Johan de Jong: The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger

The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger Book Cover The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Johan de Jong
SUNY Press
Paperback $33.95

Reviewed by: Sarah Horton (Boston College)

Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.

Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.

Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.

Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.

Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.

De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.

Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.

What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.

Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.

Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.

Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.

Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.

An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.

De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.

Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.


Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Jean Grondin: Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être

Comprendre Heidegger. L'espoir d'une autre conception de l'être Book Cover Comprendre Heidegger. L'espoir d'une autre conception de l'être
Bel Aujourd'hui
Jean Grondin
Paperback 28,00 €

Reviewed by: Karl Racette (Université de Montréal)

Publié une trentaine d’années après le très important livre Le tournant dans la pensée de Martin Heidegger (Épiméthée, 1987), Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être (Hermann Éditions, 2019) est la deuxième monographie de Jean Grondin portant exclusivement sur la pensée de Martin Heidegger. La publication de cet ouvrage aura précédé de peu La beauté de la métaphysique (Éditions du Cerf, 2019) publié le même été. La réception francophone de Heidegger aura été ainsi très comblée lors de la dernière année par ces deux ouvrages de J. Grondin qui, à plusieurs égards, pourront être lus de manière complémentaire.

Dès les premières lignes de l’ouvrage, l’A. affirme qu’il faut comprendre Heidegger d’abord et avant tout à partir de sa question essentielle, celle de l’être[1]. Cette exigence de compréhension apparaît prioritaire aux yeux de l’A. compte tenu de sa réception récente, qui s’est surtout concentrée sur l’engagement politique de Heidegger, prompte à discréditer d’emblée sa pensée. Comprendre Heidegger, nous dit J. Grondin, c’est à la fois comprendre son effort indéfectible de penser l’être, mais c’est aussi « comprendre sa personne et son engagement politique »[2]. L’approche de l’A. est au départ originale en ce qu’elle ne sépare pas l’homme de l’œuvre en vue de sauvegarder l’œuvre, mais tente plutôt de comprendre l’engagement politique de l’individu Heidegger à partir de la question qui anime l’œuvre, celle de penser à nouveau l’être.

C’est à cet effet que J. Grondin déploiera un double effort de compréhension – celui de la fusion des horizons, héritée de Gadamer et de transposition reprise de Schleiermacher – qui aura chacun l’œuvre et l’homme comme objet[3]. Nous pouvons dire que les chapitres 1 à 7 consistent en un effort de compréhension, se rapprochant de la fusion des horizons gadamérienne dans la mesure où les différentes interprétations proposées comportent toujours un moment de confrontation critique envers Heidegger. De leur côté, les chapitre 8 à 10 sont plutôt un effort de transposition dans l’horizon d’attentes de Heidegger où il s’agit de comprendre l’homme Heidegger selon ses projets, ses attentes, ses espoirs, etc. La visée de cette transposition étant surtout de comprendre les raisons personnelles qui ont poussé Heidegger à se reconnaître dans le national-socialisme. Ce double effort de compréhension possède néanmoins une visée commune : montrer que l’auteur et l’individu sont orientés par la même « étoile » qui guide toujours leur engagement spirituel et personnel, la question de l’être.

L’effort de compréhension de l’ouvrage est orienté par quatre présupposés de lecture que l’A. expose dès l’introduction. D’abord (1), il faut, comme nous l’avons dit, comprendre Heidegger (l’œuvre et l’homme) à partir de la question l’être : « Heidegger soutient à bon droit qu’elle est sa question essentielle, voire la seule question (au sens où tout dépend d’elle), mais aussi la question fondamentale de la pensée occidentale, voire de la pensée tout court, et qu’elle est tombée dans l’oubli dont il est opportun de la tirer »[4]. Si ce présupposer va de soi pour l’œuvre de Heidegger, cela semble être le pari de l’interprétation proposée par J. Grondin de la compréhension de l’homme Heidegger. Une bonne partie de l’ouvrage (en particulier les chapitres 8 à 10) cherche à montrer qu’il faut comprendre les raisons de l’engagement politique de Heidegger à partir des exigences théoriques et « pratiques » de sa propre philosophie. La motivation commune entre la pensée de l’auteur et son engagement politique réside dans le fait que (2) « notre conception de l’être reste dominée par une certaine intelligence de l’être qui est préparée de longue date, en vérité depuis les Grecs, mais qui est problématique et qui n’est peut-être pas la seule »[5]. Dans la perspective de Heidegger, nous explique l’A., il est nécessaire de penser et de préparer un autre rapport possible à l’être – le nôtre étant sous l’emprise de la compréhension de l’être envisagé comme « étant subsistant qui est immédiatement présent, observable, mesurable et utilisable »[6]. Ce que l’A. rend visible sans équivoque c’est que cette compréhension techniciste et calculante de l’être est « largement responsable du nihilisme et de l’athéisme contemporain »[7]. C’est dans ce combat « héroïque et parfois pathétique »[8] qu’il faut comprendre à la fois l’œuvre philosophique de Heidegger et l’engagement politique de l’homme (3). C’est dans cette recherche d’un nouveau commencement de la pensée, qui consiste en une préparation lente et difficile d’une autre entente de l’être, que Heidegger a pensé avoir trouvé dans le nazisme, de manière pour le moins illusoire et fatale, l’une des possibilités historiques de cet autre compréhension de l’être, dont il voulait être le prophète. Ces trois hypothèses de lecture permettent la quatrième (4) : « le débat de fond avec Heidegger se situe donc moins au plan politique, qui continuera assurément d’obséder les médias et l’opinion, qu’an plan métaphysique »[9]. En ramenant le débat en terres métaphysiques, l’A. espère ainsi préserver la pertinence philosophique de la pensée heideggérienne de l’être. Cela ne veut toutefois pas dire que l’ouvrage est une simple apologie de Heidegger, au contraire : si J. Grondin ramène Heidegger sur le plan de la métaphysique, c’est dans la perspective de rendre possible une interprétation critique de sa pensée. Nous y reviendrons.

En plus de l’introduction, l’ouvrage est divisé en trois parties qui forment ensemble dix chapitres. Neuf des dix chapitres sont des reprises de certains textes que l’A. a publié dans le passé, de 1999 à 2017. À ceux-ci s’ajoute un texte inédit (chapitre 10) sur l’engagement politique de Heidegger. Bien que la majorité des textes ont été écrits dans un temps, une thématique et un contexte différent, ces derniers ont été retravaillés selon l’orientation principale du livre, c’est-à-dire celle de comprendre Heidegger selon sa question essentielle. L’ouvrage peut donc être lu de façon linéaire pour avoir de multiples perspectives sur le projet de Heidegger. Les différents chapitres gardent néanmoins une certaine autonomie et pourront aussi être lus individuellement.

La première partie de l’ouvrage intitulée « l’urgence de dépasser la conception dominante de l’être » (chapitres 1, 2, 3 et 4) propose une certaine introduction générale à la pensée de Heidegger, ainsi qu’aux thèses principales de Sein und Zeit. Un lecteur familier de l’A. y trouvera les principes et les thèses habituellement exposés dans ses autres ouvrages portant soit sur l’herméneutique ou la métaphysique. Ces chapitres constituent une bonne introduction à la pensée de Heidegger, écrits dans un style qui évite tout jargon, en ayant le soin de traduire Heidegger en une langue lipide et claire, ce qui est en soi un défi immense.

Le premier chapitre « Pourquoi réveiller la question de l’être ? » propose une lecture des premiers paragraphes d’Être et temps. En replaçant l’ouvrage de 1927 dans le contexte historique et philosophique de son époque, l’A. relit le premier chapitre du texte en soulignant les raisons qui poussent Heidegger à reposer (répéter pourrions-nous dire) la question de l’être. Cette relecture de l’intention d’abord et avant tout ontologique du texte sert sans doute à justifier les hypothèses de lecture proposées par l’A. en venant rappeler aux lecteurs les formulations fondamentales du projet heideggérien en 1927, celui d’un « réveil » de la question de l’être. Ce chapitre est certainement utile à quiconque cherchera à s’introduire à la pensée heideggérienne ou à Être et temps, en démontrant que l’être est sans contredit l’objet principal de la pensée de Heidegger – ce qui ne va pas toujours de soi, comme c’est le cas dans la lecture « pragmatique » d’Être et temps que l’on retrouve souvent dans la réception anglo-saxonne de Heidegger.

Le second chapitre « Comprendre le défi du nominalisme » est pour sa part beaucoup plus proche d’une interprétation critique de Heidegger. L’A. esquisse les raisons de la remise en question heideggérienne de la conception de « l’étant subsistant » qui représente la condition de possibilité ontologique de « l’essor de la technique »[10]. De manière très claire et convaincante, l’A. expose la continuité entre les questions métaphysiques et techniques de Heidegger. La particularité de la lecture de J. Grondin tient à l’exposition de certaines de ses réserves par rapport à la conception heideggérienne de la métaphysique. C’est que, nous explique l’A, le concept heideggérien de métaphysique ne serait-il pas lui-même « un peu technique, passe-partout, […], qu’il [Heidegger], applique péremptoirement à l’ensemble de son histoire, mais qui finit par rendre inaudibles les voix et les voies de la métaphysique elle-même ? »[11]. Plutôt que de s’attaquer à la métaphysique, l’A. préfère plutôt parler de conception « nominaliste »[12] de l’être qui serait responsable des conséquences que Heidegger déplore. Dans la continuité de son livre Introduction à la métaphysique – dont J. Grondin avoue lui-même être « un modeste contrepoids à l’ouvrage du même nom de Heidegger »[13]  – il affirme plutôt qu’il est possible de trouver au sein même de la richesse de la tradition métaphysique le remède contre l’expérience moderne du nihilisme.

Le troisième chapitre « Comprendre pourquoi Heidegger met en question l’ontologie du sujet afin de lui substituer une ontologie du Dasein » cette fois-ci retourne à Être et temps en vue de rappeler à quelles fins Heidegger tente de penser l’homme non pas comme sujet, mais comme « espace » où se pose la question de l’être, Da-sein. La particularité de la lecture que propose l’A. réside certainement dans sa mise en rapport des concepts de Heidegger avec la richesse de la conceptualité grecque, son histoire et ses transformations. Dans cette perspective, il devient clair que le projet de l’analytique transcendantal de 1927 est une réponse à la conception de la métaphysique moderne de l’homme, ce que l’auteur souligne justement.

Le quatrième chapitre « Comprendre la théorie de la compréhension et du cercle herméneutique chez Heidegger » expose de manière détaillée l’apport de l’herméneutique (en 1927 et au-delà) au projet ontologique de Heidegger. Il expose certains des concepts les plus canoniques de Heidegger comme la compréhension, le pouvoir-être, l’explicitation (ou l’interprétation, Auslegung) ainsi que le cercle de la compréhension. En montrant que l’herméneutique heideggérienne est toujours orientée vers la question de l’être. L’A. en profite pour souligner certaines des apories de sa pensée.

La seconde partie de l’ouvrage s’intitule « Dépasser la métaphysique pour mieux poser sa question » et comporte les chapitres 5, 6 et 7. Dans ces chapitres, l’A. interprète certaines thèses de Heidegger de manière très soutenue. En interprétant ligne par ligne certains des textes de Heidegger, l’A. y propose une lecture critique, souvent en réactualisant la tradition métaphysique (principalement platonicienne et sa descendance) contre l’interprétation heideggérienne de la métaphysique jugée réductrice. C’est précisément à cet endroit que l’ouvrage La beauté de la métaphysique publié la même année pourra être éclairé tout en éclairant la lecture proposée par l’A. de la pensée heideggérienne. La défense de la métaphysique de  l’A. dans cet autre ouvrage nous permet de mieux comprendre à partir de quel horizon l’interprétation heideggérienne de la métaphysique est critiqué : « La métaphysique, dans son ontologie, sa théologie et son anthropologie, nous permet ainsi d’espérer que l’existence est elle-même sensée. C’est ‘en ce sens’ que la métaphysique, avec toute sa riche histoire, représente le bienfait le plus précieux de l’histoire de l’humanité »[14]. Les chapitres dont il est question sont donc à la fois importants en ce qu’ils restituent de manière convaincante et rigoureuse la visée du projet de Heidegger, ses espoirs, tout en proposant une lecture critique qui saura nous renseigner sur les possibilités de la métaphysique et de l’herméneutique contemporaine.

Le cinquième chapitre « Heidegger et le problème de la métaphysique », qui est de loin le plus long du livre (environ 70 pages), s’intéresse à la question de la « destruction » heideggérienne de la métaphysique, d’Être et temps jusqu’à sa toute dernière philosophie. Il s’agit là d’un chapitre très chargé et ambitieux à plusieurs égards, car l’auteur aborde une multiplicité de textes de Heidegger en y soulignant la transformation (ou le « tournant ») dans sa conception de la métaphysique. Bien que le thème de ce chapitre est en soi ardu, l’auteur explique la progression des réflexions de Heidegger au sujet de la métaphysique toujours de manière claire et argumentée en référent de façon tout autant pédagogique que minutieuse aux différents livres, essais, conférences et cours de Heidegger. En esquissant la conception heideggérienne de la métaphysique, l’A. termine sur les possibilités de la métaphysique rendues ouvertes par le projet « destructeur » de Heidegger. L’apport de Heidegger, aux yeux de J. Grondin réside « moins dans l’élaboration d’une nouvelle pensée de l’être, que dans la destruction des évidences de la raison calculante et nominaliste. La métaphysique peut nous apprendre qu’il ne s’agit pas de la seule conception de la raison et de l’être qui soit possible »[15]. Dans la continuité du deuxième chapitre, l’A. voit moins en la métaphysique le responsable du nihilisme contemporain que dans la conception nominaliste de l’être. L’apport de Heidegger réside dans cet espoir de rendre une autre conception de l’être possible, autre conception que l’A. retrouve dans les richesses de la pensée métaphysique.

Le sixième chapitre « Le drame de la Phusis, loi secrète de notre destin » est assurément le chapitre le plus critique de l’ouvrage et en ce sens, l’un des plus fécond. L’A. interprète ligne par ligne la compréhension heideggérienne de la Phusis exposée dans son cours Introduction à la métaphysique (GA 40), par-delà sa traduction latine et sa reprise moderne dans le terme de nature. À l’aide de la richesse des paroles de la pensée métaphysique (exprimée dans une pluralité de langues), l’A. s’attaque directement aux présupposés qui guident la dévalorisation des concepts métaphysiques dérivés (latin et modernes) ainsi qu’à la valorisation de l’expérience présocratique (et donc pré-métaphysique) de l’être, la seule qui serait véritablement « pure » ou « originaire ». La qualité de la critique de l’A. tient au fait qu’elle se réalise au sein même de la pensée heideggérienne et non à partir d’un horizon étranger – témoignant ainsi d’un véritable dialogue entreprit avec l’auteur allemand. Il s’agit d’une véritable confrontation avec la pensée heideggérienne où l’A. souligne certains présupposés néfastes propres à la compréhension heideggérienne de la métaphysique[16].

Le septième chapitre « Gerhard Krüger et Heidegger. Pour une autre histoire de la métaphysique » bien que dans la continuité des précédents chapitres, possède une certaine autonomie. Il s’agit d’une introduction générale à la pensée de Gerhard Krüger, « l’un des élèves les plus doués de Heidegger »[17]. À partir de la pensée de Krüger et sa correspondance avec son maître Heidegger, l’A. aborde le projet de Krüger comme reprise critique de la pensée de Heidegger à propos de la thématique religieuse, qui est omniprésente dans l’ouvrage de J. Grondin. La pensée de Krüger peut certainement être comprise comme étant dans la continuité de la brèche ouverte par le questionnement religieux de son maître. Ce chapitre est dans la continuité des autres chapitres de la partie deux, en ce qu’il offre une lecture critique de Heidegger dans la mesure où l’A. voit en Krüger un allié de son projet, puisqu’il « rappelle ainsi la métaphysique à certaines de ses possibilités immortelles »[18].

Les chapitres 8, 9 et 10 sont probablement ceux qui intéresseront le plus l’« opinion publique », pouvons-nous dire, puisqu’ils abordent de front la question de l’engagement politique de Heidegger. Ils forment ensemble la troisième partie de l’ouvrage intitulée « La tragédie politique ». En abordant la question de l’engagement politique de Heidegger à partir du contexte historique de son époque, l’auteur esquisse les causes philosophiques, historiques et biographiques qui expliquent l’affiliation de Heidegger au partie nazi dans les années 30 et au-delà.

Le huitième chapitre « L’ontologie est-elle politique ? La question de la vérité dans la lecture de Heidegger par Bourdieu » expose les critiques sociologiques de Bourdieu envers toute ontologie ignorant ses présupposés politiques. Dans L’ontologie politique de Martin Heidegger, Bourdieu vise à dégager « le caractère secrètement ‘politique’ de la pensée de Heidegger, mais aussi de la philosophie en général »[19]. Contre la lecture proposée par Bourdieu de l’ontologie, l’A. défend plutôt l’idée d’un « arrachement ontologique » face aux « considérations partisanes » politiques[20]. Le chapitre peut être compris selon deux autres visées : celle de remettre en contexte le questionnement ontologique de Heidegger (dans la continuité du reste de l’ouvrage), ainsi que de produire une critique de la lecture de Bourdieu de l’ontologie heideggérienne[21]. Si l’ontologie a souvent besoin de se justifier face aux questionnements sociologiques, l’un des mérites de ce chapitre est de questionner la sociologie à partir de ses présupposés ontologiques. En ce sens, reprocher à Heidegger que sa limitation aux questions ontologiques l’empêche de questionner « l’essentiel, c’est-à-dire l’impensé social »[22] c’est affirmer que « l’impensé social » est une pensée plus essentielle que la question de l’être. Cela revient à dire qu’il y a « une dimension essentielle de la réalité » qui est négligée et qui doit ainsi être pensée. Or, nous dit l’A., cette prétention de Bourdieu « n’est plus sociologique, mais purement ontologique »[23]. S’il est nécessaire de débattre avec Heidegger, ce doit être à propos de la vérité ou non de ses thèses ontologiques, ce que l’A. entend entreprendre dans le reste de l’ouvrage.

Le neuvième chapitre : « Peut-on défendre Heidegger de l’accusation d’antisémitisme ? » s’engage dans un débat pour le moins controversé et dont toute défense de Heidegger apparaît d’emblée suspecte. L’A. se contente de mettre en contexte la pensée de Heidegger, et plus particulièrement celle que l’on retrouve dans ses cahiers noirs, dont la publication récente a ouvert encore une fois la question de son engagement politique. L’A. vient nuancer l’accusation d’antisémitisme de Heidegger en rappelant que ce sujet ne constitue que tout au plus trois pages sur les 1800 des cahiers noirs[24]. Sans amoindrir la gravité des affirmations malheureuses (c’est le moins qu’on puisse dire) de Heidegger, J. Grondin s’efforce de comprendre pour quelles raisons Heidegger a pu se reconnaître dans la propagande nazie de l’époque.

Le dixième et dernier chapitre « Comprendre l’engagement politique de Heidegger à partir de son horizon d’attente » est dans la continuité du précédent chapitre. Ce chapitre se démarque du neuvième en ce qu’il replace davantage l’engagement politique de Heidegger dans le contexte tumultueux de l’Allemagne du 20e siècle. L’A. esquisse les différents états d’âme de l’individu Martin Heidegger : ses rapprochements avec le nazisme et son soutien, sa distanciation, son antisémitisme, ses désillusions, ainsi que sa proximité indéfectible avec le « mouvement » national-socialiste par-delà ses réalisations effectives. C’est ici que les hypothèses de lecture que l’A. avait énoncés dans l’introduction trouvent leur aboutissement. Il faut comprendre l’engagement politique de l’homme Heidegger à partir de sa question essentielle et son espoir, pour le moins illusoire sinon aveugle, d’une autre pensée de l’être rendue possible à travers ce « réveil » du peuple allemand : « De ce point de vue, je pense qu’il est permis de dire que son soutien au mouvement national-socialiste fut toujours philosophique et il serait difficile de s’attendre à moins de la part d’un philosophe »[25]. Ce qui est certain pour l’A., c’est que Heidegger a identifié à tort son espoir d’une autre conception de l’être avec le national-socialisme, malgré les indices flagrants de leur incompatibilité effective. Cette transposition dans l’horizon d’attente du penseur n’est produite ni pour condamner ni pour démentir les accusations faites à son égard, mais est plutôt faite dans l’optique d’un « exercice de compréhension » qui doit comporter un élément de « charité et de pardon »[26]. Voilà peut-être la véritable finalité de l’ouvrage, qui a le mérite d’offrir un effort de compréhension sans jamais tomber dans l’apologie complaisante.

Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être s’adresse ainsi à un public diversifié. En raison de son style clair, de son exposé pédagogique et de son explication patiente, l’ouvrage, surtout dans ses premiers chapitres, est assurément une bonne introduction à la pensée de Martin Heidegger. Pour sa part, la seconde partie offre une lecture très soutenue et critique de Heidegger qui nous renseignera assurément sur la pensée heideggérienne de l’être, mais aussi et peut-être surtout, sur les limites de cette pensée. Cette partie est aussi un grand apport aux possibilités contemporaines de l’herméneutique, de la métaphysique et de leur co-articulation possible. Finalement, la troisième partie, étant plutôt une transposition (Schleiermacher) dans l’horizon d’attente de Heidegger éclaire certainement le contexte difficile de la rédaction des cahiers noirs et des déclarations condamnables que l’on retrouve en eux. Il s’agit d’un apport important pour le débat contemporain avec la pensée heideggérienne. Dans son entier, l’ouvrage n’a d’autre visée que celle de montrer que la pensée de Heidegger et l’engagement politique de l’homme ne répond toujours qu’à sa propre interrogation métaphysique. En ramenant le débat en terrain métaphysique, l’auteur propose une véritable confrontation avec Heidegger, s’ouvrant ainsi sur plusieurs possibilités à la fois passées et futures.

[1] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, Paris, Hermann Éditions « Le Bel Aujourd’hui, 2019, p. 5.

[2] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 5.

[3] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 246.

[4] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 8.

[5] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 9.

[6] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 9.

[7] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 5.

[8] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 13.

[9] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 15.

[10] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 45.

[11] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 58-59.

[12] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 48.

[13] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 59.

[14] Grondin, J., La beauté de la métaphysique, Paris, Éditions du Cerfs, 2019, p. 44.

[15] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 164.

[16] Notamment : (I) le préjugé de Heidegger négatif contre toute traduction du grec, (2) le jugement de Heidegger basé sur des sources textuels limitées, (3) la tension entre l’original et la création, (4) la négligence de Heidegger envers sa propre appartenance à certains principes du platonisme, du néoplatonisme et de l’augustinisme.

[17] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 207.

[18] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 210.

[19] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 216.

[20] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 217.

[21] L’A. développe trois critiques de la lecture de Bourdieu. Premièrement, Bourdieu, selon l’A., se rapporte souvent à Heidegger à partir de textes « de seconde main » et non aux œuvres de Heidegger. À cela s’ajoute des « erreurs flagrantes d’interprétation » que l’A. retrouve la lecture du sociologue. Deuxièmement, Bourdieu se réfère beaucoup plus à des témoignages et des anecdotes plus ou moins pertinentes qu’aux textes eux-mêmes, ne se référent jamais à la Gesamtausgabe disponible à l’époque d’écriture de son ouvrage. Finalement, Bourdieu interprète la pensée entière de Heidegger à l’aune de Kant et des néokantiens, ignorant ainsi la diversité des interlocuteurs de Heidegger.

[22] Bourdieu, P., L’ontologie politique de Martin Heidegger, Paris, Minuit, 1988, p. 199, cité par l’A.

[23] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 228.

[24] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 240.

[25] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 261.

[26] Grondin, J., Comprendre Heidegger. L’espoir d’une autre conception de l’être, p. 267.

Véronique M. Fóti: Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach

Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach Book Cover Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery: Questioning Art beyond His Reach
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Véronique M. Fóti
SUNY Press
Paperback $31.95

Reviewed by: David Collins (McGill University)


There are at least two approaches to what may be called ‘applied phenomenology’: one involves performing a phenomenological analysis of one’s own by closely attending to, describing, and critically interrogating one’s first-personal experiences of some phenomenon; the other involves applying existing phenomenological theory—i.e., the results of another’s, or one’s own, prior phenomenological analysis—to some phenomenon in order to understand it in phenomenological terms. (These are not the only approaches, of course, and they need not be mutually exclusive.) With respect to art and aesthetic experience, the first approach can be seen in Mikel Dufrenne’s The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1973) and in Samuel Mallin’s Art Line Thought (1996). (For an example of an analysis of a painting that employs Mallin’s body phenomenology, see Crippen 2014.) The second approach is more common, not only in phenomenological reflections on art but in applied phenomenology generally. Done well, it is a matter of putting some phenomenon into dialogue with an established phenomenologist so as to explore how his or her theory can inform and enrich our understanding and, ideally, our experience of the phenomenon—and, reciprocally, how the phenomenon can clarify, challenge, or modify the theory. (For an example of such a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty’s thought and art, see Hacklin 2012.) However, there is a risk of merely translating our pre-existing understanding of the phenomenon into the language of the theory in a way that adds neither to our understanding nor to the theory, but merely fits the phenomenon into the theory’s framework.

Véronique M. Fóti’s new book, Merleau-Ponty at the Gallery, takes the second approach, promising to put Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on visual art—along with other elements of his philosophy—into dialogue with the work of five 20th century artists in a way that will shed new light on these artists’ works and practices while illuminating, and in places challenging, Merleau-Ponty’s thinking. Unfortunately it does not live up to this promise or to the precedent set by Fóti’s previous work on both Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of art (see, e.g., Fóti 1992, Fóti 1996), which includes her recent volume exploring the notion of expression in Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics, ontology, and philosophy of biology (Fóti 2013). This is not to say that Fóti’s new book is not interesting or valuable, only that it is not as valuable as it might have been. It will interest readers familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception but who are less familiar with his aesthetic reflections or his late ontology, since one of the strengths of the book is Fóti’s explications of these elements of his thought. Another strength is her discussion of the works and practices of the artists she has selected and her use of them to illustrate Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. In this respect, Fóti’s book is valuable for showing how well his ideas fit the work of artists beyond those he himself wrote on. Fóti’s research here into and engagement with art historical and critical work on the artists she considers is admirably thorough.

That being said, it is not clear that Fóti’s framing of these works and artists in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s thought reveals aspects of the works and practices that are not already noted in the art historical and critical scholarship she cites; the discussion often amounts to Fóti noting similarities or convergences between some aspect of an artwork or an artist’s practice and something Merleau-Ponty wrote, or showing how existing interpretations of these works can be put in his terms. Similarly, it is not clear that this book will offer many new insights into Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for readers already familiar with his work and the secondary literature on it, since his thought is not significantly complicated, questioned, supplemented, etc. in the ways one would expect from a genuine dialogue. Nevertheless, Fóti’s discussion and descriptions of works by artists who—with the exception of Cy Twombly—are under-attended to in philosophical aesthetics will interest philosophers of art, and her explication of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas will be useful for art historians and critics with an interest in phenomenology or a wish to ground their work in an amenable ontology. Fóti’s final chapter, which considers the disavowal of beauty in much 20th century art and art theory, and suggests what she calls ‘strong beauty’ as a way to reclaim the notion while avoiding its purportedly problematic aspects, is worth further consideration—and perhaps further development in a future work—, although this chapter feels somewhat disconnected from the others since it draws significantly on only one of the artists from the preceding chapters, with the significance being minor.

With these six chapters, plus introduction and conclusion, coming to 112 pages before endnotes, bibliography, and index, this book is on the short side, which makes it easy to read and to refer back to, e.g., for locating particular examples of artworks. However, the lack of any illustrations is unfortunate: this is a book that calls for high quality colour reproductions of the works discussed. (To be fair, the choice to omit illustrations may not have been Fóti’s but an editor’s. There are also a number of minor typographical errors that hopefully will be corrected in future printings, e.g., parenthetical comments with the second parenthesis misplaced or simply missing, which leaves the reader to intuit where the comment ends and the sentence into which it is inserted resumes.) As mentioned, chapter 6 sketches a theory of beauty that is meant to avoid worries about links between the idea of beauty as traditionally understood and the morally troubling practices it is sometimes thought to support. Fóti draws on Merleau-Ponty to develop this theory but goes beyond his writings which, as she notes, contain a “near-silence concerning beauty” (95); this chapter is where most of Fóti’s original ideas can be found.

Chapter-by-Chapter Synopsis

In the introduction, Fóti outlines her approach to applying Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics and details the common threads or convergences to be found between his thought and the works of the artists she has selected for her focus. She notes twin tendencies in the scholarship on Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics: “to focus predominantly on the very same artists or artistic movements with which he himself engaged,” such as Cézanne, Klee, Matisse, Rodin, and post-impressionism and cubism, and “to concentrate on the issues that he himself discusses in his aesthetic writings, rather than engaging directly with artworks and the practices of artmaking” to bring them “into dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology” (1-2). She is right that a tendency to repeat the same examples that ‘big-name’ philosophers have used is limiting and can be a sign of a lack of original understanding or a lack of familiarity with the range of phenomena from which the usual examples are drawn, and that it would make for better scholarship to engage directly with a new range of artworks and examples. It would also lead to better phenomenology, since it would make the results of individual phenomenological analyses less likely to be reified as universal claims about the nature of art when these results may have been specific to those examples.

The choice to focus on artists who, except for Morandi (whose was a near-contemporary of Merleau-Ponty’s), were part of an artworld slightly after his time avoids these limitations and lets her test whether Merleau-Ponty’s views map onto works and practices from a later period in visual art’s history with new developments, directions and styles. However, as noted above, the work of these  artists is not always brought into mutual dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s thought,  or at least the claim that her consideration of these works “did not simply confirm [his] analyses but also … deepened or complicated them or introduced critical perspectives” (3) is not reflected in what is said about each one in the subsequent chapters. Instead, the areas of convergence that she finds between these artists’ works and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas are often presented by noting similarities between what an artist does and an observation or a view of Merleau-Ponty’s, where these similarities are not always clearly explicated and where more could be done to explain how a particular work exemplifies or embodies Merleau-Ponty’s claims. These convergences are: ‘interweaving dualities’, i.e., the collapsing of binary dichotomies between figuration and abstraction, subject and object of perception, etc.; the relation between image and writing, including the nature of written texts as both visual and linguistic; the ‘thingness’ of artworks, i.e., their in-between status as more than ‘mere’ things but distinct from tools or equipment for use, and their relation to materiality; the question of the artist’s historical situatedness and the ‘timeliness’ of their work. The biological need for beauty is also listed as a convergence, but it is not clear how this counts given Merleau-Ponty’s (and some of the five artists’) relative lack of concern with beauty.

Chapter 1 focuses on Giorgio Morandi, whose work Fóti sees as converging with Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy with respect to his explorations of vision and visibility and his refusal to draw a hard-and-fast distinction between figuration and abstraction. The suggestion is that Morandi’s still lifes of ordinary objects such as bottles and vases work to subtly defamiliarize these objects while keeping them recognizable; as Fóti puts it, they “unhinge things and their configurations from customary identification without, however, treating them as mere pretexts for painterly innovation” (17). This is linked to the idea of suspending or bracketing ‘profane’ vision to leave room for ‘primordial’ vision, which idea is fundamental to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of phenomenology and his notion of visual art’s ability to disclose and thematize this primordial vision and its workings, and thereby to “rende[r] visible what could not otherwise be so” (14). In other words, the claim is that the familiar character of the objects Morandi paints, e.g., bottles, is placed in the background (rather than being removed entirely) so that their character as visible, or things-that-appear, and the ways in which they appear to us, can be brought to the fore.

This is a fertile point of convergence between Morandi’s painting and Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, although it would be nice if how Morandi’s paintings do these things were explained rather than it being just asserted that they do. The concrete, practical details of the paintings or Morandi’s process that Fóti describes do not sufficiently explain this; instead, not all of these points are clearly relevant to the rest of the discussion, e.g., noting that Morandi often uses “a rich and subtle palette of grayed earth tones, siennas, golds and whites, or earth greens and muted violets [which] is restrained, with a somewhat melancholy echo of classical antiquity” (16). This works well as a description of Morandi’s use of colour, but it does not obviously relate to or explain how “things constellate and configure themselves in space” in his paintings, as Fóti claims (Ibid.). Seeking out and viewing Morandi’s paintings does not help to make these claims concrete in the same way that one can easily see the fittingness of what Merleau-Ponty says about, e.g., Cézanne’s paintings from looking at them. There is a nice description of Morandi’s Still Life with Yellow Cloth, but what this painting is described as doing is not significantly different from what Merleau-Ponty already describes Cézanne’s still lifes as doing, such as the absence of a fixed perspective; moreover, it is unclear how this description relates to the point about the “mutual precession” of seer and seen that follows it (18). Since what Fóti is claiming about Morandi’s paintings here is much the same as what Merleau-Ponty claimed of Cézanne’s, it would have been helpful if more attention had been paid to the ways in which Morandi’s work differs from Cézanne’s and the implications of these differences for Merleau-Ponty’s thought.

Another theme that is discussed in this chapter is the place of ‘thingness’ in Morandi’s work, given his frequent depictions of commonplace objects in ways that emphasize both their materiality and what Merleau-Ponty would call their ambiguity or ‘perceptual nonresolution’. However, most of the discussion of this theme is done in relation to Heidegger and not Merleau-Ponty; while it is true that Heidegger dwells more on the nature of ‘thingness’ (i.e., the being of things qua things), it feels somewhat disjointed for the focus to switch to Heidegger so early on in a book that is meant to be primarily about Merleau-Ponty.

Chapter 2 turns to Kiki Smith, whose work is linked to Merleau-Ponty’s thought insofar as she is concerned with the body and its vulnerability, organic nature and animality, and exploring our relations to the usually invisible insides of bodies by opening them out to view. As with the chapter on Morandi, the main convergence discussed here is the intertwining of dualities; however, where the dualities that were found to be intertwined in Morandi’s work have to do with perception and with painting as an expression of vision, those in terms of which Smith’s work is discussed have to do with the overlap or blending (‘inter-being’/Ineinander) of conceptual categories such as humanity and animality, life and elemental nature, nature and cosmos, in their “ecological coexistence” (27).  This is seen in examples discussed of works in which Smith defamiliarizes not the visual appearances of objects but the themes and symbols of traditional folklore, such as her sculpture Daughter, which presents Red Riding Hood as a wolf-girl.

The connections Fóti draws between Smith and Merleau-Ponty are more tenuous than those drawn between the philosopher and Morandi in the previous chapter. There is, for example, an extended discussion of play and imagination as the transcendence of a fixed perspective on actuality (33-34), but this is not linked to Smith and instead the discussion moves from this to some remarks on her work’s relationship to ideas of beauty. Also, just how each one handles the common theme of our corporeality is not discussed in a way that adds to or informs our understanding of either. Instead, the discussion often takes the form of noting a theme in Smith’s work, describing an example or two of particular works that explore this theme, and then noting what Merleau-Ponty says about that theme. For instance, Fóti mentions that pregnancy is a recurring theme in Smith’s work and that Merleau-Ponty used the concept of pregnancy as a metaphor (29), but nothing more is made of this and it is not shown why the fact that both explored this metaphor is important: how do the ways in which they explored or employed it compare or differ, and what can this tell us about either their work or the concept itself? Similarly, Smith may have linked her concern with the body to her background in Catholicism, and Merleau-Ponty, sharing this background, may have written about the importance of the body and the idea of incarnation to Christianity (31), but—at the risk of being blunt—so what?

Without saying more to connect these themes in their work at more than a superficial level, what is meant to be a dialogue between their work and ideas fails (ironically) to intertwine the two: their work and ideas are not put into the sort of ‘inter-being’ that is found between, say, humanity and animality in Smith’s work, and instead the discussion becomes something closer to a listing of similarities that keeps these similarities side-by-side, rather than a dialogical exchange in which they are made to commingle. At the end of the chapter there is a passage suggesting how Fóti thinks Smith’s work might inform and supplement Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, where she writes that “[a]lthough Merleau-Ponty speaks of the elementality of flesh, he does not develop or concretize his understanding of elementality beyond pointing to the ancient (Presocratic) provenance of that notion,” whereas “Smith’s art allows the elements to come to presence … in their everyday and easily overlooked modalities of presencing” (41). This is the kind of point that I would like to see explored and developed further, and even given a central place in the discussion, since it points to the kind of dialogue that was promised.

Chapter 3 considers the work of Cy Twombly, focusing especially on those of his paintings that incorporate writing to explore both the visual qualities and the historical resonances of particular words, sentences, and fragments of text, which allows Fóti to bring Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language to bear on the discussion. Fortunately, the convergences or points of connection between Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are less tenuous—or at least are better explained—than those claimed in the previous two chapters. Here Fóti links the relation between image and text to the relation of materiality to ideality or meaning in order to analyze Twombly’s use of writing (and ‘quasi-writing’) in his visual art through a Merleau-Pontian lens in a way that does more than just note how something Twombly does resembles or is an example of one of the philosopher’s ideas. This gives us a way of attending to, understanding, and appreciating the art that goes beyond what is available from looking at it without this lens. Moreover, it involves Fóti making points that Merleau-Ponty did not already make himself about a different artist, as is the case with the points about Morandi in the first chapter and Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on Cézanne.

Of particular interest here is what is said concerning the ways in which the incorporation of writing in Twombly’s work exemplifies, or rather, enacts, Merleau-Ponty’s questioning in works such as “Eye and Mind” (1960) of any ontological separation between visual and verbal artforms. By bringing the visual form of written language to our attention, whether this is in the form of actual letters and words, or in the looping lines in Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings that show up for us as writing-like—while remaining illegible since they are not actual writing but what Fóti calls ‘quasi-writing’—, Twombly defamiliarizes writing and introduces a multidimensional or ‘diacritical’ field of meanings and associations that go beyond mere semantic or literal meaning. This treats words and letters as figures rather than as signs, which highlights both the gestures involved in writing certain letters or words and the materiality of the sign itself, which illustrates the embodied grounds of language and expression. Additionally, Twombly’s attention to the trace left by the act of writing and his erasures, effacements, and concealments of words in his paintings, along with the deferral of meaning this produces, are informed by reading this practice in the light of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “invisible of the visible” (48).

Unlike the other chapters, here Fóti does explain how considering Twombly’s work in relation to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas can complicate and inform the latter’s philosophy. For example, Twombly’s questioning of the separation between the visual and the verbal lends weight to Merleau-Ponty’s suspicion of this dualism in “Eye and Mind” over his apparent endorsement of this separation, viz., his distinction between painting as (or as allowing) ‘timeless meditation’ vs. literature as tied to its historical situation in “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” (1952). As well, Fóti considers whether Twombly’s practices of drawing in the dark and with his non-dominant hand in order to disrupt the habitual connections between hand and eye, and between painting and vision, might pose a challenge for Merleau-Ponty’s thought. She concludes that they do not, arguing that dissociating hand, eye, and mind only introduces a problem for what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘profane’ vision; however, it is not clear why drawing ‘blind’ would lead to a more genuine or ‘primordial’ kind of vision, although it does plausibly allow for an element of embodied expression, which always underlies the act of drawing or painting, to be foregrounded. While these points about the relation of Twombly’s work and Merleau-Ponty’s thought are in keeping with what was promised in the introduction, the rest of this chapter—e.g., the descriptions of Twombly’s series of paintings about the Trojan war—is far less clear as to the connections being made or their importance.

Chapters 4 and 5 consider the art of Joan Mitchell and Ellsworth Kelley, respectively. The chapter on Mitchell consists mostly of descriptions of her paintings and practices, her thoughts on her work, and biographical details. These descriptions are well-wrought and thoughtful and the details are interesting; together they work to give us a good sense of her art. Fóti explores the ways her non-figurative expressionist paintings combine disintegration and turbulence with order and balance, how her paintings explore ambiguities between figure and ground, and the tension in her practice between spontaneity and deliberation. However, not much of a link is drawn between her work and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas: Mitchell’s interest in how colours combine and interact is mentioned alongside Merleau-Ponty’s remarks in “Eye and Mind” about colour as giving us visual textures and as supporting identities and differences, but these two concerns about colour are not obviously the same and their relation is not made clear. Fóti does note that Mitchell’s relationship to colour can be compared to what Merleau-Ponty says about Cézanne’s use of colour, but just how they compare or why this is a substantial convergence between her art and his thought is again not made clear. Similarly, Fóti discusses how Mitchell seeks to capture the felt ‘essences’ of experience in abstract forms and through colour, and notes that Merleau-Ponty is critical of the traditional quest for essences in philosophy but makes room in his thought for ‘carnal’ rather than ‘pure’ essences. However, it is not clear that Mitchell and Merleau-Ponty mean the same thing by ‘essence’ here; if they do not, there is no conflict, so it is again unclear just what relation between the artworks and philosophy is being drawn.

The chapter on Kelly focuses on his plant drawings and their relation to his better-known colour field paintings, where Fóti suggests they were a step on the way from figuration to abstraction in his work. The chapter also looks at Kelly’s artistic practice in terms of the interrelation of hand, eye, and mind and the involvement of memory in perception, and discusses Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature and biology, although Kelly’s work ends up mainly illustrating rather than informing Merleau-Ponty’s ideas. The discussion of the plant drawings is similar to the points made about Morandi’s work, with the claim here being that these drawings disclose a ‘primordial’ vision by abstracting from the familiar appearances of ‘profane’ vision. As in the discussion of Mitchell, the notion of art’s ability to disclose the essences of things is prominent here: by concentrating on lines that capture the shapes and visual rhythms of plant life and eschewing three-dimensional representation, colour, etc., Fóti claims that Kelly’s work is able to present “the very essence of the plant” or its “genuine essentiality” (75-76). Despite the decisiveness of these claims, it is unclear why we should take Kelly’s drawings to do this rather than to foreground an aspect of the plants he draws; this seems to involve what we might call a ‘reductionist bias’, i.e., presupposing that the ‘essence’ of a phenomenon will be a pared down or simplified version of it rather than thinking that essences could be as rich—as complex, messy, and muddled—as phenomena themselves. Not only is it unclear in what sense stripping away three-dimensionality and colour, and abstracting a linear form from its background or context, presents us with “what the eye sees” (77), but this seems to be in tension with the importance Merleau-Ponty places on colour, background, and, especially, depth.

The sixth and final chapter on beauty is identified as a version of a lecture given at the 2019 meeting of the International Merleau-Ponty Circle, which makes sense of its disconnect from the first five chapters, i.e., the lack of any substantial relation to the artists discussed therein, except for a brief discussion of Kelly and passing mentions of Morandi, Smith, and Mitchell. Here Fóti’s aim is to offer a theory of beauty that rescues it from “[t]he critique and eclipse of beauty as an artistic aim and ideal” in much 20th century art and art theory (93), and she does this largely by elaborating on a remark made in one of Merleau-Ponty’s lecture courses (see Merleau-Ponty 1996), viz.: “By the disintegration of the figurative, one finds a Beauty which is sought by painting’s internal exigency, and which no longer hides pain and death, being the profound sensitivity thereto” (quoted by Fóti, 61). Her suggestion is that ‘strong beauty’ avoids the worries behind the 20th century discrediting of beauty—especially post-WWII concerns about beauty’s potential complicity with evil—because totalitarian projects are based on worldviews where everything is taken to be fully present to view and completely determinable, and because strong beauty necessarily involves acknowledging the invisible in its interrelation with the visible. In other words, the idea is that works with strong beauty cannot be (mis-)used for ideological aims because they cannot be totalized or objectified but are opaque and enigmatic, whereas an ideological appropriation and use of art cannot tolerate ambiguity.

Since strong beauty is characterized in terms of enigma and opacity is it perhaps not surprising that Fóti never quite tells us exactly what it is. We are told that strong beauty: is not merely external attractiveness but is intrinsic to a work’s meaning; is not related to pleasure but rather to feelings of intensity, is not opposed to ugliness or abjection; is a character not of objects but of events, and so is not a representation but a revelation; involves being open to the universe rather than wanting to impose one’s own vision onto it; must have an “uncompromising ethicality” (Ibid.); must refuse ‘absolutization’ by remaining enigmatic and unforeseeable, always “exceeding one’s spectrum of preformed possibilities” (99). This is all rather vague, and we might expect that examples of particular artworks that manifest strong beauty would make this clear, especially given Fóti’s concern throughout the book to illustrate her more abstract points by way of presenting detailed and concrete descriptions of works. Unfortunately, the works of art that are mentioned as examples of strong beauty—such as Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and some of the works of Kiki Smith, Lucian Freud, Narvar Bhavsar, and Agnes Martin—are merely asserted to have this character without explaining what it is in virtue of which they have it.

There is a worry here that what Smith is describing departs from what is customarily or traditionally called ‘beauty’ to the point where by changing the definition she in effect changes the topic while continuing to use the same label. There is also a worry that building a moral component into the idea of strong beauty by requiring its ethicality is only done to make it immune from the worries about beauty’s compatibility with evil by merely asserting their incompatibility. Nevertheless, despite these worries and the vagueness of Fóti’s explication, her comments on strong beauty and the experience of our encounters with it, as well as the implications of these comments for the relation between art, morality, and politics, are worth further exploration.

Concluding Assessment

This book offers a fairly enjoyable and interesting read, but one that will be of limited use to those who are already familiar with Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetic thought and late ontology other than as a resource of examples that illustrate his ideas. Readers looking for this, however, will find the book valuable: Fóti’s close descriptions of particular artworks are eloquent and informative, and the details she provides about the lives and practices of the artists whose work she considers are intriguing and show a deep familiarity with the art-historical and critical literature. Although Fóti successfully explicates many ideas that are of central importance for Merleau-Ponty’s thought post-Phenomenology of Perception, this will mainly serve as summary for readers with their own background knowledge of Merleau-Ponty rather than adding anything new to what readers can gain by reading works such as “Eye and Mind”. (For readers seeking this, Fóti’s 2013 Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty is recommended.) Moreover, these ideas are explained in a way that likely will be too advanced for readers who do not already have a background in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, or in phenomenology and 20th century continental philosophy more generally, and readers who come to the book from a background in art history or art theory will need to supplement their reading in order to grasp the ideas of Merleau-Ponty’s that are presented here. Ultimately, while Fóti’s knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and of art history are enviable, this book does not obviously make a significantly new contribution to either Merleau-Ponty scholarship or to the art-historical literature on the artists discussed, except for the first half of Chapter 3, where she analyzes Twombly’s combinations of image and writing, and Chapter 6 with its suggestions for a theory of beauty that hopefully will be clarified and developed further in future work.


Crippen, M. 2014. “Body Phenomenology, Somaesethetics and Nietzschean Themes in Medieval Art.” Pragmatism Today, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 45-50.

Dufrenne, M. 1973. The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Translation by E. S. Casey. Northwestern University Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1992. Heidegger and the Poets: Poiesis, Sophia, Techne. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 1996. Merleau-Ponty: Difference, Materiality, Painting. Humanities Press.

Fóti, V. M. 2013. Tracing Expression in Merleau-Ponty: Aesthetics, Philosophy of Biology, and Ontology. Northwestern University Press.

Hacklin, S. 2012. Divergencies of Perception: The Possibilities of Merleau-Pontian Phenomenology in Analyses of Contemporary Art. PhD thesis. University of Helsinki. Retrieved from https://helda/

Mallin, S. B. 1996. Art Line Thought. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1952. “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence.” Revised translation by B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 76-120. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1960. “Eye and Mind.” Revised translation by M. B. Smith. In The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, G. A. Johnson (ed.), pp. 121-149. Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1996. Notes de cours, 1959–1961. Edited by Stéphanie Ménasé. Gallimard.

Hans Blumenberg: History, Metaphors, Fables

History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Book Cover History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader
signale|TRANSFER: German Thought in Translation
Hans Blumenberg. Edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll.
Cornell University Press
Paperback $29.95

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (PhD. Department of Philosophy, University of Nevada, Reno)

The Aesthetic Dimension of Life and the Freedom of Thought: A Hans Blumenberg Reader Review

The Cornell University Press edition of the History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader is a first of its kind volume, masterfully edited and translated by Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll. Continuing to widen the Hans Blumenberg (1920 – 1996) readership in the English-speaking world, the wide-ranging collection includes Blumenberg’s “most important philosophical essays, many of which provide explicit discussions of what in the large tomes often remain only tacit presuppositions and often act as précis for them, as well as selections of his nonacademic writings” (5). The editors organize Blumenberg’s writings thematically, beginning in Part I with Blumenberg’s accounts of the historical significance of secularization and his assessment of the concept of the real. Part II encompasses select writings on language and rhetoric including Blumenberg’s seminal and groundbreaking conceptualization of metaphoricity (e.g., Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology 1960 and Observations Drawn from Metaphors 1971). Unique in his thinking about the metaphorical process, Blumenberg is a contemporary of Ricoeur, whose own analyses of metaphor begin to appear in the mid-seventies in French (e.g., La Métaphore vive 1975). Moving from Blumenberg’s examination of new modes of poetic, rhetorical, and metaphoric thinking and writing (what Blumenberg refers to as “nonconceptuality”), Part III of the book offers several key compositions on the meaning of technology and nature. The volume closes with Part IV that contains Blumenberg’s literary varia and more whimsical pieces that reflect Blumenberg’s interest in playfulness and riddles as entryways to a revivified philosophical reflection that breaks free from canonical meaning and form.

There are “two criteria” that the editors of the Reader cite as determining their “selection: the centrality of the texts for Blumenberg’s oeuvre as such—the core canon, as contestable as this notion is—and their illustrative value for the genres, topics, or types of question he was engaged in but for which no such canon has yet crystallized” (20). The editors situate their selections in the historical background of Blumenberg’s intellectual development, which they discuss in the Introduction. There Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll remind us that Blumenberg’s father worked extensively on the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and that Blumenberg’s 1950 Habilitation thesis, Ontological Distance, an Inquiry into the Crisis of Edmund Husserl‘s Phenomenology, examined Husser’s ideas at length. Being half-Jewish (Blumenberg’s mother was Jewish) just as Husserl, Blumenberg suffered during the reign of the National Socialists in Germany. This background makes Blumenberg’s criticism of Carl Schmitt’s take on law, politics, and exceptional power (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, originally published in 1966) all the more poignant.

Blumenberg’s own understanding of the task of thinking – and especially philosophical thinking – arrives early on, in one of the opening selections in Part I, entitled World Pictures and World Models (1961), where Blumenberg writes, “countless definitions that have been given for philosophy’s achievements in its history have a basic formula at their core: philosophy is the emerging consciousness of humans about themselves” (42). However, this externalizing power of philosophical reflection, which takes us out of our cultural and historical belonging in order to allow us to examine both, according to Blumenberg, results if not in utter alienation, then at least in a loosening of national and political convictions. Paradoxically, the pluralism of cultures and views, and the resultant inability “to adopt one of these worlds obviously and unquestionably as our own” (42), makes us all the more malleable when it comes to political manipulation. On Blumenberg’s view, “beneath the competing world pictures, interests stemming from rather less rarefied spheres interpose themselves imperceptibly. World pictures are becoming pretexts under which interests are advanced. This type of substitution is implied when one speaks of world pictures as ideologies” (50). Blumenberg contrasts the world picture with a more theoretical and scientific construction such as a “world model” (43), and which he defines as an “embodiment of reality through which and in which humans recognize themselves, orient their judgments and the goals of their actions” (43). The possibility of a successful substitution of a world picture for an ideology makes Blumenberg’s critique of the sort of political theory that Schmitt proposes all the more salient. For Blumenberg, “Whoever campaigns for the state as a “higher reality” and whoever identifies himself with the state thinks it as a subject of crises—and is easily inclined to think it into crises” (84), and as we know already from Plato’s Republic, which both Blumenberg and Schmitt studied at length, a tyrant, who identifies with and as the state is “always stirring up war” (567a).

However, the observation that Blumenberg fails to make is that his own take on the meaning of the Republic makes this dialogue out to be, precisely, the kind of tool of ideological manipulation against which he warns us to start, i.e., in his remarks on the world picture. Blumenberg reads the dialogue literally, which is clear from his own gloss on the supposed function of the Kallipolis. He writes, “Plato had derived his Republic from the three-tiered structure of the human soul; at the center of the work stood the theory of ideas, and the famous cave allegory illustrated the necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87). Blumenberg directly attributes to Plato those images and ideas that are a part of the city in speech that is a construct and a product of the dialogical exchanges between the interlocutors. Any product of the discussions among the dialogical characters cannot be directly identified with what Plato may have thought or believed. If Plato wanted us to think that a surface and literal reading was the correct one, he would have written in the first person, and straightforwardly recommended his ideas as being correct and true. Instead, Plato writes dialogues and there is not a single dialogue of Plato’s where we have him address us in the first person. Blumenberg’s claim about Plato’s alleged prescription of the “necessity of binding the state to the knowledge of absolute reality” (87) allows Blumenberg to set Plato up as a subject of Machiavelli’s discontent and attacks, but it makes Plato’s thought out to be much too simplistic and brings it in the vicinity of ideology. Another problematic set of connections that Blumenberg makes has to do with his swift excursus through the history of ideas – from Aristotle to Husserl. Blumenberg’s take on this tradition in The Concept of Reality and the Theory of the State chapter is set in the epistemological key. In other words, Blumenberg omits the ontological register. This omission allows him to establish a clean and clear-cut, but mistaken view of the conceptual continuities between ancient philosophy, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and then also late 19th Century German thought. Blumenberg thinks that

Aristotle’s dictum that, in a way, the soul is everything, was the maximally reduced formula that was still prevalent in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To this formula corresponds the expectation that experience is, in principle, finite and can be reduced to a catalog of distinct Gestalten, each of which communicates its reality in the instantaneous self-evidence of a confirmed ought-to-be. The Platonic theory of ideas and the notion of anamnesis [recollection] are merely consistent interpretations of the basic fact that such instantaneous self-evidence, such confirmation in propria persona [Leibhaftigkeit], might exist.  Even Husserl tried to rediscover this self-evidence in his phenomenology by choosing the metaphor of an experience in propria persona for the original impression. (122)

Blumenberg misses the fact that, for Aristotle, psyche ta onta pos esti panta (Peri Psyche 431b20) – the “soul somehow is all beings” – is a hard ontological claim. In Aristotle, the soul is not a totality of knowledge in terms of a faculty of the mind, but in terms of the very reality and being of things. This oversight skews Blumenberg’s interpretation in the direction of an epistemic clarity, rather than in the direction of thinking about a nascent possibility. In other words, Blumenberg thinks of the soul as something that both undergirds and grants access to the always already existing and knowable noetic reality. Given Blumenberg’s direct attribution to Plato of the “Theory of Ideas,” he then establishes a simple continuity between the reality and the world-forming status of the “Ideas”; the epistemic status of the soul in Aristotle; the hypostatization of divine and noetic reality in the human world (the Middle Ages and Renaissance); and lastly, Husserl’s philosophy. The last, being an epistemologist, misunderstands Aristotle in his own right. Husserl treats psychology as phenomenology, i.e., as a mode akin to Wesensschau. It is Heidegger, who in a sense, offers a corrective to Husserl’s program and sounds out the ontological significances of the Greek language and, in particular, of Aristotle’s thought. Blumenberg’s interest in establishing philosophical continuities that inform the history of the Western world from antiquity to the modern era is a leitmotif of The Concept of Reality and the Theory of State (1968/69), which along with the Preliminary Remarks on the Concept of Reality (1974) concludes Part I.

Part II, which is entitled Metaphors, Rhetoric, Nonconceptuality, showcases Blumenberg’s interest in rethinking the traditional notion of concept-based philosophy through the lens of poetry, rhetoric, and the power of metaphor. It opens with a chapter on Light as a Metaphor for Truth: At the Preliminary Stage of Philosophical Concept Formation (1957). In this essay, Blumenberg takes the Schellingian idea of mutually belonging, but opposing tendencies or states, i.e., light and darkness, as being at the heart and at the beginning of the all. Following Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Blumenberg claims that “despite an abundance of gods of nature, Greek religion did not have a deity of light” (129). The intimation is that this designation is saved for the monotheistic god and especially of a Christian religion. However, this is an oversight, because the ancient Greeks not only had Apollo Phanaios or Apollo of Light, but also in the Orphic cosmogonies we have an androgynous god, Phanes – a deity of light. In any case, Blumenberg’s consequent analysis of the way in which light, as a metaphor, operates in the history of Western thought is fascinating. For example, turning to modern thought, Blumenberg sees that

in the idea of “method,” which originates with Bacon and Descartes, “light” is thought of as being at man’s disposal. Phenomena no longer stand in the light; rather, they are subjected to the lights of an examination from a particular perspective. The result then depends on the angle from which light falls on the object and the angle from which it is seen. It is the conditionality of perspective and the awareness of it, even the free selection of it, that now defines the concept of “seeing.” (156)

This is Blumenberg’s conclusion, i.e., that with the onset of modern thought we experience a reversal in the dynamic of revelation. Heretofore, things revealed and presented themselves to human beings, but now we engage in the kind of experimental and scientific examination whereby human beings control the revealing potency of light and use this power at will. The next step, as Blumenberg sees it, is the pervasive and subjugating power of technology, which speeds up our work, extends our work-day well into the night, and depends – largely – on “artificial light” (156). Technology subjugates us and permeates our lives through and through. Blumenberg wonders whether we can find an opposing power to counterbalance this advance of technicization. He sees this opposing force in metaphors. According to Blumenberg, they can loosen the hold of technocracy on our thinking and on our lives. The Reader offers Blumenberg’s ideas on this theme in the chapter entitled, Introduction to Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960).

Blumenberg seeks to uncover the “the conditions under which metaphors can claim legitimacy in philosophical language” (173). In the first place, he wants us to note that “Metaphors can first of all be leftover elements, rudiments on the path from mythos to logos; as such, they indicate the Cartesian provisionality of the historical situation in which philosophy finds itself at any given time” (173). In other words, just as Descartes’ Discourse on Method offers provisional Maxims of Morality, likewise Blumenberg wants metaphors to fulfill a similar function. Metaphors would serve as a temporary measure of thought or as a passage from the already by-gone to the not-yet established way of philosophizing and living. It is questionable whether Descartes means for us to take his Maxims of Morality – of which the thinker famous for his discoveries in geometry and algebra tells us there are “three or four” (Discourse on Method Part 3) – as provisional. An alternative reading of Descartes, which does not undermine Blumenberg’s comparison, is that morality and its maxims are always only provisional; subject to re-examination and re-valuation depending on the place and time we find ourselves in. Descartes’ insistence that we continuously seek to rejuvenate our ethical outlook and relations agrees with Blumenberg’s interest in finding a surreptitious element that would allow us to undermine, undo, and then recast outmoded ways of thought. “Metaphorology,” he writes, “would here be a critical reflection charged with unmasking and counteracting the inauthenticity of figurative speech. But metaphors can also—hypothetically, for the time being—be foundational elements of philosophical language, ‘translations’ that resist being converted back into authenticity and logicality” (173). It is this “resistance” to the structure of accepted, logically-sound language and presentation that attracts Blumenberg to the metaphorical process.

Blumenberg probes and pivots our understanding of the philosophical value of poetic, metaphoric, and rhetorical expression in the consequent selection that the Reader offers, which is entitled An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric (1971).  Blumenberg’s claim about rhetoric is that its “modern difficulties with reality consist, in good part, in the fact that this reality no longer has value as something to appeal to, because it is in its turn a product of artificial processes” (202). There is a need, in other words, to get to the underlying truth-structure of reality, which moves past the artificiality of social engineering, the technocratic state, or simply the sedimentation of interpretive layers that dictate what reality is supposed to be for us. However, this need in the guise of an imperative (and here Blumenberg again recalls Husserl and his “Zur Sache und zu den Sachen!” 202) and issued as “an exhortatory cry” (202) itself becomes rhetorical. The latter is a technology in its own right, i.e., that of language, of shaping opinions, and influencing emotions. In this estimation, Blumenberg comes close to a Derridean position, which offers us both the elemental and complex nexuses of the world, including the world of nature, in terms of the techniques, expressions, and formations that can only be reached because of and by means of language. Thus, both for Derrida and for Blumenberg (at least on this presentation in An Anthropological Approach to the Contemporary Significance of Rhetoric), as central as the logos is, it must be displaced to give way to a possibility of re-interpreting our relation to our thinking and to our world. This insight, along with his thinking about metaphors, allows Blumenberg to proceed to a discussion of “nonconceptuality.” This discussion, which concludes the selections in Part II of the Reader is preceded by two other pieces: Observations Drawn from Metaphors (1971) and Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality (1979).

In the very last essay in Part II, which is an excerpt from the 1975 Theory of Nonconceptuality, Blumenberg outlines his program.  Prior to giving us this outline, he entertains the meaning and pitfalls of theoretical reflection in the context of ancient Greek theoria. Blumenberg’s take on theoria, which equates it with motionless and stilling contemplation of eternal reality written in the starry sky, misses the important sense that the Greeks themselves attributed to theorein (at least prior to the arrival of Pythagorean thought). This term, theorein—to  contemplate or to spectate—includes spectatorship of various religious,  theatrical, and athletic events. As such, it is much more immersive and emotionally engaged than the purified, rarified sense of theorein, which comes into play after Pythagorean beliefs and practices take hold. The self-possessed, reserved, and calm theoretic practice (although we have allusions to it made by various characters in Plato’s dialogues, e.g., Timaeus, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Phaedo) is not a good representation of the originary meaning of theorein. Nonetheless, Blumenberg takes the meaning of theoria, which  is already purified of its sensual alloys, to be representative of the Greek understanding of this practice. He writes, “for the Greeks, contemplating the sky meant not only contemplating a special and divine object of the highest dignity, but the paradigmatic case of what theory ought to be, what is at stake for it. The ideal of theory is the contemplation of the sky as an object that cannot be handled” (260). Blumenberg then takes this sense of theory as what has been handed down through the history of Western thought and what must be counteracted by a new engagement with the non-conceptual, emotional, sensible, sensitive, and intuitive dimension of life. It is this latter recommendation that we must heed in order to follow Blumenberg’s intimations on the point of nonceptual philosophizing.

To state the key moments of his program briefly, 1) “The turn away from intuition is wholly at the service of a return to intuition. This is, of course, not the recurrence of the same, the return to the starting point, and certainly not anything at all to do with romanticism” (262). This interest in re-inscribing thinking by retracing the intuitive dimension – a retracing, which is not a simple repetition, but a deepening of our reckoning with it – is the first postulate. Then comes a key aesthetic and emotional attunement 2) “Pleasure [which] requires the return to full sensibility [Sinnlichkeit]” (262). This call to pleasure hearkens us back to the Greek beginnings of contemplation as both a mental and an emotional immersion in and an attunement to the world – the kind of activity that pleasure properly completes (e.g., Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, esp. Bk. X). And finally, a medium or passage that must go between the noetic and the aesthetic, for Blumenberg just as for Riceouer, is 3) “Metaphor [which] is also an aesthetic medium precisely because it is both native to the original sphere of concepts and because it is continually liable and has to vouch for the deficiency of concepts and the limits of what they can achieve” (262). This, then, is the basic outline of Blumenberg’s program in the excerpt from Theory of Nonconceptuality with which Part II of the Reader ends.

Part III, entitled Nature, Technology, and Aesthetics, begins with Blumenberg’s The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem  (1951), and proceeds historically to show how a distinction between nature and being insinuates itself in philosophical reflection. Blumenberg then traces out a further divide between nature and divinity in Christian thought. A short section on enjoyment in this essay is reminiscent of Hegel’s analyses in the Phenomenology of Spirit (VI. B. II. b. § 581 – Spirit, Culture, Truth of Enlightenment). In Hegel, this section on the totalizing function of “utility” leads to a situation in which “heaven is transplanted to earth below” (§ 581), which are the last words of the section that precedes Hegel’s discussion of “Absolute Freedom and Terror” – a discussion that is informed by Hegel’s reflections on the French Revolution. Blumenberg’s analyses, too, lead up to a revolution, but of a different kind, i.e., to the revolutionazing, but also totalizing, and not altogether salubrious power of technology.

In part 7. Of The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem, entitled “The ‘Second Nature’ of the Machine World as a Consequence of the Technical Will,” Blumenberg speculates about the way in which the displacing effect of technology or the “technical ‘out-of-itself’” (302) can be understood as “second nature” (302) for us. Blumenberg frames his reflections on this possibility in terms of Heidegger’s thinking and poses them in the form of a question. He asks:

does the concept of a “second nature” really carry the implications of the modern age’s understanding of nature to their conclusion, to the end of all its possible consequences? Is the claim to “unconditioned production,” as Heidegger has called the technical will, enacted in the “second nature” of a perfected machine-world? Or does such unconditionality imply that it will suffer nothing else alongside it—which is to say that not only has “second nature” provided the potency for the nullification of the first nature but that the former’s essence also pushes toward the latter’s realization? Man’s experience of this ultimate stage of possible technical fulfillment is only just beginning. (302)

This prescient formulation and the possible danger it expresses is all the more worth exploring in our world – today – permeated, navigated, run, and shaped by a heretofore unseen proliferation of virtual communication and technology. Blumenberg, having offered for us this portentous problem, then goes on to lay out its roots in the relationship between nature, divinity, and creative power – both divine and human, the latter of which is largely a power to imitate. These reflections appear in the essay that follows in the Reader next and which is entitled Imitation of Nature: Toward a Prehistory of the Idea of the Creative Being (1957).

In the immediately following essay, entitled Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization (1963), Blumenberg traces out the transformation of the intuition of life into a totalization of world-horizon and the consequent objectification of the life-world. This transformation sets the stage for the thoroughgoing displacement of nature by the “second nature.” The displacement that Blumbenberg outlined in The Relationship between Nature and Technology as a Philosophical Problem. Concretely, Blumenberg explains that “the intentionality of consciousness is fulfilled in the most comprehensive horizon of horizons—in the ‘world’ as the regulative pole-idea of all possible experience, the system that keeps all possibilities of experience in a final harmony, and in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356). This unification and fulfilment of intentionality as and in the world prepares the stage for the transformation of the world into an object. This happens because of the identification that takes place between the world-totality “in which alone what is given to experience can prove itself to be real” (356) and the fact that, for Husserl, according the Blumenberg, it is “in the ‘world’ as the horizon of all horizons [that] objecthood is likewise isolated and stressed” (356). Not only that, but also “’Nature,’ [which] is essential for our topic—is the result of such emphasis. It is thus not equiprimordial to world but a derivative, already constricted objective horizon. Nature, so much can already be seen, cannot be the counterconcept to technology, for already in the concept of nature itself we find a deformation—an emphasis—of the original world-structure” (356). Since the latter is object-skewed, also nature is not free from objectification and is already prepared for being worked over and substituted with or nullified through the “second nature,” i.e., through the all-encompassing technological transformation. However, Blumenberg does not assign to Husserl the blame for this transformation, instead Blumenberg’s “Husserl is only concerned with making visible in exemplary fashion how disastrous in the broadest sense human action can be where it no longer knows what it is doing, and with exposing what one might call active ignorance as the root of all those disoriented activities that have produced human helplessness in the technical world” (367). The counterpoint and a saving force to this onslaught of “active ignorance” and in the face of a thoroughgoing technicization, has to do with our reorientation toward the intuitive, sensible, and aesthetic dimension of life.

The remaining essays in Part III, as well as Blumenberg’s engagement with various literary and philosophical figures and thinkers such as Socrates, Valéry, Kafka, Freud, Faulkner, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Aesop (among others) point the way to this aesthetic reorientation. For example, in Socrates and the Object Ambigu: Paul Valéry’s Discussion of the Ontology of the Aesthetic Object and Its Tradition, Blumenberg engages with Valéry’s Eupalinos or the Architect and the accounts of noetic construction and the role of necessity in the Timaeus; Aristotle’s unmoved mover; as well as reflections on beauty and finitude from the point of view of the Phaedrus. Blumenberg concludes that “the Socrates of Valéry’s dialogue does not arrive at an aesthetic attitude toward the objet ambigu because he insists on the question, definition, and classification of the object—thereby deciding to become a philosopher. The aesthetic attitude,” Blumenberg continues as he contrasts it to the Socrates of Valéry, “lets the indeterminacy stand, it achieves the pleasure specific to it by relinquishing theoretical curiosity, which in the end demands and must demand univocity in the determination of its objects. The aesthetic attitude,” in the final analysis, “accomplishes less because it tolerates more and lets the object be strong on its own rather than letting it be absorbed by the questions posed to it in its objectivation” (434). The attitude for which Blumenberg argues, then, is a kind of intuitive, aesthetic, deeply pleasurable – and having offered a reconstruction of theoria, I can also say – an originary contemplative attitude that immerses us into the world and thereby allows the world to show itself to us anew.

The closing set of selections in Part IV of the Reader offers Blumenberg’s analyses of philosophically significant literature, which I see as a kind of propaedeutic to the aesthetic, metaphoric, nonconceptual, but originarily theoretical thinking and being in the world. Thus, in The Concept of Reality and the Possibility of the Novel (1964) essay, Blumenberg examines the relationship between truth, poetry, nature, and imitation in its literary and historical unfolding. This multi-disciplinary and cross-historical examination is characteristic of Blumenberg’s style of analysis. He moves through Plato, Aristotle, Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and on to the emergence of the concept of the absurd. In the final analysis, Blumenberg claims about the novel that it does not need to take on the guise of the absurd or be guided by it as a concept (502). The sphere of possibilities that the novel encompasses and iterates surpasses the straightforward mimetic schema where culture seeks to imitate nature. Because of this, the novel does not run aground once this schema shatters against the absurdity of life where nature has become infused with culture through and through; subtended in the conceptual delimitation of its object within a world-horizon; or displaced by means of technological dissolution of the natural being of the world. These latter eventualities call for a break-through and an overcoming by means of the absurd, but the novel circumvents this need, because the novel serves as “the extension of the sphere of the humanly [and not naturally] possible” (502). What does this mean concretely in terms of the philosophical mode of reflection and thought? Blumenberg’s answer is forthcoming in the essay entitled Pensiveness (1980), which is both a prelude to the more whimsical selections in this Reader and also offers Blumenberg’s estimation of the task and value of philosophy. Blumenberg first lets us know that “pensiveness is … a respite from the banal results that thought provides for us as soon as we ask about life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, being and nothingness” (517). In this formulation, pensiveness evokes both Descartes’ resolve to waver and to be of a wandering, instead of a weak mind (Discourse on Method Part 3) and also Heidegger’s call to authentic openness in anticipatory resoluteness or Entschlossenheit (Being and Time Sect. 54). Blumenberg goes on to offer us his “conclusion—since I must present one because of my profession—is that philosophy has something to preserve, if not revive, from its life-world origin in pensiveness” (517). This is both lyrical and evocative, as well as a methodologically rigorous a conclusion.

Although the Reader does not end here, I would like to close my review with the following quotation that expresses both a recommendation and a challenge that Blumenberg issues to us. “Philosophy must not be bound, therefore, to particular expectations about the nature of its product. The connection back to the life-world would be destroyed if philosophy’s right to question were limited through the normalization of answers, or even through the obligation of disciplining the questions by beginning with the question of their answerability” (517).

Eugenio Mazzarella: Il mondo nell’abisso. Heidegger e i Quaderni Neri

Il mondo nell’abisso. Heidegger e i Quaderni Neri Book Cover Il mondo nell’abisso. Heidegger e i Quaderni Neri
Eugenio Mazzarella
Neri Pozza
Paperback €12.50

Reviewed by: Francesca Brencio (University of Seville, Spain / The Phenomenology and Mental Health Network, St. Catherine College, University of Oxford, UK)

La querelle Heidegger e il nazionalsocialismo, più recentemente coniugata alla questione dell’antisemitismo, si ripropone ciclicamente nella storia della critica e più in generale degli studi heideggeriani. Ossessive – e anche noiose – ondate di antiheideggerismo si affacciano sul panorama letterario con la complicità sia di qualche pubblicazione inedita del filosofo di Meßkirch sia dei media, spesso inclini ad una forma di linciaggio intellettuale condita con i toni più accattivanti del sensazionalismo. Questo modo bizzarro di concepire la filosofia, e con essa la Bildung filosofica, finisce nei quotidiani e negli organi di diffusione pubblicitaria avallando un certo modo di pensare che fa della semplificazione la linea guida del nostro tempo. Che il prezzo da pagare per questa operazione sia la banalizzazione della filosofia in generale non lo si contabilizza nella società dello spettacolo: ciò che conta è “rinverdire il cartellone per un teatro filosofico, dove da qualche anno non entrava più nessuno” (Mazzarella 2018, p. 13).

La pubblicazione dei Quaderni Neri di Heidegger, cominciata nel 2014 ed ancora in corso per la casa editrice Klostermann di Francoforte sul Meno, si inserisce in questo cartellone in disuso. Il recente volume di Eugenio Mazzarella (del 2018 è la versione in lingua italiana, mentre del 2020 quella in lingua tedesca, pubblicata per la Ergon Verlag) ha il merito di fare ordine tra il noto, l’insostenibile e il nuovo. Il mondo nell’abisso è una sorta di fotografia nitida di tre ordini di problemi: in primo luogo, è l’istantanea disincantata della vicenda dell’uomo Heidegger di fronte agli eventi politici che abbracciano gli anni dal 1931 al 1946; in secondo luogo è un ritratto di un certo modo di concepire il dibattito filosofico su ‘Heidegger e il nazionalsocialismo’ superando ogni residuo ideologico del pro et contra; infine è un’istantanea attuale di quello che rimane il compito della filosofia oggi, cioè farsi engagement con la realtà e con il proprio tempo. Questo triplice ordine di problemi si interseca con l’intento di comprendere il nuovo, disvelare l’insostenibile ed archiviare il noto, in vista di quella che rimane, a mio avviso, la domanda più spinosa della filosofia heideggeriana: che ne è dell’essere?

Il libro consta di quattro capitoli, o se vogliamo di quattro sentieri, attraverso i quali incamminarsi verso la Seinsfrage per comprenderne la (mancata) ricaduta nella realtà e nella storia negli anni dei Quaderni Neri. Nel primo capitolo, Teatro filosofico. Un cartellone in disuso, Mazzarella ricostruisce le vicende dell’uomo Heidegger legate alla redazione degli appunti contenuti nelle Überlegungen e nelle Anmerkungen per sottolinearne “un disimpegno ontologico dalla realtà” (p. 15), quale conseguenza della delusione del rettorato e accettazione della “profezia dell’avanzare del deserto della modernità nella sua (auto)rovina” (p. 15). Delusione che si aggrava con la disillusione che il nazismo non ha nulla a che vedere con quella rivoluzione spirituale a cui egli aveva guardato come una nuova possibilità per lo “spirito tedesco”. Il disimpegno si fa apocalittico, ci dice Mazzarella, quando Heidegger è testimone degli eventi che muovono dal finire degli anni trenta sino allo scoppio del secondo conflitto mondiale: il nazionalsocialismo è un movimento barbarico fondato sulla politica del terrore che nulla ha a che vedere con “il coraggio inaudito della domanda dell’Essere” (p. 16), bensì manifesta la sua essenza attraverso quella macchinazione propria del calcolo tecnico che deriva dalla metafisica occidentale. Le baldanzose speranze del rettorato si scontrano con il terrore dei fatti; la frustrazione umana ed intellettuale dell’uomo Heidegger si manifesta nella frustrazione di pensiero che lo accompagnerà sino agli anni Cinquanta (pp. 17-18): solo allora egli potrà fare esperienza di una riconciliazione con il mondo per mezzo di Hölderlin, di Hebel, dell’arte e dei Greci. Nel teatro filosofico che offre interpretazioni pro et contra Heidegger, Mazzarella distingue con lucido distacco e sapiente perizia, tipica di chi ha trascorso una buona parte della propria vita intellettuale in dialogo con le domande di Heidegger, fra il noto, cioè quelle interpretazioni che alimentano la scolastica heideggeriana sia sul versante dell’encomio sia su quello dell’oltraggio; l’insostenibile, cioè quelle esegesi che imputano ad Heidegger una qualche colpa del regime nazista e che vogliono scorgere nella sua meditazione una forma di “antisemitismo istoriale” insostenibile, le cui basi filologiche e filosofiche sono ai limiti dell’evanescenza (p. 47); e il nuovo, cioè la possibilità di intravedere nelle note private dei Quaderni una forma di gnosticismo per la quale la dissoluzione nichilista che ha coinvolto tutta la modernità e’ il risultato di un eone del presente (p. 14).

Il secondo capitolo, Arbeit macht frei, è dedicato all’approfondimento dei diciannove passaggi contenuti nei primi quattro volumi dei Quaderni (Gesamtausgabe 94-97) in cui Heidegger si riferisce al giudaismo e agli ebrei. Senza alcuna esitazione, Mazzarella sottolinea come Heidegger accolga con estrema superficialità molti dei cliché legati agli ebrei e tale “stupidità analogica” ha poco o niente a che fare “con un accodarsi all’antisemitismo nazionalsocialista” (p. 28). Piuttosto, Mazzarella insiste sul tratto nichilista che inghiotte sia il carattere ebraico che il cristianesimo: “L’opposizione di principio dell’onto-storia heideggeriana al ‘messianesimo’ (ebraico)-cristiano e’ fondamentalmente una scelta di campo per un’altra Germania (ed Europa) spirituale: non ‘per’ Cristianità ovvero Europa, come in Novalis, ma ‘tra’ cristianità, carattere ‘cristiano’ oppure Europa” (p. 30). Appropriandosi di quel tópos filologico già presente in Nietzsche, Heidegger concepisce una Europa sulla linea Grecia-Germania. Solo in questo modo è possibile oltrepassare la metafisica, cioè rompere con l’eredità giudaico-cristiana: è il tempo del salto dell’Essere, che va da Jena alla Jonia, saltando a piè pari Roma e Gerusalemme. Mazzarella smantella la semplificazione propagandistica di una certa ricezione dei Quaderni Neri non a suon di colpi di martello (per usare ancora un lessico nietzscheano), piuttosto con un fine scalpello filosofico: riscostruendo in pochi sapienti passaggi i nodi tematici della filosofia della storia, in dialogo con il retaggio hegeliano e diltheyano l’autore mostra come dietro alla dicotomia elemento ebraico-cristiano vs grecità’-germanicita’ ci sia un fine intreccio metafisico per il quale il cogito cartesiano diviene principio-io della posizione della coscienza cristiana come gia’ moderna. È l’epoca dell’immagine del mondo in cui il soggettivismo filosofico la fa da padrone. L’autoannientamento – parola chiave nell’ontologia heideggeriana – riguarda la ragione strumentale e tecnica dell’Occidente, che genera quella macchinazione mostruosa per la quale tutto il mondo si piega al dominio dell’impianto della tecnica. L’autoannientamento, la conseguenza più visibile della dimenticanza dell’essere da parte della metafisica occidentale, coinvolge la Germania e l’Europa tutta, e non consiste in quella guerra in cui perdono la vita milioni di persone, bensì “nel pólemos dell’Essere”. Il capitolo si chiude con delle parole che vale la pena riportare per intero: le considerazioni appuntate nelle Überlegungen e nelle Anmerkungen non aggiungono “niente alla comprensione che potevamo avere del suo (scilicet: di Heidegger) pensiero, e del corto circuito con la comprensione del suo tempo”; piuttosto, esse danno “il tocco finale alla pochezza dell’uomo comune, del piccolo borghese nazionalista (frustrato anche dal nazismo) che era” (p. 39).

Il terzo capitolo è dedicato alla presa di posizione di von Herrmann rispetto alla diffusione ad hoc dei passaggi in cui il giudaismo e gli ebrei sono nominati e mostra un Mazzarella incline ad accogliere la riflessione dell’ultimo assistente di Heidegger rispetto ad altri interpreti che hanno imbastito un processo mediatico e ideologico al filosofo di Meßkirch. Estremamente ricco è invece l’ultimo capitolo del libro, La crisi della domanda dell’Essere nei Quaderni Neri. Ancora una volta, l’autore si confronta con la Seinsfrage non più sul terreno dell’esistente, piuttosto su quello dell’“anatema gnostico del presente” (p. 56) e di una nuova ripresa, il nuovo inizio del pensiero che si fa Besinnung. Mazzarella entra nella crisi della domanda dell’essere individuando quattro direzioni attraverso le quali essa si tra-duce: la prima è quella della crisi dell’autenticità dell’esistente, del singolo contro il mondo, della chiacchiera contro il se stesso; dell’individuo contro la massa. La seconda è quella dei poeti, i necessari e gli ultimi. La figura del poeta – custode, vate e traghettatore della storia – è l’elemento chiave per comprendere un’architettonica della domanda fondamentale che si traduce nella necessità dei poeti in tempo di povertà, tema questo a cui Mazzarella ha più di recente dedicato un lavoro a sé, una piccola gemma del dialogo fra Heidegger e Hölderlin, ma anche di quello fra il filosofo napoletano e Giacomo Leopardi[1]. La terza direzione è quella dei pensatori greci, dei presocratici, i primi, coloro che sono “oltre l’uomo filosofico” (p. 67) e prima dello slittamento ontologico dell’essere sul terreno dell’onticita’. Attraverso i pensatori iniziali Heidegger puo’ mostrare quella “fraternità del mondo nella sua radice” (p. 71) che permette all’abitare di essere non mera misura ma postura aperta e donante dell’esserci nel suo trovarsi “sotto la volta dell’edificio del mondo” (Hebel). Infine, la quarta direzione è quella della meditazione sulla tecnica e sulla macchinazione, sul dominio planetario del Gestell. Nelle ultimissime pagine della sua riflessione sui Quaderni Neri Mazzarella ritorna sul tema che in filigrana compare nel primo capitolo: la dimensione gnostica del pensiero heideggeriano, una gnosi “della malaessenza dello stare al mondo”, che si traduce “nella catastrofe purificatrice dei tempi, mentre si attende una nuova specie umana ontologica, capace dell’Essere” (p. 78). Una sorta di “parodia paolina” che genera un “abbuiamento della domanda sull’Essere” (p. 79), una gnosi che negli anni dei Quaderni “passa dal mito del mondo nuovo […] a un radicale anticosmismo” (p. 79-80), in cui il mondo non è piu’ il kósmos venerabile della gnosi antica. Sarà solo alla fine di questo abbuiamento, dice l’autore, che si potrà cogliere nel pensiero di Heidegger un tentativo di riannodare il piano dell’ontologia con quello dell’esistenza e veder ripristinato il dialogo fra uomo ed essere.

Sul fine degli anni ottanta Jean Baudrillard aveva affidato alle pagine de “L’espresso” delle riflessioni significative dello stato di salute della filosofia: “L’inutile zuffa intorno ad Heidegger non ha alcun senso filosofico: è solo sintomatica del pensiero di quest’epoca che, non riuscendo a trovare in sé energie nuove, torna ossessivamente sulle sue origini, e rivive dolorosamente, in questo ultimo scorcio del Novecento, le scene primarie dell’inizio del secolo”[2]. Le riflessioni di Eugenio Mazzarella sembrano riprendere ed espandere quelle di Baudrillard. Anch’egli prende atto di come l’ennesima zuffa intorno ad Heidegger non abbia alcun senso filosofico (o, ammesso che ce l’abbia, vada rubricato al lemma di ciò che è noto) ma si spinge un passo più innanzi rispetto alla diagnosi del filosofo francese, indicando al pensiero un compito ed una direzione: prendere seriamente la realtà e la storia, evitando ogni tentazione di scendere a patti con la banalizzazione o la semplificazione della filosofia. La filosofia è una pratica di resistenza, cioè una pratica in cui occorre imparare a stare nel pensiero, come esseri umani e nel nostro tempo. Questo Mazzarella ce lo aveva gia’ detto[3] e con il più recente lavoro sui Quaderni Neri ce lo ricorda, a partire dalla vicenda dell’uomo Heidegger. Nel cortocircuito fra la vita e il pensiero negli anni delle Überlegungen e delle Anmerkungen, Mazzarella ci offre il ritratto di un uomo incapace di esercitare questa pratica, mostrando come anche un gigante del Novecento possa aver abdicato a tale compito.

La lettura del Il mondo nell’abisso fa tornare alla mente le parole della Arendt:  niente è più problematico nella nostra epoca del nostro atteggiamento verso il mondo[4]. Il mondo sta tra le persone e proprio questo zwischen rende necessaria la filosofia. Quando il pensiero si smarrisce nel buio, quando sul mondo scende una qualche forma di oscurità, quando le relazioni interpersonali diventano incerte quel tra è pratica incarnata “di vita che si prende addosso la vita”  (Mazzarella 2017, p. 7). Solo in questo modo possiamo attingere a quella fraternità del mondo nella sua radice che permette di riscattare il mondo dal dolore e forse anche dal suo abisso.

[1] E. Mazzarella. 2020. Perché i poeti. La parola necessaria. Neri Pozza: Vicenza.

[2] J. Baudrillard. 1988. Forza, aboliamo il novecento. La truffa dei processi postumi. In “L’Espresso”, 24 aprile 1988.

[3] E. Mazzarella. 2017. L’uomo che deve rimanere. La smoralizzazione del mondo. Quodlibet: Macerata.

[4] H. Arendt. 2006. L’umanità in tempi bui. Riflessioni su Lessing. In Antologia, Feltrinelli, Milano, p. 211.

Stefano Marino, Pietro Terzi (Eds.): Kant’s ›Critique of Aesthetic Judgment‹ in the 20th Century, De Gruyter, 2021

Kant’s ›Critique of Aesthetic Judgment‹ in the 20th Century: A Companion to Its Main Interpretations Book Cover Kant’s ›Critique of Aesthetic Judgment‹ in the 20th Century: A Companion to Its Main Interpretations
Stefano Marino, Pietro Terzi (Eds.)
De Gruyter
Hardback 112,95 €

Reviewed by: Adam Bainbridge (University of Warwick)

Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique has been extraordinarily influential.  Some see it as a foundational text for aesthetics and the philosophy of art.  For others, it is the cap stone to Kant’s critical project.  It makes aesthetics revelatory of the conditions of human cognition, and so is central to Kant’s reception generally.  Stefano Marino and Pietro Terzi’s collection of essays is an enjoyable and rewarding testament to the diversity of twentieth-century thinkers in the West for whom the first half of the Third Critique has been an inspiration.  Arranged over eighteen chapters, this book provides readers with a history of the influence of the Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgement (“CAPJ”).  It describes how key thinkers have turned to the CAPJ and the complex relationships between key twentieth-century ideas and Kant’s text.   The volume does not aim to address the reception of the Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgement.

It is not practical to summarise the contents of eighteen chapters.  Even so, in this review I want to give a sense of the topics covered.  I will discuss the aims of Marino and Terzi’s edited collection, how it sets about this task and what contribution it makes.  I should clarify that the aim of the book is not to provide an explanatory approach to the interpretation of the CAPJ within the terms of Kant’s own project. As the book’s subtitle indicates, it is not so much a companion to the text itself as a companion for those interested in tracing its legacy.  The book is motivated by two thoughts.  First, the CAPJ’s far-reaching influence has nourished many debates, broadly spread across different philosophical traditions and disciplines.  Secondly, in comparison to the history of nineteenth-century romanticism and German idealism, scholars have overlooked the far-reaching influence of the CAPJ on twentieth-century philosophy.  Marino and Terzi explain that their aim is to address this blind spot with contributions from experts in various fields.  They have produced a book that describes a history of reception ‘capable of cutting in a unique way across different traditions, movements and geographical areas’ (30).  They are at pains to explain their intention is to bridge any gap between the so-called analytic and continental traditions.

Marino and Terzi gather a collection of essays by sixteen different academic philosophers, in addition to themselves, from Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States.  Each chapter, generally, takes up one or two Western twentieth-century philosophers and explores how they have turned to the CAPJ in order to advance their own philosophical projects.  The editors’ multi-author approach ensures ‘a plurality of perspectives and competences’ (28).  Fifteen chapters tend to prioritise describing how twentieth-century thinkers turned to Kant.  That said, many chapters also draw attention to how these interpretations have aften been tendentious and strained readings of Kant.  The body of book is organised broadly chronologically and according to the geographies of Germany, France, Italy and USA.  This seems to be a pragmatic choice and it makes the structure of the book easy to navigate.  These chapters are positioned between an introduction and, at the end of the book, two contributions that explore the influence of the CAPJ on two contemporary issues.  The helpful introduction offers a brief history of the Third Critique’s reception, first in the nineteenth century and then in the twentieth century.  It discusses the methodology underlying the collection of essays.  In what follows, I want to give an overview of the topics covered in subsequent chapters.

Arno Schubbach opens the first group of chapters on German philosophers with a contribution on how the Third Critique is taken up by Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer.  Schubbach explores different interpretations of the position of the Third Critique within Kant’s overall philosophical system, and how these interpretations inform Cohen’s and Cassirer’s own philosophies of culture.  It makes an interesting contrast between two adaptations of the CAPJ by philosophers developing their own systematic theories.  According to Schubbach, Cohen performed ‘interpretive violence’ (42) on Kant’s text to construe aesthetics narrowly as a philosophy of the experience art.  Cassirer, by contrast, argued for a systematic connection between the aesthetic and teleological sections within the Third Critique.  Schubbach explains how Cassirer’s interpretation of the structure of Kant’s critical project is ‘a question of systematic importance for Cassirer’s philosophy of culture’ (50).

In the next chapter, Gunter Figal explores how Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer criticised Kant for failing to account for an essential truth-character of art.  Heidegger took philosophical aesthetics to be fundamentally concerned with emotional responses and a hedonistic consumption of art.  Yet for Heidegger, the significance of art did not lie in emotional responses.  Figal observes that Heidegger seemingly entirely ignored Kant’s Third Critique, and interpreted the CAPJ as offering an account of art as nothing but an object of emotional experience.  Figal points out that Kant’s conception of aesthetic experience is far more sophisticated than the simplistic picture Heidegger maintained.  Gadamer also shared the view that art had an essential truth-character.  Nonetheless, he did engage with the Third Critique.  Gadamer’s criticism of Kant, according to Figal, was that aesthetic experience for Kant is an autonomous and purely subjective sphere that fails to grasp the cognitive value of art.  Figal turns from Heidegger and Gadamer to advance his own argument: that ‘the Third Critique offers the most elaborate version of an aesthetical conception of art’ (69).  Even so, Kant’s aesthetics is too narrow to accommodate any cognitive value of art.  Figal’s objection is that artworks are ‘a kind of blank spot’ in Kant’s conceptual framework.  That said, Figal does not address Kant’s notion of dependent beauty or how Kant conceives of fine art as expressions of aesthetic ideas.

Dennis Schmidt’s chapter describes in more detail Gadamer’s critique of notions of aesthetic experience that separate it from the possibility of claims to truth.  According to Schmidt, Gadamer exposed once dominant guiding assumptions about how art is thought and experienced as autonomous.  He did this through tracing the historical development of this idea back to Kant’s Third Critique.  Gadamer’s criticism of Kant’s aesthetics was that it closed-down questions about art.  Schmidt explains, ‘from the vantage of pure aesthetic judgement, the work of art contributes nothing to what is disclosed’ (80).  Gadamer argued that this was even the case in Kant’s treatment of fine art and genius.  With Kant, the aesthetic object disappears.  Although it is recuperated by his successors, it is as an autonomous phenomenon.  Tracing a close association of aesthetic experience with subjectivity led Gadamer to develop the idea of ‘aesthetic differentiation’ (88) to explain how the artwork lost its place in the world to which it belonged.  As Schmidt points out, Gadamer’s intention towards Kant was not to get the Third Critique right.  Instead, Gadamer’s reading played a pivotal role in his argument about the contingent historical disengaging of art from questions of truth during parts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Hans-Peter Krüger’s chapter concerns Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical reflections on the conditions for empirical law formation.   Krüger states that Plessner ‘functionalizes Kant’s reflective judgement for modern research into a procedure’ (95).  Plessner’s thought was that reflective, rather than determining, judgements are central to scientific research that is directed towards discovering something new.  Krüger gives an overview of Kant’s teleological judgement and its regulative a priori principle.  He also summarises the demand for universal agreement in judgements of taste, even though they cannot be proven.  Plessner argued that these characteristics of reflective judgement inform modern research procedures.

Tom Huhn develops an account of how Theodor Adorno took up themes in Kantian aesthetics, read in part through Hegel.  According to Huhn, Adorno criticised Kant for leaving no room for the historically conditioned nature of the relationship between artwork and subject.  Kant mistook a historically specific feature – a sentiment described as aesthetic pleasure – and made it universal and timeless.  Whereas for Adorno, pleasure is a ‘historically specific feature of aesthetic experience’ (117).   According to Huhn, Adorno took from Hegel the idea that the history of consciousness involves a ‘resistance’ between sensuousness and rational consciousness within aesthetic experience.  In Adorno’s view, Kant ‘misses the objectivity of resistance within subjective consciousness’ (120).  Rather than aesthetic experience merely registering as purely subjective affect, the experience some artworks afford includes a ‘resistance’ in the relation between sensuousness and rational consciousness.  For Adorno, such artworks are at odds with the world they are in, eliciting a correlate sensuous otherness of subjective experience.  Huhn’s overall approach is not to assess the fairness of Adorno’s criticism of Kant.  He describes how Adorno picked-up on ideas like taste, disinterestedness and beauty, to argue that Kant’s account of taste was inadequate to ‘measure the meaning and truth of the artwork’ (123).  This helped Adorno to develop his own aesthetic theory.

According to Nicola Emery, there is a Kantian notion taken from the Third Critique that oriented Max Horkheimer’s thoughts throughout his life.  Horkheimer had an early interest in the potential of modernist art.  By referring to Kant’s sensus communis, ‘albeit very concisely’ (137), Horkheimer related modernist art’s emancipatory potential (from dominating social conditions) to an otherwise hidden shared ‘communitarian sense’ of free people.  However, for historical and methodological reasons, Horkheimer could not endorse the empirical possibility in modernity of a communitarian sense of aesthetic experience.  Even so, Emery argues for Horkheimer’s ‘covert recovery of the sublime’ (149).  He links Horkheimer’s ideas about ‘inhospitable’ modernist art with the counter-purposiveness of the sublime.  Emery suggests that Horkheimer’s later rejection of modern art was because of its failure in practice to go beyond art for art’s sake.  In the end, it was modern art’s failure to revive the experience of the sublime that led Horkheimer to declare modern art a failure.  Even so, Emery claims, Horkheimer retained a somewhat Kantian notion of communitarian sense, which underpinned the possibility of critical analysis of modern society.

Serena Feloj explains that Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the Third Critique departed fundamentally from Kant’s own position.  Feloj claims that Arendt was unusual in taking seriously Kant’s claims, in the two introductions to the Third Critique, that his fundamental concern was with judgement in general, rather than only with the specific forms of aesthetic and teleological judgement.  Feloj suggest that sensus communis displays in Kant ‘a very peculiar transcendental character’ (164).  For Kant ‘shared humanity is what lays the ground for the public dimension of judgment, not the human need for communicating with one’s peers’ (164).  According to Feloj, Arendt’s distinctive suggestion was that the significance of the Third Critique resided in political philosophy.  Arendt claimed that Kant’s theory of judgement ‘is based on men’s needs to communicate with the others and that sociability is the prerequisite for the functioning of the capacity for judging’ (166).  Sociability and communicability make judgements by people possible.  As Feloj points out, Kant himself denies that such an explanation is adequate.  Yet Arendt reinterpreted Kant’s transcendental principle as an empirical foundation for the possibility of judgements that we share with others.

Opening a group of chapters on France, Patrice Canivez explains German exile Eric Weil’s interpretation.  On Weil’s view, the major discovery of the Third Critique was a way of understanding nature which left room for the possibility of answering ‘how can meaningful (moral) ends be pursued in a world of meaningless (natural) facts’ (178).  The natural facts in question were the beautiful, the sublime, artistic genius and the purposiveness of living organisms.  In their presence we experience the world as meaningful and ‘we affirm that all human beings have the same cognitive structure’ (180).  According to Canivez, Weil argued that Kant’s discovery was a great turning point in the history of philosophy, although ‘this result is obscured by the way Kant presents it’ (184).  The conceptual language Kant had to use to reach his contemporary audiences meant that Kant was compelled to view the existence of meaningful natural facts as fortuitous.  In contrast, Weil argued that experiencing the world as meaningful was foundational: ‘the experience of such reality is prior to any distinction between the possible and the necessary’ (187).  Canivez uses the idea of Kant being committed to a particular conceptual language to introduce Weil’s own ideas about how distinct philosophical categories develop distinct discourses around particular concepts.

Anne Sauvagnargues argues that Giles Deleuze developed his philosophy of art through a ‘critical and renewed mediation’ (195) on Kant’s work.  She chooses ‘meditation’ carefully.  Her argument is that Deleuze created something personal and original through his reading of Kant.  Sauvagnargues describes how Deleuze took from Kant questions about the relationship of the faculties of imagination, understanding and reason to one another.  Deleuze at first regarded Kant’s three critiques as all on the same level, unified in their analysis of the faculties, and each focussing on internal relationships where one faculty takes the regulatory lead over the others.  But Sauvagnargues tells us that Deleuze subsequently elevated the Third Critique, discovering in it something innovative and important about art.  Deleuze reworked the ‘Analytic of the Sublime’.  Sauvagnargues notes: ‘but this is where Kant is forced by Deleuze to undergo a radical distortion’ (198).  What he found there was a productive ‘discordant accord’ of the faculties, which ‘carries the faculties to their point of maximum tension’ (202).  For Deleuze, this discordant accord of the faculties was involuntary and played a crucial role for the possibility of creative thought.  Through his reflections on Proust, Deleuze argued that the discordant accord, where cognition is pushed to its limits, reveals the importance of art for philosophy.

Pietro Terzi tells us how Jacques Derrida used the CAPJ to illustrate a claim about how philosophy, as an academic discipline, deals with a subject area (in this case art) through imposing its own legislative function on that subject.  Philosophy does so by reserving for itself the right define the subject area as a distinct area of practice and experience.  This presupposes some kind of unity of meaning for the subject area and its concepts.  But in the end these definitions are the result of well-established discursive “protocols” of conceptualisation.  Derrida illustrated this claim through an analysis of the CAPJ.  According to Terzi, Derrida emphasised that Kant’s aesthetic pleasure turned the discourse of beauty into its purely formal elements, stripping from artworks any social or historical significance.  Derrida questioned what called for this formal pureness that separates art from contextual concerns and from sensuous “charms” and “emotions”.  He argued that it follows from epistemological presuppositions drawn from the First Critique, namely the four categories of the logical form of judging.  In this way, questions about art were inscribed within a theory of logical judgements.  Derrida argued this inscription was arbitrary: ‘the frame fits badly’ (220).  Art is subordinated to a particular purpose through the imposition of a theory of judgement.

Dario Cecchi explains Jean-François Lyotard’s interest in Kant’s notions of the faculty of judgement and of the sublime.  For Lyotard, no unified system or theory can subsume all human experience.  There are ‘islands of cognition’ that make up ‘archipelagos of experience’, each with its own theory and language.  A central concern for Lyotard was the question of how to transition from one field of experience to another.  His interest in Kant’s theory of reflective judgement related to the question of what theory and language is most appropriate.  The sublime was the focus of Lyotard’s use of the Third Critique, even though for Kant it was a ‘mere appendage.  In the sublime, the relationship between aesthetic judgement and ideas of reason is characterised as a struggle between reason and imagination.  Reason diverts imagination’s attention from its usual task of the synthesis of sensible experience.  Instead, imagination presents ideas of reason to the subject.  These are not direct representation, because ideas of reason exceed the bounds of sensible experience.  The significance of the sublime, for Lyotard, lay in the faculty of reason forcing the imagination to ‘present the unpresentability’ (239) of ideas like freedom, justice and moral law.  In the sublime, these ideas are experienced as signs which open the subject’s experience on to an ethical realm.  Cecchi ends his chapter by explaining the political significance of the sublime for Lyotard.  It resided in the possibility of art offering audiences an array of sublime feelings, including respect and commitment.

For a stopover in Italy, Claudio Paolucci describes how Umberto Eco connected the Third Critique to more recent work in cognitive sciences on Predictive Processing, and to an earlier idea of abduction offered by Charles Sanders Pierce.  The issue in common is explaining how perceptions are partly conceptualised.  According to Paolucci, in Predictive Processing the brain is active in providing ‘top down’ predictions of sensory inputs and comparing those predictions with actual sensory evidence in forming world-revealing perceptions.  Paolucci explains how this topic has an antecedent in Pierce.  Eco picked up certain key Kantian ideas, developed in the Third Critique, but was not primarily concerned with a close analysis of Kant’s claims themselves.  Eco claimed that the relationship between perception and prior knowledge that the brain stores about the world is a reformulation of the Kantian notion of schematization.  Reflective judgement produces or finds concepts through which experience is made possible.  According to Paolucci, Eco developed this with the help of further Kantian notions of regulative principles and ideas of reason.  For Eco, we interpret the world as if it were a narrative.  Yet nothing in the world guarantees our conjectures.  We pursue the semblance of order we need to find in the world in order to make experience possible.  But the principles that underpin the kind of order or narrative with which we structure the world are not constitutive.

Turning to America, Scott Stroud describes how Kant’s aesthetics motivated John Dewey’s own pragmatist theory of aesthetics and art.  According to Stroud, ‘Kant becomes the foil for the pragmatist’s novel theorizing, a respected, but wrong, thinker who set so many on the wrong path’ (274).  Whilst Dewey had broader objections to Kant’s transcendental idealism, he specifically rejected Kant’s conception of aesthetic experience as essentially disinterested contemplation. Dewey objected to Kant’s separation of distinct domains of human experience and distinct faculties of the mind.  Kant’s domain aesthetic experience is markedly separated from the fields of knowledge and practical action.  In contrast, Dewey sees aesthetic experience on a continuum with the practical nature of human activity, always located in some context or environment.  Stroud is careful not to become involved in analysing whether Dewey’s reading is right or not.  His aim is to explain how resistance to Kant’s ideas, together with Dewey’s commitment to humans belonging to a Darwinian natural world, helps explain why Dewey’s ideas on the experience of art took the shape they did.  Despite Dewey’s outward antagonism towards Kant, Stroud tries to find some common ground.  Although continuous with other forms of experience, Stroud explains some characteristics of aesthetic experience for Dewey.  These include the sense that aesthetic experience has a kind of intensity and absorption.  Stroud finds parallels between this and what he sees as Kant’s internalising of ends to the means of aesthetic experience, and with Kant’s claim that the experience of the beautiful is a symbol of the morally good.

A central figure in Diarmuid Costello’s contribution is the American art critic Clement Greenberg.  Greenberg was the leading modernist art critic and theorist.  In the 1970s, when his ideas were facing serious challenges, Greenberg co-opted a kind of Kantian aesthetics to bolster his argument.  Greenberg’s theories were nevertheless discredited.  Costello argues that aesthetics in general, and Kantian aesthetics in particular, became marginalised as Greenberg hegemony was overthrown.  This was because postmodernist art theorists continued to operate with a Greenbergian view of aesthetics.  Costello explains how Greenberg’s aesthetics were a misreading of Kant, and claims that subsequent theorists continued to operate with a distorted view of the Third Critique.  He argues that both Thierry de Duve, in his attempt to revive Kantian aesthetics for contemporary art theory, and Arthur Danto, in his rejection of aesthetics as an adequate basis for explaining contemporary art, both perpetuated aspects of Greenberg’s misreading.  The reproaches levelled at both by Costello are, first, their failure to recognise Kant’s distinction between free and dependent beauty (which is centrally important to aesthetic evaluations of works of art), and, secondly, their failure to engage adequately with Kant’s theory of artworks as expressions of aesthetic ideas.  Costello goes on to argue for a rehabilitation of Kantian aesthetics within the discourse of contemporary art, an interpretation that Costello sees as more faithful to the original text.  Costello identifies resources within the CAPJ that have been overlooked in contemporary theory.

Thomas Teufel aims to articulate a more systematic interpretation of the Third Critique than that offered in the writings of his chosen author, Stanley Cavell.  Teufel turns his attention to Kant largely in defence of the methodological commitments that Cavell employed.  Teufel describes Cavell’s ‘kindredness of spirit’ (301) with Kant generally.  He explains Cavell’s position in relation ordinary language philosophy and the foundations of language, and some ‘scathing’ criticism Cavell received.  Cavell investigated self-descriptions by ordinary language philosophers, as native speakers, of their linguistic communities’ practices and conventions.  Cavell defended a position which claimed that such statements could reveal truths about what we mean when we say what we say.  In response to his critics, Cavell found parallels with pure judgements of taste and argued that meta-linguistic statements had a normative force analogous with the legitimacy of judgements of taste.  Teufel shows some weaknesses in how analogous Cavell’s position is to that of Kant.  But he goes on to offer a deeper analysis of reflective judgements and suggest a closer affinity between Cavell and Kant than Cavell himself made explicit.  In doing so, Teufel touches one of the central debates in contemporary scholarship of the Third Critique.  This is the question of whether Kant made a convincing case in support of his aim to demonstrate a unifying theme that links aesthetic judgements, teleological judgements and reflective judgements in general.

The final two chapters mark a change of tack.  They do not offer a commentary or explanation of leading twentieth century interpretations.  They introduce two areas of contemporary philosophy and discuss their relation with the CAPJ.  Alessandro Bertinetto and Stefano Marino’s chapter discusses the CAPJ in the context of improvisation, especially in jazz music performances.  The central claim is that Kant’s aesthetic reflective judgement helps illuminate the creative process of artistic improvisation.  The authors find parallels in self-regulating and non-ruled driven characteristics.  As the chapter acknowledges, indeed relishes, this is ‘surely a free interpretation’ of the Third Critique; although, as the authors say, it is not arbitrary.  This stands in contrast to the more systematic interpretations of Kant offered in the previous two chapters by Costello and Teufel.   Whilst this is illuminating of the kind of service for which the CAPJ is conscripted, it is not immediately clear why the topic of musical improvisation was chosen.  The chapter certainly does help ‘testify to the plurality’ of readings and philosophical practices.  And perhaps illustrating how Kant can be called upon, in a very loose way, to illuminate a present-day area of interest explains why this topic was chosen.

In the final chapter, Thomas Leddy argues that the CAPJ offers resources for understanding everyday aesthetics.  Like the previous chapter, the aim here is not to offer an account of another leading thinker’s reading of Kant.  Leddy explores to what extent the concerns of the Third Critique illuminate an area of contemporary aesthetics.  In everyday aesthetics such an appeal might appear at first sight a stretch.  ‘Everyday aesthetics takes its origins … not from a transcendental philosophy but from one that is naturalistic and pragmatist’ (339).  This being so, a priori transcendental principles for reflective judgement have little appeal.  Moreover, making rigid distinctions between pleasures of mere sensation, delight in the morally good and reflective aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful lacks plausibility for many involved in contemporary everyday aesthetics.  Leddy nevertheless argues for series of areas of overlap.  These include free and dependent beauty, the ideal of beauty, the rejection of geometric regularity and the expression of aesthetic ideas.  During his analysis, Leddy addresses what, on the face of it, seems a large obstacle to appeals to Kant to explain everyday experiences and objects: the notion of disinterested pleasure.  Leddy’s response is to argue that disinterestedness helps to illustrate the differences in attitudes we adopt towards objects of aesthetic attention.  This is to say that aesthetics is not solely a matter of classification of objects, whether every day, fine art or natural.  Leddy’s claim is that, with some modification, an interpretation that resists the radical separation between aesthetic categories (as Kant may have insisted on), ‘we end up instead with a multifarious usage of Kant for everyday aesthetics’ (356).

What major contribution does this book make?  The editors explain that they aim to offer a comprehensive and coherent contribution to the investigation of the legacy of the Third Critique.  ‘We hope other scholars will dare to follow this promising lead’ (33).  I imagine that the book will primarily appeal to readers already familiar with the CAPJ, especially those concentrating on a particular aspect of the text or its reception.  This absorbing book helps to widen, dramatically, readers’ grasp of the kind influences the text has provoked.  It gives readers a way, via Kant, into the work of thinkers outside their own areas of familiarity.

As to the editors’ selection of contributions, the aim seems to be eclectic, reflecting a wide range of philosophical topics and disciplines covering analytic and continental traditions (31).  The editors themselves raise a worry about such a volume, which aims to ‘provide a selective and synoptic view’: it risks appearing ‘scattered or extremely partial’ (32).  Whilst I am not sure that this concern is properly answered, the volume certainly succeeds in tracing enough of the history of the CAPJ’s reception to capture a strong sense of variegated and pluralist interpretations.  Overall, this makes the book lively and engaging.  The contributions evidence the breadth of influence, and how that influence is performed through very different kinds of interpretations, or uses, of Kant.  Some take aspects of the CAPJ as points of resistance, others employ highly selective readings, still others represent more systematic engagements.   The book gives a wide-ranging account of ‘the various appropriations of a complex but crucial text’ (32).

Understanding the key ideas in the reception of Kant’s Third Critique can at times be as forbidding as reading the text itself.  The complexity seems amplified when subsequent twentieth thinkers have used Kant as a provocation for their own complex claims.  Indeed, many of the contributors note how their authors “do violence” to the spirit of Kant’s claims.  However, the reader is offered, in a relatively compact volume, an introduction to how philosophers have attempted to relate their own work to Kant’s.  As such, it offers a fascinating overview of how the Third Critique has taken on a life of its own.  A volume like this, dedicated to tracing Kant’s legacy across different philosophical traditions, seems to face an inescapable trade-off.  Were such a volume to be written by a single author, it might offer an organising style and thread (beyond chronology and geography).  A reader might be able to follow a more thematic exposition of the issues a stake, and more easily make comparative reflections about the ways in which Kant’s ideas have been taken up.  As they explain in the introduction, Marino and Terzi instead chose an edited volume in order to capture ‘a polarity of perspectives and competences’ (28).  The undoubted richness that this variety offers to readers comes together with problems of wrestling with differences in authors’ styles, and challenges of communicating across philosophical traditions and geographies.

Marino and Terzi make an underlying assumption that texts like the Third Critique have their ‘own performativity’, ‘endowed with a sort of intentionality of their own’ (5).  Their volume certainly succeeds in demonstrating that the CAPJ has enjoyed variegated uses.  This account of its reception might seem like, in the words of Otfried Höffe, ‘the history of productive misunderstandings’ (318).    But it prompts an obvious question: is there something about the particular nature of the Third Critique that underwrites the productivity evidenced in this collection?  The book gestures towards, but does not fully address, the source of the CAPJ’s provocative and far-reaching influence.  It describes its character as ‘complex, multi-layered, heterogeneous, discontinuous and, so to speak, “patchy” work’ (4).  Bertinetto and Marino seem to suggest the source of its productivity resides in the ‘ambiguities and obscurities’ of the work (317).  This all may be true, but seems unsatisfactory as an explanation of the extraordinarily productive status of the Third Critique and the richness of thought it helped to spawn.  This volume does not aim to provide an answer.  But it is certainly is an engaging and ‘promising lead’ in motivating questions like this.

Theodor W. Adorno: Notes to Literature: Combined Edition

Notes to Literature (Combined Edition) Book Cover Notes to Literature (Combined Edition)
Theodor W. Adorno. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholson. With a new introduction by Paul Kottman
Columbia University Press
Hardback $120.00 £100.00

Reviewed by: Richard J. Elliott (Birkbeck College, University of London)

 Adorno’s Critique of Aesthetic Intentionalism & its Limits


A prominent yet understudied feature that permeates Adorno’s aesthetics is a critique of intentionalism. In this review essay, I will look at this critique and one manifestation of it, as it appears in his Notes to Literature.

Previously published in two volumes, Columbia University Press have for the first time combined Adorno’s Notes to Literature in a single work, translated into English.  The scope of topics Adorno treats is broad, and reading is often difficult but frequently rewarding. Topics span from epic poetry, to Dickens, the free use of punctuation and its ramifications, reviews of individual texts, to more general methodologically loaded tracts on the status of art or particular aesthetic traditions. This is not exhaustive by any measure. As such, a sufficient characterization of this wealth of topics treated by Adorno in the short space available to review would be exceedingly challenging, likely impossible. Instead, I will restrict the focus of this review to a common feature across many of Adorno’s treatments of these topics: his rejection of intentionalism in aesthetics, in this instance, authorial intentionalism in literary works. This rejection appears to some degree in many if not all of the essays within the two volumes. It also looms large in Adorno’s aesthetic theory more broadly. However, it is usefully illustrated by means of a particular formally derived critique Adorno offers, about subject-driven exposition of narrative as an authentic and autonomous force in literary works. I will also argue that Notes to Literature aides in demonstrating an internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism, as it appears in such works. This internal limit offers a qualified role for the creator of autonomous works, and some insight into the machinations of this role – these will be discussed below.

Intentionalism is the presupposition many would-be aestheticians bring to artworks. The presupposition is that the pure intention of the creator (the composer, artist, or author) is what bestows aesthetic value to such works. Notes to Literature features many instances of a prominent critique of this position, as applied to literary works. Adorno views subject-derived expositions of narratives, particularly streams of consciousness as a narrative device, as one example of formal expressions of authorial intentionalism in literature. Its widespread employment demonstrates the primacy of this intentionalism. Viewing it as an authentically expository force involves a kind of presupposition to aesthetic methodology, and to any discernment of the value to be gleaned from works. This presupposition, Adorno claims, places the individual author in a position of epistemic priority. This position is an erroneous one, as it encourages the proffering and evaluating of works without exploring the social totalities which constitute the conditions for any such individual’s presentation of aesthetic knowledge. The role of the creator for Adorno is inherently mediated within the context of such totalities. Intentionalism and its formal manifestation in subjective narrative shirks this exploration, to the detriment of the autonomous potential that literary works might possess.

One particular target of Adorno’s is a manifestation of intentionalism in a particular conception of the genius. This conception gained predominance as a particular oppositional reaction to Kantian aesthetics. Kant describes the genius as “nature giving the rule to art”, contrasting it with the notion of the single creator doing so, from some epistemically authoritative vantage point. The conception that opposes Kant broadly states that as the wellspring from which aesthetic value flows, the intention of the genius offers a model of salvation, relayed through their work. The figure of the genius, so it broadly goes, is the one who oversees the total expression of their authorial or creative intention in the work, and this successful expression of that intention is the vehicle of aesthetic value for works of art, music and literature equally. On this model, appreciation of works then occurs with reference to this value. Adorno rails against this model.  While Adorno ultimately agrees with Valéry’s claim that great art “demands the employment of all of a man’s faculties” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 115), this is not the claim that this employment manifests the expression of the conscious intentions of the creator of that art.

Underpinning this presupposition is the wrong-headedness as Adorno sees it of aesthetic intention operating as if immediate value of a work can be transmitted, its message there to be received by an audience who can grasp it if they accept it. Here Adorno opposes an assumption shared by both Kant and those reacting to him, since they converge on the notion that this transmission can take place between agents – in Kant’s case certainly, rational ones. But operating with this kind of presupposition, Adorno thinks, is to be oblivious to the inherent alienation as “a fact that irrevocably governs an exchange society”. To illustrate this, in an approach characteristic of Adorno, he employs Hegelian motifs as a means of undermining of Hegelianism itself – Adorno targets ‘objective Spirit’ as represented in art. For Hegel, the truths purveyed through art (as well as religion and most importantly philosophy) claim to offer representational knowledge into the development of Geist, eventually culminating in the ironing out of all contradictions of reality. Built into this understanding, Adorno claims, of the Hegelian motive for art is that it “wants […] to speak to human beings directly, as though the immediate could be realized in a world of universal mediation” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 116). But this claim in itself about the representational power of art, says Adorno, is a kind of utilitarian degradation of the aesthetic. In literature specifically, this degradation makes ‘word and form’ into a “mere means” – a manner of utilizing the formal presentation of the work for expressing what the creator takes to be a truth or value relayed through art.

Structurally, Adorno here shares with Hegel the basic claim that art can illustrate certain kinds of truths. But he diverts from Hegel in a qualified way, in how he sees the promise for the role of autonomous art. Hegel conceived of putting art to use in the task of Geist’s reconciliation by means of what the work represents. By contrast, Adorno conceived of autonomous art’s power to at best be able to illustrate the current impossibility of reconciliation, due to the inability of the work to coherently represent reality, in the manner Hegel claims it can. It should be noted that it appears Adorno sees it possible for certain kinds of non-representational knowledge to be gained from successful works of art. Autonomous art can bestow negative knowledge of reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in our Time’, 223). This would initially seem to clash with the claim that this is itself a form of knowledge. But rather than this constituting representational knowledge, Adorno is in some way offering the potential for a kind of aesthetic exposure to an intuition that demonstrates the impossibility of representational knowledge. This is arguably one route to the ‘loss’ that Adorno counts as the second-order objectivity facilitated by autonomous artworks. More on this below. But in the context of the Hegelian assumption, Adorno thinks that this has ramifications for critical engagement. The Hegelian optimism for the revolutionary potential of art in fact pulls the rug out from underneath the work, by undermining its formal and practical autonomy, and its applications.

In this vein, Adorno critiques subjective exposition of narrative, as a manifestation of the intentionalist’s presumption about aesthetic value. This critique tracks formal characteristics intrinsic to presentations of works themselves. It is a claim about the inherent formal critical power or lack thereof that motivates his critique of literary subject-centrism, and the idea of subjectivist narrative as having expository primacy in its formal mode of presentation. It is not just that this is open to criticism as a bourgeois mode of attempted presentation, of the kind indicated above about the power of the author’s intentions. Rather, this more formal critique is aimed at narrative of this kind also for its reduction of the reader or spectator to being merely receptive to such a subjective flow of consciousness. Adorno claims that the proponent of formal narrative subject-centrism identifies “nodal points of conditioned reflexes” of the would-be passive human being, qua “mere receptive apparatuses” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 119). The work’s recipient responds to intake from their sensibility by the truth-bestowing flow of an intentional consciousness in the work. The presupposition here is that exposition is granted authentic force as a mode of formal description by the author. As such it is employed as a way of receiving and interpreting a work by an audience. This is problematized due to its assumption that the audience has been given the necessary sensibility for the narrative, on a kind of presuppositionless set menu of aesthetic evaluation. The presumption here is that the audience receives a formal presentation of the sensory scheme or stream of consciousness of the ‘genius at work’, to which they should passively engage.  The audience is a conduit to be filled up with aesthetic truths.

But this presumption exposes another facet to Adorno’s critique, centered around the assumption that any subject creating aesthetic works can provide such a coherent formal exposition, by virtue of their professed narrative. The work of Proust, perhaps ironically, is valorized by Adorno for upsetting a presumption in the “prevailing consciousness” about the notion of the unity and pre-given wholeness of the person. This presumption is characterized as a false idol by Adorno (‘Short Commentaries on Proust’, 181), which Proust’s works act as an ‘antidote’ to. A philosophical presupposition of this view concerns the power of subjective narrative. The audience doesn’t receive this subject and its narrative in some necessary and uniform fashion. Nor is the self-representation of either one of the subjects involved, author or reader, of an immediate cognitively accessible character. Rather, Adorno claims that such narrative is the product and cause of further alienation. Only in genuinely autonomous works can there be an intimation of this alienation by a display of the “social relationships [that] reveal themselves to be a blind second nature” (‘Short Commentaries’, 183). Again utilizing while subverting a familiar Hegelian motif, this of second nature, social relationships limit the remit of pure thought, not in a manner that adapts pure thought to nature, but shows its perversion at the hands of the productive forces at work in it.

In this respect, something Adorno claims favorably about Paul Valéry is his capacity to buck the trend of centralizing “the triumph of subjective over objective reason” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 161). Though Adorno takes this to be a product of the enlightenment, it is evident from his discussions of many post-enlightenment figures that he views them as capitulating to this trend, too. For example, Adorno writes that for Sartre, “the work of art becomes an appeal to the subject because the work is nothing but the subject’s decision or non-decision” (‘Commitment’, 349). This centrality has ramifications both theoretical and practical. As a result of it, “Sartre’s approach prevents him from recognizing the hell he is rebelling against”, namely the objective self-alienation that latently motivates him to make the proclamation that hell is, in fact, other people (‘Commitment’, 353). Indeed, Adorno’s infamous statement about the barbarism of writing poetry after Auschwitz is reaffirmed, in the context of this continued primacy of the subjective. He claims it “expresses, negatively, the impulse that animates committed literature” (‘Commitment’, 358). This criticism applies also to Heidegger. A ‘decision’ is demanded by Hölderlin, for Heidegger, in Adorno’s devastating excursus of Heidegger (‘Parataxis: On Hölderlin’s Late Poetry’, 380). Claiming this, not only does Heidegger rob and ‘deaestheticize’ Hölderlin of his “poetic substance”, it also eliminates Hölderlin’s “genuine relationship to reality, critical and utopian” (‘Parataxis’, 381). This is done on the grounds of the notion of subjective decision being prioritized by Heidegger, erroneously recapitulating to “the idealism which is taboo for Heidegger [but] to which he secretly belongs” (‘Parataxis’, 385).

Motivating this critique in all of these forms is Adorno’s broader claim that “the social totality is objectively prior to the individual” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). The presupposition that successful, genuinely autonomous works still somehow belong to the author misses this point. Rather, a work’s success consists “in its becoming detached from [the author], in something objective being realized in and through him, in his disappearing into it”. (‘Toward a Portrait of Thomas Mann’, 295, my emphasis). Autonomy is not bestowed upon a work due to any relation with some condition of genius possessed by the author.

 Yet in pursuit of this thought, Adorno makes an intimation about what positive role the artist qua producer of works of art can have, should a work be successful in the possession and conveyance of truth content. In an ironic twist, he inverts the idea that the work is the instrument of communication for the intentions of the creator. Instead, this possession and conveyance involves the artist becoming an instrument, through which aesthetic form assumes a life of its own. It is this mode of production which ensures the artist does not “succumb to the curse of anachronism in a reified world” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 117). Adorno assumes his own idiosyncratic kind of interpretivist stance towards the possibility of aesthetic autonomy. Discussing the ways in which artistic creation is subject to reification, and on the point of to whom the truth-qualities of an art work ‘belongs’, Adorno endorses Valéry’s attack on “the widespread conception of the work of art that ascribes it, on the model of private property, to the one who produces it” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

So Adorno postulates a kind of aesthetic virtue gained by means of a degree of liberation from the folly of intentionalism, including its formal presuppositions about subjective exposition. This liberation, Adorno notes, is a kind of recognition, namely a recognition on the part of the artist, such as Valéry’s bourgeois art as bourgeois, and that this recognition precludes it from conscious or intentional escape from that framework. In this sense, Adorno sees in Valéry (and also, for example, Thomas Mann) a critical platform through formal literary presentation in this “self-consciousness of [its] own bourgeois nature”. The premium is placed on a certain kind of self-knowledge, attained by a capacity for critical distance. This self-consciousness doesn’t determine the truth content of an artwork itself. Rather it constitutes a recognition by the artist that self-consciousness precisely doesn’t determine such truth content. Indeed, in an example of Adorno’s often ironic and flirtatiously paradoxical prose, this self-consciousness comes by the aesthetic judgement

“tak[ing] itself seriously as the reality that it is not. The closed character of the work of art, the necessity of its giving itself its own stamp, is to heal it of the contingency which renders it unequal to the force and weight of what is real” (‘The Artist as Deputy’, 118).

With some nuance, Adorno criticizes the aims of recent art, at a “retreat of productive forces [as] a surrender to sensory receptivity” – in other words, it recapitulates to viewing subjective and specifically sensorially derived authorial creativity as the primary means of producing truth. This in fact diminishes the capacity for abstraction, or for the construction of artworks as possessing a genuinely autonomous character.

This makes Adorno’s claims about Valéry and Proust somewhat ironic, but arguably productively or virtuously so. Despite Valéry’s own processual and solipsistic mode of presentation, it is so by virtue of his “advocacy of the dialectic” qua the recognition that the only freedom possible is freedom in relation to the object (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). This in a roundabout fashion actually serves to undermine the idea that the subjective stream of consciousness is an authentic expository force for narrative truth.

Adorno writes that Valéry’s philosophical affinity to this advocacy “erodes from below […] the illusion of immediacy as an assured first principle” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 150). Indeed, intentionalists presuppose some primary or immediate access to the author or creator’s epistemic faculties via the formal presentation of the subjective narrative. But attempts at cleanly cutting through the social conditions which engendered the work are inhibitions to aesthetic truth, for Adorno. There is a broadly ethical dimension to Adorno’s rejection of this presupposition, too: “[t]he objectification of works of art, as immanently structured monads, becomes possible only through subjectification” (‘Presuppositions: On the Occasion of a Reading by Hans G. Helms’, 368).

Adorno offers the potential for a positive way out. He describes an emancipation made possible through aesthetic endeavour, when works are forced to try and re-establish a kind of objectivity which is lost

“when it stops at a subjective reaction to something pregiven, whatever form it takes. The more the work of art divests itself critically of all the determinants not immanent in its own form, the more it approaches a second-order objectivity” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152, my italics).

Developing dialectically out of its own deficiencies, this particular route to disillusionment constitutes a second-order objectivity – a kind of knowledge of one’s disillusionment, through aesthetic form. This is an objectivity which, depending on how one interprets Adorno, facilitates the possibility for reconciliation, or at least the knowledge that reconciliation is presently beyond our ken or grasp (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 154). This has already been discussed by Adorno in the context of a certain kind of self-consciousness. But Adorno also discusses a kind of forbidden mode of consciousness, which, if we had access to it, would allow us access through art and literature to a genuinely different and non-reified mode of approaching our genuine needs (‘The Handle, the Pot, and Early Experience: Ui, haww’ ich gesacht’, 473). One might interpret this forbidden mode of consciousness as something necessarily inaccessible, like Kant’s intellectual intuition. Or one might interpret it as something contingently improbable, an obfuscated mode of consciousness which might come to be available to us under certain productive conditions. Regarding this difference of interpretation, I remain non-committal about, for the purposes here. But this second-order objectivity partly constitutes an acknowledgment of some kind, of this mode.

What might this second-order objectivity amount to, in the context of the work? Herein I argue lies an important internal limit to Adorno’s anti-intentionalism. The loss of the subject as an authentic expository force can lead to a realization that objectivity by this means constitutes a “loss”, Adorno claims (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 152). Adorno then claims that the subject’s pursuit of this “critical path is truly the only one open. It can hope for no other objectivity” (Ibid.). The ramifications for this in aesthetics is that the construction of works “no longer conceives itself as an achievement of spontaneous subjectivity, without which, of course, it would scarcely be conceivable, but rather wants to be derived from a material that is in every case already mediated by the subject” (‘Presuppositions’, 371). This is not mediation by the purely spontaneous, causa sui subject, a la the presupposition of the intentionalist. Rather, the creator of the genuinely autonomous and truth-contentful work of art must be in some respect a “representative of the total social subject” (‘The Artist as Deputy’,  120, my italics).

It is only by virtue of recognizing this representative nature of works as something interpreted by the social and cultural conditions it is subject to, that art can “fulfill [itself] in the true life of human beings” (Ibid.). Adorno’s conception of the artist involves acting as a “midwife” to the objectivity inherent in the autonomous artwork – which is delineated “in advance by the form of the problem and not by the author’s intention (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168)”. Indeed, in line with Adorno’s authorial anti-intentionalism, the problem of delineating a work’s autonomous value is framed by its historical contingency, determined by the conditions of possibility that the forces of social production allow for the work to rupture through. It is autonomous works which can attain this expository status in relation to these forces. Put succinctly in his essay critical of Sartre and the idea of committed literature, “art, which is a moment in society even in opposing it, must close its eyes and ears to society”, while holding out the presence of “an ‘it shall be different’”, which Adorno claims “is hidden in even the most sublimated works of art” (‘Commitment’,  362).

Important to note here is that the success of the work in its autonomy is to some extent accidental, if viewed from a purely intentionalist perspective. Formal technique can only contribute to the intention of “what is presented”, as opposed to what the author purely intended. Its conditions of success are determined by the ability to recognize its autonomy within the context of objective social reality (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 224). This includes a rupturous expression of what is concealed from reality by reifying processes, or as Adorno describes these processes, the purely “empirical form reality takes” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 225).

A paradox arises at the heart of Adorno’s position about this criterion for success. It is chance that “proclaims the impotence of a subject that has become too negligible to be authorized to speak directly about itself in a work of art” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156, my italics). Yet at the same time as this claim about the possibility created by chance, it is this subjectivity, as

“alienated from itself, against the ascendancy in the objective work of art, whose objectivity can never be an objectivity in itself but must be mediated through the subject despite the fact that it can no longer tolerate any immediate intervention by the subject”. (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156)

This is a convoluted qualification by Adorno, merciless in its demands on the reader. In a reductive sense, the brute intentionalist model of subjective creativity is rejected. But the importance of the subject in some mediated sense remains of critical importance, for Adorno. Creators of autonomous works acknowledge “the paradoxical relationship of the autonomous work to its commodity character” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 158).

Adorno makes the allowance that this mediation via the subject is not an enterprise which the subject remains wholly unaware of, within narrative structures. But at the same time, he frames this as an eventual culmination, in a particular mode of formal consciousness towards an “estrangement of meaning” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 156). Adorno claims that its projection of this estrangement within an autonomous work “imitates the estrangement of the age”. Artists capable of producing autonomous works come to possess some conscious disposition towards an awareness of this imitation, by virtue of their being estranged. But how to understand this disposition toward an estrangement of meaning? Adorno thinks that it comes from a particular intuitive awareness of reification. Using Valéry as an exemplar, “[f]or Valéry’s aesthetic experience, the subject’s strength and spontaneity prove themselves not in the subject’s self-revelation, but, in Hegelian fashion, in its self-alienation. The more fundamentally the work detaches itself from the subject, the more the subject has accomplished in it” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 167). What Valéry and Adorno see interrelatedly, quoting Valéry, is that “[a] work endures insofar as it is capable of looking quite different from the work the author thought he was bequething to the future” (Ibid.).

Mere intention isn’t what makes a work autonomous: a presupposition of its primacy amounts to a recapitulation to the alienating forces as Adorno seems them as regnant in society. Rather, the author or creator is instrumental – “with the first movement of conception, the author is bound to that conception and to his material. He becomes an organ for the accomplishment of the work’s desires” (Ibid.). The most plausible manner of making sense of the idea that a work itself possesses desires is within the context of the claim about the artist or author as a midwife. The work embodies the hidden intuitions of a collective, expressed without ascribing any one individual’s intentions to the production of a work. Difficult as this may seem, I take it that Adorno’s point here is that autonomous works implicitly channel the hidden but genuine desires of the collective of human individuals, within their socio-historical context. Rather than representing the individuated subject, it represents the reification of the “latent social subject, for whom the individual artist acts as an agent” (‘Valéry’s Deviations’, 168). Once again, the representation of the social subject is of an instrumental rather than intentional kind through the aesthetic creator. Since Adorno thinks that all those under the same socio-historical conditions are bound to a mode of reification, there will be broad similarity underwriting the mode of self-alienation the representative artistic agent embodies and formally expresses, as themselves a conduit through which the work comes to be. The self-alienating autonomous work is described by Adorno as itself possessing ‘wants’, but intuitions of these are framed by the demands of the human condition to recognize the ill, perhaps impossible fit of the forces of social production upon that condition – the blind second nature which all are forced to adopt.

The use of the term ‘latent’ in this context is important, since Adorno frames the capacity of the contingency of the subject in psychoanalytic terminology. The ego has heretofore been assumed as the origin of pure aesthetic intentions and the harbinger of aesthetic truth, by means of its transparent route to creativity. Contrary to this assumption, Adorno claims that the ego “cannot be healed of its cardinal sin, the blind, self-devouring domination of nature that recapitulates the state of nature forever, by subjecting internal nature, the id, to itself as well” (‘Presuppositions’, 373). Rather, the ego can only be healed “by becoming reconciled with the unconscious, knowingly and freely following it where it leads” (‘Presuppositions’, 373–4). In some sense for Adorno, the regulating ego is to some extent aware of obedience or concession to the unconscious id in the creative process. The ego wants to find out what it wants, or at least wants to become aware of what it is about empirical reality that it doesn’t want.

Once this awareness takes place, the experience of autonomous artworks gives “the sense that their substance could not possibly not be true, that their success and their authenticity themselves point to the reality of what they vouch for” (‘Short Commentaries’, 187). Or, as Adorno puts it punchily elsewhere, autonomous art “represents negative knowledge of reality” (‘Extorted Reconciliation’, 222-3) – not positive representational knowledge in Hegel’s fashion, but the poverty of representational knowledge to track the real. Adorno offers an explanatory metaphor for this in a powerful discussion of Ernst Bloch’s musings on ‘An Old Pot’ at the beginning of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia. Emulating the conscious disposition which can be intuited through autonomous works, Adorno self-referentially writes, “I am Bloch’s pot, literally and directly, a dull, inarticulate model of what I could be but am not permitted to be” (‘The Handle, The Pot, and Early Experience’, 472).

There might be no right living in a world gone wrong. But through autonomous works, formal glimmers exude, that give us intuitions of its wrongness. Whether these intuitions could develop more concretely, or be instantiated practically, is of course another story, one that cuts to the heart of Adorno’s immanent critique.

Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.): Phenomenological Approaches to Physics

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics Book Cover Phenomenological Approaches to Physics
Synthese Library, Vol. 429
Harald A. Wiltsche, Philipp Berghofer (Eds.)
Hardback 103,99 €
VI, 263

Reviewed by: Mahmoud Jalloh (University of Southern California)

Phenomenological Approaches to Physics is a welcome attempt to bridge the gap between two areas of philosophy not often mentioned in the same career, let alone the same breath. The collection provides fertile ground for further work on phenomenological approaches to physics—and science more generally—however, as much as the collection is promising, it is also disappointing in the preparatory nature of much of the material. While this is a general vice of the phenomenological tradition—consider how many of Husserl’s published works are introductions to phenomenologyin order to appeal to one of the primary audiences of the collection, phenomenology-curious philosophers of physics, further developments with clear consequences are needed. Many of the papers stop just as they’ve really started. This collection is of value for many purposes: as a general introduction to phenomenology, as a guide to the consequences of phenomenology for science and physics, as a pointer to areas of application for the budding phenomenologist, but it also provides some indications of particular lines of further development.

The editor’s introduction is relatively long, but deservedly so, as it does a lot, providing expositions of ten themes from Husserl’s oeuvre: anti-psychologism, intentionality, descriptions and eidetics, the epistemic significance of experience, phenomenology as first philosophy, anti-naturalism, the life-world, historicity and genetic phenomenology, embodiment and intersubjectivity, the epochē, transcendental reduction, and transcendental idealism. The sketch of Husserl produced is that of an epistemological internalist who develops a theory of the objective from fundamental subjectivity, who denies empiricism about logic and mathematics, and who holds that phenomenology is a first philosophy which comprises analyses of the essential structures of subjectivity, the ground of all knowledge, therefore legitimizing all other forms of knowledge, sciences. Any reader interested in a first pass at the role of these themes in Husserl’s work could probably do so no more efficiently than looking through the first half of this introduction. A highlight of the introduction is a sketch of the relevance of other phenomenologists, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, to the philosophy of physics. The themes brought up in the introduction and elsewhere are suggestive: Heidegger’s pluralism regarding scientific standards and the difference in the concepts of time in physics and history; his preemption of the theory-ladenness of observation; his praise of Weyl; his primacy of practical understanding over theoretical knowledge; Merleau-Ponty’s participatory realism; his analysis of measurement and rejection of instrumentalism, realism, and idealism, in favor of structuralism.

Part 1: On the Origins and Systematic Value of Phenomenological Approaches to Physics

Robert Crease’s “Explaining Phenomenology to Physicists” is a response to philosophy-phobic physicists, like Hawking, and aims to show how the projects of phenomenological philosophy and physics differ. This amounts to a sort of introduction to the Husserlian distinction between the natural, or naturalistic, attitude of the physicist in her workshop and the more skeptical attitude of the epochē adopted by the phenomenologist. Note that Crease makes the same point that Maudlin and other metaphysically oriented philosophers of physics often emphasize, that mathematical formulae do not comprise a theory but require an interpretation, an ontology (57). How this interpretation is established and justified is the common project of the phenomenologist and the analytic metaphysician. But herein lies a problem with the Crease essay, which is that it while it distinguishes analytic (narrowly focused on the logical analysts of science of the early 20th century), pragmatic, and phenomenological approaches to the sciences, Crease does not say enough to distinguish a defense of phenomenological approaches to physics from a defense of a philosophical approach to physics whatsoever. Now Crease may make the point that phenomenology preempted concerns with the metaphysics of physics or concerns regarding the applicability of mathematical idealization to nature that have more recently become central to the philosophy of physics. Further, it is not clear that this is a fair reading of the aims of the logical empiricists. What is the logical empiricist project of establishing how scientific, “theoretical” terms get their meaning if not a concern with the “framing” of scientific theories and “the reciprocal impact of that frame and what appears in it on their way of being” (55)? This is not to say there is no distinction to be drawn, but the discussion here is not fully convincing as an argument for the value of phenomenology in studies of physics in particular.

Mirja Hartimo’s contribution, “Husserl’s Phenomenology of Scientific Practice,” fills out Crease’s sketch of the phenomenological approach and specifies how Husserl preempts the naturalistic, practice-oriented turn in contemporary philosophy of science. This “naturalism” is to be opposed with ontological or methodological naturalism, both of which Husserl rejected. Hartimo recapitulates the difference between the natural and phenomenological attitudes and its production by the epochē, in which existence is “bracketed.” The case is made that the phenomenological attitude is not inconsistent with the natural attitude (indeed Husserl had, for the most part, the same natural understanding of the sciences as did his contemporaries in Göttingen). The Göttingen view comprises a pre-established harmony between mathematics and physics, “the axiomatic ideal of mathematics served for Husserl, as well as for his colleagues, as an ideal of scientific rationality, as a device that was taken to guide empirical physical investigations ‘regulatively’.” (67) This influences the focus on Galileo in Crisis: physics is fundamentally mathematical in nature (68). Harmony amounts to an isomorphism of the axioms and the laws, with the axioms of physics being a formal ontology, a formal definite manifold (69). Husserl’s two differences with the Göttingen consensus are: (1) scientists should also develop material ontologies, which provide specific normative ideals for the mathematization of nature and its connection to intuition; (2) the normativity of the exact sciences does not extend to all scientific domains, a normative pluralism. (2) is particularly important because phenomenology itself falls short of the axiomatic ideal, due to the inexactness of the relevant essences.

Pablo Palmieri’s contribution, “Physics as a Form of Life,” is an odd fish. It presents itself not as a presentation of Husserl’s account of the lifeworld and its relevance to physics but rather as focusing on a foundational question raised by Husserl: “why is it that the axioms of mathematical physics are not self-evident despite the evidence and clarity that is gained through the deductive processes that flow from them?” (80) To answer this question Palmieri embarks on an analysis of physics as a form of “Life” in the sense of some historical development. The three epochs of physics which characterize its form of life are (1) the youth of Galileo’s axiomatic physics, (2) the senescence of Helmholtz’s work on the anharmonic oscillator and the combination of tones, and (3) the “posthumous maturity” of physics following quantum physics. These historical studies are interesting and valuable in themselves, especially the Galileo study, particularly regarding the influence of Galileo’s aesthethics on his mathematization of nature (84). Unfortunately, how these studies relate to the overall aim of the essay is unclear and is shrouded by the sort of allegorical and flowery prose that turns away many from “continental” approaches more generally. Palmieri’s description of the third stage of physics’ life as “posthumous maturity” describes a “disarticulation” in physics that comes to a head for Palmieri in Heisenberg’s use of (an)harmonic oscillator framework for quantum mechanics. The result of such a “translation” is not a direct analog to the classical treatment of spectra, due to the lack of rules for “composition of the multiplicity into the unity of an individual, by the interpretation of which we might generate the individual utterance that once performed will elicit in our consciousness a corresponding perception in any of the sensory modalities whatever” (100). The obscurity of such bridge principles to observation is, again, exactly the crisis of which Husserl was concerned. The upshot seems not to be, as it was for Husserl, a call to action for phenomenological analysis, but rather the essential mystery of nature as “[i]t is nature herself that precludes herself from knowing reflexively her own totality of laws” (83). While this is supposed to have the status of an explanation it is only buttressed with metaphor:

This being hidden of nature as a totality, or her desire or necessity to hide herself from further scrutiny, which I would be tempted to qualify as nature’s vow of virginity, explains why the axioms of mathematical physics must appear to our intuitions as obscure (84).

This pessimistic conclusion conflicts with phenomenology’s self-conception as a progressive research programme, leaving Palmieri’s own position mysterious, and one suspects that is how he wants it.

Norman Sieroka’s “Unities of Knowledge and Being—Weyl’s Late ’Existentialism’ and Heideggerian Phenomenology” is a fascinating exposition of Weyl’s latter existentialist turn and his engagement with Heidegger’s work. Weyl claims that physics is dominated by “symbolic construction”, of which axiomatic mathematics stands as paradigm, which are empirically evaluated holistically. Weyl’s account of symbolic construction is dependent on the understanding that these symbolic systems are constructed out of particular concrete tokens. Similarly it is essential to the symbolic construction that it is intersubjective and the practitioners of a symbolic system are peers embedded in a wider public. The core of mathematics and the sciences is not logic, but rule-bound “practical management” of symbols (109). This practical level must be fundamental or else we fall into a circle of physical reduction and symbolic representation.

Weyl’s 1949 paper “Science as Symbolic Construction of Man,” explicitly invokes Heidegger’s concept of the existential basicness of being-in-the-world as a point of agreement. Weyl does not, however, accept Heidegger’s anti-scientific attitude that concludes from this, that science is “inauthentic”. Weyl held that scientific practice and philosophical reflection were mutually enriching — particularly moral reflection in the shadow of the bomb. Heidegger’s rejection of science is due to symbols being merely present-at-hand, as they do not figure in the “care-taking encounter of daily life” (114). The weight of evidence and experience clearly sides with Weyl here. Sieroka raises examples of bridge-building and experimental physics. More simply, even the manipulation of symbols in themselves is care-taking in that they are to be interpreted and not only by oneself, in a dubious “private language”, but by some community. Here is a missed opportunity to engage with Heidegger’s later work, though it cannot be said to have influenced Weyl. Something like “The Question Concerning Technology” shows that Heidegger did not think that modern science and technology were independent of daily life, but rather have a radical and destabilizing effect that inhibits Dasein from encountering its own essence. Though, it is not clear how much this is a rejection of the verdicts of Being and Time, or should correct Sieroka and Weyl’s intepretations. The extension of the critique by way of Fritz Medicus, Weyl’s colleague, to a critique of “thrownness” and the general receptivity or passivity of Dasein to Being seems beside the point and reliant on a misunderstanding of Heidegger. Medicus’ “piglets” complaint about the thrownness of Dasein can only rest on a misunderstanding of the role of historicity in Dasein’s being (see Division 2, Chapter 5). Intersubjectivity is fundamental to Dasein. Being-with is “equiprimordial” with Dasein’s Being-in-the-World and is an existential characteristic of Dasein, even when it is alone (149-169).  Being-with defines Dasein’s inherent historicity. Dasein is thrown into a culture, into a way of life.

Sieroka’s comparison of Weyl and Cassirer, that Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms provides a unity of knowledge, while Weyl’s provides a unity of being, owing to his existentialist inflection, is interesting but perfunctory. It makes one wonder what such a distinction could tell us about the difference of method between phenomenology and neo-Kantianism, how this might relate to the interpretational dispute at the center of the Davos debate, and how Weyl’s conception of physics and mathematics could have played a role in such rifts.

Part 2: Phenomenological Contributions to (Philosophy of) Physics

“A Revealing Parallel Between Husserl’s Philosophy of Science and Today’s Scientific Metaphysics” by Matthias Egg aims to show how the crises that Husserl saw as central to the contemporary sciences and his solution are echoed in the scientific metaphysics of Ladyman and Ross (2007). The crisis is rooted in the substitution of the lifeworld for mathematical idealities, which amounts to a forgetting of the “meaning-fundament” of the sciences, undermining their own epistemological standing. Egg frames his comparison of Husserl and the scientific metaphysicians with Habermas’ critique of Husserl’s project of making science presuppositionless, providing a basis for absolute practical responsibility. The supposed failure is that it is left unexplained how a more perfect theoretical knowledge is to have practical upshot. The lacuna is Platonic mimesis, wherein the philosopher “having grasped the cosmic order through theorizing, the philosopher brings himself into accord with it, whereby theory enters the conduct of life,” (129), which is in direct ontological opposition with Husserl’s transcendental idealism, as Habermas sees it. (Does Habermas commit the naturalistic fallacy?) Husserl’s model claims only that the procedure or methodology of theoretical knowledge provides normative force on our practical affairs, in Egg’s example, our doing of physics. Egg presents Ladyman and Ross as agreeing with Husserl’s science-cum-Enlightment project, particularly, that science must be central to our worldview as it allows for a unified, intersubjectively valid approach to world even beyond theoretical practice. This too, falls short of Habermas’ mimetic ideal —their project could only be preserved in the “ruins of ontology” (130). Ladyman and Ross share some skepticism about strong metaphysics but accept weak metaphysics. Unfortunately, Egg stops just before saying anything more substantive than an observation of convergent philosophical evolution. There is more to be said particularly regarding the link between this sort of communicative conception of the scientific project and structural realism which puts Ladyman and Ross and Husserl in the same camp. The metaphysical essays to follow cover some of what I would like to say, but let me gesture at a possible development. In Ideas II and the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Husserl develops an account of scientific objectivity such that it is constituted by intersubjective agreement via “appresentation.” What is intersubjectively available are the appearances of objects, but what is agreed upon are the invariant structures supposed to explain the experiences of the community. Heelan’s (1978) hermeneutic interpretation of Husserl provides a picture in which the infinite tasks of mathematization and measurement link together the lifeworld and the scientific image which is constituted by it. There is a structural realist position to be examined here which could provide a unified account of everyday and scientific perception.

Lee Hardy’s “Physical Things, Ideal Objects, and Theoretical Entities: The Prospects of a Husserlian Phenomenology of Physics” attempts to square Husserl’s phenomenology with scientific realism. Husserl’s seeming positivism is especially problematic given that Husserl argues “that the objective correlates of the mathematical laws of the physical sciences simply do not exist in the physical sense. They are ideal mathematical objects, not real physical things” (137). Hardy restricts Husserl’s instrumentalism to scientific laws rather than scientific theories tout court. Husserl’s view is that knowledge of physical objects is gained by mathematical approximation, leaving room open for the positing of actual physical entities. Hardy’s argument, a rational reconstruction of a path not (explicitly) taken by Husserl, depends on a distinction that seems both interesting and suspicious. Hardy wishes to distinguish instrumentalism about the laws from instrumentalism regarding theories, the difference between the two lies in the fact that laws specify functional interdependencies of physical quantities which state how empirical objects behave, but theories explain why physical quantities behave as they do. So then, the instrumentalist holds that the semantic value of theories is limited to that of the laws, which predict observable behavior. The realist holds that scientific theories have as semantic values the behavior of unobservables. Husserl’s radical empiricism is in apparent tension with the realist’s explanation, Hardy reconstructs the received view:

(1) A obtains if and only if p is true.

(2) p is true is and only if p is evident.

(3) p is true if and only if A is intuitively given in an act of consciousness.

Ergo, (4) A obtains if and only if A is intuitively given in an act of consciousness.

Theoretical entities cannot be so given, so statements about them can never be true, so we ought not be committed to them. This interpretation Hardy rejects in favor of one which changes the role of experience from semantic-metaphysical to epistemic:

S is justified in believing p if and only if the correlative states of affairs A is given to S in an intuitive act of consciousness (143).

Hardy specifies that the perceivability condition on existence was meant to be dependent on an ideal possibility, not an actual possibility (dependent on sensory apparatuses). This point goes some way towards specifying the meaning of transcendental idealism, though this seems to go astray in attempting to recover realism. Transcendental idealism requires that possible perception by a transcendental subjectivity constitutes (the preconditions for) existence. Hardy picks up the thread in the Crisis regarding the essential approximative nature of the sciences as their conclusions are mediated by ideal, mathematical constructions:

Exact, objective knowledge is possible only by way of a passage through the ideal; and for that very reason will never be more than approximative knowledge of the real (146).

In  Crisis, Hardy claims, Husserl distinguishes the ideal, physical object and the perceived object ontologically: the objects of ordinary life are not  “physical” objects.  It is these limit-idealized objects that Husserl is anti-realist with respect to. The trouble with Hardy’s distinction between theories and laws and between real objects and idealized objects is that the approximation relation is left unexplained. There remains an explanatory gap as to why physical objects should be subject to laws that properly only have idealities as their subjects.

Arezoo Islami and H. A. Wiltsche’s “A Match Made on Earth: On the Applicability of Mathematics in Physics” shows how phenomenology can provide a response to Wigner’s puzzle, “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,” by moving on from why-questions to how-questions. The puzzle arises from a rejection of Pythagorean mathematical monism towards which the phenomenologist is officially neutral, due to the epochē, setting aside why-questions altogether. To answer the how-questions, the phenomenologist must also provide both synchronic and diachronic accounts of how we apply mathematics. The authors explicate constitution and replacement. They show what is meant by the horizon of experience, all the non-actual aspects of some experience which frame one’s interpretation of it, one’s anticipations. From this constitution is explicated:

It is this process of intending objects through specific noemata and then constantly projecting new sensory data against horizons of possible further experiences that phenomenologists call constitution. Of particular importance in this context are those aspects of experience that remain invariant… (169)

From these invariances of the noemata, lawlike relations are found and suitably objective properties can be described of the noema. This structure generalizes to scientific constitution from the example of perceptual constitution. Aiming to intend all of reality through mathematical noemata is Galileo’s great leap forward. Doing so is to replace the lifeworld with the scientific image. Nature is mathematical because we have made it so. While I am largely sympathetic with this approach, and hold that it contributes to a structuralist view that is worth developing, to satisfy mysterions like Wigner specific accounts of such constitution is needed.

Thomas Ryckman’s essay, “The Gauge Principle, Hermann Weyl, and Symbolic Constructions from the ‘Purely Infinitesimal’,” provides a mini-history of Weyl’s development of the gauge principle (a fuller history in Ryckman 2005), in which Weyl is motivated to investigate Lie groups and algebras by phenomenology on the one hand and Naturwirkungphysik on the other.  Naturwirkungphysik is a standard explanation, “that all finite changes are to be comprehended as arising through infinitesimal increments” (182). In practice this is to take locally defined tangent spaces to be explanatorily fundamental. For Weyl, this standard of locality is justified by appeal to not just phenomenological epistemology, that direct givenness to the ego is the ground of all essential insight into the structure of things, and this givenness is attenuated at spatial distance, but to full blown transcendental idealism:

insofar as symbolic construction of the “objective reality” of the purportedly mind-independent objects of physics is, per Husserl, a constitution of the sense of such objects as having “the sense of existing in themselves” (184-5).

Just as the previous essay establishes, the objects of mathematical physics are constructions which intend transcendent objects. However these objects are only fixed up to an isomorphism, any further “essence” is beyond cognitive grasp and therefore unreal (188). Ryckmann provides an able and clear derivation of the gauge principle in QED and a quick rundown of how this generalizes in the Standard Model. While this is a valuable contribution to the collection, those familiar with Ryckman’s past work will wish that the closing remarks regarding the standard model and the Weyl-Nozickean (2001) slogan, “objectivity is invariance,” were expanded upon. I look forward to further development of the alternative view implied by Ryckman’s interpretational challenge this slogan, which centers locality as the source of gauge transformations (199).

Part 3: Phenomenological Approaches to the Measurement Problem

Steven French’s “From a Lost History to a New Future: Is a Phenomenological Approach to Quantum Physics Viable?” does well to show that the phenomenological background of Fritz London was deeply influential on his approach to the measurement problem (with Bauer) and that this influence has been covered over by misinterpretation. The measurement problem is essentially the apparent inconsistency of deterministic dynamics of quantum mechanics and the collapse of the wave function. London and Bauer have been taken to merely restate von Neumann’s notorious solution, that the uniqueness of the interaction of the system with a conscious observer explains how and when the “collapse” occurs. French shows this picture presented by Wigner, which fell to the criticism of Shimony and Putnam, to be a straw man. French argues that London and Bauer’s phenomenological account of quantum measurement can stand up to such criticisms and for London.  Quantum mechanics presupposes a theory of knowledge, a relation between observer and object “quite different from that implicit in naive realism” (211). Measurement, considered subjectively, is distinguishable from the unitary evolution of the quantum state by introspection giving the observer the “right to create his own objectivity” (212). This is not some (pseudo-)causal mind-world interaction that creates a collapse but rather a precondition for the quantum system to be treated objectively and by a different mathematical function, the precondition being a reflective act of consciousness in which the ego-pole and object-pole of experience are distinguished, not a substantial dualism, “thereby cutting the ‘chain of statistical correlations’” (212-3). The discussion that follows, while suggestive, shows that it is not clear how this general phenomenological view about the nature of objectivity is supposed to remove the particular quantum measurement problem. Whether this is the fault of French or of London and Bauer is unclear; the most direct quotation from London and Bauer suggests that this distinction of the ego and the object somehow licenses the transition from representing the measurement situation by the wave function, ψ, to representing the system as in a particular eigenstate. This is much too oblique, given that the nature of such fundamental acts of consciousness is, even to the phenomenological initiate, obscure, and requires some substantive claims about the determinate nature of consciousness. French too must find the explanation as given by London and Bauer incomplete as he invokes decoherence, decision theory, and the “relational” interpretation as elements of a fuller story, presenting something, protestations aside, very close to Everettianism indeed. If such a distinctive and useful interpretation can be fleshed out on phenomenological grounds, it would be the most direct and substantive proof of the progressive nature of a phenomenological programme.

Michel Bitbol’s “A Phenomenological Ontology for Physics: Merleau-Ponty and QBism” is another breath of fresh air in the collection, exploring a phenomenological approach other than Husserl’s. Taking the primacy of lifeworld and Bohr’s challenge to traditional scientific epistemology as starting points, the essay sets up correspondence between Fuch’s participatory realism and Merleau-Ponty’s endo-ontology. More generally Bitbol takes recent developments in the philosophy of quantum mechanics, like Peres’ no-interpretation and Zeillinger’s information-theoretic approach, to “all seem to be pointing in the same direction,” in line with the phenomenological approach to the sciences as tools for navigation in the world. These are the pragmatists, as distinguished from the interpreters. Bitbol goes on to describe how the anti-interpretational approach is phenomenological by establishing an epochē for quantum physics. Rather than understand the states of quantum systems in a Hilbert space as properly predicative, we bracket any ontological posit and treat these states functionally as informational bridges between the preparation and outcome of experiments. Bitbol then considers a question a level up:

[W]hat should the world be like in order to display such resistance to being represented as an object of thought? Answering this question would be tantamount to formulating a new kind of ontology, a non-object-based ontology, an ontology of what cannot be represented as an object external to the representation itself (233).

For Merleau-Ponty (and Michel Henry), the non-objectual ontology is provided by the priority of the body and raw, original experience.

This is an ontology of radical situatedness: an ontology in which we are not onlookers of a nature given out there, but rather intimately intermingled with nature, somewhere in the midst of it… we cannot be construed as point-like spectators of what is manifest; instead, we are a field of experiences that merges with what appears in a certain region of it. This endo-ontology is therefore an ontology of the participant in Being, rather than an ontology of the observer of beings (236).

Here the central self-consciousness of transcendental idealism becomes self-perception of the body. In physics, this is translated into a participatory realism, wherein the observer is involved in the creation of Being.  Merleau-Ponty’s own statement of the relationship between his phenomenology of embodiment and physics starts from the observation that physics always attempts to take in the subjective as a part of or a special case of the objective. This is something of a category error, and in quantum mechanics it seems that there is a concrete proof of the impossibility of eliminating the subjective, or better yet shows that the objective-subjective distinction is not well formed. These are interesting points and one wishes that Bitbol (and Merleau-Ponty himself) would have spelled out this metaphysical picture in more detail. While the correspondence with QBism seems somewhat plausible, it is not shown that either view commits one to the other or that this endo-ontology provides an advance on the anti-metaphysical orientation of the QBist. The remarks regarding probability are paltry and given the significance of probabilities in quantum mechanics, a full account of it is necessary if there is to be much uptake—the primary limitation here seems to be that Merleau-Ponty did not get to consider this matter much prior to his death.

In contrast, “QBism from a Phenomenomenological Point of View: Husserl and QBism” by Laura de La Tremblaye is one of the fullest contributions in the collection. This essay serves as an able introduction to non-denomenational QBism, presented as a generalization of probability theory and cataloged as a participatory realist, -epistemic “interpretation” of quantum mechanics. QBism “stands out as an exception” (246) in this category because it focuses on belief, adding the Born Rule as an extra, normative rule in Bayesianism (the axiomatization is not explicitly shown). QBism removes the ontological significance of the collapse of the wave function, the state description and reality are decoupled, the collapse is a statement of some (ideal) agent’s belief state. Accordingly, “knowledge” yielded by measurements is redefined as information about the system that is accepted via measurement (250). While the probabilities assigned are subjective, the updating rules are objective.

It is no trivial task to draw a clear line between the subjective and the objective aspects of the Born rule… Fuchs and Schack invoke a completely new form of intersubjectivity. It is through the use of Bayesian probabilities that the multiplicity of subjectivities elaborates a reasoning that can be shared by everyone, and that, consequently, can be called “objective” in precisely this limited sense… this leads to the new conception of knowledge: knowledge is no longer understood in terms of an objectively true description of the intrinsic properties of the world; it is rather understood as the kind of knowledge that is needed to guide the future research of any agent, thus implying a weaker form of objectivity (251).

For Fuchs, the measuring device is analogous to a sensory organ, measurement  is an experience. This leads de La Tremblaye to consider two notions of experience, one from Husserl, the other from William James, who influenced Chris Fuchs. de La Tremblaye argues that it is Husserl’s model of experience as involving a normative, intentional horizonal structure, that better coheres with the Qbist view. This shows a positive contribution phenomenology may offer to QBism: an explanation of the source of the Born Rule’s normativity. Another would be an adequate explanation of how it is that the rules of Bayesian probability can be objective via the intersubjective constitution of objectivity essential to Husserl’s model of the sciences.

In sum: this collection is promising though deficient in some respects. It will provide a number of starting points for a further development of a phenomenology of physics and provides the curious or sympathetic philosopher of physics something to chew on, but it is not a full meal. Many of the contributions would do well as additions to a graduate seminar or undergraduate course on phenomenology or the philosophy of science, with the materials on quantum mechanics showing the most potential for further development.[1]


Heelan, P. A. 1987. “Husserl’s Later Philosophy of Natural Science.” Philosophy of Science 54 (3): 368-390.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977/1993. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, David F. Krell (ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

———. 1962. Being and Time. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.). New York: Harper and  Row.

Ladyman, J. & Ross, D. et al. 2007. Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nozick, R. 2001. Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ryckman, T. 2005. The Reign of Relativity: Philosophy in Physics 1915-1925. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[1]    Thanks to Porter Williams for reading the collection with me and sharing his thoughts with me, which allowed me to sharpen my own.

Daniele De Santis, Burt Hopkins, Claudio Majolino (Eds.): The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy

The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Daniele De Santis, Burt C. Hopkins, Claudio Majolino (Eds.)
Hardback £190.00

Reviewed by: Gabriele Baratelli (University of Cologne)

This volume arguably represents the most ambitious and complete attempt until today to collect in a uniform form a series of highly qualified contributions on the entire spectrum of phenomenological philosophy.[1] Given the peculiar character of each entry of this Handbook, it will be no surprise if the text will be taken as a useful guide by students entering for the first time in the difficult terrain of phenomenology as well as by experienced scholars. On the one hand, the book is, in fact, certainly meant as an introduction, as a “conceptual cartography” that alludes to the answers and to the immense potentialities that this philosophical practice has expressed in its history. This is done by means of the precise but not esoteric description of its language and conceptuality. On the other hand, with diverse gradations, the entries are also original contributions that certainly make significant progresses in phenomenological research.

The text is divided into five main parts. The first one is devoted to history, conceived in two senses.  The first essay of this section, written by Pierre-Jean Renaudie, gives an excellent and concise overview of the history of the phenomenological movement itself. The others concern instead the conceptual heritage of phenomenology and the original transformation of traditional doctrines and methods coming from the history of philosophy that it brought about. The style of the contributions varies a lot. This is certainly a virtue for the expert, but it can easily become a limit for the beginner. To make a comparative example, Burt Hopkins’ “Phenomenology and Greek Philosophy” provides an analysis of one of the classical themes of phenomenology, namely its relationship with ancient metaphysics. This is realized in three steps. Since the terms of the discussion have been laid out by Heidegger in the 1920s, Hopkins takes into critical account at first his interpretation of Husserl’s method through the lens of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies. It is argued that both Heidegger’s identifications (of the doctrine of categorial ideation with Aristotle’s doctrine of the apprehension of eide, and of the theory of intentionality with Plato’s statement that speech is about something) are totally unwarranted. This technical assessment of Heidegger’s miscomprehension of Husserl’s main tenets leads Hopkins afterwards to the related conclusion that the entire Heideggerian conception of Greek philosophy has to be recognized as the “myth not only of Plato’s philosophy being limited by a prior understanding of the meaning of Being as presence, but also of it being a fundamentally driven by an ontology”. After a brief intermezzo devoted to a not very well-known Husserlian discussion over the origins of philosophical thought and the role played in it by the sceptics and Socrates, Hopkins presents Jacob Klein’s account of Plato’s doctrine of the eide. Besides its intrinsic interest, this last part helps clarifying Hopkins’ critical account of Heidegger. It has moreover the merit of assigning to Klein’s analyses of Greek philosophy the deserved position next to the other classical phenomenological interpretations. The presentation of the subtlety of his arguments as well as the skilful use that Hopkins makes of them to confute and correct Heidegger’s shortcomings is certainly proof of the richness Jacob Klein’s thought. To come back to our concern, it is clear that this text has strong theoretical claims, whose authentic appreciation could require the reference to the other texts of the author and, especially for the beginner, to the other entries of the Handbook (including the one dedicated to Klein himself).

Francesco Valerio Tommasi’s “Phenomenology and Medieval Philosophy” has instead a less demanding theoretical commitment, as it displays an historical outline of the different approaches to Medieval philosophy (and religion and theology in general) that characterizes phenomenology (Tommasi focuses on Brentano, Scheler, Stein, Heidegger and Marion). The reconstruction is driven from the outset by a clear interpretative idea, namely, as Tommasi puts it: “The history of the relationship between phenomenology and medieval philosophy is, for the most part, the history of the relationship between phenomenology and Neo-Scholasticism”. The paper has then a twofold utility: by studying the reciprocal influences of two of the greatest philosophical tendencies of the XXth century, it shows indirectly, so to speak, the noteworthy role that Medieval thought played in phenomenology itself. Regarding the conceptual viewpoint, the key-concept that allows Tommasi to give uniformity to his reconstruction is arguably that of analogia entis. This “fragile architrave” of Scholastic thought gathers together the initial emergence of a phenomenological conceptuality in Brentano (for whom, as it is well known, the encounter with Aristotle’s doctrine of category and Being was decisive) and some of its most radical outcomes, including Heidegger’s philosophy. On this view, significant differences among the phenomenologists can be detected through the analysis of their appropriation of this pivotal notion. This undoubtedly sheds new light on phenomenology overall and on its conflicting relationship with Neo-Scholasticism. Without this common ground, in fact, even the “very heavy blow to the Neo-Thomist model” provoked by Heidegger’s critique of “ontotheology” would remain inexplicable.

The other essays concern the relationships with the Cartesian tradition, British empiricism, German idealism and Austrian philosophy.

The second section is the real core of the text. It presents a list of concepts and issues that form, so to speak, the basic ingredients of phenomenology. The entries are either fundamental concepts that often immediately refer to a specific author, for example “Dasein” and “Life-World”, or general topics, like “Ethics”, “Time”, “Mathematics” and so forth. The order is alphabetic, so that any hierarchical connotation and immanent principle of organization is excluded. The complex technicality of phenomenological vocabulary is here analysed thanks to a useful kaleidoscopic operation. Since many terms have already taken upon various meanings, one the strategy followed in the texts of this section is to refract the successive sedimentations of meanings showing the hidden reasons and the misunderstandings responsible for their complex conceptual history. Paradigmatic of this choice is the crucial entry “Phenomenon”, written by Aurélien Djian and Claudio Majolino, in which the connotations of this fundamental concept are unfolded throughout the history of phenomenology. Among the important shifts that characterized this history, two of them appear probably as the most significant ones: Husserl’s departure from Brentano’s notion of phenomena, and Heidegger’s departure from Husserl’s. Thus, in the first case, while for Brentano a phenomenon is “what appears as it truly is, something whose existence is tantamount to its appearance”, for Husserl is rather “what appears beyond existence and non-existence, something whose existence is indifferent with respect to its appearance”. This change clearly determined the “eidetic” character of Husserlian phenomenology as a “purely descriptive” science in the Logical Investigations. This feature will be constant in Husserl’s further reflections, despite the increasing sophistication of his method and the corresponding substantial modifications of the concept of phenomenon itself (modifications that are recognized in three further steps and painstakingly described in the paper). Heidegger’s case involves something else. Thanks to a precise clarification of the famous §7 of Being and Time, the authors explain how Heidegger considered phenomenology as a method that has to deal with the “how” things show themselves, and not with a certain “what”, namely phenomena themselves. Moreover, he distinguished between the “vulgar concept of phenomenon”, something that “initially and for the most part” shows-itself in the world, namely entities, and something that, by showing itself, is essentially concealed, namely Being, the “proper phenomenological concept of phenomenon”. A different phenomenological method corresponds to each pole of this ontological difference: the one of positive sciences and the one of hermeneutical ontology, i.e., “a method to wrestle from its concealment what essentially does not show itself (Being) and yet is fundamental with respect to the immediate and unproblematic self-showing of worldly entities”. This new peculiar scientific attempt is then irreducible to Husserl’s original one, as it focuses not on “phenomena” simpliciter, but exclusively on “the most exceptional phenomenon of all”. The final part of the essay reconstructs the more recent developments of phenomenology by showing the “Heideggerian logic” they embody. Be it Levnias’ phenomenon of the Other, Henry’s Life or Marion’s Givenness, in all these cases it is reiterated that the idea of an authentic phenomenological thought has to face the most exceptional phenomenon of all. The differences lie rather in determining which is the most fundamental one. This paper, therefore, alongside with many others, not only elucidates a central theme in conceptual and historical terms, but it also offers indirectly an interpretation of the sense of several, apparently contradictory, phenomenological trajectories.

The third part is composed of a list of major phenomenologists. For each of them is given an overview of their work. It is noteworthy that this section dedicates deserved space to authors that are still little known (the list includes, for example, Aron Gurwitsch, Jacob Klein, Enzo Paci). Here, the ideas analytically set forth in the previous section form specific constellations of meanings within the unitary production of each philosopher.

The fourth part, —“Intersections”—concerns the significant influence of phenomenology on other philosophical traditions and the positive sciences. This section not only stresses once again the peculiarities and the theoretical richness of phenomenology, but also its fundamentally relational nature. In “Phenomenology and Analytic Philosophy”, for instance, Guillaume Fréchette takes into account the vexata quaestio of the alleged fracture between “continental” and “analytic philosophy” that occurred during the XXth century. The author recollects the most significant episodes of dialogue (and reciprocal incomprehension) of the last decades and gives an overview of the philosophers that, explicitly or not, tried to “bridge the gap”. However, Fréchette underlines the fact that this divide is exclusively determined by contextual and institutional factors, and not by fundamental theoretical principles, as it has been usually the case for conflicting schools of thought in the history of philosophy. In the last part of the essay he conceptually formulates both traditions by invoking the realist/anti-realist distinction. On the one hand, this analysis proves the previous thesis, since it is shown that these opposing tendencies are equally present in both traditions. On the other, by an overarching reflection concerning the so-called “philosophy of mind”, it sheds light on the (often undervalued) similarities and influences that, besides any actual recognition, inform the course of recent philosophical research. Other papers are instead devoted to the relationships with psychoanalysis, medicine, deconstruction, cognitive sciences.

The fifth and final part of the text connects phenomenology, historically grounded in the Western world, to other areas and thus to conceptualities apparently distant from the philosophical tradition. As Bado Ndoye notes in the first essay of the section dedicated to “Africa”, this operation can even appear odd, if not paradoxical, if we think that when Husserl mentioned “African or non-Western people in general, it was always in order to make a contrast with what he used to call the ‘Idea of Europe’, as if the very essence of the latter could not be cleared if not opposed to a radical exteriority”. Husserl’s “eurocentrism”, however, is of a peculiar kind since it privileges the role of European humanity as that which factually revealed the authentic idea of reason and science. The content and especially the telos of this idea are not of course limited to one culture, but rather represent the common horizon that has to define humanity as such. Given this premise, the wide interest that phenomenology received all over the world cannot be a surprise and does not imply eo ipso an endorsement of relativism. Ndoye shows precisely this by analysing the work of Paulin J. Hountondji and his critique of the philosophical Western prejudices over Africa from the exact standpoint of Husserl’s universal idea of science. This happens in Hountondji’s account of Tempels’ Bantu Philosophy (1947), which is charged with confusing philosophy and ethnology, and in this way creating “philosophemes” attributed to a “fantasized vision of African societies”. This attitude does not rule out the importance of empirical research but is useful, on the contrary, to appreciate its authentic role and meaning. Ndoye suggests that in this sense Hountondji’s trajectory repeats Husserl’s, inasmuch as the latter finally encounters the question of the life-world as the unavoidable dimension that precedes every objective science. Despite the plurality of its manifestations, the correct interpretation of this original dimension helps “to pass through the element of the particular, in this instance the local cultures, as a gateway to the universal”.

Two things have to be certainly recognized in the editorial composition of this Handbook. The first is to have successfully produced and assembled a useful and insightful instrument for further phenomenological studies. The second is the courage behind the realization of such a project. The unity of this book, in fact, surpasses the collection of excellent contributions that it contains. Through its pages, phenomenology is not presented in the rigor mortis of definitions and historical analyses dictated by an eccentric scholarly curiosity. It is instead fierily depicted as a “living movement” whose role within and outside the philosophical sphere is not exhausted. In other words, this book does not impose the seal of the past to phenomenology, but rather it vividly presents it in its actual force, as a cultural project that is still in becoming in such a way that it can still meaningfully respond to our present needs.

Now, if this is what motivated, at least partially, this enterprise, then a very basic assumption is here presupposed. Namely, the fact that phenomenology, whatever it really is, exists. Given a superficial knowledge of the history of philosophy after Husserl up to the present, a sceptic could simply deny this alleged fact: the contrasts among philosophers at first recognizing themselves as belonging to the same scientific community inspired by Husserl’s works are so fundamental and the paths taken from them so diverse that any possible feature giving an acceptable unity and coherence seems to vanish.  The sceptic could find in the constant appeal to metaphors describing the course of phenomenology further evidence for his thesis. For instance, in Renaudie’s already mentioned historical essay, it is said that phenomenology cannot be characterized as a systematic doctrine, having fixed and clear fundamental principles and a cumulative-like progress. On the contrary, what is common to its different manifestations is only a “philosophical style”. As a consequence, Renaudie himself describes the history of phenomenology through a series of “conceptual shifts” (“transcendental”, “existential” and so forth) and he finally compares this flourishing of expressions to a plant, “the wilting of which does not necessarily prevent its growing back under a new and rejuvenated shape”. On this view, the many unorthodox interpretations stemming from Husserl’s texts would not destroy the sense of the entire project but, on the very contrary, would be essential to foster its development. Surely fascinating, but again, the sceptic would reply: is it  really so? Is it not just a verbal escamotage to cover the historical failure  of phenomenological thinking, whatever it tried to be at the end? Is not this narrative even more doubtful in contrast to Husserl’s own words, where in the Crisis the existence of almost as many philosophies as philosophers is presented as an urgent contemporary problem?

As said before, the editors do not elude this question and, in the introduction, they give a few remarkable hints to clarify their position. Even more clearly, perhaps, the collection of essays itself indicates a possible reply to the sceptic. The way in which they are organized, as well as the very diversified contents and perspectives offered, reveal a tension towards two complementary directions. The first one has to do with the “origin” of phenomenology, and specifically with the inevitable theoretical heritage of Edmund Husserl’s epoch-making work. Without Husserl, that is, without his immense factual influence, phenomenology, and therefore any history of phenomenology, would have never been arisen. Having in mind Paul Ricouer’s notorious dictum, namely that phenomenology is the sum of Husserl’s works and the heresies that stemmed from them, the editors suggest that this history has to be primarily described as a “‘self-differentiating’ history, a series of more or less dramatic (theoretical or even spatial) departures from Husserl, or even as a sum total of all the one-way train and air tickets away from him”. This does not amount to saying that the inevitable coming back to Husserl has to be meant as a return to “the things themselves”, in the sense of an auroral locus in which phenomenology was authentically conceived and practiced, untouched by its successive distortions. This solution cannot work since the sceptical arguments could be in fact repeated on this level. After all, who really is Husserl? Given the profound changes that mark his philosophical career, not to mention the various interpretations and criticisms to which his work underwent, the sceptic would maybe paraphrase what Einstein once bitterly said of Kant, namely that every philosopher has his own Husserl. Be that as it may, the state of affairs that occasioned the “ongoing cluster of heresies of heresies”, is not in contradiction with its grounding in Husserl’s texts. The latter do not contain a fixed and coherent system of doctrines, but rather (despite the huge amounts of material) a “small beginning” that has to be still understood and, when necessary, criticized. The very content of Husserl’s ground-breaking philosophizing, in other words, has not finished to be unfolded with his death: new shades appear in a circular motion in which phenomenology tries to define itself in such a manner that “Husserl’s own doctrine assumes a constantly new aspect and shape as it is looked at from such and such an angle”. The ultimate reference point, therefore, is not a mythological Husserl, “the true one”, but the conceptual space that he opened and that still waits for its authentic discovery.

The other side of the reply to the sceptic involves a certain view of the future. The connection to an origin meant in this way cannot but find its verso in a unity that is still to come. Now, despite the appearances, it is undoubtful that phenomenological doctrines share a certain “family resemblance”, whose sense points beyond each of them. Just like “the many different adumbrations do not exclude the dynamic unity of what is experienced though them”, the multiple directions presented in this text are directed to a common ideal pole. In other terms, each of them cannot live without the others in a multiplicity of positions that, insofar as they are genuinely phenomenological, contribute to build the very same “Husserlian” theoretical space.

In conclusion, this book is a great guide for everybody who is looking for an orientation in a certain domain of phenomenology. But we could say, it is a phenomenological guide, a book of phenomenology, that gathers a (empirical but ideally infinitively extendable) community whose project is shared. The implicit tension that crosses the contributions hides thus a promise, the promise that many heard at first in Husserl’s own words and that this text has succeeded in making audible once again. The restoring of this philosophical ambition is what preserves the necessary looking back to the past into a nostalgic and antiquarian task and at once what projects the very same enquiry into the future.

[1] To my knowledge, the only comparable text in English is The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology (2012) edited by D. Zahavi, published by Oxford University Press, which is limited to a smaller portion of this spectrum.

Hagi Kenaan: Photography and Its Shadow

Photography and Its Shadow Book Cover Photography and Its Shadow
Hagi Kenaan
Stanford University Press
Paperback $24.00

Reviewed by: Arthur Cools (University of Antwerp)

In Photography and its Shadow, Hagi Kenaan addresses the medium specificity of the photographic image, particularly the transformation of the image experience due to the invention of this medium. It is not his first publication to reveal his interest in and critical confrontation with the dominance of the visual in contemporary culture. In his book on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, The Ethics of Visuality. Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze (Tauris, 2013), Kenaan stated that “[s]omething has happened to our gaze. The experience of seeing has changed. The visual field has undergone a radical transformation” (xiv). In this study, he scrutinized the limits of contemporary visuality, which attracts the gaze “into the constant flickering of images, large and small screens, at every angle, at every moment, in every possible size, always in plural” (xii). Contrasting the visuality of the image with Levinas’s phenomenological description of the appearance of the face of the other person, he explored the possibility of the emergence of what he called the “reflexive gaze,” a visual field that appears to be oriented (in the strong sense of the word “orientation,” as being essential to what appears) and that as such opens up an ethical domain.

In his new book, Photography and its Shadow, it may appear that Kenaan is leaving behind the Levinasian optics of ethics as first philosophy, were it not the case that the title of this publication reminds us of an early article on art by Levinas entitled “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948). While in this article Levinas does not consider the emergence of the photographic medium, and Kenaan in his new book does not pay particular attention to Levinas’s treatment of the artwork and artistic visuality, the notion of the shadow reveals the legacy of the latter in Kenaan’s approach to photography. This legacy is manifest at different levels: the understanding of the image as a shadow; the reflection on the kind of connections between reality and shadows; the examination of the appearance of shadows in the general economy of being; the definition of the shadow as a double of reality, which fixes the momentary or, as Levinas formulates it, which “transform[s] time into images” (Levinas 1948, 139);[1] and as a “fixed shadow” (Kenaan 2020, 6), a “shadow [that] is immobilized” (Levinas 1948, 141). Significantly, it is Levinas who, at the end of his article, brings the creation of the artistic image since the Renaissance into the horizon of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, or what he calls “the alleged death of God” (Levinas 1948, 143). It is this same Nietzschean horizon that gives a decisive twist to Kenaan’s approach to photography, as becomes manifest in the third part of the book, entitled “Photography and the Death of God,” where he writes: “The proclamation of God’s death by Nietzsche’s madman was the point of departure for our study of photography. Photography emerges with the death of God, a condition that calls for a new way of orienting humans within an indifferent (homogeneous, meaningless, nihilistic) space” (Kenaan 2020, 159).

Let us consider this central claim of the book, through which Kenaan intends not only to describe the transformation of the visuality of the image by the photographic medium, but also to understand this transformation in light of a more encompassing historical transformation of Western culture as a whole in the 19th century and its aftermath, which Nietzsche labeled the death of God. This connection with a broader cultural field of investigation provokes a certain analytic complexity. The approach is first of all phenomenological in that the author describes the specificity of the visual experience of the photographic image on the basis of many concrete examples. This phenomenological approach is complemented by a strong historical interest, with the author returning to the beginnings of photography and providing a detailed description of the different techniques from which photography – as a practice (as a guideline for ‘taking’ pictures) and as a new theory of the image (as an image of nature, made by nature, not created by the artist’s hand) – emerges in the 19th century. However, the methodology is intended to be “ultimately ontological rather than historical” (9), in the Heideggerian sense of the word, namely in the sense that, as the author formulates it in the opening lines of his book, “[p]hotography has become an intrinsic condition of the human” (2) and this condition is both “existential” (i.e., photography has become part of ordinary experience) and transformative (i.e., this condition indicates an ontological shift in our understanding of the world and ourselves).

The central claim of the book is thus ontological, with the Nietzschean theme of the death of God not mentioned merely to establish a contextual and/or epochal connection with the appearance of the photographic image in modern culture, but in order to define the ontological transformation that manifests itself in and through the visuality of the photographic medium. This transformation, understood in its ontological dimension, is not limited to the photographic medium or to the question of what an image is, but more radically concerns the experience of seeing, the visibility of world, the meaning of existence. Kenaan is certainly not the first to draw particular attention to the transformation of the image experience and of visual perception through the invention of the photograph, but his departure point of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God within the framework of a Heideggerian understanding of ontology creates a new, intriguing perspective. How is this theme at work in Kenaan’s approach to photography?

In fact, the theme of the death of God brings together different lines of argumentation and it is the combination and consequent elaboration of these lines that constitutes the book’s originality, as well as its complexity. The first – and most familiar – of these argumentative threads consists in pointing to a reversal of Platonism with regard to the image experience. Here, Kenaan joins “an anti-Platonic approach” characteristic of theories of the image in the late 20th century. This approach no longer takes the image to be a copy or a representation but “is aware of the need to articulate a modality of presence that belongs to images qua images (and not as objects or functions)” (102). Maurice Merleau-Ponty already announced this new direction of thought in Eye and Mind when he wrote: “The word ‘image’ is in bad repute because we have thoughtlessly believed that a drawing was a tracing, a copy, a second thing.”[2] However, considering the reversal of Platonism as an intrinsic condition of the invention of the photographic image, Kenaan not only dates the event of this reversal more than a hundred years earlier (even prior to Nietzsche’s birth), disconnecting it from the debate about the developments of modernism in painting, but also points to a naturalistic basis and proposes a new, more precise interpretation of the reversal of Platonism with regard to the image experience. The invention of photography presupposes that the appearance of the image is no longer related to the divine or to the ideal forms, as is the case in Platonism, but to the mere physical laws of (breaking) light rays and (fixing) shadows. It is the possibility of seeing in mechanically fixed shadows the appearance of an image which defines the reversal of Platonism. In photography, the relation between image and shadow is reversed and this reversal implies a completely different ontological understanding of what a shadow and an image are.

Kenaan retraces this new relation between image and shadow in the writings of William Henry Fox Talbot, the author of The Pencil of Nature (1844), who described the invention of photography as the art of “photogenic drawing.” Talbot’s descriptions of his photographic experiments, which he initially called skiagraphy, “shadow drawing” or “shadow writing” (117), reveal that the invention of photography coincided with the discovery of the shadow as a transcendental condition for the photographic image and as an intrinsic part of the visibility of nature. In this regard, Talbot liberates the shadow from the binary opposition between being and appearance that determines Plato’s ontology. In a Platonic framework, shadow and image belong to the realm of appearance; they are both dependent on the presence of the real (being), and they are in this sense secondary. Moreover, the relation between the two is one of identity: the shadow, as projection of a material object, is defined as an image (eidolon) of that object, and the image, considered as the visual appearance of the idea (the original presence of the real), is defined as a shadow projected by that idea. Talbot discovers in his experiments with light rays that shadows have their own unique mode of appearance and that this mode of appearance is given in nature. The shadow belongs to the way in which nature unfolds its visibility. The shadow therefore cannot be reduced to the binary logic of object and copy, being and appearance. It is not in itself already an image, but the photographic image depends on it; depends on the possibility of “capturing,” “controlling” and “fixing” the shadow event projected by light rays. On the basis of his readings of Talbot, Kenaan describes the appearance of the shadow as an “in-between.” It both belongs to nature and transcends nature, it is part of nature’s visibility and it reproduces this visibility, it is not itself an image but it provides the ground for a potential image: “the shadow manifests a doubling of nature that belongs to the very order of nature itself” (135). In this sense, he makes plausible the continuum thesis that defends a causal continuity between shadow and image; between nature’s visibility and the image’s visuality. In this sense, the appearance of the photographic image has its origin in nature.

A second line of argumentation is construed around another aspect of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, namely the belatedness of the effects of this event. In Nietzsche’s narrative, the event of the death of God is not yet recognized, its meaning remains concealed and its consequences are simply denied. In this sense, the death of God casts a shadow, the extent of which is still undefined. In a similar way, Kenaan argues that the invention of photography, which is based on the discovery of the shadow in nature’s visibility, conceals its origin and confounds its meaning. He speaks of a “betrayal” (136). The second part of the book, “The Butades complex,” reveals the mechanism of this betrayal: photography, in its attempt to distinguish itself from the traditional concept of image creation as an act of drawing, defines itself within the limits of the idea of drawing. Butades, the myth of the Corinthian maid who traces the shade of her departing lover, plays an important historical role in this context. According to Pliny, who was the first to mention this story in his Natural History, “the drawing of pictures began with ‘tracing an outline round a man’s shadow’” (58). Between 1770 and 1820, in the wake of romantic classicism, this story was very popular in the visual arts as a pictorial theme about the origin of painting and of art in general. At the beginning of the 19th century, it delivered the main narrative frame for understanding the invention of photography and presenting the photographic image to the public: “‘The legend’s popularity in the eighteenth-century British visual culture, […], did not coincidently anticipate the dawn of a new relationship between image, object, and beholder that was photographic. Rather, it virtually establishes this relationship by setting the terms in advance by which photography would be discovered, understood, and assimilated’” (61). Kenaan quotes here the study by Ann Bermingham, “The Origins of Painting and the Ends of Arts: Wright of Derby’s Corinthian Myth (1782-1785).”

Relying on this narrative, however, it is clear that photography betrays its own newness. To make a photograph is not an act of drawing – the latter is created by the drafter’s hand, the former implies a mechanical process. Moreover, the shadow in the myth of Butades is defined as the picture of the beloved one. The myth relates the act of drawing to the amorous desire of keeping present an original presence even when this presence has gone, disappeared or died. The betrayal of photography’s newness implies thus a denial of what the invention of photography discovered: the continuously moving, transforming and evanescent appearance of shadows in nature’s visibility. Shadows, experienced as intrinsic to nature’s visibility, are not fixed and do not depict an original presence. Therefore, the idea of taking a picture, formulated to promote the camera as a technical means and photography as each individual’s way of keeping present whatever they want, is misleading: it conceals the mechanical process that is the birthmark of the photographic image, it misunderstands the outcome of this process as the visual depiction of an original experience, and it turns nature and world into a vast repository of photographic images.

A third line of argumentation deals with Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Nietzsche formulated this idea in his early writings in an epistemic context, namely as a criticism of the defenders of an all-encompassing theoretical access to the objectivity of reality. Perspectivism holds that a view from nowhere is not possible: knowledge of the real is not given independently of a point of view. The connection with the later theme of the death of God is obvious: “Perspectivism is primarily a way of acknowledging the disintegration of an all-encompassing structure of legibility, the loss of coordinates to orient man’s place in the universe. The collapse of an overarching, super-sensible principle that upholds human meaning and value is what Nietzsche understands as the ‘death of God’” (159). It is Kenaan’s contention that the invention of photography has opened the possibility of an infinity of perspectives: “The idea of an infinite plurality of perspectives is part of its inner logic. […] photography’s space consists of an indefinite multitude, a plurality of viewpoints that refuse to coalesce” (157). The introduction of the photographic apparatus detaches vision from the human eye and transforms the relationship between the visible and the visual: “photography’s visualization of the visible becomes, in principle, limitless” (154). This not only means beyond the limits of the human eye with regard to distance (too far or too close), time (too fast or too slow) or light sensitive (too bright or too dark), but also beyond the limits of the evanescent unfolding of nature’s visibility: “Every visibility is a potential photograph that can be taken from an infinite variety of perspectives.” In this regard, the photographic visualization has the potential of achieving “full domination of the visible.”

Anti-Platonism, denial of its own origin, and perspectivism: it is through these three conceptual frames that the major Nietzschean theme of the death of God functions as a heuristic and organizational device in Kenaan’s approach to photography. As a consequence, the appearance of the photographic image is presented as a kind of epochal transformation within the human condition. Ontologically speaking, this transformation can be articulated in at least three different ways: 1. a subversion of the Platonic opposition between being and appearing, including the ontological upgrading of the presence sui generis of the shadow; 2. the concealment of the mechanical nature of the photographic image and therefore the concealment of its emptiness and arbitrariness; 3. and finally, the submission of the embodied visual appearance to the limitless visibility of the photographic image, and hence the collapse and fragmentation of all meaning and values given within the visual field of human experience.

The outcome of this examination of the photographic image is challenging and at the same time disturbing because of its general, encompassing and nihilistic claim that the rise of the photographic image is based on the breakdown of all human meaning and value as given with the embodied condition of visibility. Moreover, according to Kenaan, this “ultimate breakdown of human meaning” (178) defines photography’s visual dominance today, despite its efforts to conceal it: “The visible thereby becomes a homogeneous expanded space of inhuman eyes, identical units, each of which can record an infinite number of views that are all equally set to provide sequences of representation. In such a space (the term ‘world’ no longer applies here) each and every point is a place mark for potential views” (170). Here, it becomes clear that the Nietzschean theme of the death of God not only functions as a heuristic device to analyze photography’s specific transformational power regarding embodied visible perception but also that the visual specificity of the photographic image is intended to concretize and to visualize the abyssal implications of the Nietzschean theme of the death of God: the appearance of a limitless shattered space of the visible without coherence and orientation, disconnected from the human body and indifferent with regard to the human world.

It thus seems that, in bringing Talbot’s invention of photography and the Nietzschean theme of the death of God into the same field of reflection, Kenaan first of all intends to say something about our contemporary culture, which has predominantly become a visual culture, and in which he has detected in his other book, The Ethics of Visuality, “a pathology” (xviii) of the gaze. The outcome of the examination in Photography and its Shadow seems therefore to confirm and to legitimize the starting point of this other book in the examination of another approach to vision, inspired by the philosophy of Levinas, that breaks with the limitless fragmentation of the visual without meaning: “the eye is flooded with images, swamped yet driven by a chronic hunger – rather than a desire – that does not seek meaning in the visual, only stimulation” (xv). However, returning to the mechanical roots of the photographic image, one may wonder what the theme of the death of God precisely adds to the analysis of the visual experience of the photographic image and whether the generalization it implies does not distort the specificity of this experience.

Considering the birthmark of the photographic image, Kenaan does not distinguish between the many different kinds, such as the digital and the analogical, the virtual and the real, the moving image and the snapshot, the simulation and the video game, the publicity poster and the family photobook, the visual artwork and scientific image production, or the passport photograph and the selfie on Instagram. The photographic image is considered a pars pro toto, and the original condition of a general transformation of visibility in contemporary culture. However, the problem with this generalization is not only that images have different meanings according to their various functions in contemporary society, but also that we are aware of these meanings and their differences and, accordingly, have different image experiences. The generalization implied by the Nietzschean theme of the death of God does not allow for an examination of these differences and, in a certain way, hinders access to such an analysis. Even if familiarity with the photographic image “[i]n our age of satellites, drones, Google Glass, and GoPro” makes it possible to bring randomized visible objects into one sentence, such as “the red spot on a seagull’s bulk, a particle of food processed in the digestive system, a cookie crumb on the desk of an administration, the tip of an iceberg melting in the Arctic, a dead fish in an oil spill in the ocean, the bronze hand of an ancient god at the bottom of the sea” (170-1), among many others, the meaninglessness of this collection of fragmented objects does not replace or obliterate the possibility of meaning recognition in each of these photographs. The latter is in fact dependent on the here and now of the single image experience, whereas the former requires abstraction from it.

Here, we touch on and are confronted with the basic ontological assumption of Kenaan’s approach, which we mentioned at the beginning and that Kenaan reformulates in his debate with Roland Barthes as: “[O]ntology teaches us to see the photographic as an Existential” (104). This means, according to Kenaan, that the task of ontology is “to open photography to the way in which its presence can be seen as a branch of being” and not, as is the case in Barthes’s view, to seek to define the essential features of the photographic image. The notion of “existential” is introduced to describe photography as a way of being (a way of understanding world and oneself) and not as a distinctive category of image experience. “Existential” is the term that Heidegger explicitly used to describe the existentiality of existence ontologically (cf. Being and Time §9). However, “existence” is the term he coins (against the metaphysical tradition, which defines existence in relation to a given essence) to address the question of the ecstatic openness to being, which distinguishes the manner of being of the human being. Moreover, this openness is only possible from a “being there” (Dasein), a situated being-in-the-world, or human being’s facticity. To understand the photographic as an “existential” thus implies a description of the photographic as one way of being of this facticity (among other ways of being, such as being mine, being-with, being born, being understanding, being caring, being anguished, being towards death, etc.). In other words, even if it is factually true that the mechanical condition of the birth of the photographic image (the invention of the camera) provokes a visibility disconnected from the human eye, it is still necessary to relate this visibility to human being’s facticity in order to be able to understand the photographic ontologically as an “existential.”

This ontological orientation indisputably constitutes the originality of Kenaan’s approach. It enables him to interpret the appearance of photographic visibility as an epochal transformation of being-in-the-world. Yet, it might be that the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, although explicitly intended to examine this transformation as epochal, is not sufficiently specific with regard to photographic visibility understood as an “existential.” In particular, it lacks the tools to describe the openness to being as related to this visibility. Nor are the naturalistic descriptions of Talbot’s experiments of (fixing) shadows able to address this. The natural effects of breaking light rays do not say anything about the existentiality of the human being, which seeks to capture and to understand these effects. What turns these natural effects into a new kind of visibility, the visibility of the photographic image, presupposes human being’s openness to being. Photographic visibility is a visibility with regard to the human condition. If this visibility thus constitutes an epochal transformation, as is the central claim of Kenaan’s approach, it should be possible to describe this transformation in terms of how the relation to being is concerned with the specific visibility of the photographic image. Kenaan leads the reflection in that direction but changes course by stating that the camera’s visibility is disconnected from the human body and interpreting this disconnectedness in line with Nietzsche’s perspectivism as a limitless plurality of views.

That the camera provokes a visibility disconnected from the human body is, however, itself visible in the photographic image. This kind of being visible is called “framing”: the photographic image reveals the visual appearance of a framing of the visible. Kenaan indeed mentions and explores the nature of this framing, especially in the experiments by and the examples related to Talbot, but he omits to analyze and describe the appearance of this framing as an “existential,” that is, as an appearance that delineates human being’s openness to being. It is not argued how and to what extent the Nietzschean theme of the death of God could be interpreted as the expression of the visual appearance of a framing. However, it is not difficult to point to some ontological implications that result from the framing of the visible.

The visual appearance of a framing implies first of all a re-organization of the relation between the visible and the invisible. In the field of an embodied perception, the invisible is intrinsic to that perception as what cannot be seen: either because it does not belong to the visible (but to another sense, e.g., it can be smelled), or because it is part of the other side of the perceived objects that we cannot see from our embodied perspective but only in moving our body around that object (what Husserl calls “adumbrations”). In neither case does the invisible limit or contradict the fullness of the embodied visual perception. However, this is different in the visual appearance of a framing. Here, the invisible is essential in at least two ways. The photographic image is itself cut out, extracted from or selected in a field of visibility that encompasses the framing. The invisible is also present within the framing as something that appears as not yet fully visible, still arising, happening. If it is the case that the photographic image catches and attracts the human gaze and is able, as Kenaan contends, to dominate the visible, then it is only because and on the basis of these two ways that invisibility limits its visuality. This means that the visual experience of the photographic image is not without a relation to what exceeds the visibility of the frame and is not without a certain organization of the frame.

Moreover, the visual appearance of a framing – whether or not fixed by the mechanism of the camera – presupposes the recognition of a frame. In fact, Talbot’s experiments showed this very well: he delineates and sets up a frame each time to be able to study the effects of light rays and precisely this experimental method makes it possible to recognize the effects of framing in natural processes of light rays. Interesting cases such as trompe l’oeil (and, by extension, immersive) experiments demonstrate that there is no visual experience of a framing without the recognition of the frame. In this regard, the visual appearance of a framing still refers to and depends on the condition of the human body in two ways: in order to be recognizable, it is necessary that the frame is adapted either to the visual apparatus of the human body (i.e., it remains within the limits of the human eye’s capabilities and expectations) or to its cognitive apparatus (i.e., it corresponds to a conceptual modelling). The fact that mechanical or digital production of visual fragments is limitless – like a camera out of control that cannot stop taking pictures of the same object whatever the picture resolution may be – is completely irrelevant without a reference to the human body in one of these two ways. This means that the mere fact of being framed does not fix or define the meaning of the visual appearance of the framed fragment. Or, to put it in an “existential” way: the visual appearance delineated by the photographic image cannot undo, replace or supplement human being’s openness to being.

Finally, as Kenaan amply demonstrates in his examination of the historical development and interpretations of the photographic image, each particular framing appears to be historical: it exposes and is the expression of human being’s situated being. The historical leaves a trace in the visual appearance of the framed that the frame cannot erase.  Without this trace of the historical, Barthes’s discourse on  the punctum of the individual photograph, to which Kenaan refers, and also his own discourse on “[p]hotography’s goodbyes,” which he calls “the book’s subject” (51), would not make sense. Yet, to say goodbye is not necessarily the appropriate response to photographs. In some photographs, the trace of the historical relates to the singularity of the here and now of the framing event as being intrinsic to the meaning of the photograph. This is especially the case for documentary photographs that record events from the perspective of the witness, that is, from the perspective of a here and now, the meaning of which the photographer is witnessing. In these cases, the frame of the photograph is explicitly used to reveal and express something about the meaning of the historical and hence about the meaning of human being’s facticity. This means that, however fragmented its visual appearance may be, the photographic image can contribute to making sense of being-in-the-world and to witnessing the values we live by.

As these remarks make clear, Kenaan’s approach is original and inspiring because it analyzes the photographic image as an “existential” and not just as a distinctive category of the image. It consequently shows the relevance of situating the visuality of the photographic image in a broader cultural, epochal transformation of visual experience. Establishing different and intriguing connections with the Nietzschean theme of the death of God, it sheds a new light on the origins of the photographic image and its effects on the visible. In this way, it contributes to a re-examination of the visual experience of framing in its relation to the human condition.

[1] All references to this article are quoted from Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader, edited by Seán Hand, Basil Blackwell, 1989.

[2] Quoted from Mauro Carbone, The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema. New York, Suny Press, 2015, 2. Mauro Carbone pointed to this “form of reversal of ‘Platonism’” that “develop[s] the premises affirmed by Nietzsche’s philosophy and explored by modern art” (Ibid.) in the work of Merleau-Ponty.