately benefits the privileged classes.

The fifth lecture goes in some additional detail into the events in Rouen, which signal for Foucault the apparition of a purely repressive aspect of the Sate. However, the State lacks, at least initially, specialized institutions, and depends on feudal ones for carrying out these new tasks.

Lecture six deals with the stabilization of the situation.  This is achieved using three strategies: 1) differential sanctions to break up the previous alliance of social groups; 2) financial incentives for the privileged classes in return for the maintenance of order; 3) Mainly because the previous strategy was not very successful, the establishment of a third instance of the State, neither purely military nor juridical: the Intendants of justice, police, and finance (94).  The Intendants were supposed to guard against sedition, but also to arbitrate the conflicts between rent and tax. Another characteristic of the new repressive apparatus is the removal of the dangerous population.  The institution of a mechanism for the segregation of a stratum of delinquency out of the mass of the plebeian population connects the changes in the nature of the State with the development of the capitalist form of production. Foucault does not explain the emergence of capitalism as a change in the system of production. He characterizes the relationship between State and emerging capitalism as ‘linkage’ (105), ‘favorable’ (105), ‘oriented and functionally linked’ to Capitalism.  In a more rounded statement, he summarizes this relationship: ‘We should say that capitalism cannot subsist without an apparatus of repression whose main function is anti-seditious. This apparatus produces a certain penalty–delinquency coding. What has to be studied now is the installation of this new repressive system – the way in which it finally prevailed as the political system of capitalist production developed and was completed; – through what episodes it was finally institutionalized in the nineteenth century in the forms of the courts, the police, prisons, and the penal code’ (106). Foucault bases his analysis, to some extent, on the work of the Russian historian Boris Porshnev, whose work was challenged by some French scholars about that time. An essay by Claude O. Doron, included in this volume, recreates the positions of the parties, the issues at stake, and how Foucault relates to each one of them.

Lecture number eight changes focus from the 17th century to the 12th century to study the slow constitution of a separate judicial system from its predecessor feudal Germanic penal law.  Foucault observes that there was a long line of attempts to establish a centralized justice system, but until the 18th century, they failed. Whenever those institutions were stripped of political and administrative functions, retaining judicial functions only, they were eventually assimilated by the feudal institutions.  It is in order to ‘get the measure of the transformation carried out’ (114) that Foucault takes a step back in history, and points to German criminal law. This move marks an inflection in Foucault’s text. In the earlier lectures, he seems to look for a constitutive break taking place in the 17th century. Now he is inviting us to consider a much longer evolution, a slow separation from Germanic custom, and the constitution over centuries of a State differentiated from Civil Society. This approach is not only more comprehensive but also grounds Foucault’s underlying conception that the justice apparatus is a realm expropriated from civil society and sedimented into a separate body of functionaries.

Foucault begins his account remarking that whereas private and public law was Romanized fairly early, criminal law was Romanized late and only superficially. In the Germanic custom, the juridical act, the process in the broader sense, is ‘the regulated development of a dispute’ (115). The juridical order is a struggle. It was only later that the ‘acts and operations of justice’ are confiscated by a judicial instance. Justice is originally an interpersonal relationship. Importantly for Foucault, truth—the truth of the facts at the basis of the conflict between the parties—does not play an important role or is instead a mark of the outcome of the struggle. The penal system that developed in the Middle Ages acted at the level of the levy of goods (fines, confiscations, fees). The judicial is subordinated to the fiscal, But, elements from the old Germanic system remain in the Middle Ages legal apparatus.  In particular, Foucault mentions the need for an accuser, which is one of the parties in the conflict. The form of a dispute between two individuals remains central to the judicial process. The public power may intervene through the aggravation of the penalty, taking sides in the dispute, but the basic structure remains intact. Foucault’s main interest seems to be the transition between this old Germanic custom and the emergence of a recognizable concept of justice. This transition operates through the absorption of justice into the judicial, a power that can initiate action and present it as a public action.  How was the transformation possible, asks Foucault?  Certainly not because of the rise of a juridical conception of the State, or of a religious notion of wrongdoing.  Instead, Foucault explores an economic interpretation of the origins of justice. This interpretation is not Marxist, even though Foucault utilizes a Marxist sounding terminology.

First and foremost, Foucault rejects the interpretation of the law as ideology or superstructure. He speaks of relations of appropriation and relations of force, in a way that echoes the Marxist’s ‘relation of production.’ However, Foucault does not refer to production but to circulation: ‘the distribution of justice forms part of the circulation of goods’ (133).  Justice controls the circulation of goods at the level of civil law (contract, marriage, inheritance, and taxation), and of the penal law, by imposing fines and confiscating property. Foucault’s characterization is suggestive of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s description of society as a network of circulation and exchanges (cf. 147, note 44).

At the time, Foucault was active in a movement advocating for penal and carceral reform. The 1968 student and youth revolt generated a climate of criticism of the justice system. This climate was strengthened by the government’s prosecutions of activists of the extra-parliamentary left, and by those groups that made claims to a different justice. As we learn in note 12 (142 f), Foucault opposed on theoretical and political grounds the demands of the militants, who reclaimed for themselves the status of political prisoners. Foucault claims that all criminal offenses are political ones, and no distinction should be revendicated. Foucault also rejected in his interventions in this period, the notion of ‘popular courts;’ (espoused by the militants of GP ultra-leftist group and supported by Sartre).

In the first part of the 10th lecture, Foucault returns to the relationship between penal practice and transfer of wealth, goods, and property. Justice imposes penalties, establishes a system of compensations, and extorts wealth through the system of costs of justice. At a time of monetary scarcity, the flow of wealth passed through the judicial dispute. Judicial disputes and marriage are the main mechanisms of wealth circulation. Foucault differentiates two forms. One in which there is an interplay between civil and criminal justice. The second one is closer to violent appropriation, as in the case of the eviction of Jews and Lombards at the end of 13th century, and the anti-heretical crusades in the Provence. The rest of the lectures maps the transformation of the medieval system into a system of royal justice, armed with an institutionalized judicial State apparatus.

Lectures ten through twelve delve with different aspects of the thesis that a judicial system was crucial for the development of the Absolutist State and later on, of the capitalistic State.  It acquires this role initially as a response to the lack of monetary wealth and the weakness of markets. These judicial and penal systems are not yet a State apparatus, but they exercise some functions of a State apparatus.  Eventually, this proto-judicial will become specialized in different separate functions: judicial, police, and penitentiary.  Foucault comments on the functional role of the centralized army. Justice as state apparatus developed in the shadow of the army. He speaks of an army of mercenaries and a justice of functionaries (160).

In lecture eleven, Foucault reflects on the relationship between law and the economy.  It may be true that ‘juridical forms’ express ‘economic relations.’ There is another level, though, at which the juridical is neither expression nor reproduction of economic relations.  As a power relation, the judicial apparatus operates within economic relations and thereby modifies them. Foucault uses terms such as ‘transcribes,’ ‘investment,’ ‘presence,’ to describe the relationships between judicial and economics.  The following text shows the kind of interplay between economic and judicial system that Foucault is striving to describe: ‘If we stick to the example of feudalism, we can see how, through the judicial apparatus (but we could also take the military or religious apparatus), from the surplus-product which permits feudal rent, a surplus- power, an extra power is extracted

– on the basis of which certainly this rent itself is demanded,

– but on the basis of which the forms and relations of production are displaced.’ (172)

In a crossed-out note, Foucault adds: ‘the power relations are not superimposed on economic relations… relations of power are as deep as the relations of production. The former is not deduced from the latter. They accompany and relay each other’.  Notes 9 and 10 (178-179) refer to the context, in particular concerning Althusser’s work. Doron summarizes  ‘Foucault’s objective, which we find in subsequent courses, notably The Punitive Society, is to stress rather the constituting role of power relations at the very heart of relations of production: the former acting as veritable conditions of the formation and transformation of modes of production, be this in the constitution of man as “labor-power” or the process of accumulation and circulation of wealth’ (179 and 97, note 11).

Lecture twelve adds some more concrete historical context to the discussion. It was the economic crises of the 13th and 14th centuries that lead to the centralization of royal power and the setting of royal justice. This led to a doubling of the judicial system and the separation of the penal and civil law.  To some extent, Foucault seems to be transposing to the 13th and 14th centuries what earlier in the lectures he described as results of the suppression of the countryside revolts of the 17th century.  By emphasizing this proto-State developing from within feudalism, Foucault is perhaps putting distance between the development of the centralized national state and the emergence of capitalism.

In the thirteenth lecture, Foucault reexamines his previous analysis in terms of the question of power/knowledge. What is the knowledge effect of penal justice in the Middle Ages? And what is the power/knowledge effect in the proto-state and latter absolutist State? By ‘knowledge effects’ Foucault is not referring to the ideological dimensions of the justice system, but to the mode of knowledge that develops within it and that constitutes its modus operandi. This question is connected both to the 1970-1971 course and to the lectures that Foucault will deliver in Brazil in 1973, published under the title Truth and Juridical Forms.

Foucault defines ‘knowledge effects’ as ‘the carving-out, distribution, and organization of what is given to be known in penal practice’ (198).  Knowledge effects comprise the position and function of the subjects authorized to know (judges, their attendants), the forms of knowledge they use and create in their function, the kind of information, revelation or manifestation that is at stake at this level.

Foucault proceeds to review first the knowledge effects of the Germanic juridical system. According to Foucault, the old system was not intended to elicit a truth. The system was based on the notion of ‘test’ (épreuve) to which the parties could either succeed or fail. The outcome of the test is the outcome of the trial.  If the test indicates a truth, it is only in a secondary or derivative way. The test is not a sign of truth, but a mark.

With the establishment of a system in which the King’s procurator is the main actor, the older system of the test is no longer possible. What then makes it possible for the procurator to pass sentence? Foucault answers that it is the inquiry (inquiry-truth; Enquête vérité), which is the repurpose of a pre-existing administrative tool for the function of Justice.

Foucault describes the form of knowledge of this early judicial system that emerges from the replacement of the Germanic-feudal one as one of ‘extraction of truth.’ The procurator can request from the notables what is the common knowledge or notoriety. He has the right to elicit knowledge from those who know. The truth established in this form is a sort of substitute for the capture in the act (flagrance).  Truth introduces into the field of the penal law acts that are not injuries committed against specific individuals, but disorders. They may not have a specific victim but are perceived as disrupting the public order.

Foucault has not much to say about the inquiry, which was initially an administrative technique in use in the Church and the Carolingian kingdom.  After a brief review, Foucault concludes with two fundamental aspects that the inquiry introduces in the judicial system are: 1) The establishment of the truth through the interrogation of witnesses, those who have seen the deed; 2) The written procedure.  The last note of the lecture simply concludes that witnessing the truth and its faithful written recording replaces the event-test (203).

Following the lecture, the editors published several pages that seem to continue and to amplify the previous discussion. Foucault proposes a history of questioning as a form of exercise of power.  He suggests that questioning plays a role in the constitution of the subject. The inquiry may have been more critical for the emergence of the subject even than theology, says Foucault, echoing a widespread belief that there is a strong connection between subjectivity and Christianity (206).

Confession is transitional between test and inquiry. Foucault refers here to the judicial aspects of confession, leaving aside the religious ones, that he will explore in detail elsewhere.  According to Foucault, confession is depicted as a test of wills between accused and judge. This struggle is the background for the re-appearance of torture in the criminal procedure. Torture should be understood as an ordeal or test of truth (207). This form of knowledge/power gives origin to an arithmetic of proof, based on the nature of the crime, that binds the judge’s decisions. This system of legal proof persists until the end of the 18th century.

Foucault claims that with the first steps of the takeover of justice by the State, the inquiry shapes the practice of the penal procedure. Foucault mentions other uses of the inquiry, in civil law, in legislation, in social struggles (bourgeoisie versus feudalism), in the administrative process of centralization, and in the new forms of inquiry that the Church exercises over the population (inquisition).

Like measure (which was the object of Foucault’s previous year’s course), the inquiry is a form of power/knowledge, which means that power is established through the exercise and acquisition of this knowledge (209).  Foucault sees the inquiry, together with taxes and the army, as a central tool in the process of state centralization. Furthermore, conversely, ‘the inquiry, which puts questions, extracts knowledge, centralizes it, turns it into a decision, is an exercise of power’ (209).  Foucault speaks of the inquiry as a ‘levy of knowledge,’ similar to the appropriation of resources through taxation.  He adds that  ‘the knowledge power needs, the knowledge it calls for and to which it gives rise, is knowledge taken, channeled, accumulated, and converted into decision; the governor being the one who calls for this knowledge, goes through it, and judges accordingly what decision has to be taken (211).’ Further, Foucault suggests a typology of types of extraction of ‘surplus-knowledge’ (211). These pages, albeit fragmentary, contain many valuable insights on Foucault’s transition between his earlier archaeology to a genealogy of knowledge.

Finally, Foucault adds a remark that points out to other schemas of power-knowledge, in particular, ‘examination,’ which is the one constitutive of the normative human sciences (125). Foucault will devote the final lecture of his next year course to this subject (The Punitive Society, New York, 2015, pp. 225-241)

The “Course Summary” was written shortly after completing the teaching season and published in the College yearbook. Foucault presents his lectures as being an introduction to the study of 19th century French penal and social control institutions. They are part of the broader project of studying the formation of certain types of knowledge (savoir) based on the juridical-political matrices, which gave them birth and sustain them.  Foucault’s working hypothesis is that power does not act only by facilitating or obstructing the production of knowledge. Power and knowledge do not stand in a relation of interest versus ideology. More generally, Foucault argues that knowledge and society do not stand on opposite sides but are unified in the form of ‘power-knowledge.’  Accordingly, explains Foucault, the lectures are divided into two parts. The first part studies the inquiry and its development during the Middle Ages. The other part of the lectures was devoted to the study of new forms of social control in 17th century France. A few concluding lines of the summary refer to the seminar in which Foucault and associates prepared for publication the story and memories of the infamous Pierre Rivière.

In the summary, Foucault inverts the order and the importance of the themes discussed. He also disregards his earlier attempt to study the ceremonial aspects of the reinstatement of the monarchical power carried out by Séguier.

Under the title ‘Ceremony, Theater and Politics in the Seventeenth Century,’ the editors bring a summary, made by an auditor, of a lecture given by Foucault at the University of Minnesota in April 1972. This conference describes in a more streamlined form Foucault’s description in lectures 4 through 6 of the elaborated ritualized strategy followed by Chancellor Séguier in his repression of the Nu-pieds rebels. Foucault’s interest in the symbolic and ceremonial exercise of power does not appear elsewhere, the account of Damian’s execution in Discipline and Punish being an exception.

‘The “Course Context’ is a thirty-seven-page extensive interpretative essay, written by François Ewald (Foucault’s former assistant at the Collège de France) and Bernard E. Harcourt (Columbia Law School professor and the editor of several of Foucault’s unpublished works).

The essay first describes the manuscript and additional materials from which the editors collated and transcribed the lectures.  Section II refers to the general societal context in the aftermath of the May 68 events, the subsequent repression of the political movements that originated in the students and young workers revolt, and its impact on Foucault’s development. This section is of paramount importance for those less familiar with the contemporary history of French society. Section III evaluates the place of this course in Foucault’s work. Ewald and Harcourt refer to Foucault’s evolving position about Althusser and Marxism in general.  They speak of a ‘counter-Marxism’ which is not an ‘anti-Marxism’ (255).  They find a difference of objectives between Foucault and Marx, differencs of method, differences of objects, a different way of referring to class struggle, and a divergence on the subject of ideology.  The authors also stress Foucault’s elaboration of an original analysis of law. In TPI, Foucault revolutions our way of viewing law, proposing a political theory of law instead of a juridical theory of power. In that respect, Ewald and Harcourt suggests that Foucault’s embryonic proposal can be compared to other schools, such as the French Marxist critique of law school, or the American Legal Realism school.

Étienne Balibar contributed to his volume a letter in which he reflects on Foucault’s text. Balibar was younger than Foucault, more politically engaged, closer to Althusser. He has the advantage of having witnessed the evolution of the after 1968 struggles, the downfall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the transformation of China into a capitalistic-bureaucratic society. Therefore, his insights on the background for Foucault’s analysis are an important complement to the ‘Course Context’ essay.

Finally, Claude-Olivier Doron contributes an essay dealing with Foucault’s position about the discussion between the Russian historian Boris Porshnev and the French historian Roland Mousnier and his students.  Doron reconstructs and interprets the background for Foucault’s discussion of the Nu-pieds revolt. Those readers interested in this angle of Foucault’s analysis could also profit from Stuart Elden’s commentaries (Foucault: The Birth of Power, 2017, Chapter 2). Doron limits its piece to ‘some elements concerning the debate.’  He emphasizes the need to connect the debate between the historians with the discussion within the Marxist field, notably between Nicos Poulantzas (close to Althusser) and Ralph Miliband, debate that was also referenced by Balibar in his contribution (297 n. 1).  Doron concludes that Foucault did not endorse any of the opposed parties. Foucault’s approach centered on the novel way in which the revolt was suppressed.  He sought a connection between how the revolt was suppressed and the emergence of a state not yet been endowed with specific repressive organs.

The completion of this publication project is not the end of Foucault’s story.  A new and ambitious project sets up to bring to print the ‘cours et travaux de Michel Foucault avant le Collège de France.’ Of these, a volume was already published that contains two lectures on sexuality that Foucault taught in 1964 and 1969.  Additional volumes on Nietzsche, on Biswanger, on Foucault’s tenure in Tunis and others are in the program.

Also, a group of researches grouped in L’École normale supérieure de Lyon is digitizing and organizing Foucault reading notes.  Out of 25 boxes, three are already available online (open access), and the others will be available in the future. These publication concerns only Foucault reading notes, not his manuscripts or other documents. What is already available can be accessed in http://eman-archives.org/Foucault-fiches/arbre-collections. Box 001 which contains some of the notes taken by Foucault for the preparation of TPI is among the one already accessible.



Federica Buongiorno, Vincenzo Costa Roberta Lanfredini (Eds.): Phenomenology in Italy

Phenomenology in Italy: Authors, Schools and Traditions Book Cover Phenomenology in Italy: Authors, Schools and Traditions
Contributions To Phenomenology, Vol. 106
Federica Buongiorno, Vincenzo Costa, Roberta Lanfredini (Eds.)
Hardback 103,99 €
IX, 178

Reviewed by: Bruno Cassarà (Fordham University)

The publication of Phenomenology in Italy: Authors, Schools, and Traditions is, to say the least, a breath of fresh air for the anglophone, especially American, philosophical community. This book is nothing less than the introduction of an entirely new phenomenological tradition into the international phenomenological conversation. For, though Italy has a long and rich phenomenological tradition that lacks nothing when compared to, for example, the French reception of Husserl and Heidegger, it has remained mostly unknown to English-speaking scholars and especially to those working in the United States. This collection features essays by Italian scholars on the most important figures of the Italian phenomenological tradition, from Antonio Banfi to Paolo Parrini, spanning three academic generations. Each essay tackles a different author and the order is, as much as possible, chronological. The result is a volume that should spark a curiosity analogous to that of the discovery of a new continent, for the Italian phenomenological tradition has taken phenomenology in directions that, outside of Italy, will result entirely novel. From aesthetics to political philosophy to philosophy of science and even mathematics, the contributions of Italian phenomenologists are sure to breathe new life into the discipline. To this end, I would like to point to the SUNY Press series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy, which features translations of important contemporary Italian philosophers, including some of those featured in this book.

Before giving a summary of the contents, there is an important critique that should be made to this book, namely, that of a certain one-sidedness in the philosophers who were chosen to be showcased. Certainly, the Italian phenomenological tradition is far too vast to be covered in a single volume, but here phenomenology is entirely synonymous with Husserl. There is in fact a conspicuous absence of Heidegger and his reception which was certainly, if not as widespread, then as influential as the Husserlian. In fact, this collection centers mainly on the Milan School of Phenomenology, which has prospered in the State University of Milan since the 1920’s. Yet one wonders why there are no chapter devoted to what we might call the “Turin School,” which would include at the very least Luigi Pareyson, who was among the first to introduce Heidegger to Italy, and his student Gianni Vattimo, already known in anglophone circles for his hermeneutics and political thought. And perhaps the most glaring absence in the book is that of Aldo Masullo, the recently deceased philosopher from Naples who wrote extensively not only on Husserl, but also on Heidegger, Fink, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, and who influenced the direction of research in Naples in a way that we still observe today (consider, for example, the work of his student Eugenio Mazzarella).

I will discuss each essay in turn, lingering over what I take to be the most original and important contributions.

Federica Buongiorno, one of the editors of this volume, opens the book with a fascinating essay of the reception of Husserl in Italy through the phases of the translations of his works. This is a philological analysis of the decisions made by Husserl’s various translators, which, Buongiorno sees, are indicative of how Husserlian phenomenology was received in Italy. This essay investigates mainly the so-called “second phase” of Husserlian reception, focusing on Enzo Paci and his interpretation of Husserl. The first phase would be in the time of Antonio Banfi, who was Paci’s teacher and belonged to the earlier generation, and the third would be the current proliferation of phenomenological philosophy at the hands of Paci’s students and their contemporaries. Enzo Paci is here cast as the protagonist of Husserlian studies in Italy, and his interpretation is considered one of the most influential, if not the most influential. Paci’s interpretation takes Husserl’s Crisis as his most important and primary work, thus giving his understanding of Husserl an existential, practical, and historical thinker. In this light, Husserl’s “early” preoccupations with logic and transcendental foundations would be a preparatory step toward the discovery of the pre-categorial and the Lebenswelt as the grounds of such theoretical activity. In this regard, Buongiorno points us to her own contribution to the translation of Husserl’s works. She translated HUA/XXIV, which contains the important 1906/1907 lectures Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge. Buongiorno helpfully points out that the very title of this work, along with several decisions which had to be made with regard to terms such as “Kunstlehre” and “Formenlehre,” confirm Paci’s reading of Husserl’s works as unified in their subject matter and purpose.

Buongiorno proceeds to identify two differing tendencies or, less radically, two emphases in the reception of Husserlian phenomenology, and sees them as the result of how and when translations of Husserl appeared in Italy. One places emphasis on the question of logic, and the other on the theme of history. Once again, this is the identification of an “early” and a “late” Husserl, and we have seen how Paci sees a continuity between these two poles. Two translators of the Cartesian Meditations, first Filippo Costa in 1960 and then Renato Cristin in 1989, both agree with Paci’s reading and interpret the Meditations accordingly. In sum, Buongiorno’s essay is informative and creative in the way that it explains the Italian reception of Husserl. It prepares readers well for the interpretation of Husserl they should expect in the following chapters, but one also wonders why Buongiorno does not include the reception of Ideas I and II, especially since she informs the reader in a footnote that they were the first works to be translated (1950) and that she sees the “second phase” of the Husserlian reception as starting precisely in the early 1950’s.

The second essay, authored by Luca Maria Scarantino, gives an account of how Husserl was first received in Italy by Antonio Banfi in 1923. Scarantino sees this as nothing less than a new era, a “transcendental turn” in Italian philosophy. Against the dominating neo-idealism of the early 20th century, Banfi proposed a “transcendental rationalism” that grafted onto a pre-existing neo-Kantian framework. This made subject and objects poles of a cognitive relation and left behind the need for any ontological realism. In this way, Husserl helps Banfi justify a “law of pure consciousness.” Banfi’s main work, Principi di una Teoria della Ragione [Principles for a Theory of Reason] extols Husserl’s transcendental method as liberating the “rational system” from the need for an absolute (metaphysical) ground. In this work, pragmatism and phenomenology converge in a “transcendental functionalism” which doesn’t take itself to establish a metaphysical ground for the experience of consciousness, but rather a suitable intersubjectivity based on the eidetic variation that the phenomenological method offers. We are left with an intersubjectively valid, correlational/synthetic form of rational consciousness. Furthermore, that intuition carries within itself the condition of its own understandability is for Banfi the establishment of a pragmatic a-priori.

In Banfi’s critique of Husserl we see, according to Scarantino, the limitation of his philosophy. This critique is directed at the concept of intuition, which he thinks does not do enough to distinguish between the material and the rational contents. For Banfi, this ultimately brings us to mix individual experience and the rational universal. At this point Scarantino skips forward to one of Banfi’s disciples, Giulio Preti, whom he reads as correcting and ultimately completing Banfi’s quest for a transcendental rationalism free of metaphysical grounds. Preti’s philosophy will be discussed below as part of the summary of the essay dedicated to him, but here the important thing to highlight is the extent to which Banfi’s work on Husserl was influential in Italian philosophy. Later scholars have retroactively identified Banfi as the “father” of the Milan school of phenomenology because of the influence his philosophy had on his students, many of whom are also discussed in the book. It seems that Banfi should be seen just as much one of the originators of phenomenological studies in Italy as a philosopher in his own right, though in practice the two cannot and should not remain separate.

The third essay in the book is authored by Angela Ales Bello, whose own work on Husserl is known beyond the Italian scene. She writes about Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who taught the history of philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan and encountered Husserl’s works in the late 1930’s after extensive work in medieval and specifically Thomist philosophy. Rovighi’s main contribution to phenomenology in Italy, according to Bello, was the discovery of the medieval root of intentionality. Like many who engage Husserl, Rovighi finds it difficult to settle on a definitive understanding of Husserlian intentionality. She reaches back to Aristotle and medieval philosophy, especially the Franciscan thinker Petrus Aureolus, to show that the concept of intentionality originates in these historical sources. Intentionality for her means that consciousness is always consciousness of an ideal entity (“the ideal objectivity of the meaning obtained…through the eidetic reduction”) which has its foundation in a real, existing entity. Ultimately, she takes Husserl to be placing consciousness above being in a metaphysical sense (in se) and proceeds to reject this position, claiming instead that being precedes consciousness of it. At this point, Bello interjects that, in her own view, the Husserlian primacy of consciousness should be understood as quoad nos and not in se.

Because of this idealist interpretation, Rovighi can only be critical of Husserl. If consciousness is the absolute principle and precedes being, then God himself can only be encountered as immanent in consciousness, as thus as dependent on it. Ultimately, Rovighi levels against Husserl’s phenomenology the same criticism that she has for Plato: phenomenology cannot help us to escape the cave, because doing so requires taking on a superhuman point of view that is simply not available to phenomenologists. Now, despite her misinterpretation of Husserl, Rovighi’s work is significant in that it was the first to open a dialogue between phenomenology and medieval philosophy. To this end, Rovighi not only carried out her own work, but also brought Edith Stein’s phenomenology to Italy to aid in this project. If Rovighi’s idealist interpretation of Husserl is corrected, then it becomes clear just how similar he and Thomas Aquinas are on many fronts. Ultimately, Bello’s appreciation of Vanni Rovighi comes just as much from her historical importance in the context of the phenomenological reception in Italy, as from her admiration for Rovighi’s intellectual honesty, which, she states, is a rare quality to find in a scholar.

The fourth essay, by Roberto Gronda, introduces us to the works of Giulio Preti, the student of Banfi who was already mentioned briefly in the second chapter. Preti taught and worked in Florence beginning in the mid 1930’s, and he is credited with bringing to completion Banfi’s transcendental rationalism. Husserl was a constant interlocutor during Preti’s career, up to the very last chapters of his important work Retorica e Logica [Rhetoric and Logic]. It seems that Preti was mostly influenced by Husserl’s work on logic, in particular the first Logical Investigation and Formal and Transcendental Logic, with particular interest in the idea of a pure logic, the notion of fulfillment, and the distinction between meaning and expression.

Preti’s philosophy begins with what he calls the “principle of immanence,” a principle drawn from Husserl which states that the object’s transcendence means that it is never fully given in a single experience and therefore always indicates the possibility of further completion. In this way, the object’s transcendence is another form of immanence in the sense that its objectivity is constituted in experience. This principle affects Preti’s understanding of experience as always implying a horizon, such that no experience is fully intuitive and always carries absences within it. This notion of an excess of experience leads Preti to claim that idealism and positivism are two sides of a single philosophical reality, which he calls “integral realism.” Husserlian phenomenology itself is cast as a positivism that spills over into an idealism, in particular its notion of “form” not as what is opposed to content, but as what represents, i.e., as symbol. This notion of symbol as what pre-ordains the law of the object is essential to a rationalism that wants to give the empirical its full value. To this end, Preti rejects Husserl’s hypostasis of “immediate sense data” and criticizes Husserl’s strong conception of intuition. Later, Preti writes of categories not as structures that are gleaned from experience, as Husserl would have it, but as man-made postulates that at once play a transcendental role in experience and are historically effected. Preti’s last works heavily criticize Husserl’s Crisis, rejecting his diagnosis of a crisis of the sciences and his solution in the form of transcendental phenomenology. These are “philosophers’ follies,” Preti states, deriving from an inversion of the relation between philosophy and life. Preti thus had his share of criticisms for Husserl, but nevertheless the German philosopher exercised an enduring influence on him.

With the fifth essay, authored by Amedeo Vigorelli, we come to Enzo Paci, the Milanese philosopher who is in many ways at the center of this volume. Paci was active beginning in the 1950’s after some time spent in the Italian army before and during the Second World War. He met Paul Ricoeur as a prisoner of war in Wietzendorf and read Husserl’s Ideas with him. As a professor at the State University of Milan, Paci brought about a veritable phenomenological renaissance in a time when Husserl was not widely read and neo-Enlightenment was the dominant philosophy. He travels to Leuven to converse with van Breda and Boehm, reads Husserl’s unpublished works, and corresponds with Sartre, Patocka, and Ricoeur.

Paci’s reading of Husserl is greatly influenced by, and conducted in conversation with, the neo-idealism of Giovanni Gentile. Although Paci criticizes Gentile’s idealism as a naturalism (Gentile’s consciousness posits nothing more than the world as it is in the natural attitude and does not gain access to its own constituting activity), he still wants to understand the main structures of Husserl’s phenomenology (world, constitution, reduction) as a dialectical triad. Paci is most influenced, according to the author, by the fifth Cartesian Meditation, taking the “intermonadic relationship” to be even more fundamental than the process of self-identification itself, and constitutive of it. His reflections on the constitutive function of intersubjectivity bring him, on one hand, to a phenomenology of need and eros, and, on the other, to materialist and economic integrations. The main interlocutors here are Freud and Marx, each of whom witness to the essentiality of intersubjectivity and to the needs of the ego. A particularly original contribution here is Paci’s phenomenological account of sex: the sexual act here acquires a generative meaning not only in a procreative sense, but in a constitutive one, making up a sui generis temporal ekstasis and opening the ego teleologically to a relationship with humanity as a whole—birth and rebirth.

Paci’s return to Marx and Freud within phenomenology also serves to break the false dichotomy of natural science and philosophy of culture within which both Marxism and psychoanalysis found themselves at this time. He reads the transference in the psychoanalytic relation as a privileged place where the intersubjective “Paarung” takes place. Furthermore, “even the Marxist concept of economic structure, in its dialectical interrelations with the superstructures, requires subjective constitution” (69), Paci states. An intentionality of needs must found Marx’s account of economic and material relations between people and classes. This amounts to nothing less than a rethinking and even a rewriting of Marx’s capital by underpinning the material and dialectical relations it described with phenomenologically purified notions of need, desire, and praxis.

The sixth essay in the volume, by Elio Franzini, takes up the phenomenological aesthetics of Dino Formaggio. Also active beginning in the early 1950’s, Formaggio was another student of Antonio Banfi, a colleague of Enzo paci, and another personality of the Milan School. Though he inherited from Banfi a critical view of Italian neo-idealism and its Hegelian roots, Formaggio nevertheless sought to bring together the two meanings of “phenomenology” (the Husserlian and the Hegelian) rather than rejecting the latter in favor of the former. Formaggio’s departure from his teacher is also observed in his definition of art as a “field” that is not superimposed on objects, but rather derives from them and is therefore constantly expanded and constructed through the exercise of art itself. Such a definition of art seems to come from the derivation of the definition of aesthetics from the original Greek meaning of aisthesis as sensory knowledge or perception. Aesthetics is thus a general theory of sense-perception and the artistic object is a peculiar object in the field of aisthesis. It is this Greek understanding of aesthetics that brings Formaggio to the claim that phenomenology, as the philosophy of experience, is the method most proper to it. Phenomenology is the method for “bringing out the meaning of things” encountered in aisthesis, especially artistic objects. And, because it applies to the whole field of sense perception, it is capable of cutting across different artistic movements and periods, grasping the universal structures that define the artistic as such.

The general definition of aesthetics is therefore what is at stake throughout Formaggio’s oeuvre. In his view, aesthetics must be sharply distinguished from both poetics and criticism, each of which have their objects and aims. Aesthetics, unlike these other disciplines, must be a general method of formalization that is capable of theoretical rigor and philosophical awareness, and not the analysis of concrete instances, no matter how sublime. Ultimately, art is understood aesthetically as the shared project of depicting our existence in the life-world. This is precisely the kind of universal definition that unifies art as a field, and the analysis of art, starting from this definition, must look at the artwork as the product of a body-at-work, of the transcendental praxis of the ego.

In a marked excursus, Franzini also states that the desire to identify the “Truth,” though understandable, is driven by either teleological assumptions or psychological (empirical) convictions. Hence, it can be ignored at the level of method. This, according to Franzini, is one of the traits that unifies the Milan School. And it sounds important, but unfortunately Franzini does not explain further what this means. What is “Truth”? In what way can a descriptive, phenomenological method ignore this “Truth”? Such an important point should have been made more clearly so as to show the values held in common by the Milan School, which is at the center of this volume.

The seventh figure discussed in the volume is Giuseppe Semerari. The essay, written by Ferruccio De Natale, highlights Semerari’s friendship with Paci, his interest in the historiography of philosophy, his materialist interpretation of phenomenology, and the convergence in his thought of phenomenology and Marxism. A contemporary of Paci, Semerari had a relationship of reciprocal influence with the Milanese philosopher even as he spent his life teaching and researching in the south of Italy at the University of Bari. The kinship between the two can be observed in their mutual interest in Marx and in their shared belief that any account of knowledge must see knowing as first and foremost a praxis enmeshed in the life-world.

Semerari’s interest in phenomenology seems to arise from his dissatisfaction with the dominant ways of understanding history. On one hand, Semerari studied and contributed to the history of philosophy for many years—in fact, he is one of the most important scholar of Schelling and Spinoza in Italy to this day. However, the philosophical relationship with the thought of the past can never be exhausted by the historiographical exercise. On the other hand, Semerari rejected both the neo-idealist and the historicist accounts of history. The question of history led Semerari to Husserl’s late thought, which allows him to formulate an understanding of history as based on human temporality. Semerari thus begins to conceive of the human being as a privileged center of relations, especially temporal ones. In this way, Semerari’s philosophy is a humanist “Relationism.” Husserl’s phenomenology is taken up within the context of this relationism in order to stress its humanist implications. For Semerari, phenomenology shows that the subject has not only a role in, but a responsibility for, the constitution of objects in their sense. Phenomenology is thus absorbed into Semerari’s humanistic project as a way to critique the naturalism that divests the subject of its responsibility and alienates it from the world. The use of the term “alienation” is not accidental here, as it emphasizes Semerari’s debt to Marx. The result is an exciting mingling of phenomenology, humanism, and Marxism, one that is able to put the human being and its historical relations at the center of philosophical discourse without losing itself in a structuralism that leaves the individual behind.

The next essay, penned by Stefano Besoli, concerns the phenomenological thought of Enzo Melandri. Beginning his career in the early 1960’s, Melandri’s philosophy tackles a staggering diversity of topics, from Aristotle to Husserl, from formal logic to literature, from empiricism to analogy. Although he is not well-known outside of Italy, I find it worthy of mention that Giorgio Agamben named Melandri’s La Linea e il Circolo [The Line and the Circle] as the most important philosophical work of the twentieth century along with Being and Time.

Melandri recognizes in Husserl’s phenomenology a return to two Aristotelian maxims: first, that the object determines the method of research according to its essence; second, that the meaning of being is not univocal. From the first he draws the more radical conclusion that logic and mathematics, as formal-eidetic sciences, cannot claim a methodological or essential primacy over a material-eidetic science like phenomenology. In other words, phenomenology must found both logic and mathematics. Phenomenology is thus the prote philosophia that weds the formal and the experiential, the material and the ideal. The outcome of such an understanding of phenomenology would be nothing less than a definitive clarification of the “sense of the relationship between the formal and the transcendental” (100). Drawing a comparison with Kant, Melandri identifies the phenomenological a-priori as a material one, so that “the logic of thought cannot renounce its inherentness to the world and therefore can only be founded in the logic of experience, grasping the essential structuring of the experience itself, which does not stand on principles projected from above as heteronomous conditions of its mere thinkability” (104). One should keep in mind that Melandri discovers this at the beginning of his career, before the publication of the Analyses on Passive Synthesis). The result of this juxtaposition of Kant and Husserl leads Melandri to identify the thematic continuity in the Husserlian oeuvre as that of finding an intermediate stage between the particular and the universal. This mediating moment can be found as early as the Philosophy of Arithmetic in the construction of the concept of cardinal number, and as late as Experience and Judgment in the concept of Typus. For Melandri, this Husserlian discovery amounts to a redefinition of the Kantian concept of “schema” through the doctrine of eidetic intuition.

As to the maxim on the non-univocity of being, Melandri sees in husserl the support for this position because in phenomenology, being does not have a single mode of givenness. Even the categorial, that is, in being of an ideal nature, can be legitimately given in a way that is ontically different from that of real being. Inasmuch as being is relative to its mode of givenness, it is always spoken of in many ways with reference to subjectivity, on account of which in the transcendental reflection of phenomenology there is no naturalistic limit, and intentionality is designated as the “universal principle of the analogy of being” (112). Melandri brings together these two Aristotelian-Husserlian insights in his work on the concept of analogy. Analogy is for him what allows philosophy to navigate between the complete equivocity and the complete univocity of being, by virtue of a reflection on language as what brings together the a-priori and the a-posteriori, consciousness and world, thought and being. We see how Melandri is once again reworking of Kantian schematism, allowing language to occupy the mediating position that accomplishes a truly analogical position not only with regard to the question of the relationship between thought and being, but also with regard to the question of the plurivocity of being itself.

The ninth essay in the book, by Roberta Lanfredini, concerns the experimental phenomenology of Paolo Bozzi. A psychologist, Bozzi was one of the foremost scholars of Gestaltpsychologie in Italy and a proponent of phenomenology as a methodology for the sciences that would rival what the author calls the “psychophysical” one. He was also influenced by pragmatism and the Berlin School. Bozzi’s reflections begin with the “non-privative” definition of the phenomenon: to say that something is a phenomenon is not to say that it is an appearance as opposed to a reality, but rather to say that it is an object for our experience. Perception, our capacity to be in contact with what appears, has its own structure and dignity which should not be assumed to distort its object. In this, Bozzi takes over, but also critiques, Ernst Mach’s views on perception. He also inherits from Mach the conviction that it is possible to create a “naïve” or “phenomenological” physics that would begin from perception rather than try to remove its effects. In this paradigm, experience is the adaptation of ideas to sensations.

In establishing an alternate method for the natural sciences, Bozzi also critiques the concept of “datum,” which he understands not as a pure fact or sensation, but as an already eidetically reduced phenomenon. As such, a datum is a field of possible essential variation whose boundaries can be clearly fixed in reflection (for Husserl) or in experimentation (for Bozzi). What Husserl calls the “eidetic boundary” of the phenomenon Bozzi calls its “determination” (126). Bozzi’s take on Husserl’s eidetic variation is in this way the conjunction of two principles, namely, that of stability and that of sufficient differentiation: if a perception is sufficiently stable and pinned down through a sufficient differentiation of its components, then its identity and homogeneity are guaranteed and certain. Correspondingly, Husserl’s regional ontology is adapted to represent the “absolute threshold” beyond which a phenomenon simply does not appear.

Against the physicalist prejudices of “brain states” and “stimuli” as causes of experience, Bozzi counters with Wittgenstein that “nothing in the visual field permits us to conclude that it is seen by an eye,” or, in the case of the brain, “nothing in the experiential field permits us to conclude that it is caused or experience by the brain.” The stimulus and the brain state do not exist for us, and so they should not exist for the natural sciences if they are to be faithful to the phenomenon. To this end, Bozzi seeks to reinsert the qualitative aspects of the phenomenon into the scientific method, so that the true scientific step is not the projection of the quantitative into the qualitative, but vice versa a projection of the qualitative into the quantitative. Furthermore, Bozzi strengthens the scientific palatability of perception by postulating its non-ineffable, public, and independent character against the fear of so-called “private perceptions.” This lands him in a position of empirical realism, where “the object must be viewed as it is and as it seems. In phenomenological observation there is a perfect coincidence between ‘esse’ and ‘percipi’” (132). We end up with a conception of the scientific phenomenon as “pure phenomenon” in the sense of something original and independent of conceptualization and judgment, the perceived as a result of unification and synthesis of appearances, “invariance in the variations” (134). All this contributes to a theory of scientific method that will be of interest to philosophers and scientists alike.

The tenth essay, authored by Federico Leoni, introduces to the philosophy of Carlo Sini, one of the most important philosophers in Milan still active today. A student of Enzo Paci, Sini brought phenomenology, neo-idealism, and pragmatism together in his remarkable philosophy. Though his study of neo-idealism came first, Paci’s first major works from 1965, Introduzione alla Fenomenologia come Scienza [Introduction to Phenomenology as a Science] and Whitehead e la Funzione della Filosofia [Whitehead and the Function of Philosophy], already reveal deep influences from Husserl and Anglo-American pragmatism.

The work on phenomenology introduces the reader to what will be one of Sini’s philosophical preoccupations for the rest of his career, namely, the problem of how to begin a rigorous philosophical investigation. “One begins…precisely with the realization that one has already begun” (139), which is to say that the only point of beginning for a rigorous methodology is in media res. The starting point is a bundle of ongoing activities and practicing phenomenology means illuminating what is normally confined to the darkness of what remains unthought. Thus, to begin means going back to describing all the operations belonging to the domain of perception, memory, imagination, but also expressiveness, motility, bodily gestures, and the whole set of practices that a body constantly performs in order to inhabit a world. However, Sini comes to radical conclusions about the boundaries of the body, which for him turn out to be blurred. The body extends itself into many other bodies and things, so that the beginning of philosophy lies in the fact that the body is lived by and in infinite other bodies, and that each operation shapes its circumstances and produces its objectifications while configured and objectified by and in infinite other operations. This indicates that the Husserlian attempt to begin by isolating the transcendental plane already implies an infinite task destined to remain incomplete.

At the same time, Sini’s subjectivist interpretation of Husserl, perhaps gained through his reading of Heidegger, lead him beyond transcendental phenomenology. It is in Heidegger and Peirce that he seeks a philosophy that can lead him to the world of things and practices, and he finds it in Being and Time, which he reads in conjunction with Peirce’s semiotic pragmatism. Being-in-the-world means being enmeshed in a set of material practices and references, which is why no presence is ever a mere presence, but always the sign of another presence. Heidegger’s mistake, according to Sini, is to collapse common and semiotic signs, thereby emptying the semiotic structure of its philosophical import. Sini then imports this existential semiotic into Husserl, reinterpreting phenomenological kinesthesis and praxis as the acts of drawing signs and creating distances between phenomena. This is an engagement of the question of the genesis or event of the sign—not merely what a signitive relation is, but how it is generated: “What we want is to witness the tracing of the trace,” he states (144). In this way, Sini reinscribes the question of beginning into his semiotic phenomenology: how do we begin, how is the sign created? And just as with phenomenology, Sini finds that the sign has no beginning, but is always already a matter of having been interpreted. Peirce’s “interpretant,” the one who establishes the semiotic relationship, thus cannot be a subject: “to interpret is to have already interpreted, and the interpretant is nothing else than this having already interpreted…. each present interpretation occurs on the basis of infinite past interpretations which exert their pressure on it” (142). In the end, the whole universe is the interpretant and the thing interpreted, offering itself as its own source and its own destination. In this sense, semiosis is not a capacity or activity of the subject, but an anonymous source, a cosmological event. If all praxis is semiotic praxis, if life is drawing and interpreting signs and creating distances between the sides of the semiotic relation, then the “subject” as the creator of signs, and “Being” as the sender of beings, are fetishes of the sign (or, more precisely, of the event of the sign). Sini’s later work pursues the further conclusions of this realization, developing on one hand a phenomenology of gestures, and on the other a philosophy of rhythm. Both seek to describe the performance of the already-established semiotic relation.

The eleventh essay, by Roberto Miraglia, describes the phenomenology of Giovanni Piana, another of Paci’s students and a colleague and interlocutor of Sini. Piana, recently deceased, developed a “phenomenological structuralism” that interprets phenomenology as a non-ontological, comparative description of experiential structures. He de-ontologizes phenomenology by replacing the term “essence” with that of “structure,” and the concept of evidence with that of “exhibition.” In so doing, Piana rids phenomenology of any Platonic interpretations and makes it possible to describe and compare structures without having to locate them within the ontological dichotomy of consciousness and world. What results is the laying bare of a field of experience that is neither ontological nor psychological.

Phenomenology thus becomes the clarification of how concepts are used in our daily life and how they relate to the world. The point of the reduction is nothing more than simply circumscribing the field of genetic-descriptive analysis. Likewise, it makes no sense to think that phenomenology can resolve the crisis pointed out by Husserl. All phenomenology can do is present, in general, a variety of constitutive tasks. Of the two strains that he identifies in Husserl’s philosophy, the theoretical and the ethical, Piana thinks that only the theoretical accurately represents and carries out the tasks of phenomenology. The ethical, by contrast, is ideological insofar as it confuses phenomenology for some kind of philosophy of renewal, whose task it would be not only to answer ethical questions, but to make humanity more responsible. Piana then brings this non-foundationalist phenomenology back to its empirical roots as a philosophy that derives ideas from impressions.

Miraglia tells the reader that Piana’s greatest accomplishments were more applied than theoretical. In particular, Piana is famous for his work on imaginative-expressive phenomena, especially music. Imagination is seen as a sui generis structure of experience, but one that affects all others. It not only places us in front of imaginary objects, but also enhances experience of perceived objects, making creative syntheses possible and ultimately art itself: “The pseudo-predicative synthesis of imagination steps into the associative connection: the sun is the eye of the sky. Being transforms into Value. This transformation consists of a real intermingling among objects: the result of the synthesis is an entirely new kind of object, an iridescent object which is not what it really is because it is what it is. Neither sun nor eye—but sun and eye together, the one through the other” (155). This understanding of imaginative constitution is then applies to the phenomenon of music, resulting in groundbreaking analyses that have left their mark not only in philosophy, but in Italian culture more broadly.

Finally, the twelfth essay, by Andrea Pace Giannotta, discusses the philosophy of Paolo Parrini, who teaches theoretical philosophy at the University of Florence still today. Parrini is a student of Giulio Preti, who is also introduced in this volume, and has worked on contemporary analytic philosophy, the philosophies of Husserl and Kant, and the history of epistemology and science in the 19th and 20th centuries. Gianotta argues that Parrini’s reading of phenomenology leads to a phenomenological form of empirical realism.

Parrini calls his own philosophy “positive philosophy,” which stands as an alternative to both radical relativism and metaphysical realism. The former is, for Parrini, the result of those views that carry to the extreme the “theory-ladenness of observation” (162). Metaphysical realism, on the other hand, comes from the attempt to overcome the critique of metaphysics on the part of Kant and the logical empiricists. These attempts result, for Parrini, in a reprisal of metaphysics that seeks to give a foundationalist account of knowledge as adaequatio intellectus ad rem. In the realm of scientific knowledge, positive philosophy translates into a moderate epistemic realism that affirms as its basis the empirical underdetermination of scientific theories as well as the theoretical overdetermination of experience. This means not only that it is always possible for a theory to be disproved by new experiential/experimental evidence, but also that, in principle, the same experiential evidence can translate into more than one theoretical framework. Positive philosophy is completed by what Parrini calls empirical realism, which differs from the metaphysical version according to the classical Kantian distinction.

These epistemological positions are affirmed on the basis of the possibility to test hypotheses empirically. It is in relation to this need for empirical verification that Husserlian phenomenology makes an appearance in Parrini’s epistemological thought. According to Parrini, Husserl finds a “fourth way” to the tree epistemological options presented by Friedman, namely, Neokantianism, logical empiricism, and Heideggerian hermeneutics. The “phenomenological way” makes possible an analysis of the empirical basis for knowledge that is cashed out in terms of a structural continuity between Kant and Husserl. In the first place, both philosophers highlight the irreducible contribution that each side of the form/matter distinction plays in cognition, where instead the neo-Kantians and the logical empiricists tend to downplay the role of matter. At the same time, Husserl is interpreted as seeking a way to ratify a kind of knowledge completely devoid of formal components. As a consequence of this interpretation, Husserl is castigated in favor of Kant, who famously foreclosed the possibility of any “judgments of perception.” This interpretation of Husserl carries on for the rest of the essay, where the possibility of Husserl’s material a-priori, here understood as “a priori knowledge (i.e. universal and necessary knowledge) of the content or matter of knowing, which would be expressed through apodictic judgements” (172), is considered and then rejected. This rejection is due to the claim that this material a-priori can only provide us with psychological-subjective validity, not transcendental validity. At the end of the essay, an appeal is made to the “genetic turn” in Husserl’s phenomenology so as to claim that Husserl himself dealt with the static conception of a material a-priori in the same way as Parrini. Lastly, Giannotta compares Parrini’s positive philosophy to the “network model” and to “neutral monism.”

In conclusion, Phenomenology in Italy is a substantial collection of essays and witnesses to the rich phenomenological tradition that Italy has to offer to the rest of the world. Although there are some conspicuous absences in the choice of authors to showcase, I hope that this collection will herald the beginning of the dissemination of Italian thought in the international philosophical community, and that it will inspire more efforts in the translation of Italy’s philosophical treasures.

Steven DeLay: Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity

Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity Book Cover Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity
Steven DeLay
Rowman & Littlefield International
Hardback $120.00

Reviewed by: Walter D Hopp (Boston University)

“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil–such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).

DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).

At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.

But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.

Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).

For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.

That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).

Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.

From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).

This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.

Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.

Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).

But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).

I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).

All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate[] those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.

Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.

Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).

For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:

A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).

And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.

It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.

More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.

How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.

But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.

We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).

Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.

This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.

This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?

DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:

…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?

Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.

That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.

Works Cited

Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.

DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.

Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.

Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.

Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Judith Wambacq: Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty

Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty Book Cover Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty
Series in Continental Thought, № 51
Judith Wambacq
Ohio University Press · Swallow Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Alex de Campos Moura (University of São Paulo)

The Transcendental Project in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze

I. Introduction: The Question

Judith Wamback’s book, Thinking between Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, proposes a highly original reading of two central authors from the 20th century, one that sheds new light on their most important insights.

According to the Wamback herself, she is reacting to a consensus that has been established about the relation between the two thinkers, a consensus that sees their respective works as being either alien or in opposition to each other. This reading of their relationship was championed not only by Foucault but also by Deleuze himself, in his few and mostly negative comments on Merleau-Ponty. As Wamback shows, Deleuze does not seem to recognize either in phenomenology in general or in Merleau-Ponty’s work in particular the main sources of his thought.

Against this interpretation, Wamback explicitly proposes to find a philosophical argument that legitimates bringing them into proximity. She is not, therefore, interested in reconstructing the common history of their reception or perhaps in uncovering a heretofore ignored biographical connection; on the contrary, what she seeks is to make explicit a conceptual connection between two thinkers that critics—including Deleuze himself—have become used to seeing as radically alien. This is the central motivation of this book, one that is also central in evaluating the relevance of its implications.

In order to bring this project to fruition, Wamback proposes a precise framework, which she herself describes as “metaphysically” bent, and which takes up a classical philosophical question, namely the question of the relation between being and thought. She investigates the way both thinkers understand this question, thus providing the ground for her attempted rapprochement.

Indeed, as the book progresses, this question becomes increasingly more precise, and the way Wamback frames and focuses her discussion, notable for its clarity, is one of the main strengths of the book. The debate about the status of thought is revealed as a discussion about the transcendental project behind each thinker’s work, highlighting the intrinsic relation between this project and what Wamback describes as a “philosophy of immanence.” This philosophy of immanence is, according to her, a central dimension of both philosophers’ thoughts, one that brings to the forefront the necessity of understanding the articulation between the transcendental and the immanence.

Wamback, therefore, centers her comparison on the idea that Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty both recognized an immanence between the condition and the conditioned, one that finds its privileged “place” in the notions of expression and simultaneity. This is the central thesis defended by this book, an original and unusual contribution when considered against the backdrop of most studies dedicated to this topic. Let us then examine the way Wamback organizes her book.

II. The Path

In order to accomplish her proposal, Wamback delineates five main steps, thus establishing a work method that is followed throughout the book and that structures the overall path of the investigation. First, a description of the highlighted concept as it is formulated by each of the authors. Second, a discussion about the relationship between the two topics or concepts. Third, a description of the way this articulation sheds light on each of them and, based on this, on the respective reflections in which they find themselves. Fourth, an attempt at finding an “equilibrium” or “balance” between the singularity of each work and its possible openness by way of this articulation. Fifth, the configuration of a new image of the history of philosophy to which these philosophies belong.

In fact, the fifth item is the broader horizon that frames Wamback’s discussion (5). She is not interested in creating a common narrative thread that would encompass both philosophers’ work—indeed, such a common thread may not even exist. Rather, by doing justice to the way each author relates to other thinkers, she intends to “anchor” the “resonances in their work to the history of philosophy”, thereby formulating an “alternative image of the philosophical alliances in French academia over the last two centuries” (5). Here the most ambitious facet of the project is revealed, namely to go beyond a book directed to a specialist audience by retracing kindred context or horizons, thus making explicit the way philosophy is built as a series of answers to the great questions posed by other philosophers (5). This implies the recognition of a historical dimension that is not exclusively factual—if it were possible to think of it in this way—, intrinsic to a specific philosophical debate, perhaps (in a first moment) even in a latent way, but which would even so still be affirmed in each of them. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in the fifties, this would be a kind of subterranean or indirect history, a history that is expressed in the facts without being reducible to them and without detaching itself from them.

In this sense, according to Wamback, the question about thought and being, which is as ancient as our most ancient sources on Western thought, is revealed as a privileged problematization axis, allowing her to trace out the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze pursue this classic problem in their respective philosophical reflections on the basis of their network of references and their theoretical frameworks. She is, therefore, able to uncover deeper and broader debates than those one would glean from a first reading, or even a reading that pays more attention to the schools and neglects the “secret” historicity that animates them. This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of Wamback’s work.

The book is organized around five main cores. I will first describe those cores in a general way, and then I will offer a more detailed analysis of each of them, following the way Wamback builds her argument.

The text is divided into seven chapters, each of which is further divided into topics. These chapters all follow a general methodology: first Wamback presents the position of one of the philosophers being analyzed, then the position of the other, and finally compares them. This methodological option greatly contributes to the clarity of the text and to the strength of her argumentation.

The first and the second chapters focus, according to Wamback herself, in a more direct discussion between the two authors. The idea is not to pit one against the other but to discuss the way each of them approaches similar questions in a kind of textual confrontation, one that is more intimately connected to the analysis of specific works and texts.

The first chapter is dedicated to the topic of thought, focusing on what Wamback describes as “original thought”, seeking to formulate what are, for each author, its nature and conditions. The main axis of the chapter is the argument that both authors think this notion as a way of distancing themselves from the representation model and its implications. This move demands an analysis of the objective and subjective dimensions that constitute this “original thought”, which leads us to the problem of the ontology therein implicit. This question is pursued in the second chapter, which seeks to understand in what sense the way both authors formulate the question about the status of thought—and its distance from the representation model—is grounded in an understanding of being. In particular, Wamback shows how this ontology recognizes being as unitary, even if it admits—indeed, demands—difference and indetermination.

The third chapter focuses on what Wamback considers a kind of epistemological or ontological “project” or even “decision” present in Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze’s philosophies, discussing the extent to which their paths (delineated by the first two chapters) are connected to an understanding of the sense of philosophical work, especially in the framing of its own field of investigation—which is connected to what Wamback describes as the “empirical”. She will here follow the way Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze absorb the much-debated “transcendental empiricism”, tracing out their divergences from Husserl and Kant. This absorption is, to Wamback, one of the main points of proximity between the two, a point to which I will return below.

This investigation is carried a step further by its incursion into the relationship between the condition and the conditioned, an examination that will be carried out in the fourth chapter, with its reference to Bergson. As is well known, the relation between Deleuze and Bergson is much more explicit than the relation between Merleau-Ponty and Bergson. However, more and more recent scholars have highlighted this last relation, and Wamback’s work is part of this recent trend in the scholarship, which presents a broad yet still unexplored horizon. In particular, Wamback’s reference to Bergson appears as a central element—both for Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze—in the understanding of the relation between the condition and the conditioned, especially in connection to the notion of “simultaneity”.

Chapters five and six focus then on this relation, particularly in its connection to the question of “expression”, a question central to both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze and which is organized precisely around the articulation between the “ground” and the grounded. To understand this question, the fifth chapter is dedicated to the description of its connection to literary experience—examining the reference to Proust, which is common to both and which is of undeniable relevance—, and the sixth chapter is dedicated to its connection to visual dimension—examining the also common and very important reference to Cézanne.

The seventh chapter also has recourse to a common denominator but now approaching the discussion from a different angle. According to Wamback, the previous chapters had as their goal to show, in different ways, the proximity between the two philosophers, by exploring how their common horizon is structured by the assertion of a unity between the condition and the conditioned, an inseparability of the ground and the grounded—a logic that is particularly notable in the notion of expression. The last chapter then attempts to shed new light on this logic, highlighting the way in which a differential dynamic operates inside this logic. The common denominator mentioned above is Saussure.

Wamback uses this reference to Saussure to explain how a “solid immanence requires a differential theory of how the condition generates the conditioned (which nevertheless determines it)” (7). She shows how this differential dynamic is to be found in both authors, especially in the way each of them appropriates Saussure’s thought, and how its constituting logic is marked by a tension between the condition and the conditioned.

Finally, the conclusion seeks to discuss the resonances and the divergences between the two philosophers, taking a stand on whether it is possible to establish a common horizon to them, or whether their distance from each other is so great that there would be no effective dialogue or convergence.

This finishes the general presentation of the book. Before continuing, it is still worth noting an important methodological option defended by Wamback, one responsible for the tight circumscription of her project. It is the option of not analyzing the relation between the two authors in terms of the notion of perception. According to her, the way each philosopher situates this notion is extremely different. In the case of Merleau-Ponty, the description of perception is carried out in an ontological or “epistemological” horizon, whereas Deleuze would think it as connected to an ethical discussion, conceived according to relations of force intensity. Such an observation is also helpful in understanding Wamback’s second methodological choice, which is connected to her first: the works on which she focuses. In Merleau-Ponty’s case, Wamback focuses primarily on The Visible and the Invisible, since—according to a widespread reading—his ontology would be the most developed at that point in his career. This would justify relegating The Phenomenology of Perception to the sidelines, since this work is considered by this line of interpretation to be “propaedeutic” to the ontology of his last work.

With this counterpoint as the horizon, it is possible to highlight the relevance and the originality of Wamback’s proposed framing, especially her option of discussing both authors from the point of view of their understanding of the status of thought. This point of view is the starting point of her proposed approximation and of her discussions, presenting an unusual take when considered against the backdrop of the most common studies about this relationship. Moreover, as I will discuss in the next section, this point of view culminates in a discussion about the sense that the “transcendental project” assumes in each philosopher. Wamback rests her argument especially in the recognition of “immanence” as an irresistible dimension, turning the articulation between the condition and the conditioned, between the ground and the grounded, into a central element in each author’s formulations. Let us, therefore, see in more detail how she builds her analysis.

III. The Book

Wamback bases her reading on the idea that there is, from the beginning, something in common to Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty: not only the fact that both reflected on the topic of thought but also the fact that they distinguished two types of thought. On the one hand, a properly original thought, and, on the other hand, a thought without any originality or expressiveness. The second type of thought is merely an application of given concepts, whereas the first type—which is the type that really intrigues the two philosophers—is a kind of “creative” dynamic. Recalling the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty between “speaking speech” and “spoken speech”, as well as the distinction between “thought” and “knowledge” as described by Deleuze, Wamback proposes a peculiar framework, extremely revealing of her reading: the distinction between a “thinking thought” and an expressive thought. “Thinking thought” is the type of thought which is central to both authors and which is the starting point of Wamback’s investigation, demanding an understanding of the way each author conceives of it. The first piece of evidence highlighted by Wamback is the way this notion figures in both as a refusal of the modern conception of “representation”.

Starting with Merleau-Ponty’s reflection, Wamback appeals to some of the central notions of the Phenomenology of Perception to circumscribe his notion of thought. She then briefly examines the way Merleau-Ponty understands the sense of perception, with special emphasis on his criticism of the intellectualist and empiricist theories and on his notion of “field”, showing how the perceptual dynamic is grounded on the “original intertwinement of body and world” (18). From this point on, the question becomes whether his notion of thought is grounded in the same articulation, being always in relation to something. To pursue this question, Wamback examines the notions of the cogito—especially its negative dimension—, of geometrical thought, and of linguistic expression.

At this point in her analysis, Wamback introduces the notion of Fundierung, proposed in the Phenomenology of Perception as a “two-way relation”, an alternative to the classical understanding of the ground and the grounded as sundered elements, since they are now defined as relational dimensions in reciprocal determination. While this is a central notion in Merleau-Ponty’s work, Wamback uses it here only to think the relation between “thought” and “language”. She defends that, in spite of all its implications, there is still in this notion an asymmetry: the expressed still has “ontological priority” (35), preserving a difference between the terms. On her reading, this asymmetry would only be dissolved later, with Merleau-Ponty’s introduction of the notion of “institution”. Nevertheless, Wamback highlights that the Fundierung relation already contained a central idea, namely “excess” as an indication of the “immanence of the ground that transcends itself in the expression” (26). Her conclusion is that, for Merleau-Ponty, thought is not a “mediating activity”, but is, rather, “familiar with the world”, “it has direct contact” with it and is “in a certain sense shaped by it” (30).

Wamback shows that something similar takes place in Deleuze’s thought. From the beginning, Deleuze proposes to understand thought by confronting the sign, refusing the idea of a natural inclination to the truth, and recognizing it as always characterized by “the singularity of the meeting”, in which signs appear as “enigmas” (31). Here, more than with Merleau-Ponty, the spotlight falls on the differential character of sign and sense. Wamback shows how these notions are thought of in order to move away from the most characteristic presuppositions of representational thought: on the one hand, the idea of identity and unity, and, on the other hand, the notions of nature and of affinity with the truth. Deleuze recognizes, under the eight postulates of representational thought, a “confusion of empirical and transcendental features” (47) that obscures the proper sense of thought.

Wamback proposes that, in this perspective, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are extremely close, meeting in this movement that she describes as a “transcendental examination of thought”(49), a discussion about its conditions and about the human capacity to think. One consequence of this proximity is that both authors recognize that the object of thought is characterized by a “certain exteriority” (50). This means that both authors recognize—and hold it in high esteem—the “grounded” dimension of thought, focusing on the description of the relation between the ground and the grounded as intrinsic or immanent (51). It is precisely this intrinsic or immanent relation that guarantees its creative genesis: “In sum, for both authors, the creative nature of thought is due to the necessary role of thought in the grounding relation”  (51).

After examining these conditions for the investigation of thought in each author—and the presence of a certain undeniable immanence—, Wamback focuses on describing their respective ontologies. As mentioned above, she holds that the way they understand thought, particularly their conception of thought as sustained by this intertwinement of immanence and transcendence, demands a description of the ontological ground therein implicit.

In Merleau-Ponty’s case, as described in the Introduction, Wamback focuses on the ontology of his last texts, notably The Visible and the Invisible. She emphasizes there the differential character that is central in his formulation, particularly through his notion of flesh—described by him in its originally dissonant and, simultaneously, unitary character (58), from which Wamback detaches the notion of “style” or “typicality” (59). She insists that it is not a matter of identity, but of a differential unity, which is connected to the notions of openness and constitution.

In Deleuze’s case, on the other hand, Wamback defends that the same dimensions present in Merleau-Ponty’s proposition can be found in the former’s ontology. The two authors supplant the distinction between the abstract and the concrete by reporting being to another level, which, in the case of Deleuze, is thought of as the virtual: like Merleau-Ponty’s flesh, the virtual is characterized by a nonidentical unity that cannot be divided into an inside and an outside; also like the flesh, the virtual is characterized by a fundamental openness, being also the condition of concrete things (65).

On the other hand, concerning the differences between them, Wamback holds that Deleuze devoted more time to the task of showing that unity and difference are not in opposition, that indetermination does not imply undifferentiation and that the constitutive nature of the virtual does not detach it from the things and concepts that are conditioned by it (65). In spite of this difference, she concludes that, for both, the object of thought—the flesh and the virtual—is not an identity: “The flesh and the virtual are disguised (VI, 150; DR, 133), displaced with respect to themselves” (79). The two notions combine unity and difference, acting as the condition of concepts and things, be they living or non-living (80). These dimensions are responsible for the individuation and crystallization processes, situated in the articulation between, on the one hand, the visible and the actual, and, on the other hand, the virtual and the invisible flesh, acting in the region between conservation and creation.

Supported by this discussion about the two philosophers’ ontologies—in their closeness and in their distance—, Wamback proceeds to study that which she describes as their “transcendental project”, seeking to situate their proposed investigation about the nature of thought in a broader framework:

“What is at stake, philosophically, when they refuse a representational account of thought, and prefer instead to situate the origin of thinking not in the thinking subject, but in the encounter with an exterior sign (Deleuze), or in the participation in a wild being (Merleau-Ponty)? Why do they both attack the representational account of thought?” (85).

She defends that they are brought close together by their affirmation of the non-exteriority between subject and object, between the one who thinks and what is thought—an affirmation that, according to her, is at the basis of what the two of them recognize as philosophically being “immanence” (85). Wamback defends that immanence is articulated with the idea of “difference”, even with all the distance that separates their respective ontologies.

Deleuze’s transcendental project is carefully presented by a confrontation with the Kantian project and by a discussion of a series of thinkers that heavily influenced him, especially Spinoza, Maimon, Leibniz, and Husserl. Merleau-Ponty’s project, in its turn, is presented through its confrontation with Husserl and, more generally speaking, with phenomenology, a relation characterized simultaneously by connection and distance. Wamback highlights that, beyond their idiosyncrasies, they have a common inspiration in their criticism of Husserl and his proposal of a return “to the things themselves”:

“A transcendental philosophy should look not for the conditions of possibility of experience but for its conditions of reality. For Merleau-Ponty as much as for Deleuze, this implies that the transcendental ground is to be situated in the empirical. The ground must be immanent to the grounded and thus possess a certain historicity that cannot be reconciled with the invariability of transcendent essences. Philosophy’s task, then, is defined as the explanation of how the empirical, the grounded, can be produced immanently. For both thinkers, philosophy is to be a philosophy of genesis.” (121)

There is also a resonance in what they reject from Husserl, especially his notion of a transcendental subject (122). According to Wamback, they both see in this notion an obstacle to a consistent transcendental project, since it prevents it from “becoming an immanent ontology” (123) and weakens its differential dimension.

After this more general perspective, it is now possible to return to what Wamback calls the dimension of “immanence”, present in the two authors’ respective transcendental project. To analyze this notion, it is worthwhile to focus especially on its differential dynamic—something that Wamback has worked on from the beginning by way of the relation between the ground and the grounded, the main axis that articulates her analyses.

Here one should mention a central element both for the two philosophers and for Wamback’s argument, namely the notion of expression, precisely as a way of understanding this articulation between the condition and the conditioned. The following chapters focus, each in their own way, on this notion, circumscribing it through diverse and correlate points of view: through its relation to the notion of simultaneity, through its connection to literary expression, and, finally, by discussing its visual dimension. In a word: by their relations to Bergson, Proust, and Cézanne.

The first step is their common reference to Bergson, which is circumscribed by Wamback through the notion of simultaneity. She seeks to understand how the appeal to Bergson helps Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze to build, each in their own way, a transcendental project that attempts to situate the transcendental in the empirical, the basis for what she considers the “philosophy of immanence” that is characteristic of both (125).

Wamback argues that Merleau-Ponty’s initial reading of Bergson, particularly in the Phenomenology of Perception, is “essentially unfair” (132), since he accuses Bergson of “not considering other kinds of spatiality in order to think time” (ibid). This diagnosis would be partially revised in The Visible and the Invisible, especially through the notion of “partial coincidence” and through his discussion of depth—both topics that are also to be found in Deleuze’s reading. Here the two meet each other again, since the two of them recognize depth not as a spatial but as a temporal dimension, connected to the idea of simultaneity—explicitly as a refusal of a notion of succession, recognizing the present as a “contraction of the past” (142). This formulation would lead them to similar consequences, especially the affirmation of an impossibility of directly accessing the past.

“These ressonances between Merleau-Ponty’s and Deleuze’s references to Bergson also reveals resonances at the most general level of their conception of the relation between the ground and the grounded. Both appeal to Bergson’s idea that the passing of time must be explained through the simultaneity of future, present, and past, because that offers a possible solution if your goal is to avoid referring, in the explanation, to an exterior or transcendent element. In other words, Bergson’s notion of simultaneity is a very good illustration of how one can keep the relation between the ground and the grounded immanent.” (143)

Wamback emphasizes the notion of simultaneity as a central element in their philosophies, a kind of “field” that articulates transcendence and immanence. The study about expression—about the way this relationship is realized and is inscribed in their respective transcendental projects—continues through an analysis of Proust and Cézanne.

The careful chapter devoted to Proust shows, on the one hand, that both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze find in the writer inspiration to understand an achronological, original time, composed of dimensions and not divided into successive moments, configured around a “centre of envelopment” (163). On the other hand, Wamback sustains that their respective readings diverge to the extent that, beyond this direct reference to time, Proust also contributed to Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the body, something that did not occur with Deleuze.

The following chapter continues the discussion about the notion of expression, focusing now on its visual dimension and finding support in Cézanne’s presence, also common to the two philosophers. Wamback shows how both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze insist on the nonrepresentational character of art, which leads them both in the direction of a “nonimitative resemblance” (170). The guiding thread is the understanding—that brings them very close to each other—of the painting process and its nature (178).

Finally, the seventh chapter is devoted to a description of how Saussure figures in each author’s work. In the previous chapters, recall, Wamback strove to make explicit the way they tried to “ensure the immanence of their transcendental projects by characterizing the relationship between the ground and the grounded as one of simultaneity (chapter 4) and expression (chapters 5 and 6)” (189). Now, in the last chapter, she explores another central element of these transcendental projects, namely the idea of difference. Wamback argues that, in spite of some differences, both Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze are interested in the same ideas from Saussure, especially “his discovery of the genetic power of difference” (211).

After briefly retracing Wamback’s path, it is now possible to summarize, in a few lines, her main proposal. It seems to me that the central—and strongest—of her claims is her proposal of a convergence between the transcendental projects of Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, especially due to the intrinsic relation between such projects and the field of immanence. According to Wamback, this immanence is an original articulation between the condition and the conditioned, formulated by the two authors through the notions of simultaneity and expression. Such a “philosophy of immanence” is on the horizon thanks to which a new sense of the transcendental could appear, bring the philosophers close together.

Such a similarity, however, does not erase their differences. Indeed, it illuminates these differences from a new perspective. This is what allows Wamback to finally conclude, without losing sight of their respective singularities, that there is still a “unity” among them, as a new horizon that does not reject dissonance, putting it into a new context and proposing it a new meaning. As she had proposed in the beginning, one of the main goals of her project was to retrace philosophical relations, to rethink more subterranean contexts, to reconfigure lines of influence and of exchange in a more general sense.

It is, therefore, a highly original proposal, resulting in an uncommon work among the current scholarship, one that is pursued with admirable care, clarity, and cohesion.

Corijn van Mazijk: Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell

Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell Book Cover Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Corijn van Mazijk

Reviewed by:  Daniel Guilhermino (PhD Student, Department of Philosophy, University of São Paulo, Brazil)

The decisive influence of McDowell in shaping the contemporary debate over non-conceptual content is well known. After the release of Mind and World (1994), almost any attempt to assign non-conceptuality to the contents of perception had to engage with McDowell’s conceptualist model of experience. The rich discussions inspired by conceptualism in the current literature on non-conceptual content, however, often ignore the original philosophical motivation behind McDowell’s thesis, or so goes the premise of Van Mazijk’s new book Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell (2020). This motivation comes from the tradition initiated by Kant in the 18th century, and followed by Husserl in the late 19th, known as transcendental philosophy, whose main idea is to put into question that which is the fundamental presupposition of the sciences, namely the availability of reality to us. The central aim of Van Mazijk’s book is to recover this original transcendental concern of McDowell’s thought by inserting his conceptualism within this broader tradition mainly represented by Kant and Husserl. As a result, it ends up by exploring how Kantian and Husserlian approaches of transcendental problems avoid certain inconsistencies in McDowell’s conceptualism, thus providing better alternatives for understanding the relation between mind and world.

The book is structured in three parts, each containing two chapters dealing with those thinkers’ theories of perception, since perception represents the most basic way through which the world is made available to us. Given the author’s overall aim to offer a new critique of McDowell’s thought, both Kantian and Husserlian theories of perception are analyzed through the lens of the conceptualism debate. This is made possible with the help of the distinction between weak conceptualism and strong conceptualism, which represents the key distinction of the entire book. Weak conceptualism is defined as “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercise” (4), and strong conceptualism as the view that “concepts structure sense experience, and this is in fact what first makes reality perceptually available” (4). All the discussions that follow are carried out in view of this important hermeneutical tool.

The book follows historical sequence, thus beginning with Kant and ending with McDowell. The author himself, however, suggests that the chapters could be read independently of one another, and that any reader specifically interested in McDowell and in contemporary philosophy of perception could begin with the two last chapters on McDowell. I would rather suggest that readers not familiar with the contemporary discussion of conceptualism in philosophy of perception do that. This way they will better understand what is mainly at stake in the discussions with Kant and Husserl in the remaining chapters.

The first part focuses on how Kant’s transcendental philosophy provides us the tools to have an immediate access to reality, and not, e.g., an inferential one. The overall purpose is to advocate a weak conceptualist reading of Kant’s theory of perception, in opposition to, for instance, McDowell’s strong conceptualist reading of it. After introducing the basics of Kant’s theory of knowledge in the first chapter, Van Mazijk proceeds, in the second chapter, to the transcendental deduction. An adequate reading of the deduction is essential to a conceptualist interpretation of Kant’s theory. For instance, according to Van Mazijk, McDowell’s reading of the deduction is at the basis of his strong conceptualist interpretation of Kant. The author reads McDowell as stating that Kant places the dependence of sensible intuition on the categories at the same level as the dependence of it on space and time (41). This is a mistake, Van Mazijk’s points out, as the necessity of a transcendental deduction is justified precisely due to the fact that the “pure concepts, in Kant’s view, stand at a certain distance from the world; they are not sine qua non conditions for sensible intuitions in the way space and time are” (40).

Van Mazijk’s analyses of the A and B-Version of the deduction yield basically the same conclusion, namely that Kant is mainly concerned with weak conceptualism, as long as he insists that appearances have to be relatable to a unitary consciousness (which does not compel them to be always necessarily related to a self-consciousness or standing I). Apperception, so goes Van Mazijk in a close reading of Kant, is defined in terms of potentiality: “Apperception, then, need not be understood as a permanent, onlooking I; it is rather itself the potential for the I to be awakened; a transcendental potential for becoming actively aware of what is intuited” (45).

Besides that, however, strong conceptualism seems to also play a role in the deduction, especially in the A-Version. This is due to the synthesis of imagination and its specific role in the openness of intuitions to conceptualization. The main idea seems to be the following: The adequacy of intuitions to pure concepts – what Kant calls their affinity (46) – is the product of the synthesis of imagination. This affinity is already to be found previously in the sensibility itself as an “aptitude” of intuitions to be associable with pure concepts. This means that the contents of sensibility must already have an affinity with the understanding. Now, the synthesis of the imagination, Kant states, is grounded in the categories (46). Therefore, the categories are constitutive of intuitions, which is exactly the strong conceptualist thesis. That is, intuition is open to conceptualization (weak conceptualism) precisely because it is conceptually structured (strong conceptualism). Van Mazijk concludes from this that “pure concepts might after all play an important role in intuition, insofar as they would supply the imagination with the forms of synthesis required to make intuitions open to conceptualization” (47). In the end, however, the greater prominence seems to be given to weak conceptualism: “It can be concluded that, in both versions of the deduction, Kant’s principal aim is to show that pure concepts apply unconditionally to any intuition” (49). With regard to strong conceptualism, Van Mazijk only states that we have “some textual support” (49) for it.

The second part deals with Husserl’s theory of perception and knowledge. The third chapter begins by introducing the basic elements of Husserl’s early theory of intentionality that comes from the Logical Investigations. They are the quality (the way of intending something), the object-reference and the matter (the Fregean sense) of the act (63). Another important element within the intentional structure of consciousness is the sensation content, which Van Mazijk interprets not as unstructured data, but as having some kind of non-intentional and non-conceptual structure (66). Despite being non-conceptual, sensations are not regarded as merely natural facts, and are not, therefore, excluded from the concern of philosophy as a matter of, e.g., physiology, as in Kant’s account.

Nevertheless, sensations do not play any role in Husserl’s account of knowledge as synthesis of fulfillment, as long as they do not have an articulable structure, that is, a propositional structure which can be also instantiated in beliefs. Van Mazijk begins his explanation of Husserl’s theory of fulfillment by stressing that “it is crucial to observe first that, in Husserl’s view, signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68). Knowledge is then explained as a coincidence that happens between this empty act of meaning and an appropriate fulfilling act. When I merely entertain the thought of a blackbird in the garden, for instance, I have an empty signitive act of meaning. When I look and see the blackbird, this act of intuition comes into a coincidence with my former signitive act and gives rise to a synthesis of fulfillment (69). Van Mazijk goes on to explore that not only sensible perception can provide fulfillment, but also memory, categorial intuition of ideal states-of-affairs and universal intuition. (69-70). Importantly, the fulfillment does not rely on all the aspects of the act, but only on the intentional ones: “all and only intentional contents come up for fulfillment and allow of propositional articulation” (71). From this, the author concludes that Husserl “clearly defends a version of weak conceptualism” (71). The reason why this conceptualism is weak is because “the articulable content of the fulfilling act (say, a perceptual content) can play its fulfilling part only by virtue of the fact that it is not just a conceptual content” (79). That is, the fulfillment can provide warrant for empty beliefs due to the fact that it makes an extra-conceptual contribution to it.

The clarity with which the theory is presented hides, however, the greatest difficulties of Husserl’s text. There are, for example, some problematic passages in the Logical Investigations where Husserl states that “the very thing that we marked off as the ‘matter’ of meaning, reappeared once more in the corresponding intuition” (Husserl, 2001, 241). This kind of statement seems to challenge the author’s affirmation that “signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68), since the “matter” – understood as the Fregean sense and hence as conceptual content – would make both signitive and intuitive acts as carriers of meaning. Another problem not faced by the author is one concerned with the concept of fullness. It is only stated, at the end of the section dealing with fulfillment, that it is the “peculiar character of fullness” that “distinguishes perception (as an intuitive act) from thinking (as an empty act) – instead of, say, a real causal relation to an object” (72). Nothing, however, is said about this peculiarity itself, and the difficulties that are implied by this statement are not deemed important by the author. I find this to be a mistake, since the exact way in which the fullness gives fulfillment is one of the most important and controversial aspects of Husserl’s theory, and its clarification seems to me to be necessary to make understandable the “extra-conceptual contribution intuition makes relative to our empty beliefs” (72) mentioned above. The apparent inconsistencies in Husserl’s description of fulfillment was, by the way, one of the initial motives for the dispute over conceptualism with regard to his theory of perception.

The second half of the third chapter deals with Husserl’s transcendental turn and offers an interesting and original reading of the phenomenological reduction. The reduction should show us that all the sorts of nature-reason divide that somehow sets consciousness apart from the world are in the wrong path. Rather, reason and nature form a whole that could be investigated from the perspective of consciousness (as manifestations in my streaming conscious life) and from the perspective of nature (as real facts in the world). This results in a view the author calls “the double aspect theory” (80), which allows both natural science and philosophy to study the relation between mind and world: the former studies it as a natural fact under a natural attitude, forming a space of nature; the latter as a relation in the streaming of conscious life under a phenomenological attitude, forming a space of consciousness (81).

I find this way of presenting the phenomenological reduction to be one of Van Mazijk’s most interesting contributions that should be explored in the approximations between Husserlian phenomenology and conceptualism. Particularly important is that it understands the space of consciousness as wider than the space of concepts, thus making room for non-conceptual and non-intentional sensations in the philosophical approach of consciousness. For instance, the naturalistic psychology of Husserl’s time tended to see everything that does not have a relation to an apperception as a natural fact. By the same token, McDowell tends to see everything that falls outside the conceptual space of reasons as a natural fact. From Husserl’s perspective, in Van Mazijk’s view, this results from a failure to see that the world is not divided into two separated regions, mind and world, but is rather “one totality of being (mind and world), which can be viewed either under the aspect of nature or that of consciousness” (87). Absolutely everything is encompassed by the space of consciousness, only that under its specific attitude, which is not the same of the natural sciences. There is no reason, therefore, to exclude the non-conceptual and the non-intentional from it.

The fourth chapter turns to Husserl’s later genetic investigations in order to demonstrate how phenomenology can accommodate all accomplishments of consciousness. Van Mazijk proceeds here to the concrete analyses of non-conceptual levels of perception, showing that they are not restricted to empirical investigations, as in Kantian and McDowellian pictures. The chapter exhibits the powerful scope of phenomenology, which ranges from the most basic level of mere sensation to conceptual thought. This is considered by the author “Husserl’s master thought”, namely that “the space of consciousness can be analyzed as a unitary whole” (117), and not only as empty a priori forms of knowledge (Kant) or as conceptual capacities in the space of reasons (McDowell).

The genetic investigations present our openness to the world in a stratified manner. Three levels of perceptual accomplishments as well as three levels of conceptual ones are distinguished by the author. The analysis of these accomplishments provides an occasion for an interesting discussion with McDowell. Husserl is said to obey a strict divide between perceptual and conceptual content (105). Thus, to perceive something as being thus and so and to judge something as being thus and so are two different things, one involving a perceptual content, the other involving a conceptual content. But how do we get from perception to judgment? This is, of course, one of the most important problems of McDowell’s Mind and World, and it is there solved by appealing to strong conceptualism: the conceptual contents determine the perceptual experience. Husserl, in turn, has another story to tell. It is possible to perceive something as being thus and so without forming a judgment about that, that is, it is possible to “perceptually explicate relations between things perceived, yet lacking the ability to attain the propositionally articulated content” (104). Therefore, it is not the judgment that determines perception, but the other way around: it is because we can intentionally (albeit non-conceptually) be related to things in perception, that we can form judgments about them, and not the other way around. In order to make a judgment, “the ego must repeat the passive process, but this time in a changed, active attitude” (105). By doing this, the ego “extracts” the contents of perception and informs them with propositional articulation in judgment.

This narrative is a bit obscured, however, as Husserl speaks of the propositionally structured object being “pre-figured” in perception (105). This paradoxical statement serves to complicate the matters in the attempt to fit Husserl in the conceptualist or non-conceptualist parties. Van Mazijk does not overlook this challenging problem and engages with it in the second half of the chapter by exploring Husserl’s notions of horizonal awareness, motivation and bodily action – which form a “kinesthetic system” (107-110) –, and also his concept of habit (acquired skill) (111-117). Generally speaking, the idea is that perception considered as a simple intentional relation to an object is, on Husserl’s account, an abstraction. It is not a starting point (as it is in almost any theory of perception), but a resulting process. The original genetic analyses provided in this section show that “for us, then, perception is saddled with concepts after all” (118). This, however, in the author’s view, is not enough to assign Husserl a strong conceptualist theory of perception, since “intellectual acts are not a condition of possibility for a rich perceptual intentionality”, and  “the fact that (some) perceptual contents are fit to figure in judgments does not derive from a capacity to judge; it is due to perception itself” (p118). Husserl remains, thus, in the end, a weak conceptualist.

The last part of the book focuses on the theory that orients all the discussions of the previous chapters, namely McDowell’s conceptualism. The fifth chapter introduces the central conceptualist claim that the contents of experience are all conceptual and explains how it arises as the only way out of the epistemological dilemma between the myth of the given and coherentism. As is well known, McDowell’s solution is to expand the conceptual domain beyond the mental sphere and to place it in the world, admitting experience to have conceptual content.

Having stated the conceptualist thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to ask some important questions that challenge its overall consistency. The author lists and analyzes 14 fragments from McDowell’s writings in order to find out what exactly does it mean to say that the contents of experience are conceptual. A close and detailed reading of these fragments reveal that McDowell oscillates between a weak and strong conceptualism, but in the long run favours the strong version. Strong conceptualism, in turn, raises the most important issues with respect to the consistency of McDowell’s idea. Particularly, it does not explain which concepts specifically are necessary to inform perceptual experience and leaves unanswered the question of how perception in non-rational animals is possible (since they do not possess concepts) (124-132).

After exploring these inherent difficulties in McDowell’s conceptualism thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to discuss how Kant and Husserl could offer better answers to them. The main purpose is to show that a weak conceptualism “should suffice to establish intuition’s inclusion in the McDowellian space of reasons” (133). That is, since weak conceptualism, either in its Kantian or Husserlian forms, avoids the issues raised above against McDowell’s strong conceptualism, then the former is preferable to the latter. With respect to Kant, the author states that it is at least conceivable that an imagination functioning differently from ours synthesizes intuitional contents in a non-conceptual manner (134). Therefore, it is at least thinkable, in the Kantian framework, to have a non-conceptual relation to the world. As to Husserl, it is said that both the early theory of fulfillment and the genetic investigations of later phenomenology offer good reasons not to account for the contents of perception under the unique category of the conceptual. Both Kantian and Husserlian more detailed distinctions in the realm of perceptual content should then make room for some kinds of nonconceptuality in the contents of perception that do not fall prey to the myth of the given, thus avoiding the necessity of strong conceptualism.

The sixth and final chapter criticizes the most important assumption of McDowell’s conceptualism, namely his division of spaces. In short, this division amounts to two ways of dealing with things: as natural lawful phenomena (the space of nature) or as rationally relevant exercises (the space of reasons). Van Mazijk proceeds to analyse how McDowell, in order to avoid any threat of non-naturalism, allows everything else but conceptual contents to be placed within the space of nature. This generates several problems. Among them, it makes it impossible for McDowell to give a satisfactory account of the genesis of reason (Bildung), thus making rationality a kind of miracle (150-153). A more adequate picture of perception, which does not preclude the possibility of offering a genesis of reason, is offered by Husserl, as the author showed in the fourth chapter. Another problem concerns the transcendental significance of McDowell’s enterprise. Conceptualism, in McDowell’s view, is said to refer to “prior conditions of being directed at reality” (156). This way, any claim concerning the space of nature (actually, any claim at all) must be made through the space of reasons. But this clearly contradicts McDowell’s affirmations that “thinking and knowledge can after all be conceived of as natural phenomena” (156). In Van Mazijk’s view, there is no way to conceive the space of reasons as being both condition of and conditioned by the space of nature (156). Both Kant and Husserl show that this is a “transcendental absurdity”, since it “conflates distinct levels of explanations” (161).

On the way towards a conclusion, Van Mazijk points out that it is precisely this division of spaces which makes conceptualism attractive after all. That is, only if one accepts that the space of reasons consists exclusively of concepts, one will tend to ascribe conceptuality to perception (in order to make it rationally intelligible). But, as all the analyses of both Husserlian and Kantian framework have shown, there are good reasons not to consider concepts to be the exclusive accomplishment of rationality and therefore not to accept this division of spaces. The rest of the chapter is then dedicated to reinforcing the main conclusion of the book, namely the idea that the Kantian and (specially) Husserlian accounts of perception and reality avoid the inconsistencies generated by McDowellian conceptualism and offer, therefore, better alternatives to it. The final preference is given to the Husserlian framework, as it “provide[s] the most interesting and viable alternative when it comes to determining reference for concepts of the mental, as well as for specifying the contents of various types of sensible operations” (157).

In sum, Van Mazijk’s rich book does an excellent job of showing how the three authors work towards the same epistemological problems and have shared ambitions. To all of them, the Cartesian approach on subjectivity is misguided; and to all of them, it is precisely this approach that is at the basis of the epistemological problems concerning the gulf between mind and world. As to the overcoming of the Cartesian picture, they all want to reject transcendental realism, that is, the idea that reality is radically independent of our knowledge. This way, Kant, Husserl and McDowell intend to show that the world is a priori a world of rational experience. The conflict emerges when McDowell achieves that by appealing to the exclusively conceptual configuration of the world, which is denied by both Kant and Husserl. In this way, the book successfully accomplishes one of its purposes announced in the preface of “connecting [McDowell’s work] to key figures of the German transcendental tradition”, and so of “uncovering a continuing tradition hidden underneath today’s more specialized and fragmented philosophical landscape” (7). Therefore, it should appeal to anyone interested in a historical study of Kant, Husserl and McDowell. As to its more original purpose, “to develop new critical reflections on core tenets of McDowell’s philosophy” (7), that is principally achieved by the author’s recourse to Husserl in order to advocate weak conceptualism. I am not convinced, however, that the Husserlian perspective as offered here by the author is free of difficulties. At most, it seems to me to be as problematic as McDowell’s views. The early theory of fulfillment, as I have said, has many problems concerning the concepts of matter and fullness. As to the genetic analyses, the author himself recognizes that Husserl’s work on habit poses serious difficulties to the overall interpretation of his theory as conceptualist (weak or strong) or non-conceptualist. It seems that these problems should be faced more at length if Husserl is to be seriously considered as an alternative to conceptualism.


This research was supported by Grant #2019/01444-6, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).


Van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl and McDowell. New York: Routledge.

Husserl, E. 2001. Logical Investigations, Volume II. J. N. Findlay, trans. London and New York: Routledge.

Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press
Hardback $49.95

Reviewed by: Elad Lapidot (University of Bern)

Is Catholicism a Religion?

Over the last decades, scholars have increasingly called into question the universal validity of the category “religion” as referring to a supposed ahistorical constant domain of all human mind and civilization, the domain of faith. The claim has characteristically been that, even though nowadays we often speak and think of religion this way, both in everyday life and in scholarship, in fact our notion of religion is a historical construct. This conceptual construct, so the claim, is fashioned after a specific cultural tradition, the Christian West, which, as part of obtaining or preserving its global epistemic hegemony, has asserted its own culture – Christianity – as a universal and superior feature of human nature as such: religion. Consequently, all cultures would have their religions: the Jewish, the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, which could therefore be compared and evaluated in view of the underlying paradigm – and ultimate paragon – of religion, Christianity.

This sort of critique of religion is commonly deployed in postcolonial-like discourses, which confront the Christian West with its non-Christian others. Could the same critique apply within Christianity itself (West vs. East) or even within the Western? Wouldn’t the construct “religion” arise not only from a geo-political bias, i.e. the West, but also from a chrono-political bias, i.e. Modernity? And if so, wouldn’t it give effect and perpetuate a bias within the Christian West, namely in favor of modern Christianity, marked by Protestantism and Secularism, so as to undermine premodern, Catholic forms of Christian civilization? Is Catholicism a religion?

There is much in Baring’s intriguing new book to suggest that Catholicism is in fact not primarily a religion, but a philosophy, or even – philosophy. The main theme of the book is continental philosophy, whose center according to Baring is phenomenology. Its explicit concern is intellectual and institutional genealogy, “the Making of Continental Philosophy”, namely how a specific direction in 20th century philosophy, phenomenology, has been able to transform “from a provincial philosophy in southwest Germany into a movement that spanned Europe” (2), and so to become “continental”. Here and elsewhere in the book, Baring highlights the political significance of epistemic constellations, underlying the transnational, pan-European character of phenomenology as “continental” philosophy. His own historiography performatively turns away from national narratives (phenomenology in France, Husserl in Spain, Heidegger in Italy etc.) in search of a more transnational, universal ground. The movement that spread Husserl’s word among the nations (“the single most important explanation for the international success of phenomenology in the twentieth century”, 5), Baring suggests, is the one that goes under the name of the universal itself, the catholicos, Catholicism. Catholicism is the principal agent in this continental, transnational, catholic historiography of philosophy.

It is somewhat paradoxical that Baring’s professed transnational perspective nonetheless preliminary features phenomenology as belonging to “southwest Germany”, namely as originally particular, which accordingly begs the question of its continental success. According to this logic, this transnational success can only be accounted for by something beyond phenomenology itself, something more European, more universal, which would be Catholicism. However, in what sense would phenomenological philosophy itself not be sufficiently universal to account for its own universal spread? In what sense is Catholicism more obviously universal, and what explains its own international success, beyond the province of Rome?

Be that as it may, the notion of success, namely the ability of philosophy or thought, the ability of ideas, to obtain and expand their hold on the world, on reality, is central to Baring’s project. The primary transnational feature of Catholicism that the book foregrounds is its global institutional presence. Next to the transnational and universal, “catholic” historiographic perspective, Baring’s study accommodates Catholicism also in focusing on the worldly reality of the Church. The Catholicism that, as the book suggests, carried phenomenology across the continent is first and foremost a “network of philosophers and theologians that stretched across Europe” (7); “we can speak of ‘continental philosophy’ because phenomenology could tap into the networks of a Church that already operated on a continental scale” (11).

The story of “making” continental philosophy, as told in the book, is indeed concerned less with conceptual genealogy of ideas and more with how they spread. It’s a story of thought as an inter-personal, inter-institutional happening, where events of thinking take place between works, between thinkers. The great individual names of phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, the “phenomenological trinity” Baring calls them (6) – are there, but they function as basic coordinates for describing the real plot, which is scholarship. Primary and secondary literatures switch here places. The main protagonists of this book are neither the great names nor the great book, but their less known scholarly recipients, the clerics, who read, translate, introduce, interpret, discuss and institutionalize ideas, convene conferences and found archives, journals and schools. Most importantly, and this is one of the great achievements of this book, the history of thought is told through formative debates, such that polemics – and with it politics – is posited at the heart of epistemology, a real at the heart of the ideal. Could polemics too – next to transnationalism and institutionalism – count as Catholic heritage?

At any event, Baring tells continental philosophy’s church history, and according to him the early church of phenomenology was Catholic. To quote some impressive facts:

“self-professed Catholic philosophers produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II, making Catholic phenomenology by far the largest constituent part of the early European reception” (8-9);

“Within Europe, phenomenology has been most successful in Catholic countries, while tending to skip, at least at first, the Protestant strongholds of Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, it has flourished in Latin America and at Catholic universities in the United States, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. The geography of phenomenology is best described, not by the contours of mainland Europe, but by the reach of the ‘universal Church’.” (11).

What is certain, in Baring’s account Catholicism does not just function as a contingent carrier of phenomenological philosophy, a vessel which would remain external to the content that it spreads. The Church is not simply a vehicle for Husserl’s word. The network of catholic intellectuals and institutions does not feature in this book as a mere logistical structure, but as the institutional embodiment of its intellectual content, of thought. Is Catholicism a religion? In this book, the Catholic emerges primarily as a philosophy. Insofar as Catholicism accounts for making phenomenology the philosophy of the European continent, Baring argues, it is because “before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (19)

What is Catholic philosophy? This question is not really developed in the book, which has a very clear answer: medieval scholastic philosophy as it has been oriented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, namely Thomism. In the relevant period for the book, the first decades of the 20th century, Catholic philosophy consisted in the attempt to renew Thomism, namely in neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism, which according to Baring was in these decades “the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world” (8). Neo-Thomism was global philosophy, which makes one wonder about the reason it was only able to turn phenomenology “continental”, but no more than that. Neo-Thomism, as Baring portrays it, had set to itself a daring task. It translated medieval philosophy into modern terms not in order to modernize this philosophy, but, on the contrary, in order to effect “a philosophical conversion of modernity, a movement from modern to medieval metaphysics” (14). Neo-Thomism was the Catholic mission to the Moderns, aiming to reconvert modernity “back to Catholicism” (ibid.).

“Conversion” is a key word in Baring’s book. It is the basic description of the intellectual event that it portrays, and the plot is articulated by the personal conversions – official or not – of the protagonists. What was the nature of the conversion “back to Catholicism”, which neo-Thomists were trying to generate? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Baring’s historiographic thesis: it designates the ultimate purpose of Catholic, neo-Thomist philosophy, explains why phenomenology was deemed useful for Catholic intellectuals to pursue this purpose and so would account for why Catholicism helped phenomenology to its continental and international success.

Were neo-Thomists interested in converting modernity, modern thought and philosophy, from secularism or atheism back to religion? Obviously, as already indicated, neo-scholasticism was not looking to promote “religion” in its modern, paradigmatically Protestant or secular sense. But furthermore, Baring most often does not describe Catholic thought in terms of religion or what is commonly – in modern discourse – associated with religion as a special domain, of faith, transcendent God, holiness, spirituality etc., in short, as a different domain than secular, atheological or even atheistic philosophy.

On the contrary: neo-Thomism was looking to renew Thomism, for which, as described by Baring, theology implied worldly thought. Catholic thinkers “were convinced that the world incarnated a divine order, and that the institution of the Catholic Church was the worldly locus of redemption” (14); God is present in “His effects in the world” (30), such that faith is deemed “the perfection of natural knowledge” (29). The goal of Neo-Thomists was accordingly, among others, to connect Catholicism to science, natural science: by going back to Aquinas they were trying to reconnect with Aristotle. In other words, whether or not Catholicism was interested, in the first decades of the 20th century, in renewing something like religion, in Baring’s book Catholic philosophy emerges as a powerful agent for the renewal of Aristotelian philosophy, which historically speaking is perhaps nothing but Western philosophy, or philosophy tout court. Just as philosophy’s first and ultimate concern is with Being, Baring’s Catholicism is concerned with “the Real”.

“The Real” is the central concept of Baring’s narrative, which thus connects the contemporary discourse on philosophy and religion with the contemporary philosophical conversation on realism. Explicating this connection may have been a useful way for Baring to provide a more precise explanation of what he understands by “the Real”. Considering the pivotal centrality of this concept for the book’s argument, it remains rather vague and sometimes ambivalent. In fact, its basic significance in this book seems to be above all polemic, in that it designates what neo-scholasticism, seeking to renew medieval, premodern philosophy, was asserting against modern thought. Indeed, throughout the book, Catholic positions are characterized in various ways as opposing the negation of realism by modern philosophy, namely as opposition to the idealism, relativism and subjectivism that would characterize modern thought.

That non-realism (a negation of or distance from the Real) is constitutive to modern philosophy, is a decisive presupposition of Baring’s project. The exact significance of this presupposed non-realism or idealism remains as much an open question as the exact meaning of “the Real”. If the supposed non-realism of modern philosophy means detachment from the worldly and natural order, in favor of some dimension of transcendence, of some supernatural or transcendental subjectivity, will or spirit, this would mean that modern thought, far from being secular and “worldly”, has rather become closer to religion, as a relation to the unworldly. This kind of analysis no doubt sits well with accounts of modernity, such as Hans Jonas’, as arising from man’s liberation from and subsequent domination of nature (NB: not against but precisely through modern, technological science), which would resemble or even be the avatar of ancient Gnosticism, religion of the Alien God. Neo-Thomism, working to effect on modernity a – as the title of Baring’s book reads – “Conversion to the Real”, which is actually a re-conversion, a movement back to the world, would accordingly be the modern permutation of the same anti-heresiological movement that for someone like Hans Blumenberg, for instance, accounted for the emergence of Christian doctrine. This movement may be described less as a conversion from philosophy to religion than as a conversion from religion back to philosophy, from faith back to reason.

Converting modern philosophy to the Real was in any case, so Baring, the missionary goal of neo-scholasticism in the first decades of the 20th century. It is for this mission that Catholic networks identified phenomenology as suitable and for this purpose they “made” it continental. The reason that phenomenology was found by neo-Thomist to be such a suitable discourse for deploying the conversion of non-realist modern philosophy to realism, Baring argues, is that phenomenological thought, to begin with Husserl’s notion of intentionality (consciousness is always of an object), was identified as an anti-idealist movement back to the Real within modern philosophy itself, so to speak a spontaneous movement of self-conversion: “phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” (14) How exactly neo-scholastic thinkers and institutions tried to achieve this goal, their more or less successful negotiations – and debates – among themselves, with phenomenology, as well as vis-à-vis other Catholic, Protestant and non-religious intellectual currents, and how all this contributed to the making of continental philosophy – this is the story told by Baring’s rich book.

One basic and far-reaching insight of Baring concerns the ambivalent nature of conversion: the shift from one conception to another at the same time connects both conceptions and thus opens the way to a counter-conversion, from the second conception to the first. Conversions work “in both directions” (16). This insight may be deemed as a structural principle that regulates – and complicates – basic dynamics in the history of thought, something like the Third Law of Intellectual Motion. It seems to be particularly significant in conversions that are not just spontaneous, but induced, namely in conversion projects, in missionary movements.With respect to the neo-Thomist mission to convert modern philosophy “back to Catholicism”, in order to do so it established “the Real” as a connection between modern phenomenology and medieval scholasticism, which would serve as a passage from the former to the latter. As Baring shows, however, this passage also facilitated the inverse movement, to the effect that the bridge built between Thomism and phenomenology also served Catholic thinkers to cross to the other side and to “break with Roman Catholicism” (15). The paradigmatic example discussed by Baring is Heidegger.

What is however the meaning of this counter-conversion, away from Catholicism, which according to Baring has become so prevalent in post-WWII phenomenology so as to completely obliterate its early Catholic years? Would it be that phenomenology, and continental philosophy, was moving away from religion, towards secular and atheistic thought? Is Catholicism religion? The question of religion, as already noted, interestingly does not explicitly frame the narrative of the book, which foregrounds instead the debate of realism vs. idealism. Catholicism is realism, but is it therefore more or less a religion?

It is only in the Epilog that Baring directly addresses the question of religion. “Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion” (343): the famous return to religion, a contemporary conversion – or perhaps even a contemporary mission? By whom – to whom? Is Baring’s book a part of this project, namely facilitating the passage from contemporary continental philosophy to religion by recalling how it was Catholicism that originally “made” phenomenology into continental philosophy? The “religious specters” that “haunt” continental philosophy today, Baring argues, indeed arise from its “family history”, namely phenomenology’s transmission to the world as it was “passed down through Catholic scholars” (344), so to speak phenomenology’s Catholic womb. The current return to religion in continental philosophy is connected to its Catholic heritage.

However, according to Baring’s further insight into the Third Law of Intellectual Movement, just as conversion is not only unidirectional, inheritance too is not simply linear. He points out that intellectual inheritance may pass on not just positive, affirmative doctrines, but also negative positions, what he terms “negative inheritance” (347). According to Baring’s analysis, it is by way of “negative inheritance” that phenomenology’s Catholic past, namely neo-Thomism, continues to operate within continental philosophy’s return to religion. In other words, Catholicism, as portrayed in Baring’s book, is present in this contemporary return to religion not as the positive agent, not as the agent of religion, but on the contrary in the negative, anti-religious positions – more specifically in their realism.

He brings the example of Quentin Meillassoux, who “presents himself as a rationalist ally to the natural sciences, seeking to reinvigorate realism after a period of idealist hegemony. Meillassoux is aware of his proximity to Thomism, which he defines as ‘the progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’”. (348) Baring’s conclusion: “The atheist scourge of much contemporary continental philosophy appears as the inverted image of those Catholic thinkers who helped make philosophy continental in the first place.” (ibid.)  It is not in the return to religion but rather in the resistance to this return that current continental philosophy would be inspired by Catholicism, which consequently operates, at least in this context, not as a religion, but as anti-religion.


Synopsis of the Book:

Baring’s story is told in three chronological parts, which concern three different periods in the early history of phenomenology in its reception by Catholic scholars: 1900-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1950. The narrative is organized by another triad, three main figures of early German phenomenology, the “phenomenological trinity”: Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, and the debates around them.

Part I, “Neo-Scholastic Conversion. 1900-1930” deals with the immediate Catholic reception of German phenomenology. Baring traces back the initial reception to a specific current within neo-Thomism, “progressive Thomism”, promoted by the Louvain School of Léon Noël, head of the Institut supérieur de Philosophie. Progressive Thomism was oriented by the work of Cardinal Désiré Mercier (Critériologie), who translated Thomist realism into the discourse of epistemology. This anti-Kantian epistemology was the site of early Catholic reception of Husserl, as told in Chapters 1 and 2. The first reception referred to The Logical Investigations of 1900-1901 and was enthusiastic, as Husserl’s anti-psychological notions, such as intentionality (which goes back through Brentano to scholasticism) and categorical intuition, appeared to secure epistemic access to “the objective order of the world” (40). “For Catholics around Europe, reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations was a revelation”, Baring writes (48). Modern philosophy’s “conversion to the Real” was celebrated by scholars such as Jospeh Geyser, Erich Przywara and the Milan School’s Agostino Gemelli, and even existentially performed through a personal conversion, such as by Edith Stein, to whom phenomenology has showen “the way into ‘the majestic temple of scholastic thought’” (75). All the more disappointing was Husserl’s return to the transcendental consciousness in his Ideen of 1913. The second reception identified in Husserl a second, reversed conversion, from realism back to idealism, which “was experienced by neo-scholastics as a betrayal— both of Husserl’s earlier work and, by implication, of their own project” (61).

Chapter 3 follows the intellectual development of early Heidegger, a phenomenological convert away from Catholicism. Influenced by Joseph Geyser, young Heidegger, “a progressive scholastic” (88), in his 1913 dissertation embraced Husserl’s anti-Psychologism, and in his 1916 Habilitaiton on Dun Scotus, the “pinnacle of Heidegger’s neo-scholastic period” (97), formulated a meaning-based realism. The disengagement is signaled in 1917, as Heidegger stated that Catholicism “forgot religion for theology and dogma” and looked for religious experience in Christian mysticism, Augustine and Protestants from Luther, Otto, Overbeck, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Schleiermacher. Being and Time of 1927, so Baring’s perceptive analysis, features a curious atheism based on “two confessional strands” (113): Catholic ontology, but no longer perennis, and Protestant Dasein-analysis, but indifferent to faith.

Chapter 4 traces a similar dynamic with respect to Max Scheler, extending the plot from theory to ethics and politics. Scheler’s 1913 Formalism in Ethics provided a phenomenological access (Wert-nehmen, axiological intuition) to an “objective order of value” (140) and his personalism, the notion of Gesamtperson, gave this ethics a socio-political embodiment. Both combined offered practical philosophy to Catholic social revival and anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist corporatism. Carl Muth’s influential Catholic magazine Hochland celebrated Scheler as “Black Nietzsche” (124) and intellectuals followed him in his early WWI patriotism, growing distance from nationalism and anti-republicanism in Weimar, such as Paul-Ludwig Landsberg’s “conservative revolution” (137). Disenchantment manifested itself, on the Catholic side, in doubts raised by neo-scholastics, such as Przywara, as to Scheler’s too heavy reliance on human intuition and emotional intentionality, and on Scheler’s side, in the pantheistic turn of his late work (1928, The Human Place in the Cosmos).

Part II, “Existential Journeys 1930-1940”, describes how, beyond its initial reception by neo-scholasticism, phenomenology “became a privileged battlefield in intra-Christian debates” (152). The central intra-Christian tension in Baring’s narrative is between neo-scholastics and existentialists. Chapter 5 tells about the rise of “Christian Existentialism across Europe” by portraying the tension between two converts to Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Marcel (Metaphysical Journal, 1927; Being and Having, 1935), influence and mentor to existentialists such as Nicolai Berdyaev, René Le Senne, Jean Wahl as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, criticized neo-Thomist intellectualism as “hubris”, and insisted on the “unintelligibility of existence”, its embodiment and “mystery”. Maritain claimed “existential philosophy” describes rather Thomism itself, which deals with esse and acknowledges its mystery, deems it nevertheless “open to intellectual understanding” (163).

Chapter 6 goes back to the Catholic reception of Husserl and how during the 1930s it was shaped by a division within neo-scholasticism, between progressive and strict Thomists. Baring portrays this division through the “Critical Realism Debate”, concerning the attempt of the Louvain School’s progressives, such as Léon Noël and René Kremer, to base realism on epistemology, namely on critique of subjective knowledge (leading to post-WII “transcendental Thomism”). “Strict” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain rejected the notion of “critical” – Cartesian or Kantian – realism as self-contradictory, insisting on the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology. Baring shows how this debate pressed progressive intellectuals, such as Kremer, Kurt Reinhart and Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who initially embraced Husserl’s phenomenology, to reject and rectify his perceived idealistic tendencies, especially as manifested in the Cartesian Meditations of 1931.

Chapter 7 presents the 1930s’ reception of Heidegger as the battleground for the inter-confessional debate between neo-Scholastics (such as Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar) and Protestants, in particular Karl Barth’s Kierkegaard-inspired Dialectical Theology. Baring describes this debate as arising from “two diametrically opposed, if symmetrical, accounts of Heidegger’s atheism: Thomists explained it by the restrictions placed upon Heidegger’s ontology by his (Protestant) prioritization of human subjectivity; Protestant theologians understood it through his attempt to ground the analysis of human finitude in an ontology, which arose from an excessive and Catholic faith in our rational capacities.” (213) In other words, both (dialectical theology’s) emphasis on the unintelligible and (neo-Thomist) emphasis on intelligibility could be construed, from the opposite  perspective, as subjectivist and so proto-atheistic. This leads Baring to the brilliant observation whereby “religious notes” of atheistic conceptions (he speaks of existentialism) may arise not from “uncomplicated inheritance of a believing antecedent, but rather as the reflection of a more distant voice, directed toward and bouncing of a common religious foe” (240), i.e. “negative inheritance”.

Chapter 8 returns to the reception of Scheler, “The Black Nietzsche”, in Catholic political thought. Baring shows how the Schelerian notion of social corpora as embodying spiritual order of values could support to conflicting conceptions of Catholic anti-liberal politics. Luigi Stefanini drew on Scheler to affirm a “hierarchical order of values” enacted by an authoritarian and totalitarian state, which led him to collaborate with the Fascist regime and even acknowledge “racial defense” as “an act of the sovereignty and transcendence of the spirit” (259). In contrast, for Paul-Louis Landsberg, as Paul Ludwig Landsberg was known in his French exile and anti-Fascist resistance, “the divine order is always to come and can never be fully worked out. For that reason, authoritarianism runs the risk of shutting down the process by which the true order is revealed” (263), which led him to reject Nazism and Communism. Baring exemplifies the same ambivalence in Scheler in the development of Emmanuel Mounier’s Catholic-Nietzschean magazine Esprit, from support of Vichy to Resistance and post-WII negotiations of Thomism and Marxism.

Part III, “Catholic Legacies 1940-1950”, discusses how after “the Catholics who had helped promote phenomenological ideas around Europe withdrew from the stage”, “[t[he script that they had written […] persisted, to be picked up and adapted by new actors.” (276) Chapter 9 is dedicated to the story of the Husserl Archives, famously smuggled from Germany to Belgium by the young Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda, to be institutionalized within Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie. According to Baring, after WWII Van Breda, who was looking for means to secure the archives’ further existence (which he obtained at last from UNESCO), realized that “the archives would flourish only if they became independent of the Church” (297). Catholicism, which made phenomenology continental, was now required, in order to prefect its own making, to retreat. Like the truth of Heidegger’s Beyng, the appearance of neo-Thomism in phenomenology was completed by the concealment of neo-Thomism in phenomenology’s Veröffentlichung. It is thus that the first volume of the Husserliana was dedicated to the Cartesian Meditations, “the text where Husserl distinguished his work most clearly from scholasticism” (300).

Chapter 10, the last one, indicates traces of neo-scholasticism in “Postwar Phenomenology”, once again through an intellectual tension, this time between the secular Merleau-Ponty and the Protestant Paul Ricoeur. Both of “Marcelian bent”, affirming embodiment and existence versus idealism, their diverging interpretations of Marcel reproduced the debate between Thomism and Existentialism, inasmuch as Merleau-Ponty emphasized the intentional order of perception and Ricoeur the mystery and the “fault”. The disagreement on Marcel was intertwined with a disagreement on Husserl, which reproduced the debate between progressive and strict Thomism: whereas Merleau-Ponty, like the Louvain School, strove to protect Husserl’s realism from his transcendentalism, Ricoeur, like Maritain, read Husserl as an idealist. Commenting on the Protestant philosopher’s surprising affinity to strict Thomism, Baring provides a precious polemic triangulation, which is perhaps the real glory of scholastic sophistication: “Against the Thomists, Ricoeur denied that Christians could use philosophy to defend religious dogmas. Against the Barthians, Ricoeur did think philosophy retained an important role. It could challenge the pretension of science to have provided ‘a final solution.’ Christian philosophy would thus be a ‘science of limits, an essentially Socratic, ironic position [. . .] forbidding all thought to be totalitarian’.” (327)


Three Concluding Reflections:

  1. The key concept of the book’s argument is “the Real”. Catholicism promoted phenomenology for the sake of converting modern philosophy to the Real. As noted above, however, realism signifies in this book primarily polemically, in contrast to the alleged idealism of modern thought. However, as Baring insightfully shows with respect to “atheism”, polemic meanings are unstable and easily turned around. Just like criticism of “atheism” can be found in any religious position against any other religious position, isn’t criticism of “idealism” as detached from the real, i.e. as false, inherent to the disagreement of any philosophical position against all the others? Wasn’t metaphysical dogmatism for Kant too disconnected from reality, as the Ptolemaic system for Copernicus? For Hegel, an arche-idealist, the real was the reasonable. Baring shows how neo-Thomism too deemed the real intelligible, whereas existentialism and dialectical theology experienced reality in unintelligibility.
  2. It seems that ultimately “the Real” for Baring signifies the limit of human autonomy and power, where reason means intelligibility of – and subjection to – the given, eternal, cosmic order (Thomism), in contrast to modern “self-affirmation of reason” (Blumenberg). Conversion to the Real means something like undoing modern hubris, disempowering the human. Baring portrays at least two divergent ways of doing so in Catholic thought, rationalism and existentialism, both inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. One may wonder, however, whether both modes of “the Real” are equally defining for continental philosophy. The very term “continental” philosophy, determines reason by existence, i.e. actual geography, politics, history, which arguably condition more continental than analytic thought. It is rather Anglo-American philosophy that may be said to represent anti-idealist, positive rationalism, where reason is limited qua “analytic”. Wouldn’t this modern philosophy – which is closer to natural sciences, and arises from phenomenology only within its alliance with logical positivism against psychologism – be a more suitable ally for neo-scholasticism?
  3. There seems to be a third way of limiting or determining reason, which is very present in Baring’s study, albeit unthematized as such. Next to rationalism (reason determined by given logical order) and existentialism (reason determined by given non-logical being), his narrative centrally features also the determination of reason through the inter-personal plurality of thought: thought as a school, the institution that gave scholasticism its name. As such, scholasticism determines reason neither by the given intelligible, nor by the unintelligible, but by the overintelligible, namely by the open excess of thought as polemics. By choosing the debate as a primary figure of thought, Baring’s book manifests perhaps scholarship itself, next to analytic and continental philosophies, as a third post-modern manifestation of scholastic realism, and perhaps of philosophy überhaupt.