Véronique M. Fóti and Pavlos Kontos (Eds.), Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux

Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux Book Cover Phenomenology and the Primacy of the Political: Essays in Honor of Jacques Taminiaux
Contributions To Phenomenology
Véronique M. Fóti, Pavlos Kontos (Eds.)
Hardback 96,29 €

Reviewed by: Douglas Giles (University of Essex)

This volume of fourteen essays honors and explicates the underappreciated Belgian phenomenologist Jacques Taminiaux. The essays cluster around the theme that there is in phenomenology and society a primacy of the political echoing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s primacy of perception. The book treats the political not as foundational to philosophical inquiry but as inescapable. The claim made by the editors is that “almost any sort of philosophical research, whatever its specific object, will find itself confronted by the mirror of the political,” and, therefore, phenomenology cannot claim the attitude of the uninvolved spectator and “exempt itself from being reflected in the mirror of the political.” (vii) Instead, phenomenology must enact a fundamental attitude of judgment and respect. Not all of the essays in this book, however, directly address the thought of Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology, but all of the essays contribute to phenomenology in general.

Shaun Gallagher’s essay, “The Struggle for Recognition and the Return
of Primary Intersubjectivity,” explores the distinction between primary and secondary intersubjectivity. Gallagher’s approach is to contrast Fichte’s concept of summoning, Honneth’s concept of a Hegelian struggle for recognition, and Ricoeur’s concept of a gift. The question that Gallagher takes on is whether mutual recognition emerges as a natural and automatic event regardless of any practical response an individual makes. His response is basically that it does not. He takes a somewhat negative view of Honneth’s Hegelian theory that dialectical struggles for recognition lead to self-realized individuality and then onward to politico-economic justice and social solidarity. Acknowledging that an individual’s autonomy depends on intersubjective mutual recognition, Gallagher astutely points out that that this situation does not necessitate that we accept that mutual recognition is perfectly reciprocal. Gallagher proposes a model of primary intersubjectivity that does not depend on reciprocal recognition but instead acknowledges that recognition relations are imperfect. At times, we give recognition without expecting reciprocation and receive recognition without being able to return it. In these circumstances, recognition is best seen as a gift or summons. Primary intersubjectivity, therefore, does not require a dialectical struggle to find ourselves where we are.

Fabio Ciaramelli in “Intuition and Unanimity: From the Platonic Bias to the Phenomenology of the Political” extends Taminiaux’s claim of a Platonic bias in philosophy. For Taminiaux, the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy subordinated the body politic’s life and action to the sage’s life of contemplation that brought with it a problematic failure in understanding human affairs. (16) Ciaramelli takes the impetus of Taminiaux’s antispeculative research to connect the Platonic bias in speculative philosophy’s ontological paradigm of an ideal truth with the preference for unanimous solutions to social and political issues. For Ciaramelli, the issue is a matter of totality versus plurality because the Platonic bias to unanimous solutions implies a repression of plurality. (18-19) Ciaramelli takes an unexpected and interesting approach to the issue, basing his essay on a 16th century text by Etienne de La Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. La Boétie’s essay criticizes passive submission to a unique center of power. La Boétie goes so far as to blame the people for their servitude, reasoning that by continuing to submit to power, they prefer servitude to liberty. Ciaramelli interprets La Boétie as advocating two conflicting social models: a pluralism that allows uniqueness to flourish and a totalizing model that dominates individualities and produces uniformity. (20-21) La Boétie argues that nature does not give us a model for either servitude or freedom; therefore, the ways to safeguard individual uniqueness and pluralism must be socially instituted. From this concept, Ciaramelli deduces that it is necessary to reject the Platonic bias of a universal solution. He insightfully extends this thought to La Boétie’s conception that to achieve liberty “nothing more is needed than to long for it,” connecting this conception with the preference for unanimous solutions that threaten plurality. (25) Ciaramelli concludes that La Boétie, despite his insights, is also guilty of confirming the domination of unanimous solutions.

In “Phronêsis and the Ideal of Beauty,” Danielle Lories extends Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the difference between Aristotelian phronêsis and the Kantian judgment of taste. Lories’s close analysis of particular passages in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s Third Critique is of interest to scholars of those books, or of Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, but Lories does not connect her topic to Taminiaux, the primacy of the political, or phenomenology.

Rosemary R.P. Lerner’s essay, “The Ethical Dimension of Transcendental Reduction,” attempts to craft a “coherent, unitary view of [Edmund Husserl’s] thought that integrates all of its various dimensions.” (46) Her first step is to free Husserl from Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Husserl’s project as intellectualist, and Lerner gives a useful overview of the history of Husserl interpretation as background for her argument. Lerner recasts Husserl’s phenomenological reduction “as an eminently practical—namely, ethical—achievement (Leistung), driven by a practical virtue, responsibility.” (45) Lerner argues that ethics were a systematic locus in Husserl’s proposed idea of philosophy. She describes Husserl’s gradual transition from viewing ethics as founded upon formal a priori laws to viewing the ethical motivation of right and valuable actions as love in its diverse forms. (52) Husserl never wavered in his view of the importance of the rational, but, Lerner points out, Husserl also included acts of loving, hating, and desiring. This connects with Lerner’s thesis that Husserl’s motivation is responsibility as a function of practical reason. “The intellect is the servant of the will in the same way that I am the servant of those that configure our practical life, as leaders of humanity,” she quotes Husserl as writing and offers other quotes to back up the idea that this idea guided Husserl’s thought. (55) Lerner connects this thought to the primacy of the political in that even if Husserl does not mean that philosophers should immediately dedicate themselves to political life they should set the bedrock of the essential structures of being human, a bedrock on which authentic moral philosophy can be built. (55) She concludes that Husserl’s transcendental reduction can be understood as a resolution to adopt an authentic, good, and responsible life and, therefore, as an ethical renewal. (61-62)

“Individuation and Heidegger’s Ontological ‘Intuitionism’” by accomplished Heidegger scholar Mark A. Wrathall explores the meaning of individuation. Following Taminiaux, Wrathall defines intuitionism as the privileging of perception over thought and the necessity of approaching the Self by means of intuition rather than symbolism. For Wrathall, this means that what individuates each of us is something to which we have direct access. (71) It is possible and necessary to see the distinct individual that I am and to do so in the most radical way. We transcend everyday intelligibility and arrive at an intuitive apprehension of Self that is required for an authentic selfhood. Wrathall states, however, that the transcendental moment in the intuition of the self can never dispense with shared, everyday modes of self-interpretation. Again agreeing with Taminiaux, Wrathall holds that Heidegger erred in thinking that the Self is separated from and constituted independently from relations with others, a view that closes off the Self from ethical demands. Intuition is the priority of “seeing” over thought, (75) but the kind of sight involved in individuating oneself as an authentic agent is a particular type of seeing: perspicuity. (78) Wrathall says that “the sight of perspicuity plays an intimate role in the process of the realization of myself as a self, because it allows me to recognize myself as co-responsible for the opening up of the world.” (83) We are not cut off from others when we individuate ourselves but we see our Self in a shared public world within which we realize ourselves as individuals. The purpose served by achieving a perspicuous grasp of myself and an authentic disclosure of the world, then, is to allow me to comport myself toward my existence in such a way that I “own” or take responsibility for it. The end goal of owning myself is to forge a stable, autonomous character. A responsible existence ultimately depends on an intuitive grasp of myself.

Pol Vandevelde’s “Historicizing the Mind: Gadamer’s ‘Hermeneutic Experience’ Compared to Davidson’s ‘Radical Interpretation’” is as the title advertises. Vendevelde contrasts the two differing views of interpretation. Hans-Georg Gadamer characterizes interpretation as an event of hermeneutic experience, whereas Donald Davidson, against what he sees as Gadamer’s relativism, sees interpretation as an ahistorical but empirical process of triangulating subjective, objective, and intersubjective positions. The difference between the two theories of interpretation, Vendevelde argues, lies in their treatments of concrete individuals within their own historical situations. (104) Davidson’s theory, by dehistoricalizing interpretation, depersonalizes the concrete historical individuals who have made their own interpretations. The political ramifications of Davidson’s presumed neutrality is a neutralizing, if not empowering, of dominant cultural narratives that prevents concrete individuals, who perform interpretation, from being observed and considered, and therefore is a marginalizing of individual interpretations from subaltern groups.

Focusing on Merleau-Ponty, Stephen Watson addresses the issue of the incompleteness of the phenomenological reduction. Watson observes that “the search for truth is always an embodied truth, but equally a veiled truth.” (108) In “On the Metamorphoses of Transcendental Reduction: Merleau-Ponty and ‘The Adventures of Constitutive Analysis,’” Watson analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s writings on incompleteness to uncover the nature of what is incomplete in the reduction. Watson’s position is that the incompleteness is owing to the inexhaustible transformations involved in the work of making origins manifest rather than a failure fully to grasp originary evidence. Watson links this realization with what he claims is Merleau-Ponty’s idea that we barely coincide with the originary: “what justification we have comes to an end without attaining ultimate determinacy—but not because its itinerary does.” (122) Therefore, Watson concludes, phenomenology itself becomes an open multivocal practice of symbolic institutions as the world is revealed.

Also writing on Merleau-Ponty is Babette Babich in her essay, “Merleau-Ponty’s Lamellae: Aesthetic Feeling, Anger, and Politics.” Babich attempts to show how throughout Merleau-Ponty’s writings is a sustained engagement with psychology and biology. She draws mainly on Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts on embodiment and bodily engagement with the lifeworld to show how his phenomenology is a multifaceted topography of thought and intercorporeal life. Babich’s overview of Merleau-Ponty’s views on flesh, spacings, and lamellae does not break new ground, nor do her observations on the relevance of Merleau-Ponty warning’s against violence and capitalist imperialism. She does make some good observations on Merleau-Ponty’s connection between lamellae and flare-ups of anger in relation to embodiment and space (137-139) but does not pursue them fully. A further pursuit of the political implications of personal anger would be highly valuable to social and political theory, and Babich provides some thoughts and resources on this important issue.

Of significant value to addressing the current crisis in education is Sharon Rider’s insightful essay, “Coercion by Necessity or Comprehensive Responsibility? Hannah Arendt on Vulnerability, Freedom and Education.” Speaking on an important current topic, Rider questions recent trends in education policy and provides a much needed counterpoint to them. First, she argues that there is a false image in education of children’s autonomy. She accuses educational “progressivism” of advancing the idea that there is “a child’s world” separate from the adult world that educators and the education process must take into account and therefore not guide but merely support children. (165) She then turns to the related assumption in educational progressivism that there that there can be a science of teaching that can be studied and implemented without mastery in the subject matter taught. Any teacher who has been dragged into certain “training sessions” will commiserate. Armed with an understanding of these two false assumptions, Rider argues, we can move to the more fundamental problem of what the crisis in education says about our form of life. Rider applies Hannah Arendt’s thought to the philosophy of education and proposes the idea of an institution of truth-telling and critique (173) in which we understand human beings as part of the world, always beginning again. Rider says that “it is within the public organization of a collectivity where we are not under the sway of necessity that the new emerges.” (173) The answer to the crisis in education is to treat education as a collectivity that recognizes our shared vulnerability and exercises authority to build stable institutions in which children learn to face facts about who we are and what the world is, as well as learning the discipline of sound judgment.

Environmental ethics are at the center of “Edmund Husserl, Hannah Arendt, and a Phenomenology of Nature” by Janet Donohoe. She starts with Husserl’s concepts of the lifeworld and the distinction between homeworld and alienworld. Donohoe contends that lifeworld is so deeply intertwined with homeworld and alienworld as to be inseparable, providing the foundation for the objective world but not being itself an objective world. (177) She then addresses the question of whether nature is something separate from us that we define ourselves against or whether we are immersed in and inextricably part of nature. Donohoe is firmly on the side of the latter, drawing on Arendt and Kelly Oliver to craft an understanding of us as intertwined with nature. Her purpose in this analysis is to argue for a conception of animal ethics based on the idea that our human lifeworld is not separate from the animal environment. In other words, animals are not an alienworld to our homeworld, but our homeworld is grounded in the same environment shared with nonhuman animals. We are therefore responsible to Earth and the other creatures with whom we share the Earth. (187)

In the most directly political essay in the book, Paul Bruno’s “Symbols and Politics,” the author takes on the thorny issue of the display of the Confederate flag in the United States. Taking as his starting point debates over display of the flag at a particular university, (190) Bruno understands the conflict as regarding the definition and meaning of a symbol, not only in a political sense, but in an aesthetic sense. Bruno is employing aesthetics less in an artistic sense and more in the sense of how humans perceive the meanings of objects. With this move, he can adroitly position the symbol of the flag within the setting of a culture and language. To assist in his analysis, he engages in a phenomenological reading of Kant’s Third Critique, assisted by Taminiaux, focusing on the concepts of symbol and imagination. Our thought takes into account others’ ways of presenting something to compare our own judgments with human reason in general. Importantly, this means that “impartiality is achieved by taking into account other people’s way of seeing or feeling, including those ways of seeing and feeling that we may not find palatable.” (202) Education and politics require that we interact with others’ biases so that we may see our own biases in a new light. Bruno therefore concludes that: “Becoming sensitized to evils perpetrated under the Confederate flag or Nazi flag requires a place in public discourse for those flags. Putting those images in a lockbox is a recipe for them becoming rancid, tools of resentment and disillusion that fester in the hands of the disengaged, or dare I say, the excluded.” (203)

In “Poetics and Politics,” Françoise Dastur examines Taminiaux’s interpretation of tragedy from 1967 to 1995. Dastur reconstructs Taminiaux’s argument of the connections between poetics and politics from Aristotle to Heidegger, assessing it mostly positively. Dastur is critical, however, of Taminiaux’s attempt to argue for a distinction between praxeological and speculative readings of Greek tragedy. She is skeptical of the need for a speculative reading, and drawing on the German Idealists and Niezsche, states that perhaps a praxeological reading of tragedy is adequate to uncover the varied speculative aspects of Greek tragedy. Dastur then questions Taminiaux’s core thesis that poetics and politics are two sides of the same coin. Dastur instead holds that both the ontological
dimension and the political dimension of the tragedy have to be taken into account because they concern human beings in their entirety.

Finally, the two editors each contribute an essay. Véronique M. Fóti stresses the impotence of understanding Merleau-Ponty to understand Taminiaux in “Nature, Art, and the Primacy of the Political: Reading Taminiaux with Merleau-Ponty.” Similar to Donohoe, Fóti argues against treating nature as separate from us. Fóti uses Merleau-Ponty’s arguments against the intellectual subjugation of nature and in favor of the intercorporeality, or interanimality, of animal being and humanity. Her exegesis of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature highlights the need to understand our place in nature as the inter-being of self and other and that our unique spatio-temporal emplacement is a radical contingency, leading us to accept that we cannot intellectually dominate nature. From this concept, we can place our emphasis on lateral rather than hierarchical relationships of power that reject structures of domination. Fóti then turns to Merleau-Ponty’s interrelation between political philosophy and the philosophy of art, a question she relates to an ontology of nature. The political dimension, Fóti says, is not a region set apart but is fundamentally co-extensive with the lifeworld and we must abandon a binary opposition of political and nonpolitical life.

The book concludes with Pavlos Kontos’s “The Myth of Performativity: From Aristotle to Arendt and Taminiaux.” “The Myth of Performativity” in the title Kontos understands
as the conception in philosophy that some actions constitute pure performances in that they do not leave behind them concrete traces in the world. Kontos identifies the pitfall of the myth in Heidegger who, Kontos claims, celebrates pure performativity, distorting the performativity proper to actions. Kontos praises Taminiaux’s theory of political action, which speaks against the legitimacy of the Myth. Kontos sees Taminiaux as a corrective for how philosophers like Heidegger and Arendt, under the influence of the Myth, misunderstand the notion of solidarity, power, and memory. For example, Arendt’s idea that the actor and storyteller occupy two different positions is problematic. The storyteller is portrayed as not engaged in the web of political action so that the elusive character of actions is therefore not a predicament. When we reject the Myth, we put the storyteller and the actor into a new light showing that the practice of historical storytelling is intrinsically political.

Jacques Derrida: The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II

The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II Book Cover The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II
The Seminars of Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida. First volume translated by Peggy Kamuf. Second volume translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg
University of Chicago Press
2013, 2017
312, 304

Reviewed by: Aaron Aquilina (Lancaster University)

Jacques Derrida presented these seminars at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, improvising their translation when presenting abroad at New York University and the University of California, Irvine, between 1999-2000 and 2000-2001. The English translations of these seminars come directly from Derrida’s typed notes and are rigorous, including footnotes transcribing comments added by Derrida during the presentation of his lectures as well as reproducing his own private marginal notes.

While these two sets of seminars first and foremost deal with the question of the death penalty, the two volumes approach the principal enquiry from perceptibly different angles, and include several instances of (nonetheless relevant) digression that characterises Derrida’s style. Indeed, within these same seminars, there are conjured some surprising questions of literature, euthanasia, alterity, age, the heart, sexuality, grief, suicide, psychoanalysis, the animal, and deconstruction itself, alongside more expected discussion around law, justice, religion, history, politics, spectacle, sovereignty, cruelty, blood, murder and death.

The simplest way of describing the somewhat disparate interests of the two sets would be to say that, while the first volume is concerned with understanding what the death penalty is, the second explores what the death penalty means. This is not to say that the same questions are not repeatedly posed and transposed throughout both volumes, as most exemplified by Derrida’s chief interest in thinking with and through talk of abolition or retention and towards further unveiling the gestures of deconstruction, ‘becoming or revealing itself finally as that which finds itself grappling, in order to deconstruct it, with […] the strange and stupefying and shocking fact that never, but never, it turns out, has any philosophical discourse as such, in the system of its properly philosophical argument, opposed the principle, I repeat, the principle, of the death penalty’ (DPII, 2). While Derrida is himself against the death penalty, as he once clearly states, his main task is ‘to think otherwise the interest there could be in standing up against the death penalty and in universally abolishing the death penalty’ (DPI, 254). In fact, by the end of the last seminar one finds that Derrida, typically, has not provided a singular or conclusive position against the thoughts of that strongest advocate of the death penalty—Immanuel Kant.

He does, however, offer seminal insights and openings by which one might position oneself beyond arguments of, for instance, life imprisonment as opposed to the effect of criminal deterrence. Such arguments, Derrida points out, operate from within the death penalty’s own modality rather than interrogate its rationality; as such, even arguments against the death penalty are ultimately subsumed or enslaved within its logic. The death penalty seems inescapable; it seems to ‘[hide] a nonunifiable multiplicity of concepts and questions’, a ‘collective experience of putting to death’ (DPII, 18). Derrida, in fact, situates the death penalty at the heart of human sociality, quoting Kant in (at least partial) agreement: ‘The mere idea of a civil constitution among human beings carries with it the concept of punitive justice belonging to the supreme authority’ (first quoted DPII, 134).[i]

Being ‘at the origin of the social contract or the contract of the nation-state, at the origin of any sovereignty, any community, or any genealogy, any people’, that which kills us, then, is what lets us live (DPI, 20-1). Moreover, in its entrenchment in law and society, it stands to reason that the penalty is at the heart, also, of economics, and this Derrida meditates at length through common phrases such as “to pay with one’s life”, “cost him his life”, “risk one’s neck” or “the value of life”. These are words belonging to the economy of the talionic law (jus talionis), at its most extreme an economy of death, and more shall be said on this later.

In light of this troubling twist—it is the death penalty that allows us to live—Derrida examines throughout this idea of the penalty at the heart of law (going as far back as to the trial of Socrates) and with it, necessarily, this figure of ‘supreme authority’ and the logic of the exception. To this end, he repeatedly engages with contemporary political situations such as the case of Buffet and Bontems, the unwillingness or even inability of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights to outlaw the death penalty, and, at length, the rather strange case of the United States—this both through an analysis of its history, so closely tied to the penalty, as well as through more tangential approaches, such as reading Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Even in the US’s temporary abolition of the death penalty (1972-77), Derrida says, ‘the court did not rule on the principle of the death sentence, but on the cruelty of its execution’ (DPI, 53). This is, perhaps, the point that he wishes to make most clear throughout the seminars: that there can be no law, nor society, without punishment as epitomised by the principle of the death penalty. This is why he claims that ‘it will always be vain to conclude that the universal abolition of the death penalty, if it comes about one day, means the effective end of any death penalty’, and, as such, ‘even when the death penalty […] will have been purely and simply, absolutely and unconditionally, abolished on earth [sic.], it will survive: there will still be some death penalty’ (DPI, 282-3).

Thus, we see Derrida’s second point: the death penalty is not only what is proper to law—‘the right to law [le droit au droit], the right to the violence of law’ (DPII, 48)—but also what goes beyond it. In its position as the foundation and birth of every law, every society, it also outside such laws and societies. It persists throughout both peace and wartime—however difficult it is, Derrida remarks, to properly distinguish between the two. Justice, then, is not what employs the death penalty, but rather it is the other way around. Keeping this in mind, one recalls the cases of King Charles I or Louis XVI, whom Derrida also talks about (especially of the latter, of course): the death penalty is not only that which the sovereign can wield, but also that which ends him.

Sovereignty is, in fact, one of the main concepts in question here. It is interesting, especially in light of Michel Foucault’s conception of biopolitics with which Derrida briefly engages, that, following the above understanding, presidency (and with it democracy) is viewed as a continuation of sovereign rule. Following commentary on Georges Pompidou and the 2000 American election (George W. Bush, Al Gore, Ralph Nader), Derrida talks of how this modern ‘sovereign known as “President”’ points to ‘something like a contradiction internal sovereignty: unconditional sovereignty is conditional’—here, the votes of a society given form by the death penalty. (DPII, 1, 57). In the French Revolution, where the death penalty made itself clearly known as what persists even in the suspension of law, that condition was the very physicality of the king, the body natural, which the guillotine severed.

When, however, the death penalty is utilised as a tool of law, one is indeed at the mercy of ‘he who decides the exception’ (first quoted DPI, 83).[ii] It is safe to say that Derrida here leaves Carl Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty uncontested, and similarly critiques the problematic of the exception (in continuation from the previous seminars, Perjury and Pardon) as the location from which order is maintained precisely because it is in opposition to the general law. Connecting back to the idea that the death penalty is what allows us to live on, Derrida explains ‘how this logic [of the exception], which is that of absolute sovereignty and the self-preservation of the political body, [authorizes] the absolute maintenance, even though or because it is exceptional, of the death penalty, in the name of the self-preservation of the sociopolitical body’ (DPI, 86). Sovereignty thus not only constitutes the penalty but is constituted by it: ‘the question of the death penalty,’ Derrida says, ‘is a question of the different ways the state has of affirming its sovereignty by disposing of the life of certain subjects’ (DPII, 19). This, in turn, is an affirmation utilised in the face of defiance—and here Derrida thinks with Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’—a challenge to the very figure of the sovereign: ‘The great criminal is […] the sovereign exception of one who has been able to defy and contest the monopolization of violence by law’; ultimately, what can be seen in ‘the one condemned to death [is] an absolute, almost sovereign power’ (DPII, 46). In the case of the death penalty, it would also be true, therefore, to say that the exception decides itself.

Derrida presents another way of understanding the exception: as miracle. ‘The exceptional situation, that is, the criterion of sovereignty […] is the same thing as what are called miracles in religion. It’s the same structure: a pure decision’ (DPII, 249). Throughout these seminars especially, Derrida upholds that one cannot understand the order of the political without understanding how it is interwoven with the religious. This point is frequently made through Political Theology, either overtly or in the seminars’ subtext, and serves to highlight the theologico-political role of the sovereign as underlined throughout. Derrida in fact reminds us how it is often through religion that the death penalty is sustained (namely Christianity, and occasional comments are indeed made on what is arguably the most prevalent figure of those condemned to death, Jesus). The death penalty found its first manifestation in human society as an implement not of human law but of the divine.

This is how the essence of sovereign power, as political but first of all theologico-political power, presents itself, represents itself as the right to decree and to execute a death penalty. Or to pardon arbitrarily, sovereignly. If one wants to ask oneself “What is the death penalty?” or “What is the essence and meaning of the death penalty?” it will indeed be necessary to reconstitute this history of sovereignty as the hyphen in the theologico-political. (DPI, 22-23).

This is perhaps best taken up in Derrida’s overall discussion of the US. The consequences of religion as shaded into US law and vice versa—one aspect of which being their culmination into a vague concept called the right to life—at times confound Derrida. Speaking of abortion, for instance, he says: ‘It is always in the name of the right to life that these militants (most often Christian) claim to be fighting, and often violently […]. The fact that sociologically, statistically, historically, these militants are most often, notably in the United States, […] in favour of the death penalty […] is but one of the signs we have to interrogate’ (DPI, 121).

It was earlier stated that Derrida wanted to move away from arguments of abolition and retention, but this is not to say that such arguments were ignored. He does, in fact, continually interrogate the theologico-political matrix, at work in the US and elsewhere, through the writings of those living in states where the death penalty—in its most naked form, as legal punishment—is still at work. Aside from discussing more general arguments, Derrida also looks to specific thinkers such as Victor Hugo (Writings on the Death Penalty and his 1832 preface to The Last Day of a Condemned Man), Albert Camus (‘Reflections on the Guillotine’), Mumia Abu-Jamal (Live from Death Row), and several others (the most familiar names would be, perhaps, Locke, Rousseau, Sophocles, Diderot, Montesquieu, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Voltaire, Montaigne—the list goes on).

All this amounts to nothing short of a spectacle, albeit one that is not always visible; despite the ‘optimistic and teleological [global] tendency’ towards abolition, the show goes on (DPI, 136). This is the reason Derrida chooses to use the term “death penalty” throughout the seminars and not “capital punishment”. The latter phrase connotes the head principally, and one must keep in mind that ‘[w]ithin the legal procedure of execution, putting to death has not always involved attacking the head, decapitating, practicing decollation, hanging or strangulation of the condemned one, or again by a firing squad aiming at the condemned one’s face’ (DPI, 41). Furthermore, this phrase brings to the forefront the very idea of method, which of course connotes also the diverse histories of execution, cultures and religions, technologies, theatricalities.

Hence, “death penalty”, unlike “capital punishment”, goes some way towards revealing the increasing invisibility of the penalty. Following Foucault’s theories of both the spectacle and despectacularization (the latter with some divergence, namely in terms of what Derrida terms the virtual), Derrida attempts to peer into the (in)visibility of the penalty, from the crowds around the guillotine or town hangings to the electric chair and the lethal injection, in order to look at what he calls a history of blood, and the change ‘from the moment that one loses the visibility of literal blood, the visible literality of blood’ (DPII, 261). He goes on: ‘No history of the death penalty will be possible without a history of blood’ (and here Derrida points out the homonyms sans sang), and in this light he muses whether, in the same way that the guillotine was viewed as a humanitarian advancement, this might also be the case with the disappearance of blood—a ‘humanization’, ‘humanism’, and ‘humanitarianism’ of the death penalty (DPI, 191-2). Whenever this history of blood is brought to light, the subsequent points made by Derrida regard, much more often than not, the machine and the mechanistic, calling into question the concepts of progressivism and care (for the condemned individual) so closely associated with the death penalty—a surprising association, as Derrida evidences in several seminars, with something so barbaric and of which the sole purpose is the eradication of the individual. The process of erasure of the death penalty’s visibility, Derrida warns, should therefore not be taken as some gradual fulfilment of the abolitionist’s goal; visibility is erased only because the death penalty is so unmovingly entrenched within human society that it is itself a part of the progressions, technological or otherwise, of the ages.

This move from the public to the private space, even to the secret space (and the fact that crime is most often done secretly is not irrelevant, as Derrida muses), prompts him to explore the psychoanalytic concepts in which the penalty is shrouded, an endeavour undertaken mostly within the second volume. The conscious and the secrets of the unconscious is here read mainly through Theodor Reik, one of Sigmund Freud’s first students and who writes in his name. Apart from repeatedly commenting on this delegation of power through the act of writing in someone’s name (writing in blood, perhaps), Derrida brings in Reik primarily for his Freudian argument against the death penalty (in The Compulsion to Confess; this in lieu of Freud, who never directly wrote about the death penalty).

Reik traces the progress of punishment—from a death penalty of retaliation and vengeance to one of protection, deterrence and prevention—and suggests a further possible path of progress: that of ‘the complete elimination of [criminal, judicial] punishment’ (DPII, 130). Realising that punishment is nonetheless integral to society, Reik advocates self-punishment, a taking on of our collective unconscious guilt, formulated as that which, ‘far from succeeding the crime, […] precedes it from the most archaic formation of the unconscious’, a guilt which ‘always refers back to an Oedipal situation’ (DPII, 12, 181). In psychoanalysis, then, all crime is at origin sexual. Ultimately, what Reik proposes amounts to ‘the psychoanalytic treatment of society as a whole’, ‘a worldwide autoanalytic treatment’ that deals with the foreign nature of forgiveness in the unconscious—foreign, Reik and Freud say, as are the ideas of caution, gratefulness or death itself (DPII, 132-33).

Though never stating it clearly as such, Derrida presents Reik’s ideas as compelling, and deserving of lengthy rumination, but ultimately unconvincing. On the aptness of Reik’s position within the history of thought of the death penalty, Derrida is also unsure: ‘I wouldn’t say either yes or no’ (DPII, 183). Such thinking, Derrida points out (and which, in fairness, Reik’s writings also deliberately evidence to some degree), follows a direct trajectory from the talionic law and its ‘interests and calculations’, the economy of punishment and death (DPI, 140). It is a law of obvious Greek and biblical proportions, but its rationality is epitomised through Kant, whose thought, callous as it is, remains improperly understood or else only weakly rebutted (and hence the very real need for these seminars, through which Derrida offers a diversity of counter-thoughts).

Though Reik acknowledges the theories of the talion, he seems to underestimate or at least under-represent the Kantian theory of law and ‘its reference to talionic law as pure rational principle and categorical imperative’ (DPII, 180). Derrida makes clear how Kant is already there before Reik on auto-punishment, and this, for Kant, by no means circumvents the necessity and even inevitability of the death penalty. In trying to understand ‘the extraordinary rationality but also the stupid uselessness of this Kantian logic […] as rigorous as it is absurd’, Derrida begins by underscoring Kant’s conception of the dual nature of man—the homo noumenon (the rational aspect) and the homo phaenomenon (man’s empirical life, as governed by Euclidian and Newtonian laws)—and Kant’s idea that, when condemned to death, it is the noumenon that punishes itself, condemning the phaenomenon to death conjointly with the ultimate figure of rational morality, the sovereign (DPI, 127).

Despite bringing in anti-rationalist arguments—chief among them those made by Cesare Beccaria, whose writings can be read as highlighting some of the problems one can already see with Kant’s division, and who attempts to disassociate the exception from the sovereignty of law—the ‘extraordinary rationality’ of the penalty perseveres. Further complication is added in Kant’s distinction between the two kinds of punishment: poena forensis (punishment delivered from the outside, by a judge or executioner) and poena naturalis (when the criminal spontaneously suffers from the crime, such as in the case of bankruptcy as a result of vice; self-punishment). Derrida strongly questions the rigour of this divide between the forensis and the naturalis, doubtful of whether there is ever pure auto-punishment or pure hetero-punishment (to use his terms), but even here Kant seems to have arrived already.

For Kant, the death penalty ‘must not serve any purpose, and it must take place even if it does not serve any purpose’, this because punishment ‘can never be decreed as a means to promote an end’, but solely as an end in itself, inflicted because the criminal ‘has made himself guilty of a crime’ (DPII, 39). This is what makes the death penalty a categorical imperative, and any idea of deterrence, social security, revenge or utility becomes merely subsequent or even completely irrelevant. Thus the death penalty—the poena forensis—is neither useful nor socially necessary, but must be maintained on the basis that it gives the human being—the noumenon—dignity and honor. The death penalty, in Kant, works in two directions: as both self- and external-punishment, working with the porousness of auto- and hetero-punishment.

In consequence, added to Kant’s strict defence of the figure of the sovereign (as his comments on the Revolution, for instance, make most lucid), there is also a counter-logic here which Derrida identifies: ‘To put to death a guilty citizen according to law and justice is in no way, according to Kant, to dispose sovereignly of his body’ (DPII, 42). In this framework, the rational aspect of man must comply with the idea that putting a human being to death is to respect the fact that it is a human being, a respect for the innate personality of man, which ‘makes every human being what he or she is, human, and thus a rational subject of law’, even if the criminal has forsaken their civil personality (DPII, 90). To abolish the death penalty would be to outlaw justice, and it is only moral justice that makes us human. To do away with the death penalty would be, to use a term with which Derrida credits Kant for its appearance in philosophy, a crime against humanity. Once again, the seminars revolve around the revolutions of the guillotine: the death penalty kills us only so that we may live; the death penalty kills us only so that we may be us, human.

Taking his cue from a response penned by Kant in his 1798 edition of Doctrine of Right—where Kant outlines the crimes and appropriate punishments for rape and pederasty (castration) and bestiality (social exclusion)—Derrida points out several times how one never quite hears, in the tones above, of condemning the animal to death. A deconstruction of this line between human and animal, more specifically human death and animal death, seems to be suggested by Derrida as one possible way forward through this deeply anthropocentric rationality which would, in turn, create a space for a possible radical rethinking of the death penalty itself (here one begins to see the reasoning behind Derrida’s choice for the following and last seminar at the École: The Beast and the Sovereign).

This possible radical rethinking is more than a rethinking of all the above concepts, but furthermore a rethinking of death itself. Derrida asks, not exactly rhetorically: ‘must one start out from the question of the death penalty […] in order to pose the question of death in general?’ (DPI, 238). This question—one the ‘great thinkers of death never seriously spoke and which they no doubt held to be a circumscribable and relatively dependant, secondary question’—he answers in the affirmative, stating that ‘if there was one thing, one word to deconstruct, it is indeed what is called death’ (DPI, 237, 240). It must here be noted, however, that at this and other instances where a “deconstruction of death” is meditated, it is not taken up by Derrida, in part because of his main concerns in the seminars as recounted here and also because this would mean undertaking a “deconstruction of life itself”.

Derrida, however, does constantly think of death itself and what the death penalty unearths of this thought at the horizon of thought. One particular examination is of our way of being-towards-death (and Martin Heidegger is obviously here invoked, albeit only mentioned infrequently in the seminars), and the question of whether being condemned to death in some way alters our relationship with our death. This Derrida attempts to characterise through a distinction between being “condemned to die”, as we all are, and being “condemned to death”, where one is afforded a ‘calculable knowledge’ of one’s own time of death, knowing ‘in all certitude […] that the hour of [their] death is fixed, by others, by a third party, at a certain day, a certain hour, a certain second’ (DPI, 218). However, just like all border lines and divisions, this is a porous distinction: the case of terminal illness comes uncomfortably close to breaching it, and so does the ‘paradigm of the fatwa [such as the one unleased on Rushdie] [which] complicates all the more the question’ of condemnation and the human being’s relation to death (DPII, 197). Another question of death asked by the penalty, perhaps slightly less academic but all the more hard-hitting for it, is the following one which Derrida asks his audience:

If, given that I am in any case, like every living being, condemned to die, if not condemned to death, if, condemned to dying sooner or later, like everyone else, I had the choice between, on the one hand, dying at such and such an age, tomorrow or later today, of natural causes, as the result of an automobile accident or an illness (like almost everyone, in fact), and, on the other hand, of dying at another age, later, the day after tomorrow, in a year, ten years, twenty years, in a prison, because I will have been sentenced to death by capital punishment (the guillotine, the electric chair, lethal injection, hanging, the gas chamber), what would I choose, what age would I choose for my death?

As one can see, these seminars are vast in scope and ambitious in thought, in constant dialogue with the thinkers above. There are yet others that have not been mentioned here: the literature of Shakespeare, Genet, Baudelaire; the philosophies of Blanchot, Levinas, Marx, Descartes, and Hegel; the political theology of Donoso Cortés, the linguistic studies of Émile Benveniste, and the theories of Charles Darwin. The seminars also include frequent strands that Derrida transparently cuts short, having no time to devote to these thoughts the perseverance they deserve. While some of these are then taken up in The Beast and The Sovereign and elsewhere in his later works, these seminars deserve a close reading on the merits of both what Derrida said and what he leaves unsaid.

[i] Kant, Immanuel. ‘The Metaphysics of Morals’. In Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 497.

[ii] Carl Schmitt. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 5.

Jacques Derrida: The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II

The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II Book Cover The Death Penalty, Volume I and Volume II
The Seminars of Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida. First volume translated by Peggy Kamuf. Second volume translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg
University of Chicago Press
2013, 2017
312, 304

Reviewed by: Jack Robert Coopey (University of St Andrews)


This was necessary at least to the extent that so- called capital punishment puts into play, in the imminence of an irreversible sanction, along with what appears to be held to be unpardonable, the concepts of sovereignty (of the State or the head of State — right of life and death over the citizen), of the right to pardon, etc.[i]


The seminars given in (1999-2000) by Derrida on the Death Penalty resemble Foucault’s later work in the College de France lectures in their constant investigation of the consequences and components of the death penalty which through Derrida’s careful unfolding analysis reveals severe political and social implications in his deconstruction. The seminars fall into the same category of post-phenomenological philosophy in investigating the main canonical texts and thinkers of the history of Western philosophy in order to critique the historical present on the concept of death penalty. In addition to this, Derrida implicates the death penalty in questions of sovereignty and the economy, and the ways in which the spilling of the blood of a state’s citizens involves a certain economy of conceptual content as well as concrete, financial implications. It seems that the context of these seminars within Derrida’s thought may have been firstly overshadowed by his immanent death in 2004, in conjunction with his previous text The Gift of Death (1995) which is his other serious consideration of religion and the political. Additionally, it appears that in his supposedly late political phase, that the death penalty in light of globalization of the 1990’s revealed a means by which to understand the neo-liberal, state of exception worldwide. The seminars simultaneously reveal a hidden part of Derrida that has not seen before, but the question whether these analyses of the death penalty are a repetition of various concepts mentioned throughout earlier works in his corpus is a haunting aspect of deconstruction and Derrida himself. The question of life over death involves the who, what and how in a primarily ontic or ontological question of how life itself is governed by the laws of death penalties and criminality. Although it is evident, that alongside a widespread critique of Derrida, is simultaneously his ability to analyse concepts at an intricate, fruitful and insightful ways, however it may seem these seminars merely reproduce Derrida’s methodology and ideas themselves. To put it more clearly, whilst Derrida did not explicitly write about the death penalty other than these two volumes, the questions of sovereignty, economy and cruelty can be seen as synonymous with the slogans of deconstruction such as the trace, difference and the spectre. Derrida in the first volume examines the ‘canonical texts’ and the ‘canonical examples’ involving the death penalty, being Socrates, Jesus, Hallaj, Joan of Arc, Locke, Kant, Hugo and the Bible. Derrida summarises the conceptual significance of these questions:

Three problematic concepts dominated our questioning through the texts and examples we studied: sovereignty, exception, and cruelty. Another guiding question: why have abolitionism or condemnation of the death penalty, in its very principle, (almost) never, to date, found a properly philosophical place in the architectonic of a great philosophical discourse as such? How are we to interpret this highly significant fact?[ii]

Therefore, alike to Derrida’s other work the question of the repressed, hidden and concealed is revealed in the question of the death penalty and punishment in general. Derrida also highlights the phenomenological status of the unforgivable in relation to capital punishment, which not only involves has juridical and political dimensions but also in the ‘stakes of its abolishment’ possessing implications for a theorization of globalization or Derrida’s term mondialisation. In addition, to this question of globalization the ‘history of its visibility’, the ‘public character’ and its ‘representation in the arts of theatre, painting, photography, cinema and literature’ are also key to Derrida’s investigation of the metaphysics of the death penality. In the first session, Derrida begins the question of the death penalty in the form of a ‘judicial decision’ in the form of the Other, which will inevitably tie into the question of sovereignty itself:

It is indeed of an end, but of an end decided, by a verdict, of an end decreed by a judicial decree [arrêtée par un arrêt de justice], it is of a decided end that decidedly we are going to talk endlessly, but of an end decided by the other, which is not necessarily, a priori, the case of every end and every death, assuming at least, as concerns the decision this time, as concerns the essence of the decision, that it is ever decided otherwise than by the other. And assuming that the decision of which we are getting ready to speak, the death penalty, is not the very archetype of decision. Assuming, then, that anyone ever makes a decision that is his or hers, for himself or herself, his or her own proper decision. […] The death penalty, as the sovereign decision of a power, reminds us perhaps, before anything else, that a sovereign decision is always the other’s.[iii]

In this sense, Derrida’s analysis will analyse the dynamics by which the sovereign will enact a judicial decree in a sphere or spectacle of visibility. These analyses bear resemblance to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as well as his later work on the shift from pre-modern sovereignty necessitating a form of visibility in order to be enacted to be seen by the sovereign themselves as well as the governed. This shift from a democratic modernity to a neoliberal regime of invisible power and marketization is where Foucault and Derrida meet here. As Derrida remarks: “The state must and wants to see die the condemned one”.[iv] Derrida then shifts like Foucault to analysing Plato’s texts such as the Apology to analyse what shape sovereignty takes, and what form of judicial decree is made against Socrates and the eventual decisionism which results in Socrates’ death. These analyses of the earlier Greek demonstrations of sovereignty will provide an allegory for Derrida’s deconstruction of the United States and their stance on death penalty and the globalized state of exception they declared within Derrida’s time.

The Apology says it explicitly (24b–c): the kategoria, the accusation lodged against Socrates, is to have done the wrong, to have been guilty, to have committed the injustice (adikein) of corrupting the youth and of (or for) having ceased to honor (nomizein) the gods (theous) of the city or the gods honored by the city — and especially of having substituted for them not simply new gods, as the translations often say, but new demons (hetera de daimonia kaina); and daimonia are doubtless often gods, divinities, but also sometimes, as in Homer, inferior gods or revenants, the souls of the dead; and the text does indeed make the distinction between gods and demons: Socrates did not honor the gods (theous) of the city and he introduced new demons (hetera de daimonia kaina).[v]

The next aspect which Derrida analyses is the paradox of the abolition or the maintaining of the death penalty in ‘democratic modernity’ which he refers to as the present political situation globally. Derrida sees this paradox operating between the right to kill in war of a nation state and as a democratic state, and the maintaining of the death penalty which almost acts like a kind of state of exception. The paradox or contradiction between maintaining a supposedly democratic state in Ancient Athens and the United States whilst permitting the murder of foreigns and its own citizens under certain exceptions to the rule is where Derrida reveals this conceptual impasse and insightful paralell to the democratic modernity we inhabit. Perhaps one question Derrida raises here, is how we can better construct a more democratic ‘democracy to come’ in Derrida’s messianism without this exception to the rule, however to what extent democracies can exist without exceptions to rules is perhaps not a possibility.

Even in nation-states that have abolished the death penalty, an abolition of the death penalty that is in no way equivalent to the abolition of the right to kill, for example, in war, well, these several nation- states of democratic modernity that have abolished the death penalty keep a sovereign right over the life of citizens whom they can send to war to kill or be killed in a space that is radically foreign to the space of internal legality, of the civil law where the death penalty may be either maintained or abolished.[vi]

Just like in Foucault, Derrida wishes to understand how the ancient origins of the death penalty in his analysis of Socrates’s trial then grounds and organises the rationality behind the democratic modernity which permits death penalty still in particular nation-states. Derrida’s commentary follows a historical account from the Apology onwards towards the onset of the Enlightenment, most explicit in the work of Kant who for Derrida explicates a rationality of justifying the death penalty as a law of man as opposed to beasts who commit crimes and resorts to a brutal, ‘natural life’.

Here, in a logic that we will continue to find up to Kant and many others, but in Kant par excellence, access to the death penalty is an access to the dignity of human reason, and to the dignity of a man who, unlike beasts, is a subject of the law who raises himself above natural life. That is why, in this logic, in the logos of this syllogos, the death penalty marks the access to what is proper to man and to the dignity of reason or of human logos and nomos. All of this, death included, supposedly testifies to the rationality of laws (logos and nomos) and not to natural or bestial savagery, with the consequence that even if the one condemned to death is deprived of life or of the right to life, he or she has the right to rights and, thus, in a certain way to honor and to a burial place.[vii]

Thus, Derrida argues that in Kant there is a systematic account of how the death penalty in fact is above the natural law of killing, in that in its act of justice and rectifying the law of human beings is in fact, a product of reason. The death penalty is viewed by Kant as a object that is above the natural law, but is a means of restoring the natural law without descending into natural or bestial savagery as a result. As a result of these preliminary analyses, Derrida moves into the core of the death penalty which similarly to Foucault’s lectures realises the theological dimension to how decisions of life and decisions of death are mediated by a onto-theological basis. Derrida even goes as far to say that:

[…] it will indeed be necessary to reconstitute this history and this horizon of sovereignty as the hyphen in the theologico- political. An enormous history, the whole history that at the moment we are only touching on or glimpsing. It is not even certain that the concept of history and the concept of horizon resist a deconstruction of the scaffolding of these scaffolds. By scaffolding, I mean the construction, the architecture to be deconstructed, as well as the speculation, the calculation, the market, but also the speculative idealism that provides its supports. History, the concept of history is perhaps linked, in its very possibility, in its scaffolding, to the Abrahamic and above all the Christian history of sovereignty, and thus of the possibility of the death penalty as theologico- political violence. Deconstruction is perhaps always, ultimately, through the deconstruction of carno-phallogocentrism, the deconstruction of this historical scaffolding of the death penalty, of the history of this scaffold or of history as scaffolding of this scaffold. Deconstruction, what is called by that name, is perhaps, perhaps the deconstruction of the death penalty, of the logocentric, logonomocentric scaffolding in which the death penalty is inscribed or prescribed. The concept of theologico- political violence is still confused, obscure, rather undifferentiated (despite the hyphen we see being clearly and undeniably inscribed in the four great examples, in the four great paradigmatic “cases” that I have just so quickly evoked: trial with thematic religious content and execution, putting to death by a state- political agency, law itself, the juridical, beginning with the “judgments” and the code of Exodus, the juridical, then, always assuring the mediation between the theological and the political); this relatively crude but already sufficiently determined concept of the theologico- political, the theologico- juridico- political will demand from us an interminable analysis. […] One would then ask oneself: “What is the theologico- political?” And the answer would take shape thus: the theologico- political is a system, an apparatus of sovereignty in which the death penalty is necessarily inscribed. There is theologico- political wherever there is death penalty.[viii]

It was necessary to quote Derrida at length here given the immense amount of explication he makes in these conceptual movements. Foucault in his analyses in the Will to Know (1971) College de France lecture similarly analyses the history of sovereignty as a moment of theological significance primarily because there is a moment of miraculous exception, in which knowledge is founded and the sovereign is the one who firstly found the knowledge, and then controls the dissemination of this knowledge and its operations. In a concise metaphor, Derrida even draws the parallel of the telos of deconstruction in itself, that it is necessary in its ability to deconstruct the literal scaffolding of the death penalty and its executions themselves. The next point which Derrida gracefully moves onto, is the linkage between what he calls ‘literature and death’ which specifically refers to the works of literature that are produced about and concerning death, but also how literature for Derrida constitutes a direct European ‘contestation of the death penalty’. For Derrida then, the pen and the scaffold are at odds with one another, in that literature or the ‘right’ to literature constitutes a freedom of public assembly that not only is against the barbarism of the death penalty but that literature in this way is against death, and the right to death that any supposed historical sovereign possesses. Derrida explains the dialectic between:

[…] “literature and death,” “literature and the right to death,” or the trail of countless literary or poetic works that put crime and punishment, and that punishment called the death penalty, to work or on stage. […] if the history of the general possibility, of the largest territory of the general conditions of possibility of epic, poetic, or belle-lettristic productions (not of literature in the strict and modern sense) supposes or goes hand in hand with the legitimacy or the legality of the death penalty, well then, on the contrary, the short, strict, and modern history of the institution named literature in Europe over the last three or four centuries is contemporary with and indissociable from a contestation of the death penalty, an abolitionist struggle that, to be sure, is uneven, heterogeneous, discontinuous, but irreversible and tending toward the worldwide as conjoined history, once again, of literature and rights, and of the right to literature.[ix]

Derrida moves onto the onto-theological dimension of the death penalty and its relation to the sovereign, through the concept of the exception. The primary thinker Derrida is referencing here is Carl Schmitt and the state of exception which foregoes the possibility of suspending the rule of law to save the ultimate state of law. This parallel is synonymous with Derrida’s reading of Kant discussed before in which Kant sees the death penalty as a means of sustaining the rationality of human beings by providing death in a rational, ordered logic without returning to natural or bestial savagery.

What is an exception? More than once, last year, we insisted on the character of absolute exception that pardon must maintain, a pardon worthy of the name, a pardon that is always unforeseeable and irreducible to statement as well as to contract, to determinative judgment, to the law, therefore, a pardon always outside the law, always heterogeneous to order, to norm, to rule, or to calculation, to the rule of calculation, to economic as well as juridical calculation. Every pardon worthy of that name, if there ever is any, must be exceptional, should be exceptional, that is in short the law of the pardon: it must be lawless and exceptional, above the laws or outside the laws. The question then remains: what is an exception? Can one pose this question? Is there an essence of exception, an adequate concept of this supposed essence? One may have one’s doubts, and yet we commonly use this word, as if it had an assured semantic unity. We regularly act as if we know what an exception is or, likewise, what an exception is not, as if we had a valid criterion with which to identify an exception or the exceptionality of an exception, the rule, in short, of the exception, the rule for discerning between the exceptional <and> the non- exceptional — which seems, however, absurd or a contradiction in terms. And yet, people commonly speak of the exception, the exception to the rule, the exception that confirms the rule; there is even a law or laws of exception, exceptional tribunals, and so forth.[x]

For Derrida, the exception represents a form of messianic moment that is invisible and unpredictable. The law as well as the exception following Benjamin and the onto-theological view of the founding of sovereignty and violence are a momentality which is heterogeneous to itself and unforeseeable. Derrida deconstructs using questions about the essence of an exception and to what extent there is an exception of exceptionality, if there is a rule to the exception, how can we then distinguish between the exception and a non-exception? Derrida argues that the common intuition is that the exception is an exception to the rule, so it appears with the Schmittian dynamic of the state of exception, and furthermore developed in Agamben’s homo sacer, that the state of exception is itself a contradiction, which in its essence actually permits its existentiality, insomuch as a momentality is only a momentality distinguished from eternity as a diffraction within eternity itself and not without. Similarly, this paradox of the exception also resembles the contradiction of our democratic modernity and the impenitence of the death penalty within it, and to what extent can we work to undo these types of logic, as no exception to the rule, Derrida merely gestures but remains silent. As a bridge from the exception, Derrida then wishes to push into a Wittgensteinian sphere of the problem of the inexpressibility of pain as a form of leap of faith, such that suffering from cruelty is also a form of exception itself.

Our two questions then became: what is cruelty? And what is the exception? Does one have the right to ask the question, what is? with respect to them? With respect to them, which is to say, for us, with respect to that which links them here indissociably, irreversibly, namely, what we call the death penalty, the question, itself enigmatic, of the death penalty. To think the tie between cruelty and exception, one would have to set out from this exceptionally cruel thing that is the death penalty. Before even letting ourselves be pursued by this question, by the machinic and armed apparatus of these questions that descend on us even before we have asked them (What is and what does cruelty mean? What is and what does exception mean?), allow me on this date to mark precisely, and without convention, in what way they are questions of the millennium and questions of the century, questions of the historic passage at which we have arrived. […] But also because we are at a unique moment in this history, at a moment when, often while basing itself on an equivocal thinking of cruelty (the reference, on the one hand, to red blood and, on the other hand, to the radical malice of evil for evil’s sake, of the “making suffer just to make suffer,” which are two very distinct semantic features of what is called cruelty) […].[xi]

Thus, the death penalty is the exception to the utmost of cruelties in Derrida’s argument. Like Foucault’s shift from the ancient conceptions of the death penalty, Derrida also wishes to emphasize the relevance of these metaphysical debates on the present of communication technologies and the present struggles of abolition. This movement from the Ancients to our technologized present is already at work in Heidegger and through Foucault’s later work, in the ways that technologies are sustaining catastrophic logics of exception.

We are going to continue today — but differently, changing our references and rhythm a little — with what we began to elaborate last time by interweaving the two motifs or the two logics of cruelty on the one hand and sovereign exception on the other, all the while analyzing the current situation in the ongoing struggle for abolition, with the role of new media (Internet, etc.) and the strategy of texts on human rights, the right to life, and on the theological origins of the concepts of modern politics, notably of sovereignty (with reference to Schmitt). The history of law and the history of so- called communications technologies, the joint history of the juridical or judicial machine and of the informative or informational machine were and remain, then, the irreducible element of our questioning.[xii]

Derrida then links these questions of the exception, cruelty and the death penalty to how technologies inform and disseminate these modes of sovereignty. Additionally, Derrida argues for the abolition of the death penalty in analysing the economy of the death penalty, particularly in regards to the economics behind the penal system in the United states. In Volume II he elaborates and goes over previously established material but extends his analysis to the question of pain and concludes on the concept of blood in order to draw conclusions on his analysis of the death penalty to allegorize an abolitionism against seeing the red sight of blood.

When I declare, if I come to you and say, without declaiming, “I’m in pain [je souffre],” “I am suffering [je souffre]” in my soul or in my body, in particular when I murmur “I am suffering” in my psyche, without so- called physical distress, assuming this is possible, a purely psychical distress, well then, what is it I am saying to you in the same breath? Do you understand me? What do you understand? You hear what I am saying, of course, but do you understand me? Do you understand the meaning of these words “I am suffering”? Perhaps, then, I should clarify and sharpen the meaning of my question and change my vocabulary a little in order to make you understand where I’m going, in order to entrust you with my strategy when I declare without declaiming that “I am suffering.” It is certainly not in order to awaken your compassion, this you have surely understood, but, as a teacher, to lead you, pedagogically, to the question that I want you to hear [entendre]. If I tell you or if I think “I am suffering” in my soul and cruelly so, then it is because I have what is called peine [pain, penalty]. There it is, there’s the word: it has been let loose, and it remains loose. Je peine [I’m at pains] and j’ai de la peine [I’m in pain]; je suis peine [I’m pained]. What peine are we talking about? What does peine mean? This peine [pain, penalty], does it come from me or from the other, ultimately? What is its cause? And who is its cause? Does it ever come only from me, this so- called peine? Does it always come from the other, and from the outside? Or are things more convoluted, and precisely painful (penibles, peinlich), because of this? I pass from one language to another in order to problematize, in order to draw your attention to the semantic problem that opens up between the painful [pénible] of the peine and the penal [pénal] of the peine, between the painful of the pain and the painful of the penalty.[xiii]

In conclusion, we can read the two volumes as a death penalty for Derrida as assigned by Derrida himself. The two volumes should be understood within the context of Derrida’s later political phase as an investigation into the history of the death of penalty to critique the contemporary discourses of death penalty in the United States and worldwide. Furthermore, Derrida uses the concept of the death penalty in order to explore the state of exception, cruelty and sovereignty that the United States also has subsumed over the globalized world since its ascension to a superpower post World War Two. The impossibility of the Other to understand the pain of another is another way of Derrida attempting to voice the pain and injustice of the death penalty. The relation between the concept and blood is for Derrida in understanding how the blood of the death penalty can be conceived in order to advocate its abolitionism. Derrida in this sense, hopes to never see the red of blood return, only to disappear, but regrettably Derrida disappeared only three years after the last seminar only to return as a spectre of thought to haunt the history of philosophy, hopefully eternally, ever to return as a name that changed thought or how thinking thinks.

How to conceive, how to conceive of it, the relation between the concept and blood? How to conceive of blood? Can blood be conceived? And how might a concept bleed, how might it, this concept, lead to an effusion [epanchement] of blood? Whether it comes to concepts or blood, we are thus a long way from being done with the impermeable [l’etanche]. We are a long way, a very long way, from being done — will we ever be done? — staunching the flow [d’etancher]. No doubt you remember that this word, impermeable [etanche], the impermeable [l’etanche], retained us briefly in passing last time. What does staunching [étancher] mean? We were present at the scene of the hemorrhaging, if not the hemophilia, of the wound and the bleeding to be staunched, of the effusion of blood to be staunched (by draining, suturing, ligaturing, stricturing, closing the wound, binding). The scenography of hemography, the hemoscenography, seemed to us to demand a certain privilege, a certain prerogative, even if water and tears could also be seen figuring among the liquidities to be staunched. Among the liquid bodies produced or secreted by the body itself — water, tears, blood, to which one would have to add milk or sperm — we felt called upon by the death penalty to see red, to see the red of blood return or disappear.[xiv]

[i]               Derrida Jacques (trans. Peggy Kamuf) (eds.) (Geoffrey Bennington, Marc Crepon, Thomas Dutoit), The Death Penalty, Volume I, The University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2014), p. xiv.

[ii]              Ibid., pp. xiv-xv.

[iii]             Ibid., First Session, December 8, 1999, p.1.

[iv]             Ibid., p.2.

[v]              Ibid., p.5.

[vi]             Ibid.

[vii]            Ibid., p. 8.

[viii]           Ibid., p. 23.

[ix]             Ibid., First Session, December 8th, 1999, p. 30.

[x]              Ibid., Second Session, December 15th, 1999, p. 69.

[xi]             Ibid., Third Session, January 12th, 2000, p. 69.

[xii]            Ibid., Fourth Session, January 19th, 2000, Right to Life, Right to Death, p. 69.

[xiii]           Ibid., Volume II, Second Session, December 13th, 2000, p. 29.

[xiv]          Ibid., Volume II, Ninth Session, March 21st, 2001, p. 214.

Edmund Husserl: Meditazioni cartesiane

Meditazioni cartesiane Book Cover Meditazioni cartesiane
Edmund Husserl. Andrea Altobrando (Ed.)
Orthotes Editrice
Paperback € 18,00

Reviewed by: Daniele Valli (Università degli Studi di Milano)

Le due Meditazioni

Il ruolo di René Descartes (1596 – 1650) nella storia della filosofia occidentale è sempre stato controverso. Da un lato le enormi innovazioni portate in ambito geometrico-analitico e dall’altro le dirompenti teorie metafisiche hanno reso il dibattito sul filosofo francese da sempre acceso, nel costituirsi di schieramenti di tenaci sostenitori e irremovibili oppositori. Del resto, le idee che egli ha introdotto nel panorama intellettuale del suo tempo erano così audaci da non lasciar spazio all’indifferenza. Anche Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938), padre della fenomenologia trascendentale, anch’egli propositore di un sistema filosofico in contrasto con gli schemi tradizionali, non poté fare a meno che confrontarsi con l’illustre autore delle Meditazioni Metafisiche (1641). Proprio questo testo, infatti, è divenuto nella filosofia occidentale un riferimento imprescindibile per ogni programma di fondazione prima della conoscenza. Entrambi gli autori, infatti, si propongono come fautori di una filosofia radicale. Essi intendono trovare quel terreno certissimo al di sopra del quale sia legittimo costituire ogni conoscenza. Non si può certo dire, tuttavia, che i due percorsi filosofici conducano alle medesime conclusioni. La fenomenologia husserliana nasce nei primissimi anni del ‘900, quando il filosofo tedesco elabora un pensiero originale sulla base delle lezioni del suo “geniale maestro”, psicologo e filosofo, Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917). Husserl propone una conversione antipsicologistica delle grandi scoperte dal suo professore, costituendo una dottrina teoretica completa. Le Meditazioni Cartesiane (1931) ne rappresentano un manifesto esemplare e vengono oggi riproposte al pubblico italiano in un’ottima traduzione di Andrea Altobrando, che non risparmia l’asprezza della prosa del filosofo tedesco pur di restituirci fedelmente il suo pensiero. Esse vennero in prima istanza pubblicate in lingua francese nel 1931 con il titolo ditations Cartésiennes, sebbene risalgano ad una conferenza tenuta da Husserl alla Sorbona il 23 e 25 febbraio del 1929. Per la prima edizione tedesca bisognerà attendere il dopoguerra, quando nel 1950 vengono pubblicate con il titolo Cartesianische Meditationen und Pariser Vorträge a cura di Stephan Strasser. Le Meditazioni Cartesiane appaiono dunque quando il pensiero husserliano si è già affermato in ambito internazionale da oltre un decennio e il filosofo tedesco si è già ritirato dall’insegnamento. Tuttavia Husserl sembra qui avere la necessità di riproporre il suo sistema in una nuova veste. Esse, infatti, non seguono il tipico procedere della prosa husserliana, meticolosamente analitica e sistematica. Qui l’approccio è diverso: egli sviluppa la sua argomentazione seguendo una trama narrativa che riprende l’impostazione delle Meditazioni Metafisiche. L’opera, infatti, è organizzata non sulla base di una suddivisione tematica dei contenuti trattati, bensì in una successione di passaggi deduttivi. Muovendosi dalle stesse premesse del filosofo francese, egli intraprende un percorso espositivo originale che procede verticalmente per livelli. Husserl, infatti, riprende il problema fondamentale posto da Descartes nelle Meditazioni Metafisiche e ne offre una proposta risolutiva fondata su una progressiva introduzione alla fenomenologia trascendentale. Egli è infatti rimasto molto colpito dalla brillantezza del filosofo francese nel rappresentare il dramma epistemologico della cultura occidentale: “Esse [le Meditazioni Metafisiche] costituiscono piuttosto il modello delle meditazioni necessarie a qualunque filosofo principiante, meditazioni dalle quali soltanto una filosofia può originariamente svilupparsi.”. Descartes ha inquadrato con genialità la questione irrisolta della metafisica: in virtù di cosa può una conoscenza ritenersi legittima? Qual è il criterio fondante della scientificità? Egli propone una progressiva e sistematica messa in discussione di ogni aspetto dell’esperienza umana alla ricerca di ciò che è essenzialmente indubitabile, di ciò che è al di fuori di ogni possibilità di errore, del punto immobile su cui edificare il grande universo del sapere. Questa operazione di ricerca assoluta rimasta nota come “dubbio iperbolico” è resa attuale nella proposta cartesiana tramite l’ipotesi del genio maligno, ovvero l’ipotesi di per sé non confutabile dell’esistenza di un Dio malvagio che mi inganni in ogni istante, facendomi cadere in errore ogni volta che ho un percezione, che esprimo una valutazione o che calcoli un risultato matematico. Così, seguendo tale ragionamento, nessuna delle conoscenze per me valide nella quotidianità sembra potersi dire al riparo dalla possibilità di essere falsa. Com’è noto, tuttavia, Descartes ritiene di individuare una certezza apodittica e fuori da ogni potenziale dubbio nell’espressione “ego cogito, ego sum”: se mi persuado dell’esistenza di un genio ingannatore dovrò pur, almeno io stesso, oggetto dell’inganno, essere qualcosa. In altre parole, “se penso, sono”. L’argomentazione cartesiana si sviluppa poi, partendo da tale assunto, nel configurare una dottrina dualistica della realtà, divisa in res cogitans e res extensa, dottrina che sarà sottoposta a severe critiche lungo tutto il corso dell’età moderna e oltre. L’impostazione husserliana, come detto, intende riprendere le suggestioni delle Meditazioni Metafisiche. In particolare, il filosofo tedesco è stimolato dall’idea della dubitabilità strutturale delle certezze naturali. Cosa c’è di sicuro nell’esperienza del mondo? A partire da questo interrogativo, le strade dei due pensatori si dividono. Se infatti Descartes risponde “Ego cogito” e ciò gli è sufficiente, Husserl risponde “Ego cogito cogitata qua cogitata”. Il terreno della soggettività dischiusosi tramite l’esercizio del dubbio non può, secondo Husserl, essere considerato un ritaglio di apoditticità del mondo naturale. Il soggetto naturalmente inteso, psicologico, positivo, non è legittimamente escluso dalla dimensione dell’incertezza. La sola forma di soggettività realmente al di fuori di ogni possibile messa in discussione è la soggettività che emerge dall’operare le proprie cogitazioni, in quanto correlato di ogni cogitazione. Le cogitazioni si danno, si offrono nella loro manifestazione esperienziale: si può dubitare della valenza ontica del mondo naturale, ma non del suo puro darsi in atti cogitativi. L’offrirsi delle cose in quanto correlati d’esperienza (cogitata qua cogitata) è ciò di cui non si può ragionevolmente dubitare: esse si offrono in manifestazioni e, a prescindere dalla rispettiva valenza ontologica, stanno lì, presenziano. A partire da queste osservazioni il filosofo tedesco sviluppa progressivamente un percorso teoretico che condurrà all’esposizione della fenomenologia trascendentale. In questo modo egli vuole sottolineare come il suo sistema si ponga come formulazione teorica fondata su basi aprioristiche: le sue fondamenta sono estraibili da quel percorso radicalissimo con cui Descartes ha fondato la filosofia moderna ed esso ne si presenta pertanto come paradigma risolutivo. I passi, tuttavia, con cui si propone di arrivare al compimento del sistema fenomenologico partendo dal dubbio cartesiano sono diversi. Anche egli, infatti, divide i passaggi argomentativi in distinte meditazioni di cui ognuna costituisce la premessa della successiva, per un totale di cinque meditazioni (Descartes ne avanzò sei).

Prima meditazione

Il percorso neocartesiano intrapreso da Husserl esordisce tematizzando il problema della scienza. Le scienze di fatto, o positive, presentano un modello gnoseologico ben strutturato: esse si propongono di svelare i meccanismi della natura tramite il metodo osservativo e sperimentale che si è costituito nel corso della loro genesi. Si è inoltre radicata la credenza culturale per cui ogni forma di conoscenza certa dovesse seguire il medesimo approccio. Anche Descartes, secondo il filosofo tedesco, era in fondo persuaso di tale lettura, e coltivava l’idea di una scienza universale costituita sulla base del sistema deduttivo proprio della geometria, di cui egli fu un grande teorico. Questa proiezione del sistema analitico-deduttivo sul problema della fondazione assoluta della conoscenza fu, secondo Husserl, un primo equivoco. Non sarebbe lecito, infatti, costituire un nuovo ideale di scienza sulla base di un prodotto culturale già fornito. Nella prospettiva di una ricostituzione radicale della teoria della conoscenza è infatti necessario eliminare ogni presupposto, costruendo in maniera priva di preconcetti le regole di una conoscenza legittima. La validità delle scienze positive, in altre parole, pur fornendo esse delle ricette epistemologicamente e tecnologicamente valide, ha comunque l’esigenza di una fondazione. Queste fondazione, del resto, è proprio la fondazione di cui entrambi i pensatori sono alla ricerca: il disvelamento del terreno puro su cui ogni conoscenza, scientifica o teoretica, possa dirsi indubitabilmente costituita. Da cosa, quindi, partire per edificare un simile edificio in assenza, apparente, di alcun attrezzo da lavoro? Husserl propone a questo proposito di considerare il senso della scienza a partire da una analisi fenomenica e descrittiva. Cosa rende l’ideale della scienza così forte? In cosa si caratterizza la struttura manifestativa del processo scientifico? La struttura deduttiva del giudizio esibisce una catena di predicazioni in cui ogni asserzione funge da premessa e da legittimazione di quella successiva. Il meccanismo, dunque, si mostra come una stratificazione di conoscenze orientato ad una progressiva e sempre maggiore chiarificazione del sapere. Husserl ritiene che, procedendo a ritroso, si possa accedere in questo modo all’idea prima di “evidenza”. Cosa innesca, infatti, il ciclo auto-edificante della scienza? Egli ritiene sia proprio la proprietà fenomenologicamente pregnante del “darsi come evidente” della natura. Ogni giudizio scientifico, come detto, si origina su una precedente forma di sapere e il carattere dell’evidenza in questo ciclo esercita una funzione essenziale. Essa si pone come l’elemento eideticamente peculiare del conoscere, sia nella sua forma giudicativa che in quella originaria. Il filosofo tedesco distingue, infatti, l’evidenza predicativa da quella antepredicativa. La prima è quella forma di evidenza sillogistica per cui una concatenazione di asserzioni propone conclusioni giustificate sulla base delle rispettive premesse. Tuttavia, tali premesse devono fondarsi a loro volta su altre precedenti, e così via. In questa linea deduttiva l’origine della proprietà predicativa dell’evidenza non può che essere antepredicativa, ovvero non può che sorgere nel terreno primordiale del puro darsi, prima di ogni presa di posizione assertiva. Il punto di partenza intrascurabile deve essere, per queste ragioni, proprio quello dell’evidenza antepredicativa. Essa esercita un ruolo primario nello svilupparsi della funzione di credenza, fondamentale tanto nella dimensione epistemologica quanto in quella gnoseologica in generale. E’ l’esperienza stessa, infatti, ad offrire nella sua forma peculiare le ragioni della fondazione del sapere: in un certo senso, gli oggetti si offrono prescientificamente già come “tali da essere creduti certi”. Tuttavia, Husserl mette in guardia, è opportuno tematizzare un’ulteriore analisi critica dell’idea di evidenza. Da un lato, infatti, si dà il carattere evidente degli oggetti della natura, del loro semplice darsi precategoriale, dall’altro si dà il concetto di evidenza apodittica. Effettivamente il mondo naturale si offre nella nostra esperienza come evidente e noi sappiamo di essere, in fondo, tenuti a crederci. Tuttavia, questa forma di evidenza, che è la stessa che si costituisce nell’esperienza antepredicativa originando quella predicativa, è lungi dall’essere apodittica. Come mostrato nell’introduzione, infatti, è sempre per principio possibile avanzare dei dubbi sulla veridicità di taluni eventi d’esperienza, e, nell’ipotesi del genio maligno, persino dell’esperienza nella sua totalità. L’evidenza del mondo naturale pertanto, anche se si presenta come la ragione genetica della credibilità empirica delle scienze positive, non si offre come aggancio legittimo per una costituzione universalmente fondata del sapere. Ciò di cui sia Descartes che Husserl sono alla ricerca, infatti, è un’evidenza apodittica, ovvero assolutamente certa. L’ego cogito giunge qui in nostro soccorso: il soggetto nella sua operatività intenzionale offre un terreno del tutto al di fuori di ogni sospetto, il terreno della manifestatività. Sì può infatti dubitare di questo o di quell’accadimento esperienziale, ci si può spingere fino a dubitare interamente di ogni accadimento, ma non si potrà certo dubitare del “darsi” di tali accadimenti. Le cose del mondo ci si offrono a prescindere dal loro valore ontologico e a prescindere dal nostro atteggiamento speculativo nei loro confronti. Da qui, afferma Husserl, soltanto da questa dimensione certissima può originarsi un’autentica teoria della conoscenza. Descartes, pur avendo il merito storico di porre il problema del sapere in questi termini, secondo il filosofo tedesco era già a questo punto della ricerca sui binari sbagliati. Egli avrebbe infatti finito per confondere il soggetto trascendentale con una porzione indubitabile del mondo: esso, al contrario, non può essere affatto considerato come un indubitabile tra i dubitabili, come un’isola di certezza al centro dell’ oceano tempestoso del dubbio. Il soggetto trascendentale non è altro che il punto estremo di quella correlazione originaria che è l’intenzionalità, quella formazione a priori in cui l’esperienza si offre proprio e soltanto in quanto tale.

Seconda meditazione

Il grande risultato a cui la prima meditazione conduce è il disvelamento del soggetto trascendentale. Con il trascendentale si apre infatti un nuovo ordine di argomentazioni che non si riferisce più al mondo naturale, come inconsapevolmente Descartes fece, bensì si riferisce al modo del suo porsi nella pura esperienza. Il Cogito viene infatti da Husserl ripensato, escludendo la sua componente positiva e formulando l’inedito binomio “cogito – cogitationes”. Il Cogito non è più, di fatto, una parte indubitabile del mondo, ma è il polo soggettivo degli atti cogitativi in cui si dispongono gli eventi di esperienza, le “cogitationes”. Non si dà, in altre parole, una soggettività in assenza degli atti intenzionali in cui la natura si manifesta, e solo questa consapevolezza è aprioristicamente al di fuori di ogni ragionevole dubbio. Così, nella seconda meditazione Husserl distingue una “riflessione naturale” da una “riflessione trascendentale”. Con tali espressioni egli si riferisce alla tipica distinzione tra atteggiamento naturale e atteggiamento fenomenologico, due distinti approcci nei confronti dell’esperienza che egli teorizza in ogni sua introduzione alla fenomenologia a partire da Idee I (1913). Da un lato, infatti, abbiamo l’atteggiamento della quotidianità, non speculativo e immerso nelle credenze proprie del nostro comune rapporto con il mondo, dall’altro l’atteggiamento fenomenologicamente ridotto, quello che tramite l’atto dell’epoché sospende le credenze abituali e conferisce uno sguardo descrittivo e trascendentale sugli eventi d’esperienza. Si tratta dunque proprio della fenomenologia trascendentale, la cui funzione viene in questo testo viene esibita tramite il percorso cartesiano. L’intenzionalità rappresenta l’universale a priori della correlazione, quella funzione originaria entro cui si stabilisce il rapporto tra soggetto trascendentale e oggetto d’esperienza. Ogni atto cogitativo, ogni cogitatio, ha sempre un riferimento esperienziale: ogni attività di coscienza è infatti coscienza-di-qualcosa. Questo legame inscindibile, caratterizzante ogni esperienza, consente di distinguere gli oggetti dell’esperienza dai rispettivi vissuti. Infatti ogni oggettualità ci si offre entro specifici decorsi percettivi, i quali, pur variando, rimangono orientati al medesimo correlato. In questa prima distinzione fenomenologica si inquadrano già quelle due componenti, noesi e noema[i], centrali nell’intero discorso husserliano. Tali nozioni divengono infatti fondamentali nello spiegare come dalla molteplicità del sensibile si costituiscano eideticamente delle singolarità proprie, che trascendono la propria manifestazione pur originandosi in essa. Secondo Husserl nell’attività intenzionale esiste una componente sintetica che è in grado di conferire unità formale ai suoi contenuti. Egli si riferisce alla sintesi temporale, quell’operazione che connette temporalmente atti distinti in medesimi vissuti e che viene da lui teorizzata a partire dagli anni ‘20. La vita intenzionale si caratterizza infatti per disporre di una temporalità la cui presenza è condizione fenomenologica imprescindibile per il costituirsi di oggetti singolari. Questi ultimi infatti accolgono la pluralità noetica delle manifestazioni, rendendosene correlati ultimi. Inoltre, pur costituendosi essi nell’immanenza dei relativi decorsi, il loro significato non si esaurisce mai al loro interno. Nell’esperire un certo oggetto la nostra funzione cognitiva va oltre il suo mero manifestarsi, cogliendone una struttura propria, piena, a tutto tondo. Esso ci si offre sempre prospetticamente, per adombramenti, e per quanto non appaia mai nella sua pienezza ciò che cogliamo non è una porzione di oggetto ma un oggetto intero ed autentico. In ogni decorso d’esperienza si dà, in altre parole, la possibilità di “intendere-di-più” [Mehrmeinung], offrendo strutturalmente la possibilità di andare oltre lo specifico supporto sensibile. Questa “potenzialità predelineata” è ciò che ci consente di parlare di una “trascendenza nell’immanenza” , di un’eccedenza costitutiva tra oggetto e atto della propria presentazione. La ricerca fenomenologica, e con questa osservazione Husserl conclude la seconda meditazione, si delinea dunque come il tentativo di percorrere queste potenzialità proprie dell’esperienza, nella volontà di esplicitare quei caratteri ancora non rivelati della pura manifestatività.

Terza meditazione

Con la terza meditazione Husserl introduce una problematica che accompagna la ricerca fenomenologica già dai suoi primi esordi. Come spiega nelle prime righe, nelle prime due meditazioni egli ha affrontato il problema dell’esperienza riferendosi agli oggetti in senso vasto, nella loro struttura generalissima. Avverte tuttavia l’esigenza di problematizzare ora le modalità delle manifestazione, introducendo dunque delle distinzioni qualitative tra atti e tra correlati. Come detto, la questione dei modi di datità è una componente fondamentale del programma husserliano. Egli riscontra, infatti, delle proprietà fenomenologiche diverse nelle diverse modalità di presentazione della natura, e considera essenziale operarne un’esplicitazione. L’evidenza del mondo naturale torna qui come oggetto di riflessione: essa è infatti una specifica modalità di manifestazione dell’esperienza. Precisamente, essa qualifica il carattere di realtà del mondo, attribuendogli quell’universo di credenze proprio dell’atteggiamento naturale. Nella quotidianità infatti noi percepiamo uno stato di cose a cui siamo spontaneamente portati a credere. In un certo senso, come dice Husserl, noi abbiamo a che fare con oggettualità il cui esserci è scontato, creduto, presupposto. Solo nell’atteggiamento speculativo e poi in quello fenomenologico siamo in grado di dubitarne e poi di sospenderne il giudizio. La natura ci si auto-offre instaurando un rapporto di fiducia a cui non possiamo rinunciare: ci si offre “originariamente”. Parallelamente al modo della realtà, si trova quello che Husserl definisce “quasi-realtà”, ovvero la fantasia. Fantasia, tuttavia, che è da intendere non come facoltà creatrice e creativa, ma come atto della presentificazione. Laddove esiste quella evidenza originaria, infatti, si ha a che fare con una realtà: al contrario, dove essa manca si offre una presentificazione, una presenza nel “come-se”, un’aleggiare in fronte a me di qualcosa il cui esistere è manifestamente non implicito. La natura, afferma infine Husserl, proprio per le distinte qualità del suo darsi si raggruppa in distinte “regioni ontologiche”. Oggetti con proprietà simili staranno così nei medesimi insiemi, determinando una classificazione generale delle oggettualità del mondo, formali e materiali. Anche in questo caso, tuttavia, il problema è soltanto accennato, senza essere debitamente sviluppato come invece accade in altre ricerche. Si evidenzia infatti come l’intenzione del filosofo tedesco in questo testo non sia quella di svolgere una compiuta indagine fenomenologica, quanto più di introdurla, inserendola all’interno di quella tradizione di pensiero che Descartes ha avuto il merito di inaugurare.

Quarta meditazione

Una questione su cui Husserl ne le Meditazioni Cartesiane si sofferma al punto da offrirne una approfondita analisi è quella dell’Io trascendentale. La quarta e la quinta meditazione, infatti, esaminano da più punti di vista la costituzione della soggettività, nel suo definirsi in una rete pluri-soggettiva. In particolare, nella quarta egli afferma che l’Io trascendentale è, innanzitutto, “polo identico dei vissuti”. La struttura dell’intenzionalità infatti presenta due estremità legate in un’unica correlazione. Da un lato la dimensione soggettiva, dall’altro la dimensione oggettuale. Quest’ultima, quando presente con carattere d’evidenza si auto-esplicita come “lì in sé stessa”: tuttavia questa autonomia originaria rimane inseparabile dalla relazione al soggetto, che mantiene per principio il suo carattere di apriorità. Allo stesso modo il soggetto, per quanto costituito in un’autocoscienza egologica, rimane inscindibile dal rapporto intenzionale. Ogni atto di coscienza è coscienza-di-qualcosa, ma reciprocamente ogni presenza oggettuale è presenza-a-qualcosa. In questa duplice inscindibilità originaria si cela l’essenza propria dell’intenzionalità, ovvero quella funzione correlativa universale e a priori di ogni evento d’esperienza. A questo punto dell’argomentazione, una riflessione critica su quali esiti stia offrendo la soluzione fenomenologica del problema cartesiano sembra essere legittima. Infatti, è proprio Husserl a chiamare in causa il dibattito contemporaneo intorno alla questione dell’idealismo per cercare di dare risposta a coloro interessati a collocare il pensiero husserliano entro le tradizionali categorie della metafisica moderna. La fenomenologia trascendentale così esposta rappresenta un nuovo esempio di idealismo trascendentale? Da un lato, lo spirito cartesiano che permea questo scritto sembra suggerirci una risposta positiva. In effetti, Husserl affronta senza indugi la tipica domanda sulla verità del mondo, abbandonandosi radicalmente al dubbio scettico e scoprendo dunque il fianco a critiche anti-metafisiche. D’altra parte, a chiunque muovesse obiezioni di tale impronta egli non potrebbe che replicare con severità. In fondo, il suo esplicito intento è sin dall’inizio quello di sgomberare il campo da ogni forma di dogmatismo, sia metafisico che positivista. A chi dunque ponesse un problema di “metafisicità” della fenomenologia trascendentale, la sola risposta possibile sarebbe quella di mostrare come in realtà l’intero programma fenomenologico (e lo stesso problema cartesiano, in fondo) voglia rappresentare la strada per superare certamente il realismo ingenuo, ma anche e non di meno superare ogni forma di metafisica spiritualista. Dall’altro lato, Husserl ammette la possibilità di riferirsi alla fenomenologia trascendentale come a una dottrina “idealista” a patto che si chiarisca efficacemente il termine. Non bisogna infatti dimenticare il netto scarto teorico che distingue la fenomenologia dalle tradizionali teorie della conoscenza, cioè quell’operazione di sospensione del giudizio che conduce ad un terreno d’indagine fenomenologicamente ridotto e privo di posizioni d’essere a priori. Solo per questa via, sostiene Husserl, è legittimo avanzare una dottrina del conoscere e inaugurare un idealismo che è “discoprimento sistematico della stessa intenzionalità costituente”. Non si tratta, infatti, di speculazioni arbitrarie e creative sull’origine del sapere, bensì un’indagine serrata delle strutture manifestative dell’esperienza nella loro vivida  concretezza. In questi termini, afferma il filosofo tedesco,  la fenomenologia è sicuramente da considerarsi la vera autentica espressione dell’idealismo trascendentale.

Quinta meditazione

Nella quinta meditazione Husserl affronta nuovamente il tema dell’Io trascendentale, esponendone qui una’ulteriore problematica che considera necessaria per seguire coerentemente l’impostazione metodologica di cui si è dotato. In che modo si rapporta la soggettività trascendentale con l’estraneità? Come si declinano fenomenologicamente le relazioni intersoggettive? Il filosofo tedesco sembra infatti impensierito dalla possibilità che le sue ricerche egologiche possano essere lette come solipsistiche. Al contrario egli ritiene che il suo sistema teoretico conduca naturalmente ad una dottrina dell’intersoggettività trascendentale, dottrina che costituirebbe quindi il passo conclusivo del percorso filosofico delle Meditazioni Cartesiane. Una volta chiarito cosa si debba intendere con soggettività trascendentale, infatti, Husserl introduce il concetto di “monade”. Egli riprende il linguaggio leibniziano per meglio qualificare il soggetto come una struttura singolare in permanente connessione con altre strutture singolari. Il concetto di monade infatti include implicitamente una dimensione di “proprietà” che è centrale nell’idea husserliana di soggettività. L’oggetto del mondo e l’ambiente in cui l’Io trascendentale è immerso si offre come elemento di interazione propria, privata, delimitando un campo di operatività intenzionale. Tuttavia all’interno di tale campo si presentano anche delle estraneità di cui viene riconosciuta sia la somiglianza che l’alterità. Nuove soggettività, infatti, prendono posizione, costituendo delle relazioni intersoggettive proprie della vita intenzionale. L’esperienza del’estraneo, dunque, non è affatto un elemento assente nella prospettiva della fenomenologia trascendentale, ma, al contrario, ne costituisce un passaggio chiave per una comprensione complessiva.

Le meditazioni di un’esistenza

Le Meditazioni Cartesiane rappresentano uno dei diversi testi di introduzione alla fenomenologia che Husserl ha prodotto. Le peculiarità stilistiche e metodologiche, tuttavia, rendono tale scritto una composizione decisamente originale all’interno della sua produzione. Pur inserendosi nell’ultimo decennio della sua riflessione, quando la sua esperienza filosofica era già giunta a maturità e notorietà, con esso si ha l’impressione di avere a che fare con un problema antico o, in altre parole, con il problema di sempre. Il dubbio scettico, la ricerca di radicalità, il desiderio di eliminare ogni pregiudizio, sono elementi che richiamano quell’atteggiamento che spesso caratterizza i primi interessi. Forse era proprio questa sensazione a dare al filosofo tedesco l’esigenza di produrre una riflessione così impostata: la volontà, dopo un pluri-decennale e costante esercizio di pensiero, di dare delle risposte definitive a quei problemi profondi che fin da giovane lo interrogavano. Nel percorso cartesiano che Husserl intraprende in queste meditazioni sta in fondo la metafora del cammino di un’esistenza filosofica che, dall’impaccio dei primi movimenti, procede verso la meta ignota della conoscenza, lasciando a noi il piacere di una lettura che pretende sia curiosità che spirito critico.

Riferimenti bibliografici

Altobrando Andrea, Husserl e il problema della monade, prefazione di Ugo Ugazio, Trauben, Torino, 2010.

Costa Vincenzo, Fenomenologia dell’intersoggettività, Carocci, Roma, 2010.

De Warren Nicolas, Husserl’s Cartesianism, Anew, Discipline Filosofiche 25 (2), 2015.

Ferrarello Susi, Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity, Cultura 9(2), 163-174, 2012.

Gallagher Shaun, Intersubjectivity in perception, Continental philosophy review 41(2), 163-178, 2008.

Luft Sebastian, Subjectivity and Lifeworld in Transcendental Phenomenology, Northwestern University Press, 2011.

Moran Dermot, Husserl’s Transcendental Philosophy and the Critique of Naturalism, Continental Philosophy Review 41(4), 401-425, 2008.

Reynaert Peter, Intersubjectivity and naturalism – Husserl’s fifth Cartesian meditation revisited, Husserl Studies 17(3), 207-216, 2001.

Zahavi Dan, Beyond empathy: Phenomenological approaches to intersubjectivity, Journal of Consciousness Studies 8(5-7), 151-167, 2001.

Zahavi Dan, Husserl and Transcendental Intersubjectivity: A Response to the Linguistic-Pragmatic critique, Series in continental thought, Ohio University Press, 2001.

[i] I termini “noesi” e “noema” vengono introdotti da Husserl nel 1913, con la pubblicazione di Idee per una fenomenologia pura e per una filosofia fenomenologica I. Con “noesi” egli si riferisce alle diverse esibizioni intenzionali in cui un oggetto si offre nell’esperienza; con “noema”, invece, intende il riferimento oggettuale singolo che viene offerto nella pluralità di atti noetici.

Christian Julmi: Situations and atmospheres in organizations: A (new) phenomenology of being-in-the-organization

Situations and atmospheres in organizations: A (new) phenomenology of being-in-the-organization Book Cover Situations and atmospheres in organizations: A (new) phenomenology of being-in-the-organization
Atmospheric Spaces
Christian Julmi
Mimesis International
Paperback € 14,00

Reviewed by: Silvia Donzelli (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

In der gegenwärtigen Organisationsforschung lässt sich eine eindeutige Tendenz zur Aufwertung emotionaler Phänomene aufspüren. Hierbei liegt der Fokus primär auf dem Zusammenhang zwischen dem emotionalen Befinden der Organisationsteilnehmer und derer Leistungsfähigkeit, was die Frage nach der Beeinflussbarkeit von Gefühlen und Stimmungen im Bereich von Organisationen mit sich bringt. Während Begriffe wie Stimmung und Atmosphäre in der Management-Literatur zunehmend verwendet werden, bleibt jedoch eine systematische und theoretisch fundierte Untersuchung der Atmosphären bislang ein Desiderat der Organisationsforschung. Darüber hinaus lässt sich feststellen, dass das mehrseitig anerkannte Potenzial der Phänomenologie als Methode in der Organisationsforschung bisher nur spärlich ausgeschöpft wurde.

Aus diesem Hintergrund heraus versteht sich das Buch von Christian Julmi als ein Beitrag sowohl zur Organisationsforschung, als auch zu den phänomenologischen Studien. In seinem Buch nimmt sich Julmi vor, die Neue Phänomenologie als theoretische Basis für die Erforschung der Entwicklungsdynamiken von Situationen und Atmosphären in Organisationen fruchtbar zu machen. Das Ergebnis ist eine konsequente und systematisch aufgebaute Studie, die nicht so sehr darauf abzielt, absolutes Neuland zu betreten, als bereits bestehende Ergebnisse aus der Neuen Phänomenologie und aus der Organisationsforschung zu integrieren und wechselseitig anzureichern.

Die Studie ist in drei Teile gegliedert. Im ersten Teil werden die phänomenologischen Grundlagen dargelegt, welche den theoretischen Rahmen der Untersuchung bilden. Dabei orientiert sich der Autor in erster Linie an der Neuen Phänomenologie von Hermann Schmitz, deren Grundbegriffe er ausdrücklich übernimmt und mit einigen wichtigen Aspekten aus Guido Rappes Arbeit integriert. Die in der Philosophie von Hermann Schmitz zentralen Theorien des gespürten Leibes und der Gefühle als Atmosphären werden pointiert umrissen und durch die von Rappe stammenden und für das Verständnis der Sozialisationsprozesse wichtigen Begriffe von Lust und Unlust, Spontaneität, Responsivität und Reflexivität des Leibes angereichert. In diesem ersten, theoretischen Teil wird darüber hinaus auf die Bedeutung leiblicher Kommunikation für die Bildung sozialer Situationen eingegangen und die konkreten Mechanismen, durch die sich diese vollzieht, in ihren Grundzügen vorgestellt.

Im zweiten Teil begibt sich Julmi zum Kern der Untersuchung und geht der Frage nach, wie sich gemeinsame Situationen und Atmosphären in Organisationen entwickeln. Eine zentrale Rolle wird der Kommunikation, verstanden als leibliche Kommunikation und damit als Austausch von Ausdrücken, beigemessen. Sie bildet den Ausgangspunkt für die Entwicklung gemeinsamer Situationen, welche wiederum von den Organisationsmitgliedern atmosphärisch wahrgenommen werden. Basierend auf die im ersten Teil umrissenen Dimensionen der lebensweltlichen Erfahrung, nämlich Enge und Weite sowie Lust und Unlust, unterscheidet Julmi verschiedene Formen der leiblichen Kommunikation. Insbesondere die antagonistische und wechselseitige Führungskommunikation, mit ihrem Wechselspiel von Impulsen und Reaktionen des Führens und Geführt-werdens, öffnet den Spielraum für die Entwicklung sozialer Beziehungen und somit gemeinsamer Situationen. Die aus der  Kommunikationsdynamik der ersten Begegnungen zwischen Organisationsmitgliedern sich bildenden leiblichen Beziehungen sind für den Sozialisationsprozess grundlegende Erfahrungen, aus deren Regelmäßigkeit Erwartungshaltungen erwachsen und sich Konventionen und Rituale herausbilden. Die unterschiedlichen Situationen in der Organisation und ihre atmosphärische Wahrnehmung werden als Schlüsselpunkte eines Gestaltkreises, also eines hermeneutischen Zirkels dargestellt, in dem neben der leiblichen Kommunikation — die in Julmis Arbeit ohnehin die prominenteste Rolle spielt — auch die Gestaltung des physischen Raumes und dessen atmosphärische Wahrnehmung mitwirken.

Während im zweiten Teil des Buches der Themenkomplex der Situationen und Atmosphären in der Organisation untersucht wird, geht es im dritten Teil um die Frage danach, ob es eine übergreifende Situation der Organisation gibt, und dementsprechend um ihre atmosphärische Wahrnehmung. In diesem Zusammenhang integriert Julmi die in der Managementforschung weit verbreiteten Begriffe Organisationskultur und Organisationsklima mit den von ihm herausgearbeiteten situativen und atmosphärischen Konzepten. In (modifizierender) Anlehnung an Edgar Scheins Modell der Kulturebenen definiert Julmi die Organisationskultur als die Gesamtheit sowohl der sichtbaren, also der räumlichen und situativen, als auch der nicht-sichtbaren Artefakte, nämlich der geteilten Werte und Konventionen. Grundsätzlich werden in Bezug auf die Bildung von Organisationskultur und -Klima ähnliche Dynamiken erörtert, die Julmi im zweiten Buchteil für die Interpretation situativer und atmosphärischer Phänomene auf der binnenorganisationalen Ebene herausarbeitet. Besonders hervorgehoben wird hierbei die fundamentale Rolle der Dimension der Lust (Attraktion) als Medium für die Kohäsion der Organisationsmitglieder und für ihre Identifikation mit der Organisationskultur.

Der Buchinhalt ist im Wesentlichen aus Atmosphären in Organisationen: Wie Gefühle das Zusammenleben in Organisationen beherrschen entnommen, einer umfangreicheren, 2015 erschienenen Veröffentlichung desselben Autors. Wichtige Auszüge aus diesem Buch sind nun, überarbeitet und ins Englische übersetzt, in Situations and Atmospheres in Organisations eingeflossen, wobei der Text in dieser Form — obwohl er leider unter anderem des interessanten philosophiehistorischen Streifzugs über den Atmosphärenbegriff entbehrt — das Interesse eines breiteren Publikums wecken dürfte.

Besonders erfreulich ist bei der Lektüre von Situations and Atmospheres in Organisations die interdisziplinäre Herangehensweise, mit der die neuphänomenologische Leibphilosophie unter Berücksichtigung umweltpsychologischer, anthropologischer und soziologischer Ansätze für die Interpretation einer Vielfalt an für die Organisationen relevanten Phänomenen angewendet wird. Dabei dürften, bei der klaren und konzisen Darstellung, die im ersten Buchteil umrissenen neuphänomenologischen Begriffe nicht nur für das philosophische Fachpublikum verständlich werden. Obwohl man hier hinzufügen muss, dass einige Begriffe aus der Philosophie von Schmitz auch für den mit der phänomenologischen Herangehensweise vertrauten Leser an sich problematisch sein können. In diesem Sinne ist es schade, dass Julmi in seinem Buch nicht die Gelegenheit ergreift, den Atmosphärenbegriff von Hermann Schmitz, sei es auch nur in Bezug auf manche Aspekte, kritisch zu hinterfragen. Der an der Forschung von Emotionen und Atmosphären interessierte Leser wird in Julmis Buch vergeblich nach einer auch nur angedeuteten kritischen Stellung zur theoretischen Welt von Hermann Schmitz suchen. Das wäre zum Beispiel bezüglich des von Schmitz postulierten und von Julmi übernommenen Begriffs der Autorität der Atmosphären denkbar, wie die Kritik von Jens Soentgen bemerkt hat.

Allerdings täte man Julmi unrecht, ein Defizit an kritischer Perspektive zu überbetonen, nicht zuletzt weil er, wie gesagt, in seiner Darlegung der neuphänomenologischen Grundlagen auch einige wichtige Begriffe aus Rapps Arbeit mit einbezieht und damit eine erweiterte neuphänomenologische Theorie aufgreift.

Auf das Thema kritische Stellung geht Julmi selbst im Fazit seines Buches ein: „However, the study´s integration achievement by no means implies that it does not take a critical perspective. On the contrary, all approaches are rejected for which organizational coexistence is based primarily on rational considerations and intentions“ (134).

Das ist eine klare Aussage, die Vieles über den argumentativen Aufbau des Buches, aber auch über seine Stärken und eventuelle Schwächen verrät.

Zweifellos ist es ein Verdienst der Phänomenologie, durch die Anerkennung der leiblichen Erfahrung als primäre Form der Welterkenntnis und der Interaktion, auch das Nicht-Rationale, Ungeplante und Unwillkürliche aufgewertet zu haben. Für die Untersuchung der Entwicklung relationaler Dynamiken und gemeinsamer Situationen ist die Bedeutung unwillkürlicher Phänomene kaum zu überschätzen. In der Tat sind die Ausführungen Julmis zu den Dynamiken der leiblichen Kommunikation besonders ertragreich. Seine tiefgreifende Ausarbeitung unterschiedlicher Formen der leiblichen Kommunikation, des Austausches von Ausdrücken als nicht-sprachlichen Botschaften — durch Blicke, Körperhaltungen, Bewegungen, Tonfall, aber auch durch Verhaltensweisen, wie zum Beispiel dem häufigen Ergreifen des Wortes — erlaubt, vielen Phänomene des Alltags und des organisationalen Lebens Rechnung zu tragen. In der Forschung wird davon ausgegangen, dass durch nicht-sprachliche Kommunikation wesentlich mehr Mitteilungen ausgetauscht werden, als durch sprachliche Kommunikation — schreibt Julmi im Kapitel 6.1 seines Buches (53). Dieser Grundgedanke leitet sein Verständnis der leiblichen Kommunikation als fundamentale Voraussetzung für die Entwicklung sozialer Beziehungen.

Aus dieser Perspektive heraus wird auch das Phänomen Leadership erklärt. An mehreren Stellen präzisiert Julmi, welche Auffassung von Leadership seine Arbeit zugrunde legt: es geht um die bei der Kommunikation eingenommene führende Position, den Enge-Pol, welcher die leibliche Kommunikation zusammenhält und lenkt. Das schließt die Möglichkeit ein, dass die Führungsposition innerhalb eines Gesprächs von verschiedenen Teilnehmern abwechselnd eingenommen wird (wechselseitige Führungskommunikation). Nach dieser Auffassung entsteht Leadership primär aus dem zumeist unwillkürlichen Spiel der antagonistischen Tendenzen der Einleibung: Enge und Weite, Lust und Unlust. Das ist, in Hinblick auf das erwähnte Verständnis von Leadership als Führungsposition in der Kommunikation, durchaus überzeugend.

Einige Schwierigkeiten ergeben sich jedoch, wenn Julmi eine andere Deutung des Leadership-Begriffs anstreift — und das ist unvermeidlich, in einem Buch über Organisationen — nämlich die formale, strukturelle Rolle innerhalb einer Institution. Im Kapitel 6.2. möchte Julmi die Macht leiblicher Kommunikation anhand folgenden Beispiels veranschaulichen: wenn jemand einen Raum mit gesenkten Schultern betritt, wird er es schwierig haben — und zwar unabhängig von seiner formalen Rolle — den Respekt der Anwesenden zu erlangen (56). Diese Aussage ist nicht unanfechtbar. So groß die Bedeutung der leiblichen Kommunikation auch sein mag, sind Fragen zum gegenseitigen Respekt im beruflichen Umfeld nicht allein und nicht primär darauf angewiesen. Darüber hinaus ist es durchaus denkbar, dass ein selbstbewusster Organisationsleader — unabhängig davon, ob er seine Führungsposition mit Charisma oder eher Einschüchterung untermauert — sich gesenkte Schultern und viele weitere lässige Körperhaltungen leisten kann, ohne dabei an Respekt, Ausstrahlung oder Autorität einzubüßen.

Hier tritt ein möglicherweise problematischer Aspekt des Buches zu Tage: bei seiner Bemühung, die Bedeutung der leiblichen Kommunikation aufzuwerten und die Rolle rationaler und intentionaler Prozesse in den Hintergrund treten zu lassen, scheint der Autor an manchen Stellen die relationalen Phänomene lediglich im Lichte unwillkürlicher Dynamiken erklären zu wollen. Nun ist der Fokus auf die leibliche Kommunikation bei der Erforschung von Organisationen ein durchaus legitimer und, wie es in Julmis Buch der Fall ist, origineller und fruchtbarer Ansatz. Doch bei manchen relationalen Dynamiken ist die leibliche Dimension so eng mit anderen relevanten Faktoren verstrickt, dass diese nicht einfach ausgeklammert werden können. Bei der Erklärung von Phänomenen im beruflichen Kontext könnte diese Strategie möglicherweise zu kurz greifen.

Es wäre zum Beispiel interessant gewesen, das Verhältnis zwischen Leadership, verstanden als Führungsrolle bei der leiblichen Kommunikation, und der formalen Leadership als struktureller Rolle innerhalb der Organisation — also zwischen der unwillkürlichen, auf leiblichem Spüren basierten Machtsuggestion und der institutionalisierten Machtausübung — genauer zu beleuchten. In der Tat sind beide Begriffe nicht immer eindeutig auseinander gehalten. Julmi anerkennt die Bedeutung der formalen Macht, doch lediglich im Rahmen der autoritären Führung, die sich in Machtinstrumenten wie Belohnung, Bestrafung und Bedrohung konkretisiert (58). Die charismatische Führung basiert hingegen auf der Faszination, die bei der leiblichen Kommunikation vom Leader ausstrahlt, und zwar unabhängig von seiner formalen Macht. Bei der machiavellischen Frage, ob es für einen Leader besser sei, geliebt oder gefürchtet zu werden, würde Julmi wahrscheinlich für ersteres plädieren, da er in der Attraktion die notwendige Voraussetzung für die Bildung gemeinsamer Situationen und gemeinsamer Perspektiven sieht. Inwiefern die charismatische leibliche Kommunikation, in Ermangelung formaler Macht, Spielräume für die tatsächliche Machtausübung in einer Organisation ermöglicht, bleibt jedoch eine offene Frage.

Dass die von Julmi erwähnten großen Büros und großen Tische die Macht des Leaders visualisieren, ist bekannt (56). Freilich sind solche raumgestalterischen Elemente, die zur atmosphärischen Wahrnehmung des physischen Raumes beitragen, weder ungeplant noch unwillkürlich: im Gegenteil wird ihre Wirkung auf die Besucher sorgfältig einstudiert. Das ist, wie Gernot Böhme in Bezug auf den Bühnenbildbau bemerkt hat, ein Beweis dafür, dass räumliche Atmosphären absichtlich erzeugt werden können. Aber auch die Wahrnehmung dieser Einrichtungen — und das gilt insbesondere im beruflichen Kontext — ist keineswegs unwillkürlich. Beim Betreten einer Firma wissen wir, dass man durch die Größe versucht, uns zu imponieren. Hierbei sind wir keineswegs unserem leiblichen Spüren ausgeliefert, wir können ihm sogar durch eine reflektierte Haltung entgegentreten. In ähnlicher Weise ist auch die zwischenmenschliche leibliche Kommunikation nur bedingt unwillkürlich und unlenkbar. Im Gegenteil — und trotz der Zweifel Julmis daran, dass ein simulierter Ausdruck als authentisch wirken kann (79) — sind ausgerechnet bei Organisationen sowohl der Ausdruck, als auch dessen Rezeption und die Reaktion darauf oft sorgfältig einkalkuliert, inszeniert, möglicherweise auch vorgetäuscht. Nicht selten stehen auf den großen Schreibtischen der Organisationsmanager Bücher über emotionale Intelligenz und nicht-sprachliche Kompetenz.

Davon abgesehen, sind die Ausführungen Julmis zur Rolle der Attraktion für die Bildung und Festigung sozialer Beziehungen von großem Interesse. Die Entwicklung gegenseitiger Erwartungen und Verhaltensmuster in gemeinsamen Situationen, die Prozesse der Angleichung und Ausgleichung, sowie die Phänomene der Imitation und Assimilation als Mittel der gegenseitigen Anpassung werden sorgfältig und aufschlussreich dargestellt. Über emotionale Konvergenz, Zugehörigkeitsgefühl und group thinking werden anregende Einsichten vermittelt, die auch über die Grenzen der Organisationsforschung hinweg für die Analyse von Gruppendynamik und kollektiven Handlungen von Bedeutung sind.

Die Dimensionen von Lust und Unlust, von Attraktion und Abgrenzung werden in Situations and Atmospheres in Organisations besonders gewichtet. Die lustvolle Annäherung führt zur Bildung der Gemeinschaft, und die Gemeinschaftszugehörigkeit wirkt sich lustvoll auf die situative Atmosphäre aus. Das ermöglicht die zunehmende Kohäsion der Organisationsmitglieder, die auch durch die unlustvolle Abgrenzung von Außenstehenden — zum Beispiel, von anderen Organisationen ­­- verstärkt wird. Es kann sich sehr angenehm anfühlen, Teil einer Gemeinschaft zu sein. So sehr, dass das lustvolle Zugehörigkeitsgefühl den Vorrang gegenüber anderen relationalen Aspekten gewinnen kann. Zum Beispiel kann nicht mehr von Belang sein, welche Ansichten die anderen Mitglieder eigentlich vertreten: Hauptsache gehört man zusammen (88). Das ist eine äußerst einleuchtende Beobachtung, die Vieles über Gruppendynamik aussagt. Sicherlich kann ein ebensolcher Prozess der Anpassung sehr wichtig für die Kohäsion einer Gemeinschaft sein. Dass der damit implizierte Verzicht auf die Ausübung kritischer Fähigkeit (welche eben nicht immer lustvoll ist), freilich erhebliche Folgen haben kann, soll hier nicht weiter diskutiert werden.

Bezüglich der primären Bedeutung, welche im Buch der lustvollen Anziehung beigemessen wird, könnte man fragen: ist es wirklich so, dass gemeinsame Situationen eigentlich auf Attraktion beruhen? Sind die Prozesse der lustvollen Annäherung der Organisationsmitglieder, der Teilung gemeinsamer Werte und der Identifikation nur mögliche Entwicklungswege der gemeinsamen Situation oder sind sie doch, wie Julmi glaubt (115), notwendige Voraussetzungen für die Teilnahme an der Organisationskultur?

Eine unlustvoll konnotierte gemeinsame Situation gleicht einer Kontradiktion, schreibt der Autor im Kapitel 7.4 und führt das Beispiel eines längst verheirateten, stets streitenden Paares (82). Beide teilen eine gemeinsame Situation, die ihre Identität prägt, und doch ist ihre leibliche Kommunikation durch abgrenzendes, unlustvolles Verhalten charakterisiert. Für die Betroffenen besitzt eine solche Situation, bemerkt Julmi, eine gewisse Tragik. Nun mag das im Fall des verheirateten Paares gelten. Das gilt aber vor allem deshalb, weil es sich um eine private und intime Beziehung handelt. Bei Organisationen geht es jedoch, bei aller Nähe und Identifikation mit den gemeinsamen Werten und Visionen, letztlich um eine berufliche Beziehung. Eine tiefgreifende und originelle Anthropologie des Leibes, wie die von Julmi es ist, könnte den Unterschied zwischen privat und beruflich im Umgang mit den Kräften des leiblichen Spürens lohnend berücksichtigen.


Böhme Gernot (2013) Atmosphäre. Essays zur neuen Ästhetik. Berlin: Suhrkamp

Großheim Michael, Volke Stefan (Hrsg) (2010) Gefühl, Geste, Gesicht. Zur Phänomenologie des Ausdrucks. Freiburg/München: Karl Alber

Julmi Christian (2015) Atmosphären in Organisationen. Wie Gefühle das Zusammenleben beherrschen. Bochum/Freiburg: Projekt Verlag

Julmi Christian, Scherm Ewald (2012) Der atmosphärische Einfluss auf die Organisationskultur: ein multidisziplinärer Ansatz, in: SEM Radar 11 (2/2012), S. 3-37

Schmitz Hermann (2014) Atmosphären. Freiburg/München: Karl Alber

Schmitz Hermann (2009) Kurze Einführung in die Neue Phänomenologie. Freiburg/München: Karl Alber

Schöll Raimund, Atmosphärische Intelligenz. Anmerkungen eines Management-Coaches. in: Zeitschrift Führung + Organisation 76 (6/2007) S. 326-332

Soentgen Jens (2011) 5 Thesen zur Schmitz´schen Gefühlphilosopie. Unter: https://opus.bibliothek.uni-augsburg.de/opus4/1577

Don Ihde: Husserl’s Missing Technologies

Husserl's Missing Technologies Book Cover Husserl's Missing Technologies
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Don Ihde
Fordham University Press
Paperback $24.00

Reviewed by: Aleksandra K. Traykova (Durham University)

Don Ihde has produced a total of six books in the past decade, but although the last one (Acoustic Technics: Postphenomenology and the Philosophy of Technology) appeared only two years ago, his readers were becoming impatient. Acoustic Technics was brilliant, however, its narrow focus on embodied sound left us longing for more of the American philosopher’s insights into science and technology more broadly construed. After finally getting my hands on a copy of Ihde’s latest book, I can confidently say that it was well worth the wait. Husserl’s Missing Technologies is fascinating! Winner of the Golden Eurydice Award for outstanding contributions to the field of biophilosophy, Ihde draws on more than four decades of research expertise in the contested areas of phenomenology and the philosophy of science. In accordance with his usual style, in this work Ihde addresses an astonishing plethora of issues, historical examples and philosophical ideas. The following review will discuss some of these elements.

Тhe book is comprised of seven chapters, each more layered and enthralling than the previous one. Following a lengthy introduction, which problematizes the technological gap in Husserl’s writings and thus justifies Husserl’s Missing Technologies as a project, Ihde swiftly moves straight into a discussion of technology use, scientific objects, the historical development of technoscience, and the timeline of science interpretations in philosophy. This abundance of topics might lead a less experienced writer to create a blurry, perhaps somewhat incoherent framework, but Ihde skillfully escapes this trap, instead setting the ground for a very structured and nuanced piece of writing. As a result, each chapter is sufficiently clear-cut and ambitious in its own right that it could easily be turned into a stand-alone project. Yet in spite of that, the transitions between separate chapters are executed brilliantly and without so much as a hint of discontinuity. For instance, in the first half of the book Ihde’s analysis and historical overview are left to unravel quietly while also clearly foreshadowing the claims about the role of postphenomenological, multi-instrumental technoscience that are made towards the end of the book; by the time the reader reaches the final chapters, the connections have already started to become increasingly obvious, and a complex but coherent argumentative structure gradually begins to emerge.

The title of the book sets the tone for Chapter 1 ‘Where are Husserl’s technologies?’. It opens with a statement that is fairly uncontroversial amongst Husserl scholars: namely, that Husserl’s references to technologies are sparse and usually mentioned only ‘in passing, without serious or in-depth philosophical analysis’ (13). Though this statement applies equally to ordinary-use technologies and to instruments or special technologies used in science, Chapter 1 focuses on the latter. After a short historical interlude which offers examples of the tendency for technology usage-spans to become increasingly shorter, Ihde introduces his readers to the style of science-technology analysis called postphenomenology and identifies its American pragmatist influences (e.g. John Dewey), adding that philosophies should also have usage-spans akin to those of technologies.

The book is an enjoyable read for anyone whose professional interests revolve around phenomenology and these early sections make for an excellent topic of discussion amongst introductory philosophy classes of a more general kind. Ihde questions an uncritical assumption we hold (which we would never make about scientists of the past) that all philosophers in history are our intellectual contemporaries. Science clearly has a history of ‘disappearing scientific objects’: ‘Democritus’s hard, indivisible atoms, Aristotle’s crystalline spheres, phlogiston, aether, the four humours, and most recently event horizons—all are gone except as interesting but quaint historical objects’ (17). It is not that these features of obsolescence or abandonment cannot be observed in philosophy, rather that the most notable examples have tended to appear in response to developments in technoscience; as suggested by the brief science-technology studies (STS) and the science interpretation timeline offered by Ihde in the next section.

Ihde notes that it took an astonishingly long time for anything properly resembling a ‘philosophy of technology’ to come into existence. The mid-twentieth century brought about two different sets of science interpretations ; a ‘conceptual’ and a ‘practical’ one to which scientists (or philosophers of science with notable antipositivist inclinations) and social scientists, respectively, were contributing. It took until the 1980’s for a distinct philosophy of technology to disentangle itself with authors such as Albert Borgmann, Langdon Winner, Andrew Feenberg, and Hubert Dreyfus leading the way. By this time positivism had met its demise, and the ‘acultural, ahistorical, unified, and triumphal’ understanding of science had become replaced by an outlook far more sensitive to the fallibility of science and its social and historical dimensions (22).

Ihde dives into a fascinating exploration of paradigm shifts for a reason. He does a wonderful job of accounting for the way in which ‘the rise of multiple reconsiderations of science, coupled to an increased interest in technologies […] shift the understanding of both science and technology toward more historical, cultural, and material dimensions’ (21). However, he does so in order to identify the reason for the sudden theoretical interest in instruments and technologies expressed in major works like Robert Ackermann’s Data, Instruments, and Theory (1985) or Ian Hacking’s Representing and Intervening (1983). It is only after Ihde has completed this task that he moves on to the next section which invites readers to re-visit Husserl ‘retrospectively’ and approach his writings (and the predominant science interpretations amongst his contemporaries) from a point of view located at the very end of the timeline he presented earlier (17-22)

The analysis sets out by making three important observations about Husserl’s philosophy of science: Firstly, that it remains largely on the mathematizing side in spite of occasional preoccupations regarding the separation of science and lifeworld. Secondly, that Husserl worried that rationality might be slipping away from science. Thirdly, that the praxis-lifeworld relations Husserl theorizes about in selected bits of The Origin of Geometry are apparently set up in a way which allows for sciences to be born from concrete practices – e.g. geometry arose out of the Ancient Egyptian practice of remeasuring and setting up field boundaries anew after the annual floods. The analysis then gains a comparative aspect as Ihde begins to reflect on the difference between Heidegger’s hammer, Merleau-Ponty’s extended embodiment of canes, and Husserl’s microscope-things and telescope-things. Ihde identifies a kind of ‘vestigial Cartesianism’ (31) in Husserl’s attitude toward objects, since, according to Husserl tools and technologies need to be seen and conceptually recognized as objects in their ‘objectness’ (i.e. as ‘things’) before they can be meaningfully deployed in praxis (25). Values and potential uses are seen by Husserl as things that are added on, rather than intrinsically present.

This discussion seamlessly transitions into an inspection of the relativity or correlation with the nearby-far-off-world which is enabled by instruments, and the ways that correlation fits within the wider unity of experiences. For example, when observing the moon through a telescope Ihde notes that before the ‘first revolution in sciences with technologies […] the experience through the telescope is not primarily of the telescope’ (31; his emphasis). He then explains how in cases of mediated perception the instruments which mediate the perception tend to undergo a withdrawal and become experientially transparent; something which Husserl does not describe in his writings.

However, the technologies of postmodern science no longer deliver experiences isomorphic or analogue to those of ordinary human bodily perception; they have ventured beyond optical imaging and into, e.g. instruments mapping the electromagnetic spectrum. Contemporary technologies can therefore be said to bring into being Husserl’s ‘open infinity of universal world truths’ by revealing the existence of neutron stars, black holes, gas clouds, and multiple galaxies of many and varied shapes (32-34). Ihde is right in claiming that Husserlian phenomenology was not equipped to deal with the worlds beyond the limits set by analogue-isomorphic technologies. One of the big questions of Chapter 1, then, is whether philosophies ought to be prepared for the kinds of theoretical and instrumental shifts characteristic of the sciences if they want to be successful in dealing with a new world? For Ihde the answer is a solid ‘yes’.

Chapter 2, ‘Husserl’s Galileo Needed a Telescope!’, discusses Husserl’s philosophy of science ‘in the light of contemporary analyses of science in practice’ (35). It starts out with the caveat that, for Husserl, the paradigmatic examples of science were: firstly, the ahistorical kinds of disciplines which lend themselves to mathematization, formalized expressions, and idealization and secondly, the kinds of disciplines which involve minimal amounts of embodiment practices and, with the exception of physics, minimal amounts of instrument use. These are, of course, the sciences that Husserl himself was most familiar with in terms of praxis (geometry, physics and astronomy) but they also fit within the broader process of mathematization initiated by other early twentieth century philosophers of science like Ernst Mach, Jules Poincaré and Pierre Duhem.

The next section of Chapter 2 describes the movement from mathematization (abstract and formalistic) to logical positivism or empiricism (with a pronounced focus on perception and observation). It then outlines a further move to anti-positivism (a lot more sensitive to historical context and well aware of the discontinuity present in science) which sets the ground for the next section where Ihde situates Husserl within this rich and slightly confusing intellectual landscape. Ihde notes that, for Husserl ‘science is not ahistorical, noncontextual, but rather is thoroughly historical, contextual, and cultural’, even though in science we can observe an ‘upward, slippery incline of approximations into an ideal world, which distances the investigator from the bodily-materiality of the lifeworld’ (44). The connection to the lifeworld is supposedly maintained, as long as an awareness of the whole process and its origins persists.

 But what did Husserl get wrong? The next three sections reveal that Husserl’s portrayal of Galileo’s philosophy of science may have been too reductionistic. While the astronomer was indeed confident that the language of mathematics played a crucial role in interpreting and understanding, he would have been unable to produce ground-breaking science with his bare senses unaided and unamplified by the telescope. As none of these contingencies received special mention from Husserl, Ihde notes that Husserl’s ‘preselected and reduced’ Galileo seems abstract and almost ahistorical, his ‘perceptions and practices with and through the telescope’ absent from Husserl’s histories:

…his Galileo is not the lens grinder, the user of telescopes, the fiddler with inclined planes, the dropper of weights from the Pisa Tower, but the observer who concentrates on, on one side, the already idealized “objects” of geometry and, on the other, the plenary ordinary objects that are before the eyes but indirectly analyzed into their geometrical components. (52)

The final three sections show that a different analysis would have been possible if Husserl had further developed his insights about the importance of written documents as fixed, material, embodied linguistic meaning-structures and instruments as offering a sort of transformational mediation between science and the lifeworld. However, Husserl is forgetful of Galileo’s telescopic praxis.

Just as promised in Chapters 1 and 2, Ihde does return to the reading-writing technologies in Chapter 3 (‘Embodiment and Reading-Writing Technologies’), in order to explore the issues Husserl sees there on a deeper level. The framework of the discussion is dictated by the transition from classical phenomenology to postphenomenology. Husserl’s own writing technologies – different types of pens, eyeglasses, magnifying glass, mimeographs and many others – are examined in truly remarkable detail (and featured on a timeline of writing, reading and optical technologies in Table 1, p. 64) and can be contrasted with his opinions on tools and scientific technologies.

A couple of reccurring motives appear to be that of executive consciousness governing a passive and somewhat ‘machine-like’ body, and that of typicality (of actions or practices, of standard measures, of shapes and trajectories). Ihde challenges these ideas in different ways, including by pointing at counterexamples from contemporary art (e.g. Matisse’s ‘virtuoso practice’ which clearly demonstrated atypical trajectory, especially in his late works). The final section of the chapter is dedicated to reflections on the predominant contemporary embodiment practices; whether or not they can be considered reductive, and whether and how they transform our experiences of space-time.

Chapter 4 – ‘Whole Earth Measurements Revisited’ – goes back to one of the notions first introduced towards the end of Chapter 1: that science needs instruments in order to discover new phenomena or to constitute new problems on which to focus. Structured around Ihde’s 1996 original paper of the same title, the chapter asks whether Husserl’s phenomenology, with its missing technologies, would be capable of detecting a ‘Greenhouse Effect’? It then argues in favour of a negative response; as whole earth measurements are far too complex to be accommodated by the perspectives of classical phenomenology, calling instead for two concepts Ihde refers to as firstly, the earth-as-planet perspective and secondly, an ‘understanding of measurement practice from a thorough technoscience, or instrumentally embodied science’ (80; emphasis not mine). Without those concepts and the aid of imaging technologies, we would be unable to visualize greenhouse gases, which are subperceptual. Ihde is clear that ‘instrumental mediation for Husserl yields a perceptual-correlate’, therefore in a Husserlian framework they would have to be inferred in Cartesian ways rather than perceived (81). Ihde identifies this problem as a Cartesian ‘conceptual duality between concretely perceived plena and abstractly idealized pure shapes’ (Ibid), noting that greenhouse gases are, of course, not pure shapes at all, but that if we want to account for them as material entities, we would need the assistance of postphenomenological, multi-instrumental, embodied technoscience (81-83).

Chapter 5, titled ‘Dewey and Husserl: Consciousness Revisited’, rereads Husserl and John Dewey on consciousness against the backdrop of the increased late twentieth century interest in consciousness, neurology and psychology (especially in a cognitivist context). In doing so Ihde defends phenomenology from accusations that it is subjectivist or an antiscience. From brain scans to animal studies observations of tool or technology use among corvids and primates, the realms of ‘calculating consciousness and technological innovation’ appear to be inextricably linked (92). So, Ihde turns to Dewey’s pragmatism and Husserl’s phenomenology to see exactly how the role played by consciousness differs in each of these experientially based philosophies (hint: they differ in the explanatory models they apply to epistemologies of experience, with Husserl’s essentially representing an adaptation from that of Descartes, and Dewey’s having clear Darwinian influences).

We get to take a deeper look at pragmatism and how it connects to phenomenology in Chapter 6, ‘Adding Pragmatism to Phenomenology’. Here Ihde continues addressing further critiques of phenomenology, e.g. that it relies on introspective methods and that it remains static. According to Ihde, the pragmatist    rejection of essentialism/foundationalism,  representationist/correspondence  notions of truth and transcendental/empirical distinctions is a philosophical style which postphenomenology can reclaim, i.e. replicate, ‘with and through phenomenology’ (109). But is phenomenology capable of returning the favour and enriching pragmatism in a similar manner? Ihde points at several phenomenological techniques (or tools) that could do just that: variational theory, multistability, embodiment, and critical hermeneutics. He then goes on to show how a pragmatic phenomenology or a postphenomenology can be expected to deal with technologies – especially newer and more radical imaging technologies such as the ones that postmodern radio and radar astronomy relies on – in ways that traditional forms of representation cannot.

Finally, in Chapter 7 (appropriately titled ‘From Phenomenology to Postphenomenology’) Ihde briefly outlines the evolution of phenomenology as a term referring to a style of philosophy, as well as the history of the term’s use in his own work, in order to identify the exact moment when postphenomenology began to mature and establish its own trajectory. The book ends by recapping the same ideas that made for such a spectacular and thought-provoking introduction: that philosophy, just like science, ought to keep transforming itself over time, and that as our lifeworld changes, so must our reflections on it.

Kirsten Jacobson, John Russon (Eds.): Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology

Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology Book Cover Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology
Kirsten Jacobson, John Russon (Eds.)
University of Toronto Press
Hardback $56.25

Reviewed by: Miguel A. Sepúlveda Pedro (Université de Montréal)

Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology (henceforth Perception and its Development) is a volume of fifteen papers from different authors, each addressing the most significant (or at least the most explicitly addressed) topic of the philosophical path of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that is perception. Each chapter focuses on a specific subset of philosophical issues related to perception, all of them initially addressed by Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception (henceforth the Phenomenology).

Perception and its Development has two strikingly original aspects. First, although the authors use ideas thematized by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology as guidelines for their expositions, their understandings of these ideas are not limited to this context. Rather, the authors commonly enlarge the scope of their analyses beyond the Phenomenology, tracking conceptual developments through Merleau-Ponty’s later works. This strategy both offers us a different and broader perspective on the Phenomenology, and opens the door to new hermeneutical possibilities of this work that are unexplored in other companion readers. Secondly, while the authors do considerable hermeneutical work to reach this wider perspective, they do not subject us to extensive commentaries of Merleau-Ponty’s original texts. Instead, they usually appeal to more contemporary problems in diverse areas of philosophy, science, arts, and even politics, a method that unveils through demonstration the similar approach used by Merleau-Ponty in his work to the philosophical problems of his concern.

The fifteen chapters are separated in four sections. The logic behind the section divisions, the editors claim (8), is to reproduce the progressive advance made by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology, from the most basic aspects of our perceptual experience (i.e. our practical engagement with the environment as individuals), to the most complex contexts where our perception is at work—namely, in arts and politics, those activities proper to human culture. Despite the general similitude in the organization of Perception and its Development with the Phenomenology, the structure of this volume also displays a very different order of exposition. For instance, Perception and its Development begins by explicitly addressing the questions of passivity, intersubjectivity, and even freedom—all subjects that are addressed much later in the Phenomenology. This new order has both negative and positive consequences. The fact that there is no detailed account of the notions of “perception” and “the body” in the context of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology before deeper consequences of this phenomenological approach (especially those in later periods of his philosophy) are addressed may prove a real challenge for the novice reader of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy who, without first being lead to the proper conceptual clarity, may find themselves confused by claims made in Perception and its Development. Nevertheless, the alternative would be to follow the less original path already taken by most companion readers to the Phenomenology. In a positive light, then, the reordering of the topics of the Phenomenology, together with their integration with his later accounts of expression (a fundamental aspect of his post-phenomenological period) and his unfinished ontology highlights the pertinence of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy for addressing the ongoing philosophical concerns on particular aspects of perception like intersubjectivity.

Given their depth and complexity, a detailed description of the ideas posited in each chapter surpasses the scope of this review. In what follows, I shall summarize the main proposals of each author, focusing on the four conceptual divisions of this book.

Part I is titled “Passivity and Intersubjectivity” and deals explicitly with these topics, but it quickly becomes clear that freedom is also a crucial concept for immersing ourselves in the question of passivity in our perceptual lives. In chapter one, John Russon describes the act of (paying) attention as an act of freedom. This freedom is, however, not to be understood as the independent will of our minds (25), but as an act shaped and constrained by the organic nature of our bodies, the physical conditions of the environment, and, fundamentally, our engagement with others in shared projects (28-29). This is because our perceptual attention exhibits the capacity of our bodies to be responsive to particular conditions of the environment that call for a specific set of actions (i.e. bodily skills) on particular features of the environment, which appear as possibilities for action or affordances (30). This responsiveness of the body is generated through a process of habituation (31), but the normative process of habit acquisition is importantly determined by the intersubjective dimension. This is because the plasticity of the world and of the body is not enough to establish the necessary conditions for the criteria of adequateness needed to make our bodies responsive to worldly situations (32). Work and communication are described by Russon as further expressions of our freedom in human contexts (35-36).

In chapter two, we find a more detailed description of the nature of the interrelation of the body and the environment in what Maria Talero calls experiential workspace. This experiential workspace describes “the enactive coupling of bodily and environmental potentialities” (45). That is, the space where the bodily skills and the affordances of the environment are related. In this regard, the attunement of the body and the environment, in Talero’s metaphor, is like catching the rhythm of a piece of music when we dance. It is by understanding the rhythm of music in my body that I am able to coordinate my body movements with those of my partner, and effectively dance (49).

In chapter three, Kym Maclaren employs two further concepts to improve our understanding of the body/environment entanglement: institution and emotion. In Merleau-Ponty’s later work, the notion of institution clarifies how the body, the world, and their interrelation are not set in advance of their actual interaction. Maclaren names this process an entre-deux dialogue between an embodied being and the environment (52). The open-ended nature of the body-world entanglement, become stabilized (instituted) in a narrative form (56), like a story that help us to understand where something comes from (its past), but also, by setting the orientation of its future developments, where something is going, thus establishing “a matrix for future elaborations” (56). Maclaren offers three examples of institution: artistic expression, perception, and emotion, the most intriguing of which is the latter. Emotions, such as the love described by Merleau-Ponty in his lectures of Institution, are not psychological states of individuals, but the very relation through which two people are entangled (66). The expressive behavior of the other (their gestures, words, and actions) shapes the way I open toward them, and vice versa, such that the realm of emotion institutes a way of being with the other, a “binary rhythm” (66). Maclaren draws on an example of this from Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Child Relations with Others,” (in The Primacy of Perception) in which a child needs to reconfigure his emotional relation with his family after the birth of a new brother. Essentially, this child needs to “institute” a new form of interrelation with his family, given the loss of his position as the youngest son. This process of institution is possible only when the child reestablishes the equilibrium of the interfamilial relations (69).

Maclaren’s descriptions of emotions working as institutions of our relations with others preludes the central idea of chapter five, in which Susan Bredlau shows that perception may involve the active role of others as a form of incorporation. Merleau-Ponty argues in the Phenomenology that a blind person using a cane to navigate, given their habitual use of it, may incorporate the tool to the sensibility of their body. Likewise, for Bredlau, our perception extends its reach by involving the active participation of other people (82). An incorporation, Bredlau explains, involves a new form of sensitivity: the use of the cane is not the transformation of tactile experience in vision-like experience. Rather, it entails the acquisition of a new form of spatial navigation. Thus, “both perceiver and perceived take on new identities” (82). Bredlau distinguishes three types of scaffoldings based on other people incorporations: placement, engagement, and handling. The first type concerns the role of others drawing the paths of movement; the second refers to the influence of other people in constraining the possible actions that can be afforded in particular situations; and the third involves their participation in the development of the bodily skills necessary to function in such situations (95).

In part II, “Generality and Objectivity” the focus is turned from the most basic layers of our immediate perceptual experience of and ability to cope with the world to what gives to perception its “general” or even “objective” character, that is, that we naturally experience the world of perception as an independent reality given the stable structures of our perceptual field. In this regard, Kristen Jacobson, in chapter five, focuses on the virtual dimension of the body (the set of bodily skills learned by the body in his developmental path to cope with the environmental conditions) and the establishment of spatial orientation in what Merleau-Ponty names spatial levels (the meaning of the situation that is revealed through “calls,” or possibilities for action, corresponding to the acquired bodily skills) (103). From this perspective, Jacobson addresses the case of spatial neglect, a condition where people, having suffered brain damage, are incapable of moving one side of their bodies, and equally incapable of explicitly perceiving this same side in their visual field (104). In Jacobson interpretation, patients neglect one side of their visual fields because, while their “habitual” body (the body as structurally instituted in the past) is able to perceive the actual set of affordances in the environment, their actual bodily capacities, given their new physical condition, impede their ability to adequately respond to this environment such that they are no longer capable of making sense of this part of their visual field (113). They have lost the capacity to actualize their body/world relation—a condition that is similarly analyzed by Merleau-Ponty in the Phenomenology, in cases such as that of Schneider (111). Thus, what is at stake in this condition is the incapacity of their lived bodies to create new spatial levels by actualizing the relation between their actual bodily skills and the present environmental conditions, a capacity we normally possess, and through which we adapt ourselves to the ever-changing realm of worldly situations (115).

The nature of the constitution (or institution, in the proper vocabulary of Perception and its development and of Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy) of these spatial levels and the habitual body is a temporal process that Don Beith describes in more detail in chapter six. The crucial step of this chapter is to highlight that the habitual body grounds its own stability through movement. As it has been argued in the previous chapters of this volume, the body “learns” to respond to situations by establishing patterns of movement, or motor habits, in developmental time (127), which are seen to be physical constraints on the scale of evolutionary time (128). The differences between the living bodies of humans and octopuses provide a good example of the peculiarities of movement and the institution of their bodies. Octopuses do not possess joints like us, their bodies are quite flexible. Joints, however, are fixed points of articulation that enable the opposition of different parts of our body and support further sequences of movement and patterns of locomotion. Since an octopus lacks these joints in its physical body, it needs to create the fixed points in its own patterns of movement—that is, in moving, it creates its own joints (126). By contrast, we have joints that certainly constraint the flexibility of our limbs, but at the same time increases the possibilities of movement for our whole body. Thus, paradoxically, the reduced flexibility of our limbs increases the range of freedom of our bodily movements (129). An interesting comparison between perceiving and learning to read is made by Beith at the end of this chapter. Beith believes that we learn to read by writing, and only understand the meaning of read words by also being actively engaged in the motor task of speaking and writing (135).

Although the editors say that the second part of Perception and its development would directly deal with the concepts of generality and objectivity in perception, it is not until chapters seven and eight that such concepts are explicitly addressed. In chapter seven, Moss Brender turns our attention from the perceptual realm of lived space to the perceptual experience of objective space, and in particular our perception of things. Drawing on two of Koehler’s experiments with chimpanzees, both quoted by Merleau-Ponty in the Structure of Behavior (his first important philosophical work), Moss Brender argues that chimpanzees do not possess the capacity to understand the localization of a thing in space if this localization is not relative to the motor actions of their own bodies (145); they remain attached to the present demands of a given situation (147). Humans, by contrast, are capable of understanding the position of things by virtually positioning their own body as if they were occupying the position of the thing, thus possessing a “mobility of perspective” (149). The key to understand the difference between lived and objective spatiality is the exercise of symbolic conduct (150): a sort of second order capacity, a second power (152), that turns the habitual motor significances into explicit or thematic objects of our experience (152). Moss Brender further describes how space has a crucial temporal dimension. On the one hand, space, as grounded in the developmental nature of the body, has an unfixed meaning that is open to the constant changes of that body. On the other hand, the meaning of space cannot be reduced to the activity of this body since space also involves a general or impersonal dimension that precedes the very existence of any-body (154). Hence space has a meaning or a particular orientation before the birth of my body, such that my body and the space it accesses is inherited by a past that is general, like its “evolutionary history” (154). Therefore, the space in which the body participates, the general space embodied by the orientation of the general past, is a tradition or an institution (155), but one that cannot be made fully explicit insofar as it transcends every possible individual body.

In chapter eight, David Ciavatta explicitly approaches the subject of time, and in particular its generality. He argues that, although our notion of time as an objective dimension of the world is rooted in the lived time of the embodied subject, it is the cyclical nature of time that gives it its generality, which does not correspond to any particular experience, but makes all of them possible. Essentially, the cyclical nature of the organic aspects of our bodies (such as breathing) and of natural events (such as day/night patterns) engender an attitude of indifference in experience of any particular moment of these cycles (161). Nonetheless, there is a discontinuity within this generality that makes these recurrent patterns identifiable as episodes of an even more general (or continuous) time, just like this present moment is part of the present day of the present week, and so on. (172). These temporal episodes, always nested in broader cycles, do not represent a simultaneous happening of all of them at once (173), but a disintegration of cycles into more general fields of presence (174). However, since the generality of time is grounded on the existence of individual cycles, each episode of time has an individuality that makes it unique in the general field of time (175). In this regard, any experiential subject has a limited duration marked by the start of their own birth. The time before their birth cannot, nonetheless, be experienced by them, though it can be experienced by someone else. The experience of natural cycles has the same historical or episodic feature. Consequently, the world has its own duration, its own history, its own episode, that is also part of a more general time. But here, we face a level of generality that cannot be lived by anybody—that is, the world has a past that has never been present, and this reveals some sort of natural a priori of time (177).

Part III, “Meaning and Ambiguity,” addresses the eponymous themes in terms of perceptual experience. In keeping with the question of time, David Morris, in chapter nine, lead us deeper into the question of how the temporally open-ended relation of living beings and the environment grounds the emergence of meaning. Morris’s metaphor of “balancing” is helpful in understanding Merleau-Ponty’s description of meaning as something “never fully present” for a subject, but instead present only as a temporal phenomenon of expression and institution. Although “balance” might be “represented” as a point in the idealized space of Newtonian physics, this “point” is actually unreachable in the temporal unfolding of the world. This balance, though, still might be considered as real if we consider it as a phenomenon of time—that is as balancing (201). Briefly, the balancing movement might be oriented towards an optimal state of balance, but this optimality depends on the forces already at work at any particular moment of the movement (such as gravity, momentum, inertia). Thus a balancing object moves towards this never fully given point of balance (its future) that carries on its past (the preset of the dynamic forces) (201). The establishment of (spatial) levels exhibits the same characteristic of balance in terms of the body. The habitual response of the body to the call of different situations is guided by a norm that is not fixed or set in advance of the actual history of embodiment and enactment of the space of any particular situation (198). However, in this latter case, the past of the body is not only the immediate past of its movement, but also the stable structure of the past represented by the habitual or virtual body, and the actualization of his actions when coping with the present conditions of the environment (199). This same phenomenon occurs in perception, where significant changes take place at the level of the stable structure of the environment (200). Finally, to understand the logic of perceptual development, in this normative sense, Morris turns our focus to the questions of expression and institution in Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Basically, Morris argues that perception is an expressive act that involves the generation of new meanings through an institutional process (203). Perception articulates new levels by generating new optimal points of balance (meaning), from the already given forces (the instituted past) in its encounter with the present. However, since this expressive act generates a never fully given meaning, the indeterminateness of meaning leaves room for the institution of new meanings (205). This indeterminateness, however, possess a directedness which is an excess, or a pregnancy of potential for new meanings. This excess, Morris argues, is temporality itself (212).

In chapter ten, we find one of the most peculiar texts of this volume. Ömer Aygün, begins by addressing Merleau-Ponty’s characterizations of binocularity from the Structure of Behavior to his posthumous work The Visible and the Invisible. Later, Aygün contrasts the different modes of existence implicated in binocularity and in the monocular vision of Cyclopes, as described in ancient Greece literature. Fundamentally, Aygün argues that binocularity, for Merleau-Ponty, cannot be grounded on the Cartesian idea of two already given separated (retinal) images that are later unified by consciousness. Neither the physical stimuli nor an act of consciousness are enough to explain its unified nature (223-24). This raises the problem of the integration of two different perspectives unified in the visual experience we habitually have. A more holistic approach to binocularity is taken by Merleau-Ponty as early as the Structure of Behavior, but it is in the Phenomenology that Merleau-Ponty offers an account of this issue in terms of an existential project (225)—that is, in terms of the articulation of the body in light of a particular situations soliciting movement. The synthesis of binocular visual fields is thus reached through the seeing subject’s the being-in-the-world rather than in consciousness. Moreover, the kind of unification represented by this binocularity is more than a synthesis. In the Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes this synthesis as a metamorphosis that expresses the power on perception (perceptual faith) to reveal the world as a unified whole where communication with others is possible (228). This communication, like binocular vision, also entails the ambiguity of two perspectives looking at the same object, but nonetheless engaged in one single project (237). By contrast, for the monocular view of the cyclops, the world is revealed as a sheer positivity (that is, presences without ambiguity) (230). This makes him an isolated being, enclosed in his solipsism, and thereby excluded from the normative domain of law, language and love, characteristic of humans.

In chapter eleven, Marrato responds to Levinas criticisms on Merleau-Ponty’s account of alterity. For Levinas, Merleau-Ponty ignores the radical separation between the self and the other (243). Marrato identifies three main lines of criticism. First, Levinas considers that the reversible experience of the body, of touching and being touched, is not equivalent to the experience of touching and being touched by another person’s body. Secondly, he argues that Merleau-Ponty’s account of expression does not highlight the fundamental communicative role of this phenomenon. Finally, Marrato argues, for Levinas, Merleau-Ponty’s focus on visual perception for his philosophical inquiries makes him more concerned with questions about the knowledge of the world than about the ethical engagement with the other (243). In response, Marratto argues that Merleau-Ponty’s account of vision is not the typical theoretical model found in Western philosophy, where the perceiver is detached from the perceived. Instead, vision is an act very similar to touch. But unlike touch, vision is a distancing experience that further emphasizes the inherent depth of the horizons of the world (245). To perceive is, indeed, an active engagement of the body in its response to the solicitations of the environment, Perception, that is, is already an expressive behavior, and the art of painting “prolongs” this power of expression (244). Painting, thereby, does not represent the world but articulates new forms of meaning, a new way to look at the world. Painting, Marratto argues, is already an ethical act since a normative dimension is already present in the very act of expression (246). Expression is achieved when the painter or the seer gives birth to a new meaning—but this meaning is not merely the creation of the painter or the seer. Rather, the visible imposes its own criteria of correctness on the act of expression (246), even as the visible is itself not fully determined in advance (246-47). In this regard, vision opens up to something that is other than itself, questioning and responding through the expressive act of painting and perception. It is in the distance between the question and the response that “the spade of alterity” emerges (247). This space of alterity inhabits the body itself since the reversible act of the hand touching and being touched exhibits a never fully given coincidence within itself (248). A similar account is given across the different modalities of perception (such as vision and touch, 248) and in binocularity (249). Hence the expressive act of perception always involves some degree of alterity.

The last part of the book— “Expression”—is comprised of four texts that turn our attention from Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception towards his inquiries into expression and ontology, and lead us beyond the Phenomenology. In chapter twelve, Mathew J. Goodwin explores the notion of aesthetic ideas. Instead of adopting the traditional position, which considers thinking and sensation as two separated realms, Goodwin argues that aesthetic ideas make our perception more profound, by revealing the sensible in “its lining and depth” (253). Goodwin starts by introducing us to the distinction made by Merleau-Ponty (adapted from Leonardo da Vinci) between two different kinds of artistic expressions: prosaic lines and flexuous lines. Prosaic lines aim to define, once and for all, the positive attributes of things, like “an eidetic invariant that is never actually perceived” (257)—namely, it is a mere process of abstraction. By contrast, flexuous lines aim to bring our aesthetic experience toward the very genesis of our perceptual experience, the lived space where things are situated and where they become enacted by our bodily activity. Likewise, an object is drawn “…according to whatever interior forces of development originally brought it into being…”. (258). Thus, it is by revealing this genesis that an artist gives us an aesthetic idea, making visible the usually invisible depth of a thing (258). Goodwin later argues in this chapter that Mata Clark’s sculptural performances are a good instance of these aesthetic ideas.

Stefan Kristensen, in chapter thirteen, makes reference to another artist’s work: that of Ana Mendieta. He argues that phenomenal space and the ontological notion of the flesh in Merleau-Ponty entail the phenomenon of mourning. Phenomenal Space or depth are concepts that redefine our traditional notions of space and time (273). Instead of conceiving space and time as already given dimensions where objects and events are juxtaposed and mutually excluded, depth is the dimension where they are seen to encroach upon one another (273). Kristensen is especially interested in the phenomenon of mourning as it is implicated in the temporal dimension of depth (275). Merleau-Ponty describes our experience of the world as involving not only its presence, but also its past. This past is not the discovery of a pre-existence, but the formation of something “that appears as having already been there” (276). Hence when we understand, for instance, a sentence or perceptual gestalt, we make a “backwards movement.” Likewise, the meaning of an utterance or a picture is given only afterwards (276). For perception, it is the structure of the body schema that establishes the “ground of praxis” for individuals’ action and perception (277). However, this foundational dimension of the body represents the already-being-there of the body, its past that cannot be seen but afterwards (278). Mourning, then, is the process of restructuring bodily spatiality (279) insofar as it is a process that set us free from the past, allowing us to become newly instituted in the present. Nonetheless, the divergence of the body from itself is a process of loss, through which the subject of perception has already vanished even before they try to look at themself. Ana Mendieta’s work, for Kristensen, exhibits the intertwining of presence and absence that make manifest the overlapped temporality of the body and space where the past (that has never been present) and the present (enacted by the presence of the past) converge (280).

In chapter fourteen, Peter Costello reveals the political dimension of the ontological descriptions of the flesh in Merleau-Ponty’s late philosophy. The immersion of the body in the world, becoming part of the flesh (the ontological basis of meaning) exhibits its dual form of appearance as seeing and being seen. This phenomenon, for Costello, is analogous to the Aristotelian affirmation that democracy requires the capacity of citizens to govern and being governed (285). The flesh is also defined as the “formative medium of the object and the subject” (285), and represents the prior dimension of that traditional dichotomy. Moreover, the immersion of the body in the flesh involves the interrelation of the body with multiple (anonymous) other bodies, and thus has an intercorporeal aspect to it (285). This means that the flesh enables an anonymous dimension of visibility (286), like the space of the intertwining with other people—that is, the public space where we are always already interrelated one each other. Nevertheless, the full access to this public space involves our explicit engagement in it, by mutually caring for one another so as to create a community (288). In this regard, Costello considers that for Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne incarnates the democratic nature of the flesh in his paintings by considering color not as an already given property of things (292)—what Cézanne calls “the tyranny over color”—but as symptomatic of the relational space of things and the body, where colors emerge as a spontaneous organization (ibid) only insofar as we participate in their visibility. This makes the observers part of the enactment of colors in Cézanne’s paintings, thereby introducing us to the public space in which things, the painter, and the observer are intertwined in the visual experience (296).

The volume ends with an exquisite text from Laura McMahon, where phenomenology is described as (the reflection on) first order perception. McMahon begins her argument by distinguishing between first- and second-order expression. For Merleau-Ponty, a thought or an idea cannot be given before its linguistic expression since it is in the process of its concrete articulation in language that thought become explicit for the thinker themself, and for the others. Consequently, it is in the moment of speaking or writing that thoughts acquire their particular meaning, their existence (310). However, linguistic expression involves two possibilities: the banal enunciation of already given meanings in second-order speech; and the first-order speech that involves the first-time enunciation of a meaningful utterance, such as when children first begin speaking, or when a poet or philosopher opens a new field of meaning or “world” (314). The institution of a new meaning, therefore, does not constrain the individual to expressing themself through the already given network of significations of the human world, but allows them to break the “primordial silence” of the world (315) by enacting new manners of experiencing it. Expression, nonetheless, is not limited to human speech, since perception is already an expressive act that maintains a “creative dialogue with the things of the world” (316); perception itself is a “nascent logos” (ibid.). The meaningful wholes of perception (Gestalten) are the analogous unities of meaning to sentences in speech (317). In here, McMahon argues, it is also possible to find a second order of perception where things appear as already made objects, fully given in advance to our encounter, as if our own presence were irrelevant for their appearance. This second-order perception describes the experience of the world in a natural or unreflective attitude (320). By contrast, first order perception looks at the very genesis of things: the lived space where we, as perceivers, are already involved in the genesis of the appearance of things. In this regard, the act of perception looks at itself, and not only at what is perceived (321). This kind of self-perception leads Merleau-Ponty in the Visible and the Invisible to talk about what he calls radical reflection. This kind of reflection uncovers its own roots (322), by revealing the genesis of signification in the already given meaning of things. The implicit order of the world experience in second-order perception and in second-order reflection is best carried out by “positive” scientific thought (323). By contrast, the task of radical reflection, analyzing first-order perception, is the task of phenomenology itself. (324).

At the end of the introduction (18-19), the editors mention two important aspects of what they hope this book will achieve. One is to use this book as a companion for the Phenomenology; another is to treat Merleau-Pontian phenomenology as a practice rather than an object. In terms of the first target, I believe the success of this book depends on the degree of Merleau-Pontian expertise that reader brings to their reading. The novice reader may find the multiple terms and metaphors used by the authors, corresponding to different periods of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, confusing. Furthermore, a semantic promiscuity is pervasive across the different chapters, and readers might get confused by the multiple names used to refer to what seems to be the same concept, or at least concepts more closely linked than any author lets on (e.g. lived space, phenomenal space, depth and flesh). Without a further clarification, it is not clear if these terms are used as synonyms or if a nuanced sense is developed through the use of each term. By contrast, for someone already immersed in the vocabulary and general ideas of the Phenomenology, the use of this book as a companion piece will help them deepen their reading of the Phenomenology, explore Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophy, and track the development of certain concepts. In respect of the second purpose, I find this volume undoubtedly successful. The fresh approach to the subject of perception that incorporates Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, as well as topics of more immediate, contemporary philosophical concern, avoids the repetitive enunciation of the concepts that one can already find in other companions to the Phenomenology. In conclusion, the works bound in Perception and its Development in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology certainly open new possibilities for our practice of reading Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, and for the use of his ideas in addressing contemporary concerns.

Cited Works by Merleau-Ponty

The Structure of Behavior. Trans. Fisher, Alden L. Vol. 3: Beacon Press Boston, 1942/1967. Print.

Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Landes, Donald A. New York, NY: Routledge, 1945/2012. Print.

The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes. Northwestern University Press, 1964/1968. Print.

The Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History, and Politics. Northwestern University Press, 1964. Print.

Institution and Passivity: Course Notes at the College De France (1954-1955). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003/2010. Print.

Frederick C. Beiser: Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900

Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 Book Cover Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900
Frederick C. Beiser
Oxford University Press
Hardback £40.00

Reviewed by: Sergio Valverde (Social Sciences, Metropolitan State University, Saint Paul, Minnesota)

A curious intellectual phenomenon occurred in Germany after 1850. Suddenly, the mood was doom and gloom with no obvious or single explanation. The global market was booming. Germany was a capitalist power rivaling England. French imperialists were defeated. But German intellectuals were stuck in a funk.

The word is Weltschmerz – ‘world pain’. Instead of Hegel’s more optimistic Weltlauf – ‘the march of the world’ towards freedom – Weltschmerz implies “weariness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering” (1). German pessimism involved “a rediscovery [and reformulation] of the [ancient] problem of evil” (5). In short, German intellectuals secularized the concept of evil and attempted to comprehend the meaningfulness of life in the face of the radical ontological evil envisioned by Kant.

For Beiser, the origins of Weltschmerz are a mystery. The great capitalist depression from 1870 to 1900 that came after only helps to explain the spread of Weltschmerz, not its cause. If pessimism were all the rage among the genteel, one would expect them to be cynics to the suffering of others. Yet Weltschmerzers and their challengers had differing positions, not only on metaphysics, but over the “social question” of capitalist modernization and the exploitation of the worker. Many optimists, convinced that social progress (when left alone) is certain and sufficient, opposed welfare reforms. Pessimists wanted state intervention and technical progress to alleviate suffering even if, as a matter of principle, they believed ours was a world racing to the bottom. If pessimism did not have an identifiable social cause, Beiser locates the sullen Zeitgeist in the history of ideas and, specifically, in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer came from a wealthy family. He is famous in the annals of philosophy for coming up with the most offensive philosopher-on-philosopher insults. For years, Schopenhauer languished in obscurity, berating the German professoriat that was represented by Hegel and taking breaks to look for his soon-to-be disciple, Julius Fraunstaedt, his brightest follower and most fervent critic. Living off his father’s rents in Frankfurt, Schopenhauer spent his days musing on nothingness and absurdity in the comfort of his “Grand Hotel Abyss”. When the dust settled and the “dragon seed of Hegelianism” was finally eradicated by the good Christian king (with no small help from Schelling), Schopenhauer had his chance.

At that time, there were two branches of German philosophy. On the one hand, Neo-Kantians offered “transcendental grounds” for science, thereby attempting to justify philosophy in the face of great scientific advances. These were not the advances of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, but the electromagnetism of Michael Faraday, Leon Foucault and the rotation of Earth and, of course, the equations of James Maxwell. On the other hand, positivists saw their craft as a sui generis science of facts. The problem was that both schools forgot the world of emotions, the problem of freedom and the the sense of evil. That is, the very bread and butter of the philosophia perennis. Furthermore, philosophers lacked an audience. Nobody was buying.

With the publication of Parerga and Parapolimena, a collection of witty essays about existence and the meaning of life, in 1851, Schopenhauer became the celebrity philosopher of the second half of the long nineteenth century. As Beiser tells us, his “influence lies more on his age than on individual thinkers.” Schopenhauer successfully set Germany’s philosophical agenda for the rest of the century. What was that agenda?

Schopenhauer devised an anti-theodicy, according to which non-existence is better than existence because existence implies that, even in the very best of lives, a minimum of suffering that is absent in not existing. The position is both perfectionist and realist. First, Schopenhauer argued like an upturned Leibniz: the worst of all worlds has a maximum of evil compatible with existence because if we add one gram more of that poison, the world ceases to be. Second, Schopenhauer endorsed Epicurus and some of the ancient utilitarians. Pain always outweighs pleasure and, if we were rational, we would choose nothingness over being. Yet we exist, so what to do in such a pickle?

Schopenhauer returned to the questions of classical philosophy: life, pain, death and meaning. According to Schopenhauer, evil and suffering belong to the very make-up of our world. However, it is not Kant’s concept of evil, which is a matter of just intelligence, of freely and rationally choosing the opposite of the Categorical Imperative. Radical evil for Kant allows us to disrespect other people’s dignity, violate their autonomy and walk all over their humanity in a purely disinterested and universal way. For Schopenhauer, however, evil is not only a “noumenal” idea that guides our actions. Evil is noumenal in a more radical way; it is part of the very nature of existence. The will only cares about itself. As Beiser puts it, “life is suffering because it is the product of an insatiable and incessant cosmic will” (37).

Schopenhauer’s assertions on cosmic wills were, in a sense, more radical than those of Kant. The latter told the world that it is impossible to know things as they really are. He critiqued a type of reason that thinks it speaks for things in themselves, or worse, for non-things like God and the soul. Kant built a wall between representation and whatever was behind or beyond it. He argued, instead, that we can only know our own mental representation of things. But Kant was not an atheist. He reserved the capacity to think beyond appearances for morality. Only as a commandment of the will can the idea of God or the soul be of any use. Such entities cannot be proven by science but ethical beings need them to make free-will feasible. Freedom is not proven but demanded. As Fichte claimed, freedom is “posited” by an infinite will.

Schopenhauer, however, was a Kantian. He was aware of the faux pas against established orthodoxy and he “solved” the ontological question by inlaying a new dimension to the already radical duality between things-in-themselves and representations. Schopenhauer agreed, following orthodoxy, that the faculty of understanding produces representations. But he reserved the will for the noumenal realm — the old country of metaphysics. Beneath all representations of things, there is this inexhaustible, irrepressible and unending will of which everyone is only a fleeting quote.

Yet, for Schopenhauer, a return to metaphysics had only practical significance. It is not Scholasticism 2.0. Schopenhauer addressed “the puzzle of existence” in practical terms. This simple and apparently antiquated, yet profound, change in tactics made him different and popular among readers of the time. So, what were the ethical implications of his new metaphysics?

Beiser thinks that Schopenhauer produced a sort of Protestant atheism, or “Protestantism without theism”. It is not enough that we suffer. We deserve to suffer. In their obstinate attachment and reiteration of original sins as excuses for our suffering, Schopenhauer joined other great modern reactionaries like Joseph DeMaistre and Juan Donoso Cortés. Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s negative anthropology was useful in drawing the necessary weapons against starry-eyed Enlightenments. Because man is evil, a strong hand is needed. Because man is evil, only grace can save us. However, due to the impenetrability of God’s designs, such voluntarism is usually resolved in a monastery and in the blind acceptance of rules. But Schopenhauer was not a man of mystery. His catholic rationalism and cosmological voluntarism is a fascinating mix. Schopenhauer did believe that natural law can be known. The problem is that his notion of natural law is not the happy and elated one of Aquinas. The selfish will is the only natural necessity. Yet, unlike Spinoza, Schopenhauer thought that we can separate ourselves from an absolute will (“lift the veil of Maya”) by using our understanding and denying the will. It is the aesthetic quietism well known to Schopenhauer readers. Yet, how does one reconcile Schopenhauer’s determinism of the will with intellectual autonomy? Beiser offers an explanation of this contradiction. However, his is not a decent solution. Ultimately, it is a problem that manifests when philosophy starts with absolute definitions and proceeds through dichotomies until the end. Antinomies always remain antinomies because of a static universe despite Schopenhauer’s hyperactive will.

Historians have long ignored the tradition Schopenhauer started. However, Beiser shows that, from 1860 to 1900, Schopenhauer towered above all others in Germany. Schopenhauer’s followers like Eduard von Hartmann or critics like Karl Eugen Duhring (sadly remembered today for being the punching bag of Engels and for his late anti-Semitism) were stars in the intellectual sky of the Second Reich. Hartmann’s “flat, dry, and boring” Philosophy of the Unconscious went through eight editions. Duhring’s Natural Dialectic went through no less than ten revisions and an equal number of editions. Beiser reminds us of the contemporary importance of these neglected thinkers and, moreover, places Nietzsche within his proper context. Many of Nietzsche’s ideas were borrowed from the “pessimist controversy” that defined German thinking, that is, between Schopenhauerian curmudgeons and the positivist and neo-Kantian Panglossians.

There were many voices involved in the Weltschmerz controversy: Agnes Taubert, Olga Plümacher. Büchner, Duboc, Windelband, Paulsen, Meyer, Vaihinger, Fischer, Rickert, Cohen, Riehl. Beiser, however, explores the philosophies of five of Schopenhauer’s disciples and critics, who responded by recalibrating or re-mixing in different ratios the pessimist and optimist elements in a sort of moral chemistry.

First, there is Julius Frauenstaedt, Schopenhauer’s first apostle and critic. Frauenstaedt was the only Schopenhauerian who came from the fading Hegelian tradition. All others were neo-Kantians or positivists. Frauenstaedt abandoned Hegelianism because the monism of Hegel’s dialectics was not enough to account for the identity of faith and reason. Where does human freedom stand if in the last instance reason is both divine and human? This “divine reason” or “speculative Good Friday” of Hegel cannot be resolved in theism or pantheism because both are “illegitimate metaphysics”. Frauenstaedt finds in Schopenhauer a more feasible solution to this problem. There is, in Schopenhauer’s body of work, both a system of transcendental idealism, according to which the thing-in-itself is separate from appearances and a system of transcendental realism whereby appearances are objectifications of this transcendent will. Thus, it is the will that unites reason and faith. However, Frauenstaedt finds a new dualism in Schopenhauer – the separation of will and understanding. The will needs to represent the object of its striving; it needs to have an idea of what it wants. On the other hand, why does the cosmic will that is all-powerful and self-sufficient divide itself into two — itself and non-will? Other dualist problems in Schopenhauer concern the distinction between philosophy and natural science and the Schopenhauerian contempt for history in favor of metaphysics. All these problems that originate from Schopenhauer’s radical dualism were signs for Frauenstaedt that Schopenhauer remained trapped in “the cage of idealism.” In the end, Beiser thinks Frauenstaedt could not abandon the basic Hegelian conviction that things always work out for the better even if they do so through the worst.

Karl Eugen Duhring was Schopenhauer’s fiercest detractor. He opposed Schopenhauer with an optimism based on natural science and socialism. Duhring’s positivism precluded any metaphysics of cosmic wills and known unknowns. Immanence is absolute. We determine the  value of life, our own small measure of peace. However, according to Beiser, Duhring contradicts himself. We can grasp nature and reality through intellect and correctly conclude that there is no world beyond. Yet, for Duhring, the intellect cannot make a final determination on the worth of existence. That determination is ineffable. On the topic of death, Duhring joined the gang of pessimists repeating Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius; we shall not fear death since we cannot experience it.

Duhring was one of only a couple of Weltschmerzers that harbored leftist sympathies in the “pessimist controversy.” Most were well into the political right. However, unlike Mainlander, Duhring thought that we can make life happier for the greatest number through science and redistribution. For Mainlander, even socialism does not solve suffering.

The most influential theorist of pessimism was Eduard von Hartmann. Philosophy of the Unconscious was the “eye of the storm” in the 1870 pessimist controversy. Hartmann tried to reconcile Schopenhauer’s pessimistic voluntarism and Hegel’s optimistic rationalism in a systematic way through a) pantheistic monism, b) transcendental realism, c)an eudemonic pessimism and d) evolutionary optimism. Hartmann saw that spiritual monism solves the problems of theism and materialism altogether. It avoids the traps of theism in that ethics is autonomous in a pantheist system because moral law comes from the dictates of a cosmic self, while theistic ethics is heteronomous; one should obey an alien God. Spiritual monism also avoids the traps of materialism. This cosmic self has a purposeful nature in the sense that it is not a machine without track. Secondly, against Kant, Hartmann followed Schopenhauer in taking a transcendental-realist position; appearances can give us some information on the things-in-themselves. Consequently, Hartmann thought that the best position is the ancient ideal of eudaimonia because it has an idea of how the universe really works. The world is pain and suffering but life is worth living if one follows the ancient utilitarian principle of avoiding both. However, Hartmann shared with the positivists and Hegelians a belief in progress and claimed that, culturally or as species, mankind heads for the better. This evolutionary optimism allowed Hartmann some measure of social Darwinism in that pain, suffering, war and colonialism are tools for progress unbeknownst to us in another iteration of the Hegelian List der Vernunft.

Beiser devotes a later chapter on Hartmann in relation to the pessimist controversy between 1870 and 1900. It describes the main points of the polemic between Hartmann and his two “female allies”, Olga Plumacher and Agnes Taubert, against Lutheran priests and neo-Kantians (a more intellectual kind of Lutheran) on whether life is worth living on the basis of love, pain, and pleasure. It is worth mentioning that one of the debates is about the question on whether the hedonic calculus should be considered quantitatively or qualitatively. By that time, economic thought was undergoing a profound change on this question. Marginalism — to which this problem was central — caused a major revolution that transformed economics into the science that it is today.

Phillip Mainlaender (née Phillip Batz) was the most utopian politically and the most coherent. He followed his master’s proclivities for dark and gore with even more gusto. He signed off his only book and immediately hung himself. Mainlander’s philosophy is a gospel of suicide. The only way out of suffering is death. His view of life is not that of Stoic tranquility but of the Christian mystic. Life is suffering and death redeems us all. Yet, Mainlaender was a materialist and did not believe that there is life after death, not even the promise to enjoin the one true cosmic will of Schopenhauer. For him, such ideas are abstractions. Mainlander was a nominalist. For him, there is only the individual will. He was also profoundly democratic and nationalist. For all his ethical pessimism, what matters in social life is sympathy and pity for the suffering of others, not the misanthropy and scorn proper to reactionaries like Schopenhauer.

Finally, there was Julius Bahnsen. His philosophy further problematized Schopenhauer’s metaphysics along familiar scholastic lines of whether the will is universal (Schopenhauer), multiple (Bahnsen) or individual (Mainlander). Bahnsen’s ideas were powerful and original, yet those traits came from a profoundly mentally ill man. His marriage was a disaster. His career as a professor failed. Some of his anxieties betrayed his petty-bourgeois conditions. Much of Bahnsen’s views were rooted in that social resentment that comes, like Schopenhauer, from not being of the establishment. For Bahnsen, pessimism sprang from failed dreams, not from the primacy of suffering in life. If suffering were the criterion, “even animals would be pessimists”.

In the face of dissatisfaction, Bahnsen revised some key aspects of his master’s doctrine. Firstly, there is individual responsibility in life’s actions and projects. Accordingly, the cosmic will is useless. Will is just a property or potential but the actual outcome is the sole province of each. Secondly, since responsibility presupposes autonomy (Kant), then the will must be redefined as plural and individual — a monadology so to speak of individual substances in the noumenal realm. Thirdly, even with disinterested activities such as aesthetics, there is also will — a “higher interest” of “self-promotion, self-affirmation, and self-satisfaction” (again, Bahnsen’s job anxieties come to the fore.) That the will is resilient in all fields of activity questions the stark division between will and representation. On the one hand, to experience art without interest or intellectual curiosity is boring “even if it were forms of Plato”. On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s notion of aesthetic detachment is refuted by the real fact that “we are touched and moved by aesthetic objects.”

Beiser’s book is delightful, clear and thorough. It is written in the best style of historians of philosophy. My only issue as a reader who prefers social histories of thought is that his approach is too internalist and textualist. For Beiser, “there seems to be no straightforward social or historical case for [German Weltschmerz]” because the period studied seems like “a happy age” for Germany. However, I take issue with this hypothesis and subsequent dismissal of social explanations. Furthermore, I think Beiser mirrors sociological reductionism in reverse. For mechanical theories of material-cum-intellectual conditions, then, if social conditions are happy, intellectual traditions have an optimistic outlook. Indeed, if conditions are dire, then pessimism is the intellectual order of the day. Beiser’s argument is similar: since social conditions were good in Germany, then the only reason for intellectual pessimism is the ideas of an individual (Schopenhauer) who caused the entire ruckus. However, to accept this theory would reduce German pessimism to a dull workout of the disgruntled class of intellectuals. In my opinion, things are always socially conditioned despite the apparent contradiction, or precisely because of real contradictions, between thought and (social) being. It is more interesting to speculate on why capitalist expansion produces periodically the kind of languor we see today and of which German Weltschmerz were the outcome and not the cause.  I recall Walter Benjamin’s studies on Baudelaire. Why is it that Baudelaire produced dark and gloomy poetry in Paris, “the capital of the 19th century”? Why did Baudelaire use another genre of allegories to express a problematic that was not visible in economic indicators? Though speculative, Benjamin offers a more satisfying social theory to Weltschmerz. It is precisely in times of commodity abundance and high consumer satisfaction offered by a buoyant capitalism that the meaninglessness of material life expresses itself as boredom and hopelessness. Even Benjamin’s explanation would make sense along Schopenhauer’s lines: since desire is endless and instant satisfaction guarantees boredom, why do we need more?


Françoise Dastur: Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude

Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude Book Cover Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
Françoise Dastur. Translated by Robert Vallier
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Reviewed by:  Rhonda Siu (University of New South Wales)

Françoise Dastur’s aim in her most recent monograph, Questions of Phenomenology, is to examine how various phenomenologists have responded to the essential questions of philosophy, especially those which challenge the phenomenological approach (Dastur 2017, xiii-xiv).  The background to Dastur’s project is the transformation of the meaning of “phenomenology” in the early twentieth century from a specific philosophical discipline to a new understanding of philosophy itself (ibid., xiii).  This new understanding is based on the view adopted by Husserl from the ancient philosophers that philosophy is a collective enterprise that brings different thinkers together (ibid.).  Dastur thus emphasises not individual theorists but rather the interconnections between them that revolve around their shared concerns (ibid.).  A broad range of concerns underlie the fourfold structure of Dastur’s monograph: (1) language and logic, (2) the self and the other, (3) temporality and history, and (4) finitude and mortality.

There are several particularly meritorious aspects of the monograph.  Despite the considerable ground she traverses, Dastur’s discussions are highly integrated; she moves fluidly from one to another by drawing connections between the themes that emerge throughout the work.  For example, Dastur notes that the difference between Husserl and Heidegger’s emphases on the immortality of the “transcendental ego” and finitude, respectively, also results in different perspectives of history, and of the threat that technology poses to human existence (in Patočka’s thought).  Equally as fluidly, Dastur weaves phenomenologists’ views into an intricate tapestry of different but interconnected perspectives.  Rather than seeking to eliminate the conflicts between viewpoints, Dastur acknowledges the existence of “irreconcilable positions” (ibid.) and immerses herself into the complex relationships between them.

This fluidity is also embodied in Dastur’s own approach to phenomenology, which allows for a nuanced and sustained analysis of the central themes.  Two main influences underlie her approach.  Following Husserl and Heidegger, Dastur also believes that phenomenologists share “the practice of a method” rather than a particular “doctrine” or “school” (ibid.).  Following Merleau-Ponty, she conceives of phenomenology as a constantly evolving “movement” rather than a finished or fixed structure (ibid.).  Consequently, rather than pitting different phenomenologists against each other, Dastur establishes a conversation between them by examining how each has participated in, and thereby contributed to, this movement by developing, critiquing and even diverging from the ideas of his predecessor/s.  To her credit, Dastur explores not only the movement between different philosophers’ views, but also within each philosopher’s views as they evolve.  While Dastur’s analysis centres on the complex relationship between Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenologies, she also explores the notable contributions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Eugen Fink, Jan Patočka and Emmanuel Lévinas.  Whereas she recruits the first five philosophers as mediating figures between Husserl and Heidegger, she enlists Lévinas as her main interlocutor in her unifying endeavour.  Given her focus on phenomenology as a movement, Dastur does not argue that Husserl’s views are superior to Heidegger’s, or vice versa.  Rather, she acknowledges that Heidegger is indebted to Husserl for providing the groundwork for his own phenomenological views and for prompting him to “designate his own mode of thinking as ‘phenomenology’ until the end of his career” (ibid., 46).

Commentators such as Burt Hopkins note that such unbiased approaches are “conspicuously lacking” in the analyses of the Husserl-Heidegger relationship in the existing scholarship (Hopkins 1993, 4, emphasis in original).  Instead, Hopkins claims:

The literature treating the relationship between the phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger has not been kind to Husserl.  Heidegger’s “devastating” phenomenologically ontological critique of traditional epistemology and ontology, advanced under the rubric of “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time, has almost been universally received, despite the paucity of its references to Husserl, as sounding the death knell for Husserl’s original formulation of phenomenology.  (ibid., 1)

In part one, Dastur begins by examining Husserl’s views of language, logic and knowledge before turning to the transition of Husserl’s approach to phenomenology to Heidegger’s through the inclusion of the hermeneutical dimension.  In chapter one, Dastur investigates Husserl’s early theory of knowledge, focussing on how his epistemological views in Logical Investigations were influenced by the German philosopher, Rudolph Hermann Lotze’s theory of “validity”.  Lotze’s work, Dastur claims, was a key contributing factor in Husserl’s transition from the “psychologism” he adopted from Franz Brentano to “logicism” and its attendant Platonic underpinnings (Dastur 2017, 5).  What Husserl takes from Plato (and Lotze) is the notion that the validity of a proposition (when understood as “universality”) is based on its being a “truth in itself” (ibid., 14).  Dastur claims that it is this idea of “truth in itself” and the wider “logicism” wherein it is embedded that Husserl will later abandon following his “idealist ‘turn’” in 1905-07 (ibid.).

Continuing her investigation of Husserl’s epistemology in chapter three, Dastur provides a reading of Husserl’s more mature text, Experience and Judgment which focusses on the “genealogy of logic” (ibid., 29).  She distinguishes between Husserl and Heidegger’s notions of “originary experience” (ibid., 35).  Whereas Husserl associates this experience with the “individual”, she argues that Heidegger associates it with Dasein’s “originary openness to a world”, which also includes its relations with others (ibid., 35 and 40).  Also in this chapter, Dastur expands on the reasons behind Husserl’s departure from Brentano’s psychologism.  She claims that psychology, for Husserl, approaches its limits when it attempts to go back to “originary experience”; it can only reach an experience that has already been informed by “idealizations” originating in the “modern natural sciences” (ibid., 29).  In departing from this psychological perspective, Husserl, Dastur argues, does not dismiss science but rather seeks to attain a more comprehensive understanding of it by revealing the implicit assumptions behind its idealizations (ibid.).

In chapter two, Dastur examines Husserl’s enterprise of developing a “pure logical grammar”, focussing on the fourth Logical Investigation (ibid., 15).  Departing from the modern linguists of his time who relied heavily on empirical methodology, Dastur claims that Husserl seeks to revitalise the former notion of “‘universal’” and “‘a priori grammar’” through revealing the “conditions of possibility for all language and all meaning” (ibid., 15-16 and 19, emphases in original).  Dastur also astutely challenges Husserl’s privileging of the “category of the substantive” in this enterprise due to his (questionable) assumption that it underlies the grammatical forms of all languages (ibid., 25-26).  She employs Johannes Lohmann’s observation that while “Indo-European languages” may have the “predicative structure of the proposition” as their basis, this does not apply to other languages like Chinese (ibid., 26-27).

In chapter four, Dastur details Heidegger’s combination of phenomenology with hermeneutics to form the notion of “hermeneutic phenomenology” (ibid., 52).  This, she claims, partakes in Heidegger’s endeavour to show more emphatically than Husserl how phenomenology, rather than being a new direction in philosophy, is actually an extension of Plato and Aristotle’s “philosophical project” (ibid.). As commentators like Günter Figal (2012, 525) observe, “the hermeneutical dimension of phenomenology remains at the margins” of Husserl’s philosophy.  Although acknowledging that hints of this dimension can be found in the first Logical Investigation and the fifth Cartesian Meditation, Figal maintains that “Husserl never discussed the hermeneutical aspects of his conception of phenomenology; he never clarified what precisely he meant by ‘explication’, and how it should be practiced” (ibid., 525-526).

Dastur claims that a key difference between Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies lies in their views of how the subject initially experiences the world.  In what she refers to as Husserl’s “philosophy of the pure gaze”, the world first appears to the subject as impenetrable and perplexing; the meaning-giving act of the “constituting consciousness” is required to render it intelligible (Dastur 2017, 51).  By contrast, Dastur suggests that in Heidegger’s “hermeneutic phenomenology”, the subject is from the very beginning already embedded in, and engages with, the world and thus finds it comprehensible upon first contact (ibid., 51-52).  Aligning himself with the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, Heidegger believes that the world cannot be reduced to a “pure sensuous given” inasmuch as perception is already a reaction to, and the initiation of a conversation with, the world (ibid., 43-44).

Part two of Dastur’s monograph is multifaceted, comprising analyses of: (1) Husserl’s “transcendental reduction”, (2) the self-other/patient-therapist relationship in the medical domain from a Heideggerian perspective, and (3) the crucial question of intersubjectivity in Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenologies by way of Levinas’ distinctions between the same and the other, and between ethics and ontology.  In chapter five, Dastur outlines the ways that Husserl distinguishes his method of “phenomenological reduction” from that employed by the positive sciences (ibid., 57-58). Positive science assumes a pre-existing object that will be subjected for analysis, but Husserl’s “reductive method” does not (ibid., 57).  Dastur also analyses how Husserl departs from Descartes’ “representational” view of knowledge when he develops the notion of the “constituting consciousness” that marks the “transcendental turn” in his philosophy (ibid., 62-63).  Whereas the object and consciousness are completely distinct in Descartes’ epistemology, they are interrelated in Husserl’s philosophy (ibid.).  Dastur argues that, for Husserl, this does not entail that the constituting consciousness is responsible for founding the object; rather, the object initially becomes meaningful to us through the interpretative activity of consciousness (ibid., 63).  She also argues that what eventually motivated Husserl to distance himself even further from Descartes was his perception of Descartes’ inability to adequately address the issue of intersubjectivity, which Husserl regarded as essential to grasping the meaning of subjectivity (ibid., 65).

In chapter seven, a highly distinctive and interesting section of the monograph, Dastur examines how Heideggerian phenomenology can be applied to the medical domain, especially the possibility of deriving from it a “‘doctrine of human illness’” or a “therapy and preventative medicine” (ibid., 84).  Her analysis concentrates on two Swiss psychiatrists, Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger, who applied Heidegger’s ideas to their psychiatric practice in different ways.  Heidegger, Dastur claims, approved of Boss’ method of Daseinsanalyse because it forged a potential bridge between the ontological and ontic domains (ibid., 83).  By contrast, Heidegger claimed that Binswanger’s “psychiatric analysis of Dasein” constituted a “complete misunderstanding” of his thought as it did not progress beyond “an ontic and existentiell interpretation of factual Dasein” (ibid., 83-84).  A Heideggerian therapy that avoids the shortcomings of Binswanger’s approach, Dastur suggests, would necessitate a deeper engagement on the doctor’s part than the simple application of the ontological to the ontic by requiring the doctor to actually “experience himself as Da-sein” and perceive “all human reality” through this lens (ibid., 84).

In chapters six and eight, Dastur takes up the crucial “question of the other” in phenomenology by examining the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger’s views of intersubjectivity.  In both chapters, Lévinas serves as Dastur’s main interlocutor as she critiques his strict distinction between Being and ontology, on the one hand, and Ethics and the Other/alterity on the other.  In chapter six, she argues against Lévinas’ contention that the “question of the other” is adequately accounted for in Husserl’s philosophy but not in Heidegger’s, claiming instead that this question should be further examined in both their philosophies in an unprejudicial way (ibid., 69-70).  Temporality is central to Dastur’s investigation of intersubjectivity here insofar as she bases her analysis on what she perceives as Lévinas’ worthwhile contention that the “alterity of the other” is entwined with the “alterity of time itself” (ibid., 70).  She claims that Husserl’s notion of “self-constitution” relies on the alterity of time because the ego is necessarily constituted at a moment other than the present, meaning that the “constituting” and “constituted” cannot coincide (ibid., 71).  Dastur suggests that for Husserl this also applies to the self-other relationship.  Just as the ego cannot have immediate or direct access to its “past ego” (i.e. it can only recollect its past experiences later through reflection), in Husserl’s notion of “empathy”, the self only has indirect access to the other through “appresentation” (ibid., 74).  Moreover, just as the self’s recollection of its “past-ego” assumes that it shares a “community of consciousness” with the latter, so too does the “appresentation” of the other to oneself presuppose an “originary co-presence of the other” within the flux of time (ibid.).

In Heidegger’s philosophy, Dastur suggests that we find an even more intimate relationship between the self and time because the self is not simply subject to, and in, time, Dasein is time (ibid., 76).  As Heidegger’s well-known analysis of “being-toward-death” illustrates, Dasein’s finite nature means that time is essential to how it understands and interprets its own Being.  Dastur emphasises that, for Heidegger, the term, “being-with”, does not simply entail the fact that other people exist (ibid., 76-77) but is rather implicated and presupposed in how the self understands, and engages with, its finite existence.  Refuting Lévinas and those who accuse Heidegger of “solipsism”, she argues that “[i]t is therefore not at all a paradox to claim that in Being and Time, the question of the other is posed everywhere.” (ibid., 77-78, emphasis in original)

In chapter eight, Dastur recruits ideas from Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another to present a mediating position that adheres neither to Heidegger’s “thought of being” nor to Lévinas’ notion of “otherwise than being”, but rather contains and contests elements of both (ibid., 93 and 101-102).  She challenges Lévinas’ distinction between ontology and ethics by using Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism as an example (ibid., 92).  There, Heidegger combines these two notions by reanimating an ancient notion of ethics, namely, “ethos” (or “place of habitation”), which he conceptualises as the study of the “truth of Being” (Dastur 2017, 92 and Heidegger 1977, 234-235).  Positioning herself against Lévinas, Dastur claims that ontology, for Heidegger, is already “practical”, “engaged” and “ethical”, qualities which help to explain why he did not explicitly produce an ethics (Dastur 2017, 93).

In part three, Dastur establishes a dialogue between Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenological accounts of time by way of Merleau-Ponty’s views of temporality and the notion of the “event”.  Ricoeur and Gadamer’s views of the entwinement of hermeneutics and narrativity in history are also examined.  In chapter nine, Dastur designates Merleau-Ponty as the “figure of the phenomenological movement situated ‘between’ Heidegger and Husserl” by tracing the “movement” of the section on “Temporality” in Phenomenology of Perception (ibid., 112).  There, Merleau-Ponty refutes both the realist and idealist responses to the problem of time.  On the one hand, Dastur claims that the realist view, for Merleau-Ponty, posits that the “subject is in time”, whereby time regarded as an object (ibid., 107, emphasis in original).  In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (2002, 481) suggests that this conventional notion of “objective time” is unviable because it would simply consist in a “series of instances of ‘now’, which are presented to nobody, since nobody is involved in them”.  Rather than being supposedly applicable to everyone, objective time would in fact be inapplicable to anyone.  On the other hand, Dastur claims that the idealist view, for Merleau-Ponty, posits that the subject is “outside” of time and thus supposedly liberated from its confines (Dastur 2017, 107-108, emphasis in original).  For Merleau-Ponty, Dastur argues, this so-called “freedom” is misleading because the subject can only conceive of time’s “passage” or flow by inhabiting time rather than remaining completely detached from it (ibid., 108-109).  Merleau-Ponty’s alternative phenomenological response to the problem of time is that the “subject is time” (ibid., 107, emphasis in original).  By this, he means that an account of time must take the lived experience of the particular subject as its starting point.  It is the subject that either connects, or distinguishes between, the events of his/her past, thereby organising them into an integrated and meaningful narrative.

Dastur suggests that Merleau-Ponty formulates his phenomenological account of time by taking up an unconventional mediating position between Husserl and Heidegger’s views of temporality (ibid., 110 and 112).  Whereas Merleau-Ponty, she claims, follows Heidegger in interpreting Husserl’s notion of “intentionality” as “transcendence”, he follows Husserl in interpreting “ek-stasis” as pertaining to the subject rather than to existence (ibid., 110-111).  Moreover, she continues, by emphasising the subject’s “ek-static rather than synthetic character”, Merleau-Ponty reinforces Husserl’s notion of the “‘living’” or “‘enlarged’” present which, unlike the conventional notion of the present, comprises both the “retentional and protentional horizons” of the past and future (ibid., 113 and 115).  Dastur deems this marriage of Husserl and Heidegger as “the proper singularity of Merleau-Ponty’s work, which manages to give an eminent sense to the unity of what we have rightly called not the ‘school’ but the ‘movement’ of phenomenology” (ibid., 115).

In chapter ten, Dastur tackles the challenging question of how phenomenology can conceive of the “event”.  Specifically, Dastur claims that “the question is to show how a phenomenology of the event (if it is possible) constitutes the most proper completion of the phenomenological project rather than an announcement of its destitution or impossibility, as thinkers of absolute exteriority and alterity (such as Levinas and Derrida) sometimes suggest” (ibid., 120).  In her view, the event poses a challenge to philosophy (including phenomenology) because it exemplifies the “contingency” of time (ibid., 116).  The event, she argues, is brought about through an unexpected rupture between the past and future, which, in turn, is crucial to human experience because it allows for its transformation (ibid., 120).  Dastur investigates the significance of the “event” by examining the “phenomenology of expectation and surprise” that she finds in both Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophies (ibid., 121).  Influenced by Heidegger’s characterisation of death as “possibility” (or an “impossible” paradoxically made “possible”), Dastur links the “phenomenology of eventuality” with the “phenomenology of mortality” (ibid., 121).  Husserl’s philosophy intersects with Heidegger’s in Dastur’s analysis through her claim that Heidegger’s delineation of the possible as “a structure of existence” is grounded in Husserl’s “intentional analyses”, with the notion of “excess” being common to both (ibid., 122).  Just as the “possible” exceeds the “real” in Heidegger’s existential analysis, the “intentional aim” exceeds the “intentional object” in Husserl’s intentional analysis (ibid., 121-122).

Dastur perceptively raises a potential objection to developing a “phenomenology of the event”, namely, the possibility of confronting events of such magnitude (e.g. the death of a lover and “religious conversion”) that they provoke not only a “reconfiguration of possibles” within human experience but the total annihilation of them (ibid., 123).  In such circumstances, Dastur suggests, our ability to even confront the event becomes doubtful insofar as what “we experience in moments of crisis is our incapacity to experience the traumatizing event in the present” (ibid., emphasis in original).  Dastur’s counterargument is that the fact that we attempt to attribute meaning to the event in the first place presupposes that we are already in the process of engaging with it (rather than simply being at its mercy) (ibid., 124).  She argues that, “[w]e must therefore not oppose phenomenology to the thought of the event, but rather conjoin them, so that the opening to the phenomenon can be merged with the opening to the unforeseeable.” (ibid., 124-125).

In chapter eleven, Dastur turns her attention to the issue of “historicity”.  Her analysis centres on the “philosophies of historicity” that arose as a reaction against the undesirable relativism that followed the demise of Hegelianism (ibid., 128).  She claims that these philosophies presented a new way of conceiving the link between “truth and history”, which had previously been overlooked by relativistic approaches (ibid.).  The beginnings of this new conception, Dastur suggests, can be found in Husserl’s phenomenology and, to a certain extent, in the “life-philosophy” of theorists such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Yorck von Wartenburg (ibid.).  However, she also argues that a common weakness amongst these “philosophies of historicity”, including in Husserl’s thought, is their inability to situate history fundamentally in the concepts of “death and finitude” (ibid., 129).  For example, Dastur suggests that Husserl is ultimately unable to grasp the “absolute historicity of consciousness” because he maintains that the transcendental ego is immortal (ibid., 130-131).  By contrast, Dastur believes that “only in Heidegger are finitude and historicity thought as essentially linked to one another, with mortality constituting the hidden ground of the historicity of existence” (ibid., 131).  Dastur stresses here (and in other chapters) that Heidegger’s view of history is not solipsistic because the finite subject is embedded in a community of other finite subjects with whom it remains in conversation (ibid., 132-133).  Aligning herself with Heidegger, Dastur concludes that mortality is the basis of truth and history, and that the acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of “human finitude” and the wider “finiteness of being” signals the opportunity for developing a “new alliance of truth and history” (ibid., 137).

In chapter twelve, Dastur begins by discussing David Carr’s interpretation of Ricoeur’s views on the philosophy of history, concentrating on the relationship between the “ontological” and “epistemological” aspects of narrative (ibid., 138).  Dastur sets out Ricoeur’s view that epistemology and ontology are entwined in narrative in such a way that epistemology transforms into ontology, in turn effecting the “opening of the hermeneutic dimension itself” (ibid., 139-140).  This uncovering of the hermeneutic dimension is possible in Ricoeur’s philosophy, Carr claims, because he departs from the traditional “representational” view of historical knowledge whereby the latter is said to mirror the “real past” (ibid., 139).  By contrast, Carr stresses that historical knowledge for Ricoeur is transformative, maintaining a “‘re-creative’ or reconfigurative” relationship with the past with which it actively engages (ibid.).  As Dastur explains, for Ricoeur it is through the act of interpretation that a profound relationship is established between the historian/interpreter and the past (ibid., 140).  This relationship permeates his/her “fundamental mode of being”, encompassing his/her connection with the texts s/he interprets, other people and to himself/herself (ibid.).

To advance her analysis of history and hermeneutics, Dastur turns to Gadamer’s philosophy, believing that he “most forcefully expressed the linkage of epistemology and ontology in the intermediary dimension of hermeneutics” (ibid.).  She argues that, for Gadamer, the historian’s relationship with the past is not one of domination, but is instead “dialogical” in that the past “speaks” to the historian who simultaneously interprets it (ibid., 140-142).  Dastur claims that, due to the time lapse between the moments of composition and interpretation, the meaning of a text for Gadamer is neither completely foreign nor completely understandable, but is rather situated between “strangeness and familiarity” (ibid., 140 and 142).  Gadamer (2002, 330-331) himself views this “temporal distance” not as an obstacle to be eliminated, but rather as “a positive and productive condition enabling understanding”.  Dastur concludes by concurring with Carr’s contention that “hermeneutics and narrativity” are implicated in each other, such that one can no longer “‘clearly separate life and the activity of recounting this life’” (Dastur 2017, 146).

In the final part of the monograph, Dastur explores the interrelated themes of finitude, worldliness and the divine through Patočka and Fink’s interpretations of Heidegger’s thought.  In chapter thirteen, Dastur further investigates the linkages between Husserl and Heidegger, this time recruiting Jan Patočka as a mediating figure.  While recognising both philosophers as important figures in the phenomenological movement, Dastur claims that Patočka highlights “the unifying elements subtending their opposition…by adopting a critical attitude with respect to both doctrines, to make the profound meaning of phenomenology appear as a ‘reflection on the crisis of thinking,’ which is also a crisis of humanity” (ibid., 151, emphasis in original).

In chapter fourteen, Dastur analyses three of Patočka’s texts that focus on Heidegger’s philosophy.  In the first text, The Crisis of Meaning, Patočka explores the similarities between Heidegger’s work and that of Thomas Masaryk, a Czech politician and philosopher (ibid., 157).  Patočka, Dastur claims, perceives in both Heidegger’s “eminently practical philosophy” and Masaryk’s act of establishing the state, prime examples of “‘engaged thought’” based on Heidegger’s notion of “resoluteness” (ibid., 158-159).  The second text, “Martin Heidegger, Thinker of Humanity”, is the “immediate posthumous elegy” that Patočka wrote for Heidegger (ibid., 160).  There, Dastur claims, Patočka portrays Heidegger as a “thinker of humanity” instead of a “thinker of being”, which is aligned with Heidegger’s own views in Letter on Humanism (ibid.).  Finally, Dastur examines a text that Patočka wrote following his “Varna lecture from September 1973” (ibid., 163).  According to Dastur, Patočka claims that Heidegger’s philosophy constitutes the “‘first truly radical attempts to situate philosophy in finitude’”, with the latter constituting the primary theme in both his early and more mature writings (ibid.).  Based on this assessment, Patočka distances himself from Husserl’s version of phenomenology, with its insistence on the immortality of the transcendental ego, and draws closer to Heidegger’s version.  In Dastur’s reading of Patočka, Heidegger’s emphasis on mortality also means that he perceives technology as a more ominous threat to humanity than Husserl (ibid., 164).  Technology contributes to the illusion of our domination over nature, which is perceived simply as a measurable resource for indiscriminate exploitation (ibid.).  According to Dastur, Patočka’s Heideggerian viewpoint is that technology obscures how “sacrifice” brings the “human nonmastery over beings” to light, thereby tempering the illusory “unconditional mastery” over beings that technology seeks to promote (ibid., 164-165).

In chapter fifteen, Dastur focusses on Eugen Fink’s course, “World and Finitude”, which is based on ideas from Heidegger’s course, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (ibid., 167).  Fink explores in it the interconnections between the themes of finitude and “worldliness”, that is, our relationship with “nonhuman” entities in the world (ibid., 168).  Whereas Heidegger characterises this issue as “ontological difference”, Fink characterises it as “cosmological difference” (ibid., 167).  Fink, Dastur claims, avoids formulating his notion of “cosmological difference” based on Heidegger’s notion of “ontological difference” because he regards cosmology as more fundamental than ontology whereas Heidegger argues for the reverse (ibid., 169).  When investigating cosmological thought, Fink posits the notion of the “‘double experience’ of death” as a counterpart to Heidegger’s notion of death as the “condemnation to extreme individuation” (ibid., 173).  When confronted with death, Fink believes that we experience both “solitude” and “love”, where love is a means of liberating ourselves from solitude (ibid.).  In Dastur’s view, Fink conceives of “love” as an intersubjective experience that emphasises the regeneration of life, that is, the experience of merging with the “‘original and unformed ground of all life and being’”, such as is featured in Nietzsche’s “philosophy of life” (ibid., 173-174).  Dastur argues that, “[i]n opposition to the unilaterality of the Heideggerian interpretation that […] gives primacy to death, Fink wants to give value to the double aspect, individual and social, of death and to conjoin the perspective of the dying with the perspective of the survivor.” (ibid., 176)

In the final chapter, Dastur explores the role of the divine in the phenomenological movement.  Dastur claims that Husserl, like Kant, abandons the traditional philosophical notion of “a metaphysical God” who acts as a “supreme ontological guarantor” (ibid., 180).  Rather, Husserl conceives of God as subject to the “laws of intentionality” in the same way as humans (ibid., 178).  However, Dastur suggests that this conception of God proved problematic for Husserl when he attempted to subject it to the transcendental reduction, because it did not fit neatly into his categories of “immanence” and “transcendence” (ibid., 179-180).  Husserl ultimately arrived at a conception of God as “a perfect and totally rational humanity” constituting the “absolute logos” towards which humans are heading (ibid., 181).  However, Dastur emphasises that this development does not signal “a ‘religious’ turn for phenomenology” in the context of his philosophy (ibid.).

Turning then to Heidegger, Dastur claims that he formulates his own notion of the “last God” based on the experience of the “death of God” in Nietzsche, and the “flight of the Gods” in Hölderlin’s poetry (ibid., 183). Dastur identifies several aspects of this “last God” that Heidegger believes would allow us to develop a more profound grasp of the divine than past conceptions of God (ibid., 184).  First, unlike the “God of revelation”, the “last God” “passes” into time, meaning that it only interacts with us as it retreats (ibid.).  Second, being subject to the flux of time, the “last God” reveals to us “‘the most intimate finitude of being’” rather than the “divine infinitude” of the Christian God (ibid.).  Lastly, unlike the “moral God”, the “last God” does not decree anything (ibid.).

As stated at the beginning of this review, Dastur’s exploration of key phenomenological questions is fluid, nuanced and engages with, rather than avoids, the complexities that emerge from such an investigation.  There are a few more evaluating remarks I want to make to conclude this review.  First, this monograph would be most useful to those seeking an analysis of diverse issues in the phenomenological movement from various perspectives rather than a detailed analysis of a particular issue.  Second, although Dastur raises some astute criticisms of the theorists she examines (e.g. her critique of Husserl’s privileging of the substantive in chapter two), besides Lévinas, I felt that a few more figures who clearly distinguish between Husserl and Heidegger could have been included to render the analysis more balanced.  Lastly, although there are clear lines of argument within the individual chapters that render them cohesive, the reader may sometimes feel frustrated at the lack of an overall topic that unites all parts of the work.  This, however, is probably a result of the approach that Dastur has chosen to adopt, and, moreover, part of the point she wants to make.  As she continually emphasises, phenomenology should be viewed as an evolving movement that encompasses diverse perspectives rather than a doctrine whose followers are assumed to share a common subject-matter or common principles.  The notably diverse nature of phenomenological contributions has been noted by commentators like Dan Zahavi (2012, 1), who observed that sometimes, despite Husserl’s crucial status as the forefather of phenomenology, “virtually all post-Husserlian phenomenologists ended up distancing themselves from most aspects of Husserl’s original program” (ibid.).  He even goes so far as to ask whether “there really [is] something like a phenomenological tradition, let alone a phenomenological method” (ibid.).  From this perspective, then, Dastur’s approach is not flawed but rather an attempt to contribute to the phenomenological movement by tackling a key challenge to it.


Dastur, Françoise. 2017. Questions of Phenomenology: Language, Alterity, Temporality, Finitude. Translated by Robert Vallier. New York: Fordham University Press.

Figal, Gü 2012. “Hermeneutical Phenomenology”. In The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology, edited by Dan Zahavi, 525-542. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2002. “Elements of a Theory of Hermeneutic Experience” from Truth and Method. In The Phenomenology Reader, edited by Dermot Moran and Timothy Mooney, 314-338. London and New York: Routledge.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977. Letter on Humanism. In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, 189-242. New York: Harper and Row.

Hopkins, Burt C. 1993. Intentionality in Husserl and Heidegger: The Problem of the Original Method and Phenomenon of Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2002. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge Classics.

Zahavi, Dan. 2012. “Introduction” to The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology, edited by Dan Zahavi, 1-4. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eric S. Nelson: Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought

Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought Book Cover Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought
Eric S. Nelson
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50

Reviewed by: Erik Hoogcarspel (Independent Scholar)

For those who are interested in the exchange between early phenomenology and China a new interesting study has appeared. The book is divided into nine chapters, some of which are based on articles that have been published before, most of them in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy. The first chapter describes the reception of Confucianism in Germany. It relates how different writers, such as Martin Buber, Georg Misch, Helmuth Plessner, and Karl Jaspers debated the merits of Confucianism.

The second chapter deals with different views on the meaning of life in China and Europe, as expressed in the exchange between the Chinese writer Zhang Junmai and the German vitalists Rudolf Eucken and Hans Driesch. In China, Zhang’s defence of German idealism strongly influenced Chinese philosophy in the 20th century. The third chapter is a comparison of Confucian ethics with the philosophies of Nietzsche and Max Scheler. It focuses on the concept of resentment, in the Western view often considered as caused by a lack of equality, but in Confucianism seen as a flaw in the inner cultivation of harmony.

Next follow three chapters that investigate the different aspects of Euro-centrism in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger. One of those aspects is the naturalistic influence of Taoist thought on the critical attitude towards technology of both Buber and Heidegger. Another aspect is the question of whether philosophy is a single historical event or a general human activity which unfolds itself in different situations and from different causes. Finally, before a concluding chapter investigates the possibilities of an intercultural philosophy, two penultimate chapters explore a confrontation of Martin Heidegger with Zen Buddhism and the relation between emptiness and language. The book is well written and further study is facilitated by many footnotes and an extensive bibliography. There is a general index for quick reference that includes subjects as well as names of Chinese and European writers.

The chapters consist of a series of philosophically-orientated historical case studies, focusing on the confrontation between Chinese and German philosophy. Against the often-quoted opinion of Husserl and Heidegger that philosophy can only be European, the author proposes a more universal concept of philosophy, assuming that philosophy is a universally human potency. The rejection of non-Western philosophy is therefore associated with the denial of humanity to non-Western cultures. For Nelson the intercultural approach also implies a rejection of essentialism, which leads to the conclusion that a multicultural or comparative approach is out of the question. There are no essences or identities of philosophy that can be compared, no inherent differences that can be listed and opposed to each other. The key word Nelson uses is ‘inter-textualism’, the dynamic exchange between texts through the ages by which they cooperate and refer to each other.

Arguably classical Greek and Roman philosophy, in which philosophy is an enquiry about the good life, is closer to non-Western philosophical discussion than our modern Western conception. Nelson complains: “Modern Western philosophy—which is simultaneously universal in its pretensions about its scope and provincial in its actual practises—has been largely indifferent, when not allergically antagonistic, to non-Western forms of thinking” (13).

The first chapter concerns the bad press of Confucianism. This prejudice is, according to Nelson, a heritage of colonial thinking. The prejudices towards Confucianism and the term itself initiated from the reports of Jesuit missionaries who stayed for some time at the court of the Chinese Emperor during the late Ming and early Ching dynasties (roughly the seventeenth century). Since then Confucianism has met with little appreciation in the West, but according to its admirers it can offer interesting ethical political insights that can be useful in Western political philosophy. Nelson mentions some philosophers who were more sympathetic. Pierre Bayle and Nicolas Malebranche identified Confucianism with the pantheism of Spinoza. Christian Wolff even had to leave the University of Jena in 1726 because of the protests of Christian theologians after he equated Jesus and Confucius in his lecture on the practical philosophy of the Chinese.

In the sayings of Confucius, the Analects (Lunyu ), he often appeals to the will of tian 天 (mostly translated as ‘heaven’; sometimes as ‘God’). Because of this translation many philosophers interpreted Confucianism as a kind of Deist or atheist ethics, and inadequate to the rational individualism of the West. Nelson argues that the critics overlooked the openness of Confucianism to critical reflection and reformation of practises and institutions along with the acceptance of the authority of the existing ethical order. Hegel was the most outspoken critic, because he thought Oriental peoples were not capable of understanding the concept of true freedom. Weber admitted that the Chinese and Islamic culture used to be more advanced than the Western, but found them incomplete, because they both lacked transcendence and final redemption. Moreover, Chinese philosophy failed in the complete rationalisation of the life-world and never rid itself of traces of magical thought. Nietzsche associated Confucian and Buddhist ethics with an altruistic ethics similar to Christendom, which he rejected. On the other hand, others were enchanted by the Chinese pure aesthetics that was supposed to be in harmony with nature. Confucius was sometimes compared to Socrates, for instance by Karl Jaspers, but Schelling makes him an anti-Socrates. In the intercultural hermeneutics of Georg Misch (in his book The Dawn of Philosophy), however, Nelson finds some well-founded argumentation for a positive reception of Confucius and of non-Western philosophy in general. Martin Buber and Helmuth Plessner elevated Confucianism beyond the scope of philosophy, because they found it too subtle and noble.

The second chapter describes the work of Zhang Junmai (1886-1969), who introduced the principle of self-reflection of life (shengming 生命) into modern Confucian philosophy. His early work reflects the crisis of meaning that befell the Chinese during the late 19th and early 20th century when several political changes and revolutions took place and the Chinese army appeared to be no match for the Western forces. After a first attempt to assimilate the philosophy of the Western invaders, Zhang looked for concepts similar to Western ideas in the Confucian tradition. If necessary, Confucian ideas could be reformulated or adapted to match the demands of the new era. This was a hazardous strategy, because it could be seen as giving in to the foreign domination and cutting ties with the very Chinese tradition that was to be saved. Zhang wrote a book together with Rudolf Eucken, called The Problem of Life in China and Europe (Das Lebensproblem in China und Europa, 1922), which consists of an abridged history of Western philosophy, an overview of the history of Chinese ethics and a diagnostic reflection on the contemporary ethical situation in China and Europe. Nelson praises it as a nice example of a cross-cultural dialogue, in which Eucken was convinced of the need of a renewal of spiritual life in the West as an answer to the crisis of modernity that had unleashed so much cruelty in the first World War. What is at stake is reason, its nature, its relation to life, and the question of whether it is universal or restricted to the mainstream of Western philosophy.

Nelson relates how Zhang thinks that Western philosophy, with exception of German idealism and the philosophy of Eucken, has failed to integrate life and reason. Eucken maintains that life has originated from metaphysical sources. In this aspect his philosophy contains a spiritual ontology. According to Nelson, Zhang wants to counterbalance the Western will to power by the Chinese emphasis on personal ethical development. In China this message resonated with the classical philosophies of Mengzi (372-289 BCE) and Wang Yangming (1472-1529), but it did not quite fit in with the discourse in China at the time. Zhang was very much opposed to racist and nationalist ideologies, and he rejected the theory that the Han people were a group of one blood and identity. Hans Driesch, who stayed with Zhang in China for nine months, also rejected any difference of essence, nature, or substance between Eastern and Western people, or between Germans and Jews for that matter. In those days the fear of the ‘yellow peril’ (sinophobia) spread around, amongst others propagated by Kaiser Wilhelm, who had a nightmare in 1895 in which the Buddha riding a dragon was conquering Europe. In 1950 this idea was even endorsed by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Zhang was later forced to go in exile to the U.S.A., and his successor Mou Zongsan became one of the most important philosophers in China. On both sides of the globe, Nelson writes, xenophobia had permeated the pores of academics as well as politicians. Nevertheless, there was an opposite current of fascination with the East, both in art and philosophy. However, in the eyes of many this current became affiliated with the romantic and magical thought of theosophy and the New Age. In the meantime China had adopted Marx and Western capitalism.

The third chapter deals with the view on China of Max Scheler and Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that China suffered from a culture of ressentiment. According to Nelson, Scheler maintained contra Nietzsche that ressentiment (resentment being a feeling of unhappiness due to exposure to unfairness and ressentiment a complex attitude of hating life because of spite towards successful people, blaming them for one’s own misfortune) is not linked to Christendom, but to its negation and that of religion in general. It defies the basic moral character of humanity, which can be found in many places in human history, like the teachings of the Stoics and Epicureans as well as those of Taoism and Buddhism. For Nietzsche, however, ressentiment is the very source of all moralities, especially the Christian one, because they all hold that the strong are repressed for the benefit of the week. The opposite of ressentiment is self-affirmation. In Nietzsche’s book Twilight of Idols, Confucius is a preacher of ressentiment, just like Jesus and Plato, in comparison to Nero and Napoleon (84). Nietzsche claims that China is a warning, because there ressentiment merely seems to have been overcome, whereas in fact it still silently rules the hearts of the people. In Nietzsche’s view, the altruism preached by the Buddha and Confucius made the Chinese passive and fearful. This had to be avoided in Europe in order to liberate the strong and noble persons from the domination by the weak masses. Nelson does not share Nietzsche’s verdict; he is convinced that in the Analects many examples are to be found where a selfish attitude is cut short by the cultivation of sincere benevolence and altruism. In his view, earlier Confucian ethics integrates a realistic moral psychology of negative emotions such as resentment with a model of self-cultivation that is aiming at an attitude of benevolence towards others. Early Confucian ethics in general minimizes the expectation of others and maximizes the need for self-discipline, obviously because one is powerless over the other’s expectations and high expectations could lead to resentment. Moreover, the noble person earns respect by helping others. According to Nelson, this is not a matter of self-sacrifice as Scheler and Nietzsche would have it, but a matter of self-cultivation.

Nelson remarks in the fourth chapter that the reception of Chinese philosophy is flawed by inadequate translations, prejudice, and lack of familiarity with the cultural context and differences in circumstances. Intercultural philosophy is captured in a dilemma between rigorous and narrow expertise, and free, creative reading between the lines. Romantic writers contrasted Taoist spontaneity and naturalness with the alienation of the technological modernity. The image of mystic love of nature was combined with wild Orientalistic imagination. Nelson finds in Schelling the first to write an intelligent commentary on the Daodejing. Schelling describes the dao as pure potency, the link between finite and actual being. Knowledge of the dao requires practical wisdom. A milestone in the understanding of Taoism in Germany was Martin Buber’s German translation of the Zhuangzi from the English translations of James Legge and Herbert Allen Giles, which appeared in 1910. Heidegger reportedly read it several times (121). Buber’s preference for this book is quite understandable in light of his most famous book I and Thou that appeared in 1923. Zhuangzi looks in Buber’s eyes a lot like the hasidim of the Jewish tradition, of which he knew the stories all too well. Moreover, the Zhuangzi teaches through humour, contrary to the Daodejing. Ten years later, however, Buber preferred the Daodejing because of its political dimension.

Buber has, according to Nelson, a positive view on Taoism, in which to be one with the dao is to be one with the creativity of life, through non-doing (wu wei). Buber finds a drive towards the actualization of the divine in ordinary life by sensitive persons in both Taoism and Hasidic Judaism. Nelson speculates that Buber’s language of surrender, letting go and inaction anticipated and perhaps influenced Heidegger. Buber once even uses the word Gelassenheit (‘releasement’), which is quite similar to the Chinese concept of non-action (wu wei), but Heidegger claims to have found it in the work of Meister Eckhart. Interestingly enough, however, Buber expressed his concern about the threat of modern science and technology before Heidegger did, emphasizing the need for a European alternative for Taoism. He calls the Taoist writings a source of inspiration (anticipating Peter Sloterdijk’s book Eurotaoism). So in this way Buber thinks an encounter between Chinese wisdom and European rationality to be possible and even necessary. Confucianism is in Buber’s opinion too demanding for the egoist Westerners and tied up with traditional Chinese values, while Taoism looks more promising. Although there is nothing of the Zhuangzi in his writings, Heidegger seems to have taken a great interest in the book. He was inspired by it for his conception of being-with (Mitsein), natural artistry without relying on a technique, and finally the necessity of the unnecessary or the use of the useless. At the end of the second World War the Chinese scholar Paul Shih-yi Hsiao engaged with Heidegger in conversations concerning the Daodejing and they translated sections of the text together into German. Heidegger interpreted the text rather idiosyncratically; understanding other cultures was not his forte. He mentions in the collection On the Way to Language the Chinese word for way, dào, and equals it to the Greek word logos. He calls it “the secret of all secrets of thoughtful saying.” As for Buber, it serves Heidegger as a counterbalance to the threat of technology that is hanging over Western philosophy. Technology causes humans to treat each other as objects, putting all personal relations into oblivion. So for both Heidegger and Buber, Zhuangzi provided a model for non-religious aesthetic freedom. Asian philosophy does not play any part in Heidegger’s history of being; the latter is increasingly assimilated in the West through the planetary advance of the technological world-image and its destructive reduction of beings to instrumental calculation, which originates in the Greek experience of nature as physis. So what makes Asian philosophy relevant to Heidegger? According to Nelson, Heidegger tries to dismantle the history of being and reveal the origins of philosophy in order to reawaken the freshness of its origin. Heidegger insists, however, that this new beginning must come from Greek philosophy. Heidegger is explicitly opposed to the possibility of non-Western philosophy, despite his plagiarism of Taoist texts. Nelson mentions the most famous quote in that regard, which comes from a talk Heidegger gave for the Bayerischen Rundfunk (German radio) in 1952 called What is Called Thinking? (Was heisst Denken?) Asian people are not without thought, but they cannot think, because they do not understand the logos. Nelson thinks Heidegger’s decision to part with Taoist texts must have been taken in 1934, when his sympathies for Hitler increased, such that Heidegger seems never to have reconsidered this decision. Even in 1960 he called the Asian culture ‘dark’ and the ancient Greek one ‘light’. In the interview in Der Spiegel of 1966 he warns against the barbarian influence of Zen Buddhism. He is not alone in this. Even deconstructive philosophers as Derrida and Rorty stated that a non-Western philosophy is not possible. Heidegger rejected Dilthey’s thesis of the multiple origins of philosophy in his Introduction into Philosophy. His argument is that philosophy must be a unity, because there is only one real question, the question of being. This leaves very little room for discussion since Heidegger himself is the only one in the history of philosophy who has asked this question. Nelson does not agree, of course. He thinks that the point of departure for reflection necessarily is the hermeneutical situation of life itself. Whereas the ontological prejudice inhibits every possibility for a dialogue.

Nelson explains that for Misch, as well as for Dilthey, every interpretation oscillates between the alien and the familiar, so in that case no radical difference exists between the hermeneutics of texts from one’s own culture and texts from other cultures. Philosophy does not begin at a certain place at a certain time; it happens every time a human being is confronted with the abyss of meaninglessness. It is an internal break with immediacy and an occasion for self-reflection. Nelson notes that Misch points to several stories in the Zhuangzi that serve as examples. The Analects of Confucius show in Misch’s view that not all philosophy started with the question of being. In China it started with the question of ethics. This fact suffices in Misch’s eyes to falsify Heidegger’s thesis (later he also mentions an Indian origin of philosophy). Moreover, Misch contends that the beginning of philosophy in Greece was not the question of being but the concrete self-reflexive moment of life concerning itself.

Nelson notices that Taoism takes special place in the philosophy of Misch. All philosophies are expressions of the self-reflection of life, but Zhuangzi has the final hermeneutical word. Misch thinks Zhuangzi provocatively challenges, expands and reverses life’s perspectives and horizons. His stories and paradoxes liberate one from dogmatic inhibitions and put situations into perspective through articulating life from within life itself. In the oracle book the Yijing Misch finds a logic that is different from that of Western philosophy. The book consists of comments on ideograms. The comments are generated by a detached observation of worldly situations, combined with self-reflection. It has a holistic structure, the parts are reflected in the whole, and vice versa. Each input ideogram or symbol describes a situation together with preferred strategies. Nelson, in dialogue with Heidegger, thinks this is another beginning of philosophy, one which is even more in tune with the concrete human being that lives his life, seeks to adapt to circumstances, and make sense of his existence. To make a long story short, Nelson praises Heidegger for taking an interest in Chinese philosophy, but blames him for not having understood one shred. Heidegger’s monologue about being is totally unsuitable for any kind of cross-cultural philosophy.

Classical phenomenology can be helpful for understanding Asian philosophy, Nelson admits. Returning to the things themselves opens a cross-cultural perspective, because those things are not restricted to just one culture. This has often been overlooked. Merleau-Ponty, however, remarked that: “[philosophy’s] centre is everywhere, its circumference nowhere” (164). Both Husserl and Heidegger made clear they were opposed to the idea of a non-Western philosophy, but in a few short texts Husserl wrote very positively about Buddhism (167). The first is called “Socrates – Buddha.” Here he comes to the conclusion that Indian philosophy does not go beyond the practical and ethical level; it never reaches an epistemological bracketing of the whole world as Descartes has achieved. Husserl argues that the Buddhist path pursues knowledge for the sake of emancipation, but the Socratic path leads to knowledge for its own sake. So it is only through the eyes of the Western philosopher, who is seeking knowledge as such, that Indian philosophy becomes real philosophy. According to Husserl Buddhist philosophy never transcends the natural attitude of daily life, because it is not capable of a complete reduction. Even Buddhist meditation does not transform the natural attitude.

The other short text is a review of a translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, the collection of middle-length discourses of the Buddha. Here the Buddhist teachings are said to be parallel to the highest achievements of Western civilization. Western philosophy can come to a breakthrough of its own predicament of degeneration by the confrontation with the Buddhist teachings. The adoption of Buddhist philosophy by the West or a possible fusion of Western and non-Western philosophy is still out of the question. So here too Husserl sticks to his paradigm of the historical uniqueness of Western philosophy. He justifies his position by pointing to the unique development of science in the West, which he sees as a result of a unique theoretical attitude. Husserl also published three articles in the Japanese journal Kaizō (167). In these he articulates a sense of an intellectual and spiritual crisis; he calls for a renewal by returning to the origins of philosophy. The Japanese are invited to join in, because Japan is becoming a new branch of European culture.

Nelson describes how other phenomenologists even went a step further (172). Stanislaw Schayer published a comparison between the phenomenological method of reduction and Buddhist meditation. He found the Buddhist method of reduction even more radical than the one Husserl practised. Dorion Cairns, who worked closely together with Husserl and his assistant Eugen Fink, also claims that the various phases of Buddhist self-discipline were essentially phases of phenomenological reduction; both consist of an analysis of the structure of subjective consciousness. In both cases the interdependence of consciousness and world is revealed. So while the phenomenological method appears to have strong affinities with Buddhist meditation, their framework and goals are radically divergent. Husserl aims at a fundamental philosophy that has to become a new foundation for science, which he sees as a logical result of a development that started with the ancient natural philosophers. Within this framework he could not recognize genuine philosophy in the Indian and Chinese cultures.

Nelson accepts that cultures have each their own histories, but he thinks that the encounter between different cultures can create new individualities, that histories may intertwine. The problem he finds with Husserl is the priority of a life-world which is not phenomenologically neutral, but tainted by historical and ideological bias. In Heidegger’s mature thinking technology and globalization are pathologies of the culmination of the history of Western metaphysics. The only solution is a new beginning, which means a return to the Greek origins of philosophy, because the West is appointed by history to be in the lead.

Nelson mentions an essay by Heidegger about the differences between French and German philosophy, called “Ways of Speaking.” Here Heidegger mentions the confrontation with the other that articulates by mutual understanding the differences and the identity of each participant. He called it a strife for the sake of understanding. An example of this would be the dialogue with Count Kuki about the translatability of the Japanese word ‘iki’ entitled “A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer” (‘Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache‘, in the collection ‘Unterwegs zur Sprache‘). Nelson makes clear that Heidegger is not very interested in the understanding being mutual. The latter maintains that ‘iki’ is untranslatable and reproaches Kuki for not being true to his own culture. In other words, Kuki doesn’t play the part Heidegger had mind for him. Japanese are (according to Heidegger) unfit to understand the concept of aesthetics because the Japanese language is incommensurable with the German one. (Quite a risky claim for someone who does not speak any Japanese, I would say!) So the reason for the dialogue seems to be rather enigmatic. Heidegger maintains that a genuine dialogue is anticipated, but obviously impossible as well. Heidegger opens a dialogue, but only to prove the impossibility of any mutual understanding!

Nelson describes very well how attempts of Martin Buber to interpret Eastern texts are a gust of fresh air into the heavy atmosphere of East-West dialogue. Buber was attracted by the laid-back attitude in these texts and he thought they could teach Westerners to go easy on consumerism. Heidegger knew Zen-Buddhism from the introductory works of Suzuki and other anthologies. According to Nelson, Buber moved away from the Eastern philosophies later in his life because he shifted from mysticism to ethics. In Buber’s work on Hasidism Nelson finds, however, many comments on Zen. He notes that Buber rejects full transcendence, because it is selfish to merge into a mystic state and leave your neighbours behind. Nevertheless Buber writes about the Buddha with sympathy, but he does not want to follow him all the way. According to Buber, the Jewish experience is fundamentally different, because it celebrates the divine while being exiled in the world. He remains, however, true to his principles and keeps the dialogue with other philosophies open, stressing their validity and good intentions.

Nelson also relates the criticism of Keiji Nishitani, member of the Japanese Kyōto school, a philosophical movement famous everywhere but in Japan itself. Nishitani wrote an essay called “the I-thou relation in Buddhism,” in which he describes the profoundly dialogical character of the Zen kōan. Nishitani criticises Buber for keeping the interpersonal dialogue on the level of just words and not touching the level where the communication between Zen master and pupil really takes place. He claims that Buddhism developed an ethics that transcends the self; Zen ethics is therefore an ethics of encounter where the care of the other is paramount. What Western commentators on Zen didn’t realise according to Nishitani, was that the irrational and seemingly unethical utterances of Zen masters were meant to break through the cultivation of personal idols, they are not academic philosophical statements.

Before he reaches the concluding chapter, Nelson presents a comparative analysis of emptiness. According to Nelson both Zen and Heidegger came close to primordial experience through a dismantling of conceptual thinking (228). In Heidegger’s work the deconstruction discloses an original experience of being; in Zen there is the disclosure of original mind and self-nature. Nelson thinks that there still remains a trace of reification in Heidegger’s concept of nothingness. Since Parmenides, he claims, nothing comes from nothing, so we need God or being in order for something to exist. Western philosophers understood Buddhist emptiness either as a self-contradictory concept or a nihilistic void. Heidegger is said to question these suppositions. He returns to Leibniz’s question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The answer in the Western tradition, where nothingness is conceived as the absence of being, seems to need a third term, God, who transcends both and is the ground. Heidegger speaks of an uncanniness at the moment when existence is experienced as slipping away. Like death, it is an abyss that cannot be anticipated. According to Nelson, Heidegger is looking for a new language that is not re-presentational, but he tries to do this by asking questions about metaphysics. Zen practises a way of speaking without speaking, which is not referential but performative. Emptiness is not a thing, because it is empty of itself. Nelson sees an affinity with Heidegger’s groundlessness of the ground. In Zen language is self-deconstructing, it is performative, it indirectly enacts a reorientation of human dwelling through various strategies by the anecdotal and the shocking. Zen’s emptiness and Heidegger’s nothingness approach each other, according to Nelson, in emphasizing the original groundlessness and temporal impermanence of human existence.

One of the pitfalls of an intercultural hermeneutics is that no philosopher can cover all points of view exhaustively on their own. There is the risk of purifying the other so much that it becomes sterile. Nelson sees a beginning of cross-cultural hermeneutics in Dilthey’s philosophy of worldviews (which was criticised by Heidegger in his article the era of world views, “The Age of the World-View” (Die Zeit des Weldbildes, in the collection Holzwege)) and the comparative work of Georg Misch. Nelson hopes for an intercultural hermeneutics that keeps apart from nationalistic bias, gives ample room for the opponent to expose his or her points of view, is sensitive to complexity, and critically reflexive.

Nelson’s book is quite informative and covers most of the interchange that took place between Zen and Germany in the beginning of last century. Many more Buddhist schools existed in Japan and China of course, but those did not take much part in the exchange. Nelson does not mention what happened in this area in France or Great Britain, so the picture he offers is not quite complete. It is also not as neutral as he likes it to be. Confucianism has become the official philosophy of the ancient and new empire, but this was and is mainly for political reasons, not because it is philosophically more interesting than its competitors. It is diverse, its history is rich with reorientations and discussions, as is the history of Chinese Buddhism. The recent upsurge in praises of Confucianism might have a nationalistic bias, therefore Confucianism is often erroneously presented with an unequivocal message.

On a few occasions Nelson makes disputable claims. Confucius did not advocate equality, but a natural hierarchy.  This was one of the main topics of the so-called mo-ru discussions between his followers and those of Mozi. To call Li (禮) “appropriate practices, socially oriented individual self-cultivation, and learning and self-reflection” (17), seems a modernistic rationalisation, as it usually means ‘rites’. Mozi called it a waste of time and money, because it required the payment of lots of musicians and people walking around with funny hats. Another example is the obligation of a three-year mourning period following the death of a parent: this could mean ‘bankruptcy’. In Chinese texts many things are not as they appear to be and philological research remains very important. The Confucian texts are not the sayings of a single historical wise man; most of them are from different sources and from a later date. And the history of Zen is not quite like the monks themselves think it is. Nelson leaves these problems out of the discussion, but they are part of the exchange between East and West. The discussion between Zen and Heidegger is incomplete, because the latter wrote like he did not have a body, whereas Zen monks are sitting motionless for hours at a stretch, training their body and mind to be one. It is also a pity that Nelson did not follow up on his own suggestions and pay more attention to the carefully executed Husserlian reductions and genetic phenomenology. This could have been more fertile than a discussion about nothingness.

Nevertheless, this book offers lots of valuable information and entries for further research. It is well-written and has all the tools for easy reference and an impressive bibliography.