Hans Rainer Sepp: Philosophie der imaginären Dinge

Philosophie der imaginären Dinge Book Cover Philosophie der imaginären Dinge
Orbis Phaenomenologicus Studien, Bd. 40
Hans Rainer Sepp
Königshausen & Neumann
2018
Paperback 68.00 €
484

Reviewed by: Lona Gaikis (Academy of Fine Arts Vienna)

Hans Rainer Sepp’s book begins with the cultural crisis that spread with the age of industrialization and the evolvement of new analytic and mimetic tools that sparked a generation of Modernists, after 1900, who would explore the limits of the real. Quite alien and almost opposing to the high beliefs we have in contemporary sciences, their skepticism towards the means of technology—and those of humans—is striking, yet it is this caesura in the psychology of perception that would particularly seed phenomenology’s pursuit of an embodied perception (Philosophie der Leiblichkeit). Sepp’s introducing example and cover picture for the book of August Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) synthesizes therefore not only the birth of the discipline to which advance it contributes. It also outlines the genuine outset of his philosophy of imaginary things (Philosophie der Imaginären Dinge): It is a discussion of the real as factual blur between objectivity and subjectivity. According to the Swedish playwright Strindberg (1849-1912), who trusted neither the senses, nor technological instruments to display the true nature of things, the only way to truth was to omit the instruments and organs that were so prone of warping and distorting the real. He therefore set out to capture the starlight directly on the carrier medium of photographic plates. The immediacy of his technique and the process of chemical developing produced a rather diffused reflection of the night sky. Contributing less to science, Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) can be regarded as an important step in the history of abstract art and, in terms of Hans Rainer Sepp, show the need for non-signifying articulation that would represent a symbiosis of body, device and the image they produce. In between objectivity and subjectivity, its medium occurs at the borders of perception, respectively the imaginary. In the further course, the book unfolds from an analysis of imaginary things (imaginäre Dinge), to a philosophy of embodied cultural forms and epistemology.

Hans Rainer Sepp’s hypothesis of an external medium in the in-between of perception directs a critique towards mere introspection in phenomenology that even lead to an agenda of rather self-entangled discourses in twentieth century philosophy. For this reason, he hypothesizes a phenomenological pursuit that takes place in the space midst the body, its means and the event of engagement. Sepp conceptualizes this space in a three folded spanning from the body of limits (Grenzleib), over the body of direction (Richtungsleib) to the body of sense (Sinnleib). This segmentation of embodied perception enables an analysis of artworks that goes beyond conventional categorizations of cultural and artistic expression—respectively meaning—, genre or style, and treat examples from early human and ancient magical and ritualistic sites (the Paleolithic Chauvet Cave or Mesoamerican city Teotihuacan 1000 AD), as well as literary formats (Franz Kafka’s Beschreibung eines Kampfes, 1912) over film (Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, 1971) to surrealist painting (Yves Tanguy’s Le Palais aux rochers de fenêtres, 1942) and even anatomical studies (Gunther von Hagen’s Körperwelten, 1996) under equal review. This displays a truly heterogenic selection that seems rather behoove of the author’s subjective preferences, than contributing to a canon. But particularly this objection directs attention to examples outside usual curatorial guidelines (i.e. Mark Morrisroe’s Ramsey, Lake Oswego 1986 and CHEUNG Chan-Fai’s The Photographer. In Kyoto, 2006; Kelly Richardson’s Marnier 9, 2012; Dorothy Napangardi’s Salt on Mina Mina, 2012) or the comparative analysis of artworks, and it reflects newer disciplines such as performance art, collage, experimental photography, digital animation from a poly-ethnic heritage—on the whole, a very stimulating compilation.

The book “Philosophie der Imaginären Dinge” (Philosophy of Imaginary Things) appears as both phenomenological study and cultural analysis, yet Hans Rainer Sepp has no curatorial or art historical agenda. The hybridity of the book is owed to its composition of twenty chapters, each as autonomous essays that have been written over the course of 17 years. According to the author, each chapter is laid out as “experimental” case study, which he understands in a very literal sense of ex-periri: As an intellectual venture with no escape exit that, instead of being backed up beforehand by a well-trodden path of established theories, would scout to find multiple paths to engage and challenge theory itself.[i] This leaves the reader with a sense of indecisiveness, as it appears that the essays bundled in this book, must have been supplemented only in hindsight with a phenomenological framework. But this, due to the complexity of its articulation, is rather unlikely. To term it an “experiment” is therefore unfortunate and misguiding, as it almost tries to hide Hans Rainer Sepp’s adept phenomenological practice, which proves to be highly ingrained in the elaborate discussions of the artworks.

Two kinds of readers will be attracted by this book: Those phenomenologists committed to Husserl’s legacy of questioning the object, its medium and the meaning of embodiment—as well as with a pursuit to extend it—, and readers from the arts appealed by Hans Rainer Sepp’s detailed analysis beyond the arbitrary and often hollow rhetoric used in so many art reviews. In terms of aesthetics and the meaning of art, he aims to excavate more than meets the eye by conceptualizing the “imaginary thing” as something that brings to light what ontology fails. It is an attempt to unravel the “philosophical” sedimented in art’s medium as a space in between subject, object and context. The author provides us with several enlightening insights to human existence and disguised artistic or aesthetic intents. Besides giving an understanding to historical contexts and accounts, Sepp speculates the epistemological value of form and expression within the realm of his methodology. However, readers of the second kind are likely to feel discomfort with several specifically phenomenological terms and their distinct conception.

The appreciative reader acquainted with phenomenological treatises will likely find Hans Rainer Sepp’s attempt to a philosophy of imaginary things, even to go as far as suggesting a meta-philosophy from the meontic, as he states at the end of the book,[ii] as quite adventurous. What he tries to articulate is indeed bold, and his theoretical and formal methodology in leaving a secured path and abandoning the blueprint of a discursive structure leads to a meandering of concepts, hypothesis and—sometimes surprising—conclusions. However “experimental” in the execution of his philosophical method, Hans Rainer Sepp has a concrete conception of imaginary things, which runs through the text consistently. He drafts the definition of imaginary things from the idea of the consistent and perceptible thing, yet the imaginary would exhibit a complexity of several components that concentrate within a context, but simultaneously direct to a whole inventory of senses outside the thing itself.[iii] Sepp refers his ideas behind this rather obscuring definition to Heidegger’s famous example of the qualities in a hammer and elaborates it further. The wooden handle and the iron piece signify the hammer’s purpose for hammering, yet its components, as well, direct to further intended purposes or potentials, which the action of hammering is actually subordinate to: For example, making a birdhouse. A text, too, in the author’s sense, is an imaginary thing. It is made of sentences that are traced as lines on a piece of paper, but also project the intention of articulating and mediating information to others. The text’s elements have meanings (languages) or even values (numbers and currency). As art form, the text will evoke a sense of virtuality. On the other hand, a tree or other living form refers, in first sense, to nothing but itself. It is only in the form of a poem or other artificial articulation such things would receive any sense beyond their meaning as thing.[iv] Having rendered this roughly, the core problem of Hans Rainer Sepp’s philosophy reveals itself: Everything, in this sense, can at one point become an imaginary thing. Yet, he is interested in the truly meontic—neither ontic nor ontological—and diffused sense of imaginary things. They should produce an independent fiction from sensation. From this diffusion, the process of meaning is only induced by the formation of a space that is tied both to the subject and object’s corporeality. These kinds of imaginary things are embodied by artworks. Lending from the words of the author, those imaginary things with most potential for an autonomous sense, beyond mere significance of the object, are of highest interest in his genuine quest to excavate the “philosophical” (das Philosophische) from the imaginary.[v] What does this mean? Whatever is in the intermediate space of the imaginary contains an intellectual context that reflects and informs reality.[vi] The density of this reflexive mesh reveals namable and discursive aspects of the object. Sepp terms the process of excavating the philosophical as «con-creative», as it involves both sides: the object and its analysis, respectively the analyzer, whereby Sepp emphasizes that this process should not be one of private concerns. The reciprocal and intermediate process of object and percipient reminds strongly of theories of perception and the attempt to integrate cultural forms in a semantic theory articulated by symbol theory in twentieth century philosophy. Also informed by Hegelian descent, Ernst Cassirer, for example, proposed a rather analytic conceptualization leading to a philosophy of art, which he unfortunately could not complete.[vii] Here the building up of sense data would supply the body with receptacles for meaning—capturing impressions in spatial substrata from where pre-rationative intellect and subsequently meaning would emerge. Yet, meaning making—and this is where Hans Rainer Sepp distinguishes his methodology from a genuinely hermeneutical approach—is not the purpose.[viii] He seeks the purely bodily and not yet articulated as that realm beyond being, but not non-existent. In this sense, the blurred and uneven monochrome in Strindberg’s Celestographs (1893-94) embodies this possible realm of meontic articulation.

Hans Rainer Sepp’s philosophy of imaginary things is particular, for it seeks to bring to light—or let speak—that, which is not there, but exists. Even at the bottom of our flesh. In order to carve out its shape, the author proposes a triadic conception of bodily functions from which the imaginary whole emerges: The first instance is the body of limits (Grenzleib), which Sepp describes as basic entity limiting the inside from the outside: The real of corporeality is composed of the body’s organs and its factual materiality in acting out movement until it reaches an impermeable.[ix] The second is defined in the body of direction (Richtungsleib), which is determined by the limits of the impassable. Only in the experience of bodily limits emerge spatial conceptions: Perspective, orientation, positioning. This threefold localization of the body provides a sense for movement and stasis and a sense of being embedded or disconnect.[x] Thirdly, the body of sense (Sinnleib) is conceptualized as intersection of limit and direction, in which the making of sense comes into play. This body of non-ontological meaning emerges from its limitations and given or received direction, and will only be sensible when it either experiences a disruption in its expansion process or crisis—as being thrown back on itself. In this instance, force can play a particular role to construct and manipulate sense, even defend the space and direction of bodily expansion. Hans Rainer Sepp sincerely suggests the contrary, and this presents a surprising turnaround from his continental tradition in phenomenology to Far Eastern and Buddhist philosophy, respectively a genuine intension to withhold from assent in a practical implementation of Epoché.[xi]

Hans Rainer Sepp spans his philosophy of imaginary things from these three dimensions to an openly framed and embodied epistemology of art, and reveals a deep understanding of the humanly need to localize, force and relate the self, embed and orient in social coordinates, and contemplate ahead of the ontological. He unfolds the most intricate process of correlation in the functions of bodies outside the body.


[i] Cf. PID, p. 23.

[ii] Cf. PID, p. 447.

[iii] Original text: „Was aber genau sind imaginäre Dinge? Wenn Dinge sinnlich wahrnehmbar, in sich einheitliche Gebilde sind und als solche etwas Körperhaftes haben, so kann man unter imaginären Dingen allgemein solche Gebilde verstehen, die eine Komplexität aufweisen, d.h. aus mehreren Bestandteilen bestehen, und in denen sich ein Zusammenhang von Sinn konzentriert, der auf andere Sinnbestände, die außerhalb von ihm liegen, verweist.“ PID, p. 17.

[iv] Cf. PID, p. 18.

[v] Cf. PID, p. 18.

[vi] Original text: „Imaginäre Dinge mit einem hohen Grad an autarker Sinnbildung enthalten in ihren Sinnstrukturen einen gedanklichen Zusammenhang, in dem Wirkliches sich reflektiert und der so über dieses Aufschluss gibt.“ PID, p. 20.

[vii] Cassirer, Ernst, 1979. Symbol, Myth, and Culture: Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935–1945. Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.

[viii] Original text: „Das Manko hermeneutischer Methoden besteht darin, dass sie gemeinhin auf ontologisch zugängliche Sinngehalte ausgerichtet sind und das nur meontisch Erreichbare verkennen, dass sie darüber hinaus nur auf Sinn gerichtet sind und folglich dasjenige vernachlässigen, worauf das Sinnbildungsgeschehen eines imaginären Dinges noch aufruht: auf seiner realen Körperlichkeit, die, wie angedeutet, mit Formen von Leiblichkeit derjenigen Subjekte korreliert, die in dem Umgang mit imaginären Dingen involviert sind.“ PID, p. 22.

[ix] Cf. PID, p. 25.

[x] Cf. PID, p. 30.

[xi] Cf. PID, p. 36.

Geoffrey Dierckxsens: Paul Ricœur’s Moral Anthropology

Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice Book Cover Paul Ricoeur's Moral Anthropology: Singularity, Responsibility, and Justice
Geoffrey Dierckxsens
Lexington Books
2017
Hardback $100.00
266

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

Ricoeur Between Moral and Anthropology

For researchers and readers accustomed to Ricœur’s thought, the book of Dierckxsens is full of remarkable surprises. Both for those who are habituated to the philosopher of the “word” and of the “poetry”, concerned with reflections about narrative and its multiple dimensions, and for those who are involved with his discussions about hermeneutic, historically and genetically conducted. In this sense, the investigations brought by the author reveal a new and largely unexplored field of Ricoeur’s philosophy.

The book by Geoffrey Dierckxsens, Paul Ricoeur’s moral anthropology: singularity, responsability and justice, undoubtedly brings a considerable contribution to studies in the area. Choosing Ricoeur’s reflection about what is here called his “moral anthropology” as the main theme of his investigation, Dierckxsens’ text is articulated around three main axes, that could be gathered, under the risk of a little extrapolation, as an “ethical” discussion, taken in its largest sense: the concepts of moral, anthropology and hermeneutic.

These three axes, as we will see, offer the author an original perspective to consider the philosopher’s thought, and, at the same time, allow him to propose an extension in the way we understand the recent conflicts faced by current moral discussions, in which they reveal their limits and their contradictions. This possibility is strongly affirmed by Dierckxsens, seeking to establish a cohesive triad where these three elements become inseparable.  The core of his thesis is the defense of this articulation, simultaneously complex and full of deep implications.

Through this preliminary delimitation, beginning with his first descriptions, Dieckxsens sets the context from which he builds his investigation. And here is the first remark to be made to his work: the clarity of the text, a characteristic that immediately appears to the reader. The author, in a careful and accurate construction, structures his text not only with extreme acuity, but also communicating this “architecture” to his readers, outlining its stages and its internal logic. The text systematically presents clear parts and objectives, progressing safely step by step in its main strategies. That accurate construction reveals the author’s full mastery over the direction of his investigation.

This is what can be noticed if we accompany the main center of his work, concentrating on the three main axes mentioned above. The first important observation to comprehend is exactly the idea of a “moral anthropology” itself.  About this, we would like to highlight two points.

The first, and most evident, is the choice of the philosopher who guides the discussion. This issue will be worked in the second part of this review, but it’s important to correctly introduce the theme to enhance some aspects of this option and the peculiar appropriation that it implies.  In a perspective that is now gaining strength, but which is still with a wide horizon remaining to be explored, the Ricoeur we see here is quite different from the one we are most accustomed with, especially considering his inescapable phenomenological accent. It is not that this “tradition” is absent from Dierckxsens’ debate, but his proposal seems to accomplish a certain dislocation, moving Ricoeur’s major themes — like narrative, singularity and alterity – to a new scenery, not one opposite to, but without a doubt different from the traditional comprehension of phenomenological and hermeneutical perspectives.

But where could we situate this new “place” where the philosopher can now be found? The Ricoeur presented by Dierckxsens study is, in many aspects, very close to the analytical philosophy. Yet this “proximity” involves a large spectrum of dimensions. It concerns not only the themes or the general issues here considered, but much more significantly, it refers to a kind of structural affinity that the book intends to reveal. It doesn’t mean, and this is an important strategy implicitly assumed by the author, to seek direct relations of affiliation or influence, but rather to develop a kind of confluence or an intersection zone in which Ricoeur’s thought and the main themes of analytical analysis would find their community.

The proposal is captivating, bringing new horizons to research and debate around Ricoeur’s philosophy. His approach to this strand of thought, despite an increasingly growing number of studies, remains a new zone of investigation, yet to be consolidated. Thus, two important points seem to guide the ongoing research, indeed offering significant prisms under which the philosopher is read in Dierckxsens’ text. On the one hand, we have Ricoeur as proponent of a «moral anthropology», which, as we shall see, brings a new dimension not only to the notions of singularity, justice, and responsibility, but through them also retraces the understanding of the human condition and its limits of action. On the other hand, exactly because of this reconfiguration, the philosopher appears as someone capable of shedding new light on the current debates of analytical thinking, especially those related to morality and the implications of human performance. In other words, from the recognition of the proximity between Ricoeur and analytical thought, Dierckxsens defends the possibility of a reciprocal re-interpretation.

On the one hand, proximity, and on the other, reciprocal reading, the two prisms which in our view support the perspective assumed by Dierckxsens. Let us address each of them, always remembering the complexity of such a proposal that in principle requires strong mediations and a very careful construction, recognizing the impossibility of reconstructing them entirely here, given the limited space of a review.

An Anthropological Morality

As mentioned above, Dierckxsens clarifies, in an accurate and consistent way, the perspective under which he will develop his reading of Ricoeur. The main proposal is the description and the comprehension of the idea of “moral anthropology.” The subject — and the reunion of these two terms into “one-word”, into one unique concept — is, by itself, neither immediate nor free of difficulties. This observation seems to be shared by the author, as he is, from the start, concerned in carefully delimiting the sense in which this concept is to be understood. This circumscription is necessary since the articulation between morality and anthropology, as well as the possibilities of its effective achievement, remain the subject of intense debate, not only for analytical thought, but, in a larger sense, for contemporary reflection in general.

Full of implications by itself, this proposal gets even more complex, since another step is taken by the author and another term introduced to this “pair”. To the idea of an anthropological morality is added an element that is also intrinsic to Ricoeur’s thought, and also not peacefully comprehended by his researchers: the hermeneutic. According to Dierckxsens’ thesis, the moral anthropology proposed by Ricoeur only achieves its valid meaning when comprehended by a hermeneutical perspective. The question then gains in density and sophistication.

Let the author, then, speak in his own words: “By moral anthropology I understand the philosophical and hermeneutical approach to the ontological conditions of the moral existence of human beings” (VII). And, in the sequence, he complements: “By hermeneutics I mean the theory of the interpretation of concrete lived existence in relation to narratives.” (VII)

Once these axes are set, Dierckxsens is able to place his proposal and its originality in relation to other studies about Ricoeur that could be considered closer to his perspective. Following his delimitation, it’s possible to recognize two main lines of reading, in relation to which his work might be approached, even though without strictly converging with any of them. On the one hand, there is a tradition of studies on the philosopher — notably the most recent ones — that recognize and discuss the centrality of anthropology in his thought[i], dealing mainly with the problem of action and its implications. On the other hand, there is a number of researchers that work with the moral aspects of his philosophy and, simultaneously, propose a comparison between them and the current developments in morality studies, particularly those related to the ethics of care and to feminist theories.[ii]

There would be, therefore, a line of research specially occupied with the anthropology dimension of his reflections and, another, focused particularly on his arguments about morality. In fact, the articulation between these two aspects of his thought is not feasible without solid mediations. This is where an original mark of Dierckxsens’ work is inserted: the meeting of these two elements, not only recognizing them as closely related, but actually treating them as a single concept, in which the sense of morality is established by an anthropological view.

Following the author himself, however, the originality of his perspective only appears completely with the inclusion of the third axis mentioned above, the hermeneutic. According to him, “[…] few works so far examined the significance of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach to anthropology in light of contemporary moral theories in analytical philosophy” (VII). In other words, the originality of his proposal would be related to an effort to comprehend how a certain conception of contemporary morality could illuminate the way in which Ricoeur understands the approximation between hermeneutic and anthropology. It allows him to reveal a kind of “organic connection” — to use a term typical from another philosopher, to which Ricoeur also owes a large influence, Merleau-Ponty —, between these two axes, marking not only the originality of the philosopher’s reflection, but also of Dierckxsens’ own investigation. The discussion, then, gets even more focused: the project is to understand how an analytical moral view can shed new light on the philosopher’s thinking.

This makes more explicit the movement we are trying to highlight, accentuating the originality of his investigation. The point, defended by his thesis, is that it is not any moral that can fulfill this function. It is not any general discussion about the strong themes of the political and philosophy that is able to establish such connection to the philosopher’s reflections. The philosophical current most able to serve as a “clarifying” instrument of Ricoeur’s thought, especially in the way it’s presented here, is the analytical one. According to this, understanding the moral anthropology constructed by him demands this passage to a field nowadays mostly occupied by analytical studies.

But then a caveat is required. There would be a kind of one-side view if the author’s analysis were to dwell only on this perspective. There is a counterpart, and that brings some of the most interesting elements to the discussion. On the one hand, the analytical proposal about morality is able to illuminate the philosopher’s reflection, on the other hand, his reflection is capable of shedding new light and new horizons on this analytical thinking itself. In this sense, the importance of Ricoeur, rather than being re-read by this school of thought, is allowed a new understanding of the issues with which it operates, giving it the means to extend its spectrum. In the words of the author:

“This orientation toward reduction in moral invites to reflect on Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, which aims for a more cohesive, metaphysical-ontological account of human actions and responsibility. Whereas theories in analytical philosophy tend to naturalize our understanding of morals, Ricoeur, on the contrary, defends a hermeneutical approach to understanding what it means to be human and to be capable of responsibility and justice by living a concrete existence.” (VIII)

Against a reductionist appeal to the “data” and against a biological or neuro-scientific tendency that has crossed the current discussions on the moral, the philosopher’s thought brings a hermeneutical approach, in charge of understanding what is human and what is its capacity of responsibility and judgment, considering them in a concrete existence. Just as a parenthetical note, we can not fail to mention a similarity of this project assumed by Ricoeur, to a certain direction of contemporaneous thinking, expounded, among others, by Hannah Arendt. Even though in a completely different context, once she deals with a strong conception of politics and does not operate with this articulation between moral and anthropology, here enhanced by Dierckxsens, the problem concerning the human condition, its capacities and its ways to act and judge, is an extremely important issue for her. In fact, we believe the possible convergences between the two authors offer a subject to be thought trough and to be worked on.

Back to our main subject, one of the axes that is widely worked in the book — and that we, also, would like to emphasize as one of its most important contributions — is this idea that Ricoeur’s thought can bring an expansion to the conception of morality, in particular to that developed by analytical thinking, currently the subject of intense debates. The proposal brings these two main movements together, not independent but correlated. On the one hand, to argue that certain conceptions and perspectives present in analytical philosophy can contribute to thinking about the way Ricoeur approaches anthropology and hermeneutics, re-reading his reflection on moral action. And, on the other hand, to understand how Ricoeur allows the amplification of the current debates on morality, bringing new layers to the understanding of human existence. It is to satisfy the “gap” of this perspective in studies about the philosopher — that, even in their closer versions to the Dierckxsens’, oscillate between an approach from analytical theories or from morality, incapable to internally articulate them — that his work presents itself, emphasizing Ricoeur’s moral anthropology as a central and original contribution to the current discussions.

Notably, this becomes clear when we consider the debates in analytical philosophy about moral responsibility and justice. Faced with a kind of reductive tendency present in the most recent discussions, polarized between anthropology and psychology — taken in their more conventional sense —, moral anthropology emerges as an appeal to a more cohesive and inclusive view, inaugurating a new comprehension about justice and responsibility. It is as a refusal of the current “naturalism” that this moral perspective gains greater weight. Instead of explaining morality in terms of mechanical processes or through natural conceptions, the philosopher calls for a unified understanding of human capacities that constitute the ethical and moral life, remembering us that they must be comprehended, first of all, by a hermeneutical interpretation of the narratives and the concrete existence in which human lives take place. In other words, in contrast to mechanistic and naturalistic perspectives, Ricoeur appeals for a hermeneutical approach.

The Structure of the Text

In this movement, in this project of a hermeneutical “re-reading” of moral and anthropology, one notion will be especially mobilized by Dierckxsens to guide his analysis, the idea of singularity. It is based on this concept that he structures the book in three parts. Singularity, he argues, is one of the most adequate concepts to recognize the originality of the philosopher’s thought and its capacity to bring new elements to current moral discussions. The problematization of this notion is the way Dierckxsens finds to achieve a new understanding of the questions concerning responsibility and justice, establishing the three main topics on which the book is organized. Working on these ideas — singularity, justice and responsibility —, the text proposes increasingly closer links between the philosopher and analytical thinking. The internal connection between these elements is, in his view, almost organic:

“The case I will aim to make in the following pages is that the concept of singularity, which lies at the heart of Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, highlights the importance of hermeneutical phenomenology for understanding responsibility and justice in light of analytical moral theories. Singularity is without doubt an important concept in contemporary European philosophy in general, and in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics in particular.” (IX)

According to this perspective, the structure of the book, organized in three parts — ipseity, alterity and “evil and narrative” — establishes a way of discussing the notion of singularity, exploring in each part one of its different meanings. Dierckxsens argues that each step is an explanation of the “place” taken by this concept in Ricoeur’s moral anthropology. At the same time, through this path, it becomes possible for him to describe the meaning of hermeneutics for the notions of responsibility and justice, reconfiguring the general constellation in which they are inserted. This discussion allows the internal articulations between anthropology and the moral to become more evident, supporting his main thesis. Once again, it is important to emphasize the remarkable clarity and the careful organization in which all this argumentation is constructed. The reader can follow, step by step, the progress of the investigation, in an accurate and logical system that leaves little spaces for doubt. Ricoeur’s thought appears, progressively, each time closer to an analytical field.

But it is worth remembering yet another aspect of this proposal, that was mentioned before and that can now be adequately explained: the recognition that it is not only in its objectives that this intersection appears in the text, but, much more organically, in the very way Ricoeur is here read and presented. Unlike several other studies about the philosopher, here he appears as if he were, almost, an analytical thinker, or, if this affirmation sounds too strong, as if his thought could be structured on an analytical basis. The idea the author suggests is that they are not just close, but in some way and more importantly, that they are communing the same main lines, especially the ones here enhanced. Curiously, it seems to us that it is this element that provides more solidity to Dierckxsens’ thesis. The reader has no problem following his path because it seems, throughout all his exposure, that Ricoeur’s approach to this school of thought was drawn from the beginning, somehow inscribed in the philosopher’s writings and works. It is almost as if the philosopher were a precursor of the style of thought with which he would after be confronted.

Corroborate to this, as Dierckxsens reminds us, the philosopher’s own references to this school, variously recalled throughout the book. Yet, though frequent, they do not seem to us the central axis on which this approach can be sustained, nor its most solid point. The reference or the interest — and sometimes even the admiration — of a thinker by an author or by a current of thought, is not in itself capable of sustaining an affiliation or even an approximation in more strict terms. Moreover, such relations are being largely debated nowadays, and the approaches and distances among them are neither wholly clear nor entirely peaceful.

In our view, the strength of Dierckxsens’ work comes precisely from the way Ricoeur is, from the beginning and throughout all the argumentation, presented in terms of analytical thinking. We know that this interpretation is by no means consensual — and we know, at the same time, how this word loses force in philosophy, meditation and endless dialogue born from dissent and exchange. What seems more relevant to us is the recognition, implicit in Dierckxsens’ proposal, of the greatness of Ricoeur’s thought, capable of opening horizons such as the one defended here. As Merleau-Ponty argues in a commentary dedicated to Husserl, in his text The philosopher and his shadow, the greatness of a philosophy lies precisely in the Tradition he is capable of founding. Dierckxsens’ reading testifies, without any doubt, to this power of Ricoeur’s thought. Philosopher’s appropriation by the analytical thought, rather than instituting a divergence of interpretations, should be read as the establishment of one of the multiple dimensions his thought is capable of illuminating and, at the same time, under which it can be illuminated.

Following the author in his central proposal, the philosopher’s reflection allows us to bring new light to current ethical discussions, opening unsuspected horizons to analytical thinking, strained between explanations that place all its bets on the causes, or place them in cognitive processes, leaving aside the dimensions of “affection”, “empathy” and, in more general terms, all the knowledge and all the relations that involve the “other”. Ricoeur, on the contrary, would have been able to construct an ethic of responsibility structured precisely on notions such as affectivity, care, and solitude: “According to Ricoeur, ethical and moral interactions with others are motivated  by affection for others: compassion, conscience, neighbor love, or love for humanity and respect for other persons”.(167)

As we know, these sort of questions, concerning relational fields, alterity and affectivity, have always been essential to Ricoeur. These concepts — and this shouldn’t be forgotten — necessarily brings a phenomenological and existential support to the discussion. And that’s why we mentioned before that the work of Dierckxsens doesn’t properly present an “other” philosopher, but, more specifically, a “different” perspective of him, “dislocated” from his habitual context. Enhancing his greatness, a “unique” Ricoeur is able to bring together different directions of thought, different layers of understanding.

That’s why notions like singularity — without doubt, related to a phenomenological approach — can be here appropriated in moral debates without conflicts or contradictions. If the author operates a peculiar shift toward analytical thinking, inviting us to extend our ethical conception, an idea of singularity that does not exclude otherness will be particularly important for him. If the current discussions of analytical thinking seem to entrench ethic in the regime of a solipsism difficult to escape, Ricoeur’s thought appears as a crevice from which the relation — and all the dimensions brought by it, like affection, care and solitude — are able to figure, allowing us to rethink its limits and its deepest sense.

This is one of the main stakes of this book. And it is here that we rediscover the philosopher whose phenomenological and hermeneutic accents are clearly present, in charge of a reflection on responsibility articulated to the issues of care and relational affectivity inscribed in an existential field. That’s how, beyond approximations, Ricoeur is constructed, simultaneously, as a kind of precursor of analytical thought, and, curiously, as its antithesis or, even deeper, as its antidote, re-discussing and re-opening its frontiers. In this way, the question established by Dierckxsens is more complex than it may appear at first. Is it possible to think of the philosopher in these terms? The book, we saw, defends an affirmative answer, not only supporting the approach itself, but making it internal and organic.

However, sagaciously, at no time does the author refuse any of the other possible currents, or defend one against the others; there is no suggestion of a direct confrontation, which strengthens, once again, his description. That is one of the reasons that makes his work a significant contribution in a debate that concerns not only Ricoeur’s thought, but also his dialogues, exchanges and affiliations. As he implicitly assumes, there isn’t a unique answer to this problem; on the contrary, like we argued above, the strongest point of his work would be precisely the testimony of the openness and the inexhaustibility of Ricoeur’s thought. As the philosopher himself has taught us, the space to comprehend this kind of question should be searched for in some place that does not build walls or divided elements, instituting conflicts and separations, but, on the contrary, one that recognizes a more plastic, open and dialogical field, made of transitions and reversibilities, capable of sustaining the difference, without transforming it into conflict or separation. What is clear, in Dierckxsens’ work, is this recognition of Ricoeur’s strength and appeal towards a stronger, larger and more inclusive ethic[iii]; one solid enough to face the problems brought by contemporary issues. This extended ethical sense is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest teachings of Ricoeur’s philosophy.


[i] Dierckxsens himself enhances some examples: Richard Kearney (Ed.), Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action (London, SAGE, 1996); Jonathan Michel, Paul Ricoeur: une philosophie de l’agir humain (Paris: Cerf, 2006); Todd S. Mei and David Lewin (Eds.), From Ricoeur to Action. The Socio-Political significance of Ricoeur’s Thinking (London and New York: Bloomsburry, 2012).

[ii] The author enhances, particularly, two works: Nathalie Mailard, La vulnérabilité. Une nouvelle catégorie morale ? (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2011); Cyndie Sautereau, “Répondre à la vulnérabilité. Paul Ricoeur et les éthiques du care en dialogue”. Journal for French and Francophone Philosophie/Revue de la philosophie française et de la langue française, 23, n. 1, 2015, 1-20.

[iii] “In that respect, the task of hermeneutics is not so much to search for one universal objective truth about morality, like a blueprint of our ethico-moral constitution, but rather to understand what humans have in common along their differences, through dialogue and interpretation and across their singular lived experiences, in order to understand what motivates their ethical and moral actions.” (73)

Lenart Škof, Petri Berndtson (Eds.): Atmospheres of Breathing

Atmospheres of Breathing Book Cover Atmospheres of Breathing
Lenart Škof, Petri Berndtson (Eds.)
SUNY Press
2018
Paperback $27.95
326

Reviewed by: Victoria Wynne-Jones (The University of Auckland)

‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair.’
—Drew Leder (226)

There is a new genre in philosophy, it is one that is ‘respiratory.’ So argue Lenart Škof and Petri Berndtson in the introduction to the edited volume Atmospheres of Breathing. Citing Luce Irigaray’s dismissal of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy as ‘one forgetting the breath,’ Škof and Berndtson go on to argue that since Plato, Western traditions of philosophy have indeed been ‘oblivious to breath’ (ix). This narrative forms the impetus for their project, one in which they aim to present ‘an archaeology of breath’ from ‘respiratory philosophers as spiritual archaeologists excavating [the breath’s] hidden ontological, epistemological, ethical, religious and political layers.’ (ix)

Škof and Berndtson ask what kind of philosophy such a respiratory, breathing or breath-full philosophy might be? (x) How would it think and understand relations between thinking and breathing, between philosophy and respiration? And what might the start of such a philosophy be? According to Škof and Berndtson, the message from the ‘great breathers’ is that ‘it is not enough to think – one must also breathe’ (x-xi). Škof and Berndtson ponder whether the relationship between thinking and breathing is a parallel one or whether it is rather ‘a chiasmic relation in which the thinker and the experience of breathing somehow constantly intertwine in an essential manner, perpetually inspiring each other?’(xi). Their question then becomes how do breathing and thinking influence each other as well as whether ‘every thought, even those we barely notice, is at some fundamental level already in a hidden and latent manner a respiratory thought – that is, a thought somehow inspired by the breath?’

Ruminating upon Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan’s assertion that the ‘the fundamental error of philosophy is its constant “forgetting of breathing” (x) Škof and Berndtson argue that in Western philosophy such forgetfulness has ‘made it possible for the dangerous idea of dualism to become a paradigm of modern philosophy.’ (xiii) Perhaps inevitably the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of René Descartes and the third of his Meditations on First Philosophy. As summarised by Škof and Berndtson, in the relevant section Descartes seeks to ‘address only himself by looking deeper and deeper into himself’ so that he might be more better known and familiar to himself (xii). Such self-knowledge can only be achieved via a withdrawal from the so-called deceptive world of the senses. Škof and Berndtson point out that even though Descartes describes his withdrawal, from the visual by closing his eyes, from the auditory by blocking his ears, it is impossible for him to block his nostrils and mouth, as these are required to breathe. Descartes’ description is therefore erroneous, ‘as he forgets breathing he is not at all truthful in what he writes.’ Had his pursuit of obtaining ‘pure and indubitable self-knowledge’ lead to him blocking his respiratory openings he would have experienced, according to Škof and Berndtson ‘a dreadful experience of anxiety… his sole thought would have been I am feeling terrible. How long can I hold my breath? I really need to breathe.’ Had the philosopher experienced this train of thought, argue the editors of Atmospheres of Breath, Cartesian philosophy would have been absolutely different as would Western philosophy. Tying into Kahn’s proposition, Škof and Berndtson surmise that had Descartes been more aware of own breathing he never would have arrived at his dualistic philosophy (xiii). If the starting principle of philosophy is the experience of breathing, which ‘perpetually intertwines the self, the body and the world,’ then dualism becomes untenable.

A focus upon the breath means that such a philosophical project is resolutely embodied. This ties into Irigaray’s assertion included on the first page of the introduction, that awareness of the breath is in fact ‘essential for an embodied ethics of difference in our globalized, ecological age’ (ix). Daoist philosopher Zhangzi, considered by Škof and Berndtson to be ‘the philosopher for breathing,’ focuses upon fundamental difference of breathing as a way of theorising difference between people (xiv). Whereas a ‘The True Man’ breaths deeply, with his heels, from head to toe with an ‘expanded, cultivated breath,’ those who breathe merely with their throats cannot ‘experience the vastness of breath in all of its spiritual and ontological possibilities and atmospheres.’ Harking back to Descartes, Škof and Berndtson caution ‘it is not enough to think, one also has to breathe. Dangerous are the thinkers who have not breathed enough’ (xiv).

Further reinforcement of the overall thrust of this edited volume is provided by Khan, according to whom the only true error or fundamental wrongdoing in human life ‘is to let one breath go without being conscious of it’ (xiv-xv). For Khan, to be ‘unaware of the phenomenon of breathing’ which is ‘this most important thing in life’ is also to be oblivious to its ‘manifold mysteries’ (xv). Breath is a ‘vast current which goes through everything,’ this atmosphere of breath surrounds, intermediates and flows through everything, it comes from our very consciousness and extends to external being and the physical world. Škof and Berndtson contrast this with an average person’s experience of breathing which is superficial, hence completely missing the profound dimensions of its atmospheres and possibilities. There is a respiratory difference, which is the ‘difference between breathing consciously and freely’ and not doing so and between ‘thinking breathfully and not thinking breathfully’ as well as ‘cultivating and not cultivating breathing’ (xvi). For Irigaray such a cultivation of breathing is linked to ‘the cultivation of ethics in ourselves and in our intersubjective relations’ (xvii). Such difference is in fact a fundamental principle of this respiratory philosophy. For Škof and Berndtson breathing is ‘openness, respiratory openness, a perpetual opening to the atmosphere of air’ (xvi). In such respiratory and aerial openness ‘all questions, problems, and subjects of philosophy appear as questions, problems and subjects of respiratory philosophy. Their appearance takes place within this respiratory openness as the atmosphere of breathing.’

Yet the question remains, what could this new philosophy as respiratory philosophy be? One aspect is a revisionist project proposed by Škof and Berndtson which involves a re-reading of ‘the great thinkers in a respiratory key to examine their relation to the phenomenon of breath’(xiii). This respiratory philosophy aims to see the world in a respiratory way and within the atmospheres of breathing so that one might ‘re-experience all the questions of philosophy as questions concerning the atmospheres of breathing’ (xvi and xv). Such a revision of the world means that everything ‘be re-thought, re-examined, and re-experienced within these atmospheres of breathing’ (xviii) Thus, any ‘questions of life,’ indeed ‘all questions of philosophy become respiratory questions of philosophy’ that is ‘they are seen perpetually from the perspective of breathing’ (xvii). Therefore each chapter in this edited volume investigates philosophical questions from the perspective of breathing and in doing so ‘are transformed into respiratory questions’ (xvii).

The editors have divided the book into five sections: philosophical atmospheres of breathing, philosophical traditions of breathing, voices and media of breathing, breathful and breathless worlds and a postface. However another way of regarding the volume is to see that some of the essays engage in more post-human understandings of breath, others are concerned with philosophies of breath that originate from ancient Hebrew, east Asian or indigenous traditions of thought. A selection take their insights from the discipline of medical science and the domain of poetry. Finally, several chapters engage with what is considered to be classic phenomenology.

The most invigorating chapters in this edited volume focus more on ‘atmospheres,’ on creating a genealogy of matter or media that is breathed. Four in particular go some way in arguing that ‘Breathing well is not just a personal but a planetary affair’ (226) John Durham Peters, a media theorist based at Yale University sets out a ‘deep history of breathing’ (182) beginning with a natural history of oxygen. Though now oxygen is a widespread element, this was not always the case. During its first three billion years the earth was a giant oxygen vacuum, its natural sinks quickly sucking up any available freestanding oxygen. Anaerobic forms of life went on to produce an overabundance of oxygen that could no longer be absorbed by natural sinks. Durham Peters writes of the way in which the earth itself breathes or participates in an exchange of other elements; mountains, oceans and forests acted as planetary lungs, carrying out their exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (183). The Great Oxidation Event which occurred around 2.3 billion years ago, meant that oxygen as a catastrophic toxin caused the biggest extinction in earth’s history. Organisms which adapted to the new habitat used oxygen as the basis for respiration became the new dominant organisms on earth.

A similar project is undertaken by political theorist Marijn Nieuwenhuis who is based at the University of Warwick. Nieuwenhuis’s project is to unfold a ‘a story of breath as an inspiring medium’ (200) one that has affected ‘metaphysicians, alchemists, chemists, physicians, military commanders, and contemporary law enforcers.’ Nieuwenhuis politicises air, arguing that knowledge about it and its relationship to the body informs processes of governance. Thus Nieuwenhuis’ narrative describes how, in a western context breath is entangled with ‘questions of life, health, biopolitics, death, killing and thanatopolitics.’ Nieuwenhuis’ narrative spans from the ancient Greek concept of pneuma or air as something that separates life from non-life to the Cartesian de-spiritualization of pneuma (201), slowly moving towards a secularization and materialization of air. By the nineteenth century the regulation of air became one of the central priorities of new biopolitical regimes of power (203). Oxygen, as an immediate requirement for human life meant that the quality and availability of breathable air became a crucial biopolitical medium in and through which power could be expressed. Pneumatic research lead to knowledge about gaseous compounds, so that ‘the medium of air could sustain breathing bodies as well as poison them’ (204). Combining chemical expertise with the power of the state, gases such as chlorine and phosgene were the primary agents in twentieth-century gas warfare (205). The aim of gassing, explains Nieuwenhuis was not to ‘kill the enemy, but, as pulmonary agents are designed to do, to take away their breath’ Suffocation of the air was designed to terrorize the enemy physiologically and psychologically rather than to kill.

Nieuwenhuis argues that the idea of gassing being morally superior over other forms of state violence continues to this day in the domestic deployment of ‘non-lethal’ lachrymators of tear gas by contemporary law-enforcement officers (206). Nieuwenhuis borrows Sloterdijk’s term ‘atmosterrorism’ or terrorism of the very atmosphere, to describe the way in which gassing propels the body’s vital respiratory mechanism to turn against itself. As part of ‘modern atmospheric governance,’ air become a medium by which to discipline and punish, it is an extraordinary weapon used to govern populations. As described by Nieuwenhuis, over the course of a century, gassing has transformed from an illegal means to wage war into a legitimate governmental technology to suppress and disrupt the movement of protesting bodies. Nieuwenhuis’ history speaks of bodies and their relationships to air and the atmospheric environment, such relationships have a collective and explicitly political dimension when the very atmosphere is used against the body (208).

Nieuwenhuis’ chapter with its description of how knowledges of respiration have been appropriated to serve ‘biopolitical and thanatopolitical purposes’ ties into arguments made by Durham Peters about techniques and technologies that make up ‘media of breathing’ (179). According to Durham Peters techniques need not take any lasting material form, whereas technologies always require a physical tool or device. Breathing techniques have been developed for activities as diverse as ‘giving birth, singing, yoga’ swimming and deep-sea diving’ whereas modern breathing technologies modify hostile atmospheres or supplement a lacking body with apparatuses (180). Durham Peters creates a four part outline to categorise the media of breathing: there are techniques that affect the breather; techniques that affect the atmosphere; technologies that affect the breather and technologies that affect the atmosphere. Within this matrix Durham Peters places human and animal techniques for holding and modulating the breath, manipulations of the atmosphere, medical enhancements of breathing capacities as well as systematic and intentional alterations of atmospheres through technologies such as those described by Nieuwenhuis.

Just as Durham Peters and Nieuwenhuis create politicised, atmosphere-centric narratives, in her chapter Magdalena Górska, a feminist theorist from Utrecht University, argues for a re-thinking of politics in relation to bodily actions of breathing (247). In terms of the way in which parts of this edited volume attempt to de-anthropocentrize the breath, the highlight is Durham Peters’ description of cetacean and dolphin breathing, with their radically different ear-nose-and-throat complex in which phonating and eating are completely separate (183-184). Durham Peters’ account serves to challenge the blithe assumption that all animals necessarily breathe in the same way. Connected to this is Górska’s account of breathing as a process shared across human and nonhuman life forms. Dynamic breathing is, Górska explains, a matter for ‘human-embodied subjects’ as well as for ‘other animals, over- and underwater beings, plants, soil and elements’ (247). Inspired by feminist physicist and theorist Karen Barad, Górska’s chapter seeks to create a non-reductive understanding of breath. For Górska, breathing is transformed according to which breathing actors, such as oxygen, diaphragm or tree one follows. Far from homogenous, even human breathing is enacted differently in relation to lung specificities, some might be partially collapsed with cancer or coal dust sediment, there are different sizes and different respiratory capacities (248). There are also different rhythms and flows of breathing across different bodies that vary according to age, constitution and size and breath can also be aided by respiratory aids and technologies.

Górska emphasises the diversity of breath as a ‘flow of worldly circulation’ (250). Troubling body-boundaries, breath problematizes distinctions such as inside and outside and ‘complications notions of self, other and environment.’ Lungs that breathe polluted air activate matters of environmental politics, and Górska draws attention to the way in which there is diversity within the breathability of life and air quality, breathing is therefore a deeply political matter: ‘the ability to take a breath and to breathe fresh air is a matter of intersectional situatedness in and enactment of local and global power relations.’ This is summarised in Górska’s point that ‘It matters if and how one can breathe and if and how one’s life is breathable’ (252). Another important point made by Górska is that social power relations or manifestations of oppressive structures such as ‘racism, classism, colonialism, heteronormativity, gender normativity , sexism and ableism’ might create dynamics that affect breathing causing anxiety, panic attacks and changes in breathing. Of crucial importance to Górska is a ‘literal enactment of the struggle for a breathable life’ or ‘nonhegemonic breathable life and existence’ (255).

Integral to the de-anthropocentric thrust within this publication is the postface written by David Abram, an eco-philosopher based in the foothills of the Southern Rockies. Abram posits that climate change is a consequence of taking the air we breathe for granted and ‘failing to respect or notice the elemental medium we’re immersed within’ (263). Although the atmosphere is ‘ungraspable, unmappable and hopelessly unpredictable’ it is indelibly tied to breath and is in fact a ‘ubiquitous and meaning-filled plenum’ (264). Abram writes of how awareness involves a ‘felt experience of earth’s atmosphere’ it is something we are ‘corporeally situated within’ (265) something that is continuous with what twists the grasses and lofts the crows, whether it is imbibed through nostrils or the stomata in leaves. Abram gently reminds that consciousness is not unique to our species, it is in fact a ‘property of the breathing biosphere.’ Abram describes how Inuit and Yupik peoples speak of a breath-soul that dwells in each living being, providing life and awareness to humans, animals and plants and how a person’s breath-soul is her part of the wider mind of the wind (266). Such concepts of a holy wind are subscribed to by Dineh and Navajo as well as Hopi and Zuni. Abram turns to the Hebrew tradition of ruah as a divine wind and rushing spirit (269). Abram points out the primacy of breath in oral traditions, an identification of awareness with the unseen air, the sacredness accorded to the invisible medium in which we are bodily immersed (270). Hence words are ‘nothing other than shaped breath,’ air is intermediary in all communication and is the very medium of meaning. In his chapter Abram writes of the ‘need for air’ for ‘a bit of breathing space, for a chance to breathe, a way to remember what is primary,’ a catching of one’s breath (272). One way in which to do so is through story-telling as this helps to engage with each other face-to-face in corporeal exchange as well as ‘re-new our participation in the more-than human community, in the breathing commons’ (273). It is through listening and the telling of tales, argues Abram that we might bringing our spinning minds ‘back into alignment with the broad intelligence of the biosphere’ and ‘reclaim our membership in the commonwealth of breath’ (274-275).

As mentioned earlier, many of the chapters in this edited volume seek to either enrich phenomenology with insights gleaned from Eastern or indigenous knowledges as is the case with Abram. Petri Berndtson from the University of Jvaäkylä reflects on whether breathing or respiration might teach us an ontology or shed light upon an investigative philosophical project of re-defining being. (26). With the aid of concepts of inspiration, expiration, inhalation and exhalation taken from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Berndtson posits that we are in fact ‘respiration within being’ so that, in respiratory terms, being-in-the-world might be re-phrased as ‘breathing-in-the-world’ (28). Berndtson re-vivifies his project of articulating a new ontology or philosophy with the aid of Japanese Zen teachings that focus on breathing as well as seated mediation or zazen (29). It is from these traditions that Berndtson comes to ‘an inspiration and expiration of being’ or an experience of participating in universal breathing as almost a feeling of being breathed. This idea of a world of nothing but breathing or the way in which we are ‘always already respiration within being’ (37) is encapsulated in a quotation from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki:

What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. (30)

Together with a Japanese concept of , or the atmosphere of air as open and empty space’ (34) Berndtson summarises that a ‘new atmospheric, respiratory ontology’ requires a ‘constant deepening of our essential respiratory openness to the world of nothing but breathing’ (42). An ontological method of respiratory philosophy is therefore ‘breathing as a fundamental openness to air’ and ‘to silently hearken breathing as mindfully as possible’ (37-38.)

Rolf Elberfeld, a philosopher based at the University of Hildesheim in Germany also explores aspects of the aesthetics of breathing in Japan as well as China. Elberfeld explains that ki in Japanese is a word that means breath as well as ‘a dense entanglement of sensory levels, feelings, physical sensations and moods’ something that transcend distinctions between subject and object’ (73). Ki is also examined by philosopher Tadashi Ogawa in another chapter. Ogawa translates ki as ‘wind’ and discusses it in relation to historical Japanese practices of preventive medicine. Ogawa gives an account of ki as a ‘phenomenology of wind’ similar to the way in which in English one is ‘winded’ when one’s breath is forcefully taken away. Processes of inhaling and exhaling involve breath as ‘air-wind’ moving from the interior to the exterior of one’s body (143). Ogawa adds that ki is associated with the movement and flow of life, it is vitality or ‘the energy of life’ (144).

According to Elberfeld, qi is an old Chinese word for breathing, weather, atmosphere as well as subtle phenomena like movement, relationships references and a ‘fundamental movement in life’ (71). Also included within this publication is a chapter by Jana Rosker, a scholar based at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, which examines the importance of qi for Chinese philosophy. Rosker argues that qi is connected to air and breathing, it is often something physically present, yet invisible (127). Linked to breath, Rosker explains that the word qi is of fundamental and vital significance for any organic existence. As an organic state qi ‘is internalized in the human body, but simultaneously it connects all existing beings in the universe that are endowed with life’ (128). Nothing can live without qi, it is a vital force underlying all forms of life, it is a ‘principle of vital creativity’ and ‘the cause of any change and transformation.’ Rosker gives a genealogical account of the various ways in which qi has been misinterpreted over time, however she concludes by arguing that according to Chinese philosophy qi is a ‘limitless source of all creation,’ an ‘omnipresent cosmic creative flow’ that is evident in human breath (136). It is Elberfield’s hope that in conceiving of breathing as an ‘aesthetic category,’ approaches and descriptions from Ancient China or Japan might prove enlightening for contemporary aesthetic practice (75). Looking at examples from painting, theatre and dance Elberfield introduces some intriguing ideas for example: that actors and audience members form a dense field of unity in breathing (74) and that breathing could be placed at the centre of aesthetic description so that ‘an aesthetic of breathing could develop the attention to the breathing processes in aesthetic processes’ (78).

Tamara Ditrich from the University of Sydney, a scholar in Sanskrit and Pāli creates a methodical account of the significance of breath in ancient Indian religious and philosophical milieu in order to describe how these provide a context for early Buddhist teachings (99). Ditrich examines the role of ‘mindfulness of breathing’ as a key method of mediation in many Buddhist contemplative practices. Ditrich explains that mindfulness, a concept that is currently gaining a lot of attention is an ‘ethical praxis within Buddhist teachings’ that ‘reflects on the intrinsic interrelation between ethics and breath’ (99). Mindfulness is described as an ‘ethical watchfulness,’ a ‘contemplative awareness of mental and physical phenomena arising in the present moment’ (102). Where Ditrich gives an account of breathing taken from her studies in ancient Indian and Buddhist teachings, James Morley, a clinical psychologist and student of yoga based in New Jersey gives an interpretation of the yoga practice of prānāyāma or breath control that is influenced by the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (115). Morley is particularly interested in elucidating the actual experience of breath control through Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the ‘lived-body.’ It is from Merleau-Ponty that Morely takes the idea that flesh, with its primordial, elemental character is in fact the substance of the world, a crossing point between subject and object, body and world. This has special relevance to yoga in which control of the body is equated with the mastery of external nature (117-118). According to Morley breath control is in fact the ‘master metaphor’ for the goal of yoga which is to achieve a ‘homology’ between body and world.’ For Morley, breath control, integral to the practice of yoga is in fact a ‘concrete experience of the body as a relation between inside and outside. To breathe is to pull external air into ourselves and to rhythmically release outward something of ourselves.’ Morely argues that yogic prānāyāma, as exemplified in the writings of the scholar-practitioner T.K.V. Desikachar resonate with Merleau-Ponty’s explication of interiority, exteriority and his thesis of reversibility. For Morley such accounts of breath control bring Western thought ‘down to earth’ by focusing on the lived human body as philosophical and psychological ground.

Writing at the intersection of eastern traditions, medicine and phenomenology, Drew Leder from Loyola College in Maryland also addresses spiritual practices relating to the breath. For Leder breath is ‘a theatre for the play of health and illness’ (219). From a western biological and medical perspective, together with a phenomenological approach focusing on the lived body Leder argues for breath as a hinge, ‘between many embodied levels, organs, and functions, and between the body and its lifeworld… between trajectories of personal health, illness, and treatment.’ (220). Leder’s hinge recalls the swinging door of Zen, it is defined as a ‘joint or flexible surface that holds together two parts, allowing them to swing relative to one another. Such a ‘living hinge’ is an interface between ‘the conscious and unconscious body;’ the ‘voluntary and involuntary;’ ‘physical dualities,’ ‘the local and expansive act;’ ‘movement and stillness;’ the ‘flow of receiving and returning’ and ‘visible and invisible realms’ (222.)

Breath, according to Leder is a ‘powerful health restorative’ (223) he points out that ‘Slow, deep breathing is probably the single best anti-stress medicine we have [. . .] heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, anxiety eases and the mind calms.’

On a similar note, Havi Carel a philosopher from the University in Bristol who also teaches medical students creates ‘a philosophical framework for the understanding of the experience of breathlessness’ (233). A phenomenological approach is crucial here as such experiences are ‘total and overwhelming to the sufferer, but also largely invisible to the outsider.’ Harking back to Górska’s approach to specificities of breath and panic attacks, Carel points out that ‘Whilst the physiology of breathlessness is well understood, the subjective experiences of breathing and breathlessness are understudied and our vocabulary and concepts with which to understand them are limited’ (234). Carel creates a ‘phenomenology of breathlessness’ in order to explore the tensions between ‘medical and cultural or intuitive understandings of breathing and breathlessness’ (235). Carel turns to Merleau-Ponty for whom ‘embodiment determines possibilities and existence is ‘being able to be.’ Accordingly, in breathlessness, possibilities seem to be truncated, curtailed, or altogether closed off’ (237).

As part of his contribution, Kevin Hart from the University of Virginia turns to the poetry as ‘thoughts that breathe,’ specifically in the poems of Mark Strand (153). For Hart, breath is the very ‘condition of possibility for poetry.’ Binding together phenomenology and poetry, Hart seeks to probe ‘how poems think, how poems breathe’ and ‘how new breath must be found’ (155). Hart mines through themes of breath in Strand’s poems, seeking out whispers, blows and dying breath. Quoting Strand, Hart writes ‘breath is a mirror clouded by words… our words appear only in breath’ and ‘we see ourselves in that cloud’ (157-158). Where Hart turned to poetry, Jones Irwin, a philosopher based in Dublin City University looks at the writing of dramatist Antonin Artaud and his understanding of breath as articulated via Jacques Derrida. For Artaud ‘the question of breathing is of prime importance,’ (169) in his prophetic writings there is a particular focus on breath, bodies and expression, making up what Irwin calls a ‘radicalizing’ and ‘existential perspective’ (168). In combat with the mind-body dualism Artaud stresses the importance of flesh, ‘the rawness of reality’ and a ‘re-inspiration of breath’ (169). As part of his Theatre of Cruelty project, cruelty stands in for the metaphysicians’ theft of breath and life-force. Artaud sought to reinstantiate a ‘body without organs’ that is ‘an authentic self’ who breathes for herself and can ‘inspire cultural and social revolution.’ In 1965 Derrida aligned his project of deconstruction with Artaud’s reinvocation of breath in his essay La Parole Soufflée (the breathed or stolen speech). According to Derrida breath and writing are crucial, however such writing must be a ‘nonphonetic’ and ‘hieroglyphic’ ‘writing of the body.’ Indeed Artaud’s physical theatre was made up of a ‘physical language of ‘shouts, gestures, expressions’ seeking to listen more closely to life and ‘return to sonority, intonation’ and ‘intensity’ (170). Once identities are lost or spirited away by the alienation of everyday existence, bodies must then be ‘inspired’ or ‘spritualised’ in order to be cured (171). Of importance to Irwin, Derrida, Artaud is a transformation of the relationship between art and body (172). The ‘machinery of breath’ must be at work as part of the concept of a ‘subjectile,’ part subject, part projectile, one that engages in ‘new bodily writing, being starts with movement, force before form’ and emphasising radical expression. What is traced is a movement, a process, life-force, existence and fragile, embodied breathing’ as part of a ‘theatre of breath’ (175).

Within his chapter, US-based philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin, like Berndtson seeks to combine insights gleaned from Eastern thought, specifically from Tibetan Buddhism with what could be considered classic phenomenology. Perhaps part of the justification for such an assembling of ideas is that breathing practices from such cultures provides more concrete addition to phenomenological theory which has a tendency to be highly abstract. For his exploration of a ‘hermeneutics of breathing’ Kleinberg-Levin brings together concepts from Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger with those from Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Jung and Lacan together with those of Heraclitus. As part of this project Kleinberg-Levin argues that breathing as psyche and the self as Psyche are closely related and involved with logos as articulation of being, speech and individuation (5-6). There can be no logos or speech without breath and according to Kleinberg-Levin it is only with language that one becomes truly human (6). For Kleinberg-Levin, meditative work with breathing can be a ‘source of transformative energy for process of self-development, fulfillment, individuation’ (5).

Although Kleinberg-Levin’s account is very general there is some acknowledgement of variations in atmospheres, respiratory systems as well as the way in which breathing is always-already spatialised and affected by ‘cultural norms, social interactions, our moods, states of mind’ (11). Like Górska and Carel, Kleinberg-Levin’s story about breathing includes an account of the way in which anxiety can be suffocating, making breathing extremely difficult or laboured. As pointed out in this hermeneutics, an openness is required in which to breathe, the very word anxiety is derived from ‘narrowness,’ a pertinent quotation from Kierkegaard is included: ‘without possibility, a man cannot, as it were, draw breath’ (12). Kleinberg-Levin applies his hermeneutics of breath to a broader argument about how speech is a development of breathing, prayer is a fulfillment of speech and that breathing is ‘essentially a mode of prayer’ (14). Earlier on in the chapter Kleinberg-Levin hints at how breath and the space it occurs within are ‘co-constituting’ (11) and later on, reflects on writings from a Tibetan scholar and the way in which ‘the space outside the body and the space that the body occupies are not really separate (15), they constitute a natural, dynamic unity. Breathing practices produce an ‘ontological body of breath’ one whose breathing is open to the energy fields of the cosmos, it is through the mindfulness of mediation that one might breathe away the ego (16).

In his chapter, Slovenian-based researcher and co-editor of this volume Lenart Škof examines philosophies that are deeply relational in particular theories of Luce Irigaray that consider the significance of dyadic encounters, what Škof refers to as ‘an ethically radicalized mode of between-two, based on the ontology of self-affection, sexual difference, and our mutual mesocosmical breathing’ (53). Škof highlights ideas taken from Irigaray about the way in which those within a couple ‘breathe the same air, but we breathe it differently’ (54). He emphasises the concept of self-affection a something which must be cultivated, embodied as well as centred upon the breath. As part of an ontology of the breath Škof examines Irigaray’s developmental story about the significance of the breath, its necessity for autonomy (56) as well as the importance of creating a ‘reserve of disposable breath.’ Such a reserve of breath is required for ‘keeping and maintaining ourselves in our self-affection, and then for having its share for others in our compassion’ (57). Škof argues that such conceptions of the breath have deeply theological implications.

Throughout Atmospheres of Breathing many of its authors turn to concepts taken from pre-Socratic thinkers. In the chapter by US-based philosopher Silvia Benso, Anaximenes’ conceptions of air are discussed in relation the writings of Emmanuel Levinas for whom it is important to note, phenomenology was considered to be too solipsistic a project. Benso’s chapter seeks to create a Levinasian reading of specific ancient ideas, to find resonances between the two in terms of the way in which they conceptualise air, inspiration and alterity. The crucial passage from Anaximenes, via Aetius is as follows: ‘As our soul [psyche], he says, being air [aer] holds us together and controls us, so does wind [or breath; pneuma] and air [aer] enclose the whole world’ (87-88). According to Benso, for Anaximenes air is substantial, it is a basic form of substance, one that has both material and spiritual features, and the psyche is simultaneously air and breath, it is ‘assimilated to a natural, physical principle’ that is seen at work in the entire universe so that there is, Benso explains, an analogy or structural coincidence between microcosm and macrocosm (88). Here air and breath are synonymous, and breath is something enlivening, a life-force that is ‘forceful, vital, organic,’ there is no breath, except in breathing, a lung-based or ‘pulmonary activity’ of ‘taking in and letting out, of inspiration and expiration.’ Breathing individualises and enables subjectivity, producing physiological, psychological, physical and spiritual life. It is with assurance that Benso delves into the intricacies of Levinas’ thought and its relationship to such ideas. Breath as something both material and spiritual that Benso ruminates in relation to a selection of Levinas’ writings. According to Levinas “An openness of the self to the other… breathing is transcendence in the form of opening up’ and ‘psychism’ is a ‘deep inspiration… an inspiring, breathing the other in as well as a being inspired, animated by the other’ (93). Hence breathing, inspiration and language have animating and ontological force on an embodied level.

On the whole this edited volume goes some way in helping one to re-learn to see the world in a respiratory way, offering various approaches to a ‘world in which ‘everything breathes again’ (xviii). The publication is successful in its proposition of a respiratory philosophy, each chapter ensures that breath cannot be forgotten. In the words of Nobel literature prize winner Elias Canetti the project evokes ‘thoughts that make it easier to breathe rather than thoughts that bite’ (xviii). Škof and Berndtson’s project is indeed a worthy one, particularly when it stresses the importance of the atmosphere which is breathed in, an entity that is too often taken for granted and consumed via processes that are more often than not unconscious.

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

Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind Book Cover Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press
2017
Hardback £34.99
370

Reviewed by: Diego D'Angelo (Universität Koblenz-Landau)

Thomas Fuchs is one of the leading scholars worldwide trying to merge psychopathology, phenomenology, and neurosciences. In the German-speaking part of the world his name is mostly connected to his book (published in 2007) Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan. Thanks to his latest publication, this reference book is now available in English with some updates and improvements. This edition is, in Fuchs own swords, “completely revised and extended” (v) and offers an overarching analysis of his approach.

For the purpose of this review, I will not go into details describing the differences between the two edition – this would be mostly interesting for the German speaking readership – and I will restrict myself to the philosophical content, setting aside analysis of and implications for psychotherapy, psychology, and neurosciences. Instead, I will focus on giving a broad introduction to the work, spelling out the reasons why I think that Fuchs’ approach has to be taken very seriously in a wide array of contemporary debates, and what I think could profit from further refinement.

In order to properly sketch out the novelty and conspicuousness of Fuchs’ analysis, it is necessary to pick out, from the international panorama, the antagonistic positions. Having Husserlian and Post-Husserlian phenomenology as carrying pillars of his approach, Fuchs builds up his theory against common assumptions put forward by, on the one hand, (I.) representationalism (as a leading theory in the phenomenology of mind) and, on the other hand, (II.) by the view of the brain as a computational machine or, more broadly, every version of neurobiological reductionism. Interestingly, Fuchs claims that both these views rest on the same unwarranted assumption: they both beg the question, since they want to explain the human subject and her experiences, but end up presupposing this very subject in order to make sense.

  1. As for representationalism, grasping something as a representation (a picture, a sign, a symbol…) of something else requires someone able to grasp this relationship. As in Charles Sanders Peirce’s triangular semiotic relationship, a sign can be a sign of something only for someone that interprets this relation as a semiotic relation. Representationalism conflates sign and interpreter and is therefore not viable for the construction of a full-fledged theory of subjectivity.
  2. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the view according to which subjectivity and mind stand to the brain like software to hardware is right. The argument of Fuchs is metatheoretical: “How is the brain supposed to know itself? How should a physically describable and localized mechanism be in a position to bring forth the world of scientific experience in which it emerges at tthe same time?” (xvii) In standard approaches, the brain is the starting point (as that which produces the mind viz. consciousness) and the result (namely the theoretical product of a series of scientific and methodological steps that lead us to explaining its functioning) at the same time. The brain, even if understood as hardware, presupposes something capable to look and study it (its software): but the subject is nowhere to be found in the brain. Surely there would be no consciousness without the brain, but it is also true that “without consciousness there would be no human brain.” (228) Indeed, according to Fuchs “the mind is not in the brain, for it is the overarching manifestation, the gestalt, and the ordered patterns of all relations that we have to our environment as animate beings, and as humans to our fellow humans.” (207) The neuroscientist that forgets this and takes the brain as the sole origin of the mind “loses sights […] of his own subjectivity“ (43) and thereby of his own brain. Any discourse about the brain clearly presupposes what the brain is alleged to bring forth: namely, “conscious human persons who exist to communicate with each other.” (xvii) This critique can be widened in order to encompass not only theories about the brain, but even the scientific practice as such, and a longer quote explains this: “My thesis reads as follows: the problems of the relationship between brain and mind, as they present themselves today, emerge from a short circuit between the level of natural scientific, in this case, especially neurobiological constructs, and the level of intersubjective, life-world experience, from which the neurobiological special practice has developed and with which it remains always bound.” (62) In a Husserlian fashion, Fuchs claims therefore that “Neurobiology is primarily a highly specialized form of common practice arising from the life-world.” (63)

His own positive theory proposes, as stated by the title, a completely different view of the brain, the body, the subject, and the surrounding world. “We are not figments of our brains, but human persons in the flesh.” (291) The non-reductionistic approach Fuchs puts forward claims that the human person must be ecologically regarded as an organism in its totality, avoiding thinking that, as the adagio goes, we are our brains. The brain is not the production place of the mind, but an organ of relation with the body and with the environment. The brain is a mediating organ: “it can only be adequately understood as an organ of the living being in its environment.” (67) This central claim is quickly said, but not as quickly understood. What does it exactly mean?

First of all, Fuchs questions the centrality of the notion of the mind as something separated from the body and the Umwelt. Following mostly Merleau-Pontian phenomenology, but also the German tradition of philosophical anthropology (mostly Plessner), Fuchs stresses the unity of the living being, a unity encompassing life (as opposed to mind), body, and world, and grounded in intentionality (36 f.). Subjectivity is not restricted to the mind as a “property” of the brain, but is coexstensive to life of the organism and is therefore, in the concepts of today’s 4E cognition, extended: “The peripheral and autonomic nervous system, the senses, the skin, the muscles, the heart, the viscera – all these are carriers of subjectivity too.” (19)

Even if this may seem like a bold statement, its consequence is clear: what we are looking for is therefore not the origin of the mind in the brain, but the function of the brain (and of the central nervous system) in the global life of the human person as a living organism. The starting point, for Fuchs, is indeed the concepts of life and experience (leben and erleben, cf. 31). He argues, along with the phenomenological tradition, that the world experienced in perception is the world we live in and not a mere illusion to be corrected by science. This would amount to what he calls “the idealistic legacy.” (5) Instead, according to Fuchs’ phenomenological, embodied, and enactive paradigm, things are encountered as what they are, since “they are perceived as available for our interaction with them” (9) — they are at the disposal of our own body. This is an important point: the interrelatedness of brain, body, and world can only be stated if our perception of the world can be thought of as a genuine source of knowledge about the world itself and if, at the same time, our body is a part of it.

If the role of the brain is to connect and mediate, a crucial role in this process of mediation is played by the human body, which carries along a twofold structure: the body is both lived body (Leib) and living or objective body (Körper) (12-14). Following Thompson’s groundbreaking Mind in Life as well as Husserl’s Ideas II, the mind-body problem is rewritten as the “LeibKörper problem.” Consciousness is not “born in the brain,” but is an “enactment of life” (45) involving the whole living organism. The conception of embodied subjectivity put forward by Fuchs is thus ecological (whence the title of the book) thanks to the claim that the brain must be studied in conjunction with the whole body and the whole life of the organism, together with its surrounding world. Against the standard view, Fuchs stresses that “none of these emerges as a construct in the brain.” (75)

This rejection of the classical views of the mind-body problem (or of subjectivity as such) in no way amounts to a rejection of natural sciences, their experiments, or their results. One could suppose this to be the necessary conclusion drawn by Fuchs’ account, since this aims to thematize interactions and, in his own words, “mediations” that would be difficult to measure quantitatively within current standard of, e.g., neurobiology, neuophysiology, or even empirical psychology. But this conclusion is actually unwarranted. Fuchs’ approach does not claim for the life of the organism to be the unique object of philosophical, conceptual or phenomenological, reflection; instead, he claims that natural sciences and human sciences (in particular, philosophy and phenomenology) are both needed to achieve a description of the living organism because the living organism itself is two-sided. As stressed before, the dualism of living body and lived body requires two different ways of thinking about life, as instantiated by natural and human sciences. This, in turn, does not produce any kind of new dualism, since these aspects “are objectively distinct characteristics of one and the same living being” (80) – like the two sides of a coin (cf. ibidem). Another quotation helps understanding the full potential of undermining classical dualisms in favor of an “aspect dualism”: “[t]he lived body and life itself therefore become the bridge between the ‘mental’ and the ‘physical.’” Even if this conception still implies duality, namely as the dual aspect which the living being shows, such a duality corresponds not to two essentially distinct domains of reality, but rather to “two opposing perspectives and attitudes, which we can adopt towards life, and which are not mutually transferable.” (213)

Fuchs himself gives some hints at how this separation of the fields of work could be achieved. On the one hand, he dedicates long analysis to the biology of the organism, claiming that under this point of view the organism is to be understood as an active self-organising and autopoietic system in the sense already sketched out by Varela and Marturana in a series of publications, among them the classical The Tree of Knowledge. Since self-organisation and autopoiesis are based on interaction with the environment, and since “directed behavior came before the brain,” (87) Fuchs is able to explain (at least in very general terms) the necessity and vantages of having a brain from an evolutionary perspective: “an organ of integration became necessary […]. The C[entral] N[ervous] S[ystem] mediates, selects, and facilitates organism-environment interactions.” (87) In order to explain the complex feedback structure that impinges on these interactions, Fuchs introduces the concept of “circular and integral causality,” (94) that describes the reciprocal relation between organism and environment.

On the other hand, he suggests new ways to discuss central problems in classical philosophy and phenomenology of mind. The concept of representation, as we have shown before, has been criticized by Fuchs, but he gives us also a positive proposal in order to substitute for it. Instead of talking about representation or information, he introduces the notion of “resonance”, for this concept is able to show, at the level of the lived body, the same feedback structure we found at the level of the living body. The relation between organism and environment has a two-way directedness that has to be accounted for, and this is something that both the concepts of representation and of information fail to achieve. Thus, “the purpose of the cognitive system is not to construct mental representations of external states, but to provide possibilities for embodied actions within the world,” (108) again in accordance with claims recently put forward by 4E cognition. The concept of “resonance” is particularly apt because it describes not only the relation between body and environment, but also between body and brain (cf. 119). Applied to sense perception, the concept of resonance can be further specified as “mediated immediacy” (a concept obviously mutuated from Hegel), insofar as perception always means a mediated “remembering present” or a “re-creation,” (153) which is, in turn, the only immediate access to reality we have – thereby stepping outside of every naive realism, favoring instead a “realism rooted in the life-world.” (171)

In order to describe the interconnectedness of the brain with the surrounding world, a chapter of the book is dedicated to the concept of the person in its intersubjective ramifications. The brain is a “social organ” (175) and research in social cognition needs, exactly in a similar way as the one discussed above, to free itself from representationalism and reductionisms of sort in order to locate intersubjectivity already at the level of intercorporeality. As an example, Fuchs criticizes the hype around mirror neurons since “it should first be remembered that neurons cannot mirror anything.” (187) This is surely true, but at this point Fuchs seems to be unfair to current debates on mirror neurons. The “mirroring” of neurons is just a metaphor (which can be dangerous if substantiated without warrant, for sure), for they fire under certain conditions which involve both the doing and the seeing of an action (for an balanced analysis of mirror neurons also in the context of phenomenology and philosophy of mind see Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, Mirrors in the Brain. How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and Experience). But surely, Fuchs is right in pointing out that human sociality cannot be based alone on neural structure; for it to develop, “real intercorporeality and interaffectivity” (189) are required. Also in this case, Fuchs’ concept of resonance is introduced in order to replace representational concepts: mirror neurons do not “mirror” actions, but resonate socially. They do not represent something, but are rather “specific carriers of embodied social perception.” (191)

In order to sum up, we can say with Fuchs that consciousness “is nothing else but the human organism that one is” (218) and that therefore its origin is not the be found in the brain alone. Conscious experience is “an enactment of life” and “is the superordinate process, which shapes the participating structures at the microlevel, and is thereby incorporated in form of lasting dispositions.” (225)

To conclude, let me point to one way Fuchs’ positions could benefit from some refinement. As quoted above, the dual aspectivity of the lived and living body has the configuration of the two sides of coin – which is a usual metaphor and not at all problematic. But Fuchs further spins the metaphor, claiming that “no side of the coin impacts the other.” (233) Should this mean that the materiality of my objective body has no relation whatsoever to my experience? In this case, the claim would seem rather bold and rather implausible. But – clearly – this is not the claim: the claim is restricted to the absence of any direct, mechanistic psychophysical or psychosomatic causality. Three sets of problems arise here. Firstly, this claim is presented by Fuchs as the result of his analysis and is not defended in extenso. Secondly, I hold that the formulation “no side of the coin impacts the other” is too coarse and that a definition of “impacting” in this context would be required in order to falsify the first interpretation I gave of this claim. Thirdly, even if we restrict (in a charitable reading) the meaning of “impacting” to causal mechanisms, this seems hard to defend. Surely there is no 1:1 causality between the physical and the psychical, but when Fuchs states (as quoted above) that without brain there would be no consciousness (and also that without consciousness there would be no brain, for sure), then there seems to be some kind of direct causality in play. The brain is a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for consciousness, and it seems rather odd to claim that this relationship is in no way causal and in no way an impact. Even accepting his version of the emergence theory, claiming that material processes “facilitate or realize” functions of life, “initiate or trigger them as stimulus” and “disrupt and render them impossible” (248) seems different then claiming that there is no impact and no direct causality. Maybe I am missing something here, but since this certainly is a central piece of Fuchs’ account and indeed of any thematization of the relation between brain and consciousness, it would be nice to have more details as to how strong exactly Fuchs means his claim. I think my critique would hold even if, according to Fuchs, we would be willing to accept the idea of the brain as an “organ of freedom” (242) instead as an organ of determinism. If the brain somehow brings about freedom – by way of mediating, integrating, resonating – then we can claim that at least the possibility of freedom is causally created by the brain.

But this critique is only meant to show how far Fuchs’ approach can bring current discussions on these matters, more often than not swimming otherwise in really muddy waters. Understanding consciousnesses as embodied in an ecological way allows to avoid important impasses in current debates and opens new and astonishingly refreshing perspectives both for empirical and for philosophical research. Moreover, the book de facto bridges the long-standing and outdated divide between so-called analytic and so-called continental philosophy. By drawing from phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of mind, and neurophilosophy (just to mention philosophical disciplines without venturing in a list of natural sciences on which Fuchs draws), he shows performatively that there is only good and bad philosophy. And being a piece of good philosophy, Ecology of the brain is a recommended reading not only for everyone interested in psychology, neurosciences, psychopathology and so forth, but also for anyone interested in theoretical philosophy today.

David Seamon: Life Takes Place: Phenomenology, Lifeworlds, and Place Making

Life Takes Place: Phenomenology, Lifeworlds, and Place Making Book Cover Life Takes Place: Phenomenology, Lifeworlds, and Place Making
David Seamon
Routledge
2018
Paperback £35.99
220

Reviewed by: Dr. Andrew Turk (Adjunct Associate Professor, Murdoch University, Western Australia)

David Seamon’s latest book Life Takes Place: Phenomenology, Lifeworlds, and Place Making (2018) is very readable for those from disciplines other than the obvious ones of architecture, urban planning, geography and philosophy. The content and structure of this book provides both an introduction to the topic and a summary of key issues.  Seamon has previously[i] introduced his method of ‘synergistic relationality’ analysis via six place process triads, however, this new book provides more illustrative examples and   explanation.  This book requires, and deserves, a detailed reading.  This is reflected in the nature of this review, which summarises, to the extent practicable, the content of the book, as well as providing more general comments, questions and conclusions.  This review is from the perspective of an interdisciplinary researcher regarding place, rather than from a strictly philosophical point of view.

Seamon starts by asking about the relationship between life and place, and argues that life requires place.  Seamon defines place from a phenomenological perspective, as “any environmental locus that gathers human experiences, actions, and meanings spatially and temporally” (2).  He notes that Jeff Malpas describes place as “an open and interconnected region within which other persons, things, spaces, and abstract locations, and even one’s self can appear, be recognized, identified and interacted with”[ii].  People also potentially have strong feelings (affects) about places, both positive and negative.

We understand place via analysis of real-world evidence and this is the proper basis for testing conceptual claims about place.  A key concern of this book is the best way to analyse such evidence.  Seamon contrasts ‘analytic relationality’, which divides places and their relationships into parts or factors, with, his preferred, ‘synergistic relationality’, which takes a holistic view of place as constituted of dynamic aspects which are interconnected both physically and experientially. To investigate modes of dwelling in place, a sound, structured methodology is important because of the complex, indeterminate, interdisciplinary and ever-changing nature of place.

There are many different approaches to phenomenology and ways that a phenomenological view of place can be applied, so it is important to judge this book in terms of its stated objectives (5, 6):

  • To develop a phenomenology of place grounded in synergistic relationality;
  • To demonstrate the use of a predefined ‘progressive approximation’ structure of analysis, implementing a form of Systems Theory, developed by British philosopher J. G. Bennett;
  • To surface relationships, actions and processes integral to phenomenology of place in a manner which is multidimensional but integrated;
  • To demonstrate the way wholeness of place can be expressed via examination of paired terms and six triads, based on Bennett’s systems theory;
  • To apply a phenomenological perspective to places, which is understood to arise from our personal, cultural, intellectual, and historical points of view;
  • To address, in the context of both historical and hypermodern places, certain critical concerns, raised by reviewers, about the approach adopted in this book.

Seamon defines phenomenology as “a way of understanding that emphasizes the description and interpretation of human experience, awareness, and meaning, particularly their unnoticed, taken-for-granted dimensions” (8).  He quotes Moran (2005[iii], 2) as suggesting that Edmund Husserl, the “founder of phenomenology”, envisioned phenomenology as “the descriptive, non-reductive science of whatever appears, in the manner of its appearing, in the subjective and intersubjective life of consciousness”.  Seamon explains that the aim is not just descriptions of phenomena, but their comparison to identify “underlying commonalities that mark essential, non-contingent features and qualities of the phenomenon” (9), i.e. their ‘essences’.

In this book the topic of interest is experiences, actions, meanings and events with respect to place.  He cites (9) Van Manen (2014, 39)[iv] as contending the need to study “active and passive” lived experience; the “ordinary and the extraordinary, the quotidian (commonplace) and the exotic, the routine and the surprising, the dull and the ecstatic moments”.  In this way phenomenology pays attention to the totality of human experience and seeks to develop informative and theoretical formulations as comprehensively and authentically as possible.  To achieve this, Seamon draws on a wide range of examples of descriptions of lived experience and, in order to conceptualize place phenomenologically, he cites earlier studies by renowned researchers such as Edward Relph, Edward Casey and Jeff Malpas.

Such phenomenological explorations are based on the assumption that all “human experience, awareness, and action are always intentional – i.e., necessarily oriented toward and finding their significance in a world of emergent meaning”; that is, we are “inescapably immersed, enmeshed, and entwined” in our particular lifeworld (11).  The phenomenological approach shines a light on key aspects of everyday life, including those experiences that normally go unnoticed, via “unquestioned acceptance of the lifeworld … what Husserl called the natural attitude” (12).   Place is not just manifest as the material environment, distinct from the people that dwell there.  Conceptualizations of place need to incorporate “lived complexity in an ordered way, including the generative processes whereby places and place experiences shift over time” (13).

As emphasised by phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty[v], people’s activities within their environment are embodied, often as unselfconscious gestures and behaviours, both individually and as group processes.  These include ‘body routines’ (integrated sets of gestures and actions) and ‘time space routines’ (often-repeated sets of actions to accomplish common tasks).  These conventionalised patterns of behaviour facilitate the dwelling group developing and maintaining a sense of deep involvement with that place.  A routine of bodily interactions is termed a ‘place ballet’ by Jane Jacobs (1961)[vi].

Key aspects of everyday activities in place can be examined phenomenologically via a methodology of data collection and analysis, which must exhibit interpretive accuracy and trustworthiness.  Such methodologies can draw data from a variety of sources, including: “phenomenologies of place already written … studies by sociologists, geographers, psychologists, architects, planners, urban designers and others … accounts from imaginative literature that relate to place experiences and place meanings … recent newspaper articles that deal with place events and place experiences” (16, 17).  Seamon suggests use of a wide range of such texts because this facilitates comparison between sources and validation of key phenomena.

The long history of investigation of ‘place’ is discussed by Seamon, including contributions by human geographers like Yi-Fu Tuan, Edward Relph and Anne Buttimer, regarding topics such as place attachment, place identity, place belonging and sense of place.  He notes (19) the interdisciplinary nature of place research, citing Bruce Janz (2005)[vii], who provides a critique of past research on phenomenology of place.  Janz lists requirements for effective place research, including adopting a phenomenological and hermeneutical approach, which concentrates on the experience of place.  This requires a complex, holistic and richly cultural approach to place.

Seamon follows the phenomenological tradition established by Edmund Husserl of being disinclined to collaborate with social science methods for understanding dwelling in place, and critiques examples of rationalist approaches to investigation of place.  He claims they prevent the whole of place being understood in terms of “ambience, character, presence, or serendipitous unfolding” (23).  Instead, he advocates a ‘synergistic relationality’ approach, which concentrates on processes, via an investigative methodology that does justice to the wholeness and emergent nature of place.

For Seamon, place is “an interconnected field of intertwined relationships gathering and gathered by a lived intimacy between people and the world and held together spatially and temporally” (29). A methodology for investigating place must identify and analyse these relationships as they unfold in actions and experiences of everyday life.  To develop his approach to this problem, Seamon turned to the ‘phenomenology of wholeness’ of British phenomenologist and science educator Henri Bortoft and British philosopher and mathematician J.G. Bennett, who together developed the notion of ‘progressive approximation’.  This method seeks to understand the whole via investigating its parts with respect to the way they ‘belong together’, “through a mode of careful, intuitive encounter uniting perception, feeling, and thinking” (30).

According to Seamon, the method of ‘progressive approximation’ permits the researcher to identify the ‘organized structure’ inherent, but hidden, within the bewildering diversity and complexity of phenomena involved with dwelling in place.  This is achieved through a structured investigation, starting from vague outlines of concepts, and subsequent filling in of details, providing a deepening of meanings.  Seamon contends that this seeking out of ‘underlying connectedness’ or ‘integrated structure’ implements a form of ‘triangulation’.

Seamon notes (34, 35) that Bennett (1993, 13)[viii] defines a system as “a set of independent but mutually relevant terms, (in which term refers to) those elements of the system that express a specific character, such as universality, complementarity, dynamism, activity, potential, and so forth”.   Bennett utilises a structured approach to investigation of complex systems, moving from the single, total wholeness (monad), through dyads, inherently belonging to the monad, and indicating the diverse nature of different features of the system.  This leads to triads, expressing the relatedness of different aspects of the system and the processes that bind them.

Based on Bennett’s publications, Seamon notes that the monad is an ‘undifferentiated diversity’, which needs to be encountered as a whole before the structure of its parts is examined to determine whether any particular element ‘belongs’ to the system.  Dyads concern binaries and contrasts inherent in the system, so that the existence of one term presupposes the other.  The contrasting elements are complementary to each other, rather than polar opposites.  They interpenetrate and cannot be separated because both are integral to phenomena.  Dyads are selected which most effectively contribute to a deepened understanding of the phenomenon via “the dyad’s two natures; what it is and what it does” (40).  Resolution of essentially contradictory conditions is explained by the triads, where the emphasis is shifted to identification of processes that enable this resolution.

Further background regarding the approach of using process triads to understand place can be found in Seamon’s previous work (2012; 2014).  In the 2012 chapter he contends that place can be understood in terms of three dimensions: “first, the geographical ensemble — i.e., the material environment, including both its natural and human-made dimensions; second, people-in-place, including individual and group actions, intentions, and meanings; and, third, spirit of place, or genius loci (common presence)” (3).  He goes on to show how this concept can be understood via six modes of dwelling (processes), based on ‘systematics’ developed by J.G. Bennett, using slightly different terminology to the 2018 book.  Seamon (2014) discusses the same six place processes, without reference to Bennett’s work, emphasising instead a ‘generative’ view of various aspects of relationships with place, which interact via a synergistic dynamic.  In his 2018 book, Seamon claims that the three ‘impulses’, which are differently combined in the six place triads, are direct consequences of the meaning of place, as explained by Edward Casey, Bruce Janz and Jeff Malpas.

In Chapters 5 to 8, Seamon explains how he utilizes Bennett’s analytic method of monad, dyads and triads for investigation of the essential character of place. Seamon’s method begins with explication of the monad of place as a multifaceted phenomenon of daily life.  He provides lists of the ‘thematic’ aspects and the ‘characteristics’ of place, as a ‘sphere of opening’, providing opportunities to investigate the experiential wholeness of place in a phenomenological manner. Different modes of lived emplacement involve temporal aspects (such as duration of dwelling) and nested horizons of place (household, workplace, neighbourhood, city, etc.).  There is a lived ‘co-envelopment’ between body and world, an inescapable commingling.

Moving from the monad, the next step is to establish dyads of place, to investigate the wholeness of place via an appropriate set of binaries and complementarities involved in encounters and actions in place.  The nominated five place dyads are: movement and rest; insideness and outsideness; the ordinary and extra-ordinary; the within and without; homeworld and alienworld.  He discusses (citing relevant theorists) the reasons for, and significance of, each dyad and examples of different modes of experiencing them.

The third, and dominant level of the systems theory approach to place is triads; the means for reconciling the tensions inherent in the dyads.  Seamon claims “that a triadic knowledge of place is essential if we are to envision design, policy, planning, or advocacy that work to strengthen rather than weaken real-world places” (67).  He adopts Bennett’s term ‘successive approximation’ to describe increasingly more detailed levels of analysis, which approach more closely the real level of complexity of dwelling in place.  To represent the dynamic, generative aspects of place, the six place triads depict various processes and relationships, which can have either a positive or negative impact on dwelling in place.

Bennett (1993, 37-39) defines a triad as “a system of three independent but mutually related terms, each of which he designated by the word impulse, to suggest a sense of force or motivation that, interacting with the two other impulses of the triad, leads to a specific action, process or happening”.  These three basic impulses are affirming (initiating, demanding, or forcing action), receptive (that which is acted upon; being passive, resisting or denying) and reconciling (combining the other two impulses; via integrating, harmonizing, bridging, or neutralizing).  They are successively termed the first (1), second (2) and third (3) impulses.  In the context of place, Seamon names these impulses people-in-place (1), environmental ensemble (2) and common presence (3) and justifies them as aspects of place-as-process.  They represent the fundamentals of place; i.e. the characteristics of people who live there, the nature of the topography and ecosystem, and the intertwining of those two systems to produce a particular, intricate mode of dwelling.

Seamon explains the three place impulses: “Environmental ensemble … refers to the material and environmental qualities of place, including topography, geology, weather, flora, fauna” (85).  This applies to natural landscape, and human-made elements, which provide “the material foundation for place events, transactions, experiences, and meanings” (86). The impulse of ‘people-in-place’ is ‘affirming’ because “typically, people actively manipulate and fabricate their worlds” (87).  It includes “their actions, routines, understandings, and situations, whether unself-conscious or conscious, habitual or out-of-the-ordinary” (87).

Seamon describes ‘common presence’ as “the material and lived ‘togetherness’ of a place impelled by both its physical and experiential qualities” (87).  Seamon notes the significance of Bennett’s (1961, 44)[ix] claim that ‘common presence’ is “one example of phenomena that occupy ‘a kind of no-man’s land between the fields of science, art, and religion’ … it cannot be readily grasped directly but only felt and spoken of imprecisely” (88).  Hence, a flexible interdisciplinary approach is required to incorporate this impulse within a comprehensive investigation of place.

All place processes involve ways of combining the three impulses.  This is reflected in each impulse’s positioning in any one of these six triads: place interaction (1-3-2); place identity (2-3-1); place release (3-2-1); place realization (3-1-2); place intensification (2-1-3); and place creation (1-2-3).  In Chapters 9 to 14, Seamon seeks to tease out the interactions between people and place via explication of the six place triads.  There is not space in this review to fully summarise Seamon’s explanation of the phenomenology of the place triads, however, a brief summary follows.

The ‘triad of place interaction’ “marks the existential foundation of any place – the lifeworld actions, happenings, and situations associated with that place” (93).  Seamon notes that this involves a wide range of interactions between the environment and those who dwell there. He cites authors who have developed typologies of individual and group place experiences.  Place interaction triads may ‘chain’, as a series of progressive actions, and smaller triads may ‘nest’ within larger scale triads to produce a particular mode of dwelling.

The ‘triad of place identity’ “involves ways that place becomes an extended, taken-for-granted part of how an individual or group suppose themselves to be personally and communally” (105).  Seamon distinguishes this triad from that of ‘place interaction’ in that it involves repetitive interactions with the environment which may have either a positive or negative impact on people’s feelings about the place.  A person may consider a particular place as their ‘homeworld’, motivating them to exhibit emotional and practical care for that place.

The ‘triad of place release’ is linked with the ‘triad of place realization’ because they demonstrate opposite ways that ‘common presence’ initiates place actions.  Seamon states that ‘place release’ “involves an environmental serendipity of unexpected encounters and events” (118).  He suggests that such events could involve ‘noticing’ something new, and this may trigger sequences of consequential interactions.  A question arises as to whether environments can be designed to facilitate serendipity or whether particular types of activities might encourage instances of ‘place release’ to occur?  The ‘triad of place realisation’ is, in contrast, defined by Seamon as relating to some breakdown of the ‘ordered wholeness’ of place, causing a deterioration in the mode of dwelling in place.  This can involve discord within ‘common presence’, operating at an unselfconscious or conscious level.

The ‘triad of place intensification’ is paired with the ‘triad of place creation’, because in both “the reconciling impulse of common presence is the outcome of place actions, though these actions are considerably different experientially” (138).  In the case of ‘place intensification’ the outcome is positive, creating a stronger form of ‘common presence’ via an improved physical environment.  However, for ‘place creation’ the improvement is generated by people implementing change through ‘creatively envisioning’ a better mode of dwelling.  These triads are perhaps most easily understood in terms of urban design and renewal of communal facilities and practices, such as creating new plazas and/or encouraging more vibrant communal activities, such as outdoor concerts and festivals.  The interaction between the two triads is evident in such examples and can be conceptualised as ‘organizing lifeworlds’ to overcome fragmentation and strengthen ‘common presence’ in terms of utilitarian, cultural or spiritual aspects.  It is also possible for changes in either the physical or socio-cultural aspects of dwelling to have a negative effect when inappropriate changes undermine place.  Seamon contends that the challenge for planners is to understand the ‘grounded wholeness’ of place, and the complex interactions between physical and social considerations.  Concentrating on the unique phenomenology of any particular place can lead to promotion of ‘place synergy’.

In Chapter 15, Seamon discusses ways of integrating the six triadic place processes.  He notes that the processes interact in a potentially synergistic fashion, although the intricate forms of reciprocity are largely unpredictable.  Places are constantly changing via the flux of internal change processes and by the influence of external forces.  Seamon provides a table (168) of the ways the six place processes may contribute to sustaining or undermining place and, hence, the lived experience of dwelling.  He introduces the notion of ‘virtuous spirals’, “whereby a dynamic interweave among the six processes supports an unfolding place tube intensifying the wellbeing of place and working against environmental and human entropy” (173).  Changes may occur across many places simultaneously or successively, since places are linked in a multitude of ways.  Understanding of the relationship between places requires its own detailed phenomenology (endnote 2, 176).

In the last two chapters of his book, Seamon contends that his method of ‘synergistic relationality’ aids in understanding places, and the processes that drive their creation and development.  He acknowledges the difficulty of fully understanding this approach and discusses some criticisms and concerns raised by reviewers of the draft book.  The conceptual approach taken in the book could be termed ‘essentialist’, i.e., that an invariant and universal human condition prevails, evident only when historical, social and cultural variables are bracketed.  Seamon responds by “emphasizing the basic phenomenological recognition that there are different dimensions of human experience and existence that all must be incorporated in a thorough understanding of human and societal phenomena, including place and lived emplacement” (178).  These dimensions include individual characteristics such as gender, intellectual endowments, and historical, social and cultural contexts, which affect individuals and communities.  However, all human beings experience ‘lived emplacement’ through universal, non-contingent dimensions, which are the subject of this book.

David Seamon’s book is successful in terms of its stated objectives, within the adopted conservative phenomenological paradigm.  However, this review includes some critiques and questions, at several levels of abstraction.  Seamon’s approach can be compared with a diverse range of methods for phenomenological investigation of place discussed in recent publications[x].

The centrepiece of Seamon’s book is the structured methodology of monad, dyads and triads, based on Bennett’s systems theory.  This implementation of ‘synergistic relationality’ is coherent, though somewhat mechanistic.  It would be more satisfying for the reader if Seamon had provided at least a partial review of the history of systems theory and a detailed argument as to why this method is the chosen option.  He states that he has studied this approach for three decades so perhaps felt no need to justify its validity and applicability.  Although this systems theory based method represents a significant development in our understanding of investigation of place, some questions can be raised.

Having established the fundamental wholeness of the place monad, Seamon develops five place dyads representing conceptual oppositions.  While Seamon’s explanations are compelling, they do not sufficiently explain why those particular, predominately physical (and somewhat overlapping), five dyads were chosen. There are other potential binaries of dwelling in place, relating to historical (e.g. whether colonised people or not), utilitarian (e.g. predominating form of work: hunter/gatherer and agricultural vs manufacturing and utilities), social (e.g. dominant vs marginalised people), political (e.g. democratic vs totalitarian), cultural (e.g. indigenous vs multicultural customs and languages), or spiritual (e.g. sacred vs secular places) aspects.   One assumes that the nature of the place investigation being undertaken would determine which type of dyads are most applicable.

The third step in Seamon’s method is to develop triads based on place impulses.  He suggests that the three impulses define place directly, rather than “in terms of other phenomena such as community, culture, politics, power, economics, or some similar qualities that in both analytic and poststructural research are assumed to be independent shaping the dependent factor of place” (84).  The three impulses are indeed fundamental, providing a generic, abstract definition of place.  However, the people-in-place impulse could incorporate the characteristics of the dwelling group, as a system, interacting with the system of topography and ecosystem, to produce an enhanced form of ‘common presence’.  It can be argued that the phenomena listed earlier in this paragraph can be considered as interdependent, with each other and with place.  They contribute to the mode of dwelling for any particular place, within phenomenological as well as social science methods of investigation.  This is an extension of the approach in Seamon (2012, 3) quoted above.

Uluru in central Australia is a strong example of complexity of place.  It has been a sacred place for Pitjantjatjara Anangu Aboriginal people for at least 10,000 years.  After colonisation by Europeans it was named Ayers Rock.  In 1985 land ownership by Anangu was officially recognised and its traditional name restored.  Uluru is a major tourist attraction.  Apart from being a magnificent monolith, that it is a place, and its nature as place, are intricately linked with each of the factors Seamon chooses to bracket. Uluru could be considered as multiple co-located places, each with respect to a community or stakeholder group (Anangu, governments, industry, tourists, etc.) or as one place incorporating all these relationships.  Given its lack of direct engagement with social and cultural aspects of dwelling, could Seamon’s method investigate these different perspectives appropriately, for instance, in the context of developing a fair and effective management plan for the area?

Seamon asserts that in analytic research approaches “place is typically interpreted as a dependent variable shaped by such independent variables as age, social status, home ownership, or duration of place involvement” (84). The two references provided by Seamon for this statement[xi] support an interdisciplinary and clearly articulated approach to place research.  Patterson and Willliams (2005) review the conceptual clarity of different approaches to research on place, and their epistemological foundations.  They conclude that “systematic coherence requires a pluralistic world view that understands place, not as a single research tradition but as a domain of research informed by many disciplinary research traditions at the research program and paradigmatic level” (362).  Lewicka (2011) reviews the linkages between the type of place research, the methods used, and the theories they rely upon.  She concludes that the key aspect requiring attention is theory concerning place processes, relevant to topics such as meaning-making in place attachment.  This requires interdisciplinary approaches to theory that facilitate consideration of contextual factors relating to the physical and social environments, as interacting systems.  This can be aligned with Martin Heidegger’s notions of ‘dwelling’ and ‘equipment’[xii], which are not significantly pursued by Seamon.

Seamon notes that his version of  ‘common presence’ is difficult to comprehend.  It could perhaps be more easily understood as the synergistic interaction of a group of people, gathered under a communal spatial-socio-cultural-spiritual framework, with a specific area of terrain, as a system of topography and ecosystem.  An enhanced notion of ‘common presence’ can then be thought of as the ‘togetherness’ of intersubjectivity and communalized intentionality,[xiii]in the context of dwelling in that topographic ecosystem.  This entails place as both a utilitarian ‘taskscape’ (Ingold[xiv]) and also a domain (potentially) suffused with culture and spirituality.  Seamon’s determination to avoid the label of ‘social constructivism’ leads him to emphasise the less cultural and task-related aspects of ‘common presence’, such as ‘sense of place’, weakening his approach.

In explaining each of the triads, and their role in his method of analysis, Seamon provides descriptive examples, some in greater detail, from newspaper articles and scientific publications.  Not surprisingly, due to his long-standing expertise in architecture and town planning, these examples predominately relate to urban places.  However, consideration of dwelling needs to cover urban, rural and wild places.  Future evaluations of this approach for places in rural and wild settings will assist in determining the generalizability of Seamon’s method of analysis.

Seamon explains that the six place triads need not arise from an analysis of Bennett’s systems theory.  This is a very important point.  It leads to the question of whether the total conceptual space delineated by the six Bennett-based triads could perhaps be subdivided, ordered and named in more effective ways, based on the broad approach to phenomenology of place developed by the cited authors and others?  What is clear is that Seamon has provided an excellent step forward, which will facilitate development of even more effective reasoning on this matter.

Seamon emphasises the pure phenomenological philosophical perspective.  However, it can be argued that the three place impulses are instantiated in different ways through particular characteristics of topography, ecosystems and communities. A particular mode of dwelling in place can be described via an extremely complex set of variables, usually acting interdependently, and numerous processes, often non-deterministic.  Thus, a model of place, operationalized as a method for investigation and comparison of particular real-world places, needs to facilitate examination of the role of physical and lifeworld factors via targeted case studies.  Indeed, this approach is the one implicitly used by Seamon to explain the six places triads, via reference to newspaper articles and studies of the role of various factors influencing modes of dwelling.

Seamon contends that his structured phenomenological method provides a useful conceptual approach to investigation of differences between places.  Alternative approaches to investigation of place can not only co-exist, but can potentially be synergistically combined.  For instance, Alfred Schütz[xv] developed ethnomethodology to integrate phenomenology and social sciences in the early 1930s.  Phenomenology can be blended with science to facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to investigation of place[xvi]. This can be extended to become transdisciplinary, if phenomenology is used as an overarching paradigm.  This would align with Husserl’s notion of phenomenology as a meta-science (Moran, 2000, 137)[xvii].


[i] Seamon, D. (2012) Place, Place Identity, and Phenomenology: A Triadic Interpretation Based on J.G. Bennett’s Systematics. In: Casakin, H. and Bernardo, F. (Eds.) The Role of Place Identity in the Perception, Understanding, and Design of Built Environments, Bentham Science Publishers, pp. 3-21; Seamon, D. (2014) Place Attachment and Phenomenology: The Synergistic Dynamism of Place. In: Manzo, L. C. and Devine-Wright, P. (Eds.) Place Attachment: Advances in Theory, Methods and Applications. New York: Routledge. pp. 11-22.

[ii] Malpas, J.E. (1999) Place and Experience. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. p. 36.

[iii] Moran, D. (2005) Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

[iv] Van Manen, M. (2014) Phenomenology of Practice. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

[v]  Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) Phenomenology of perception. New York: Humanities Press; Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The visible and the invisible. Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press.

[vi] Jacobs, J. (1961) The death and life of great American cities. New York: Vintage.

[vii] Janz, B, (2005) Walls and borders: The range of place.  City and Community, Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 87.

[viii] Bennett, J.G. (1993) Elementary systematics. Seamon, D. (Ed.), Santa Fe, NM: Bennett Books.

[ix] Bennett, J. G. (1961) The dramatic universe, vol. 2: The foundations of moral philosophy. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

[x]  e.g.: Janz, B. (Ed.) (2017) Place, Space and Hermeneutics. Springer; Donohoe, J. (Ed.) (2017) Place and Phenomenology. London: Rowman and Littlefield.

[xi] Lewicka, M. (2011) Place Attachment: How far have we come in the last 40 years? Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 207-230; Patterson, M. and Willliams, D. (2005) Maintaining research traditions on place: Diversity of thought and scientific progress. Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 361-380.

[xii] Heidegger, M. (1962/2007) Being and time. Trans. by Macquarrie, J. and Robinson, E. Maldan, MA: Blackwell.

[xiii]  Kockelmans, J. J. (1994) Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.

[xiv] Ingold, T. (1993) The Temporality of the Landscape. World Archaeology, Vol. 25, No. 2, Conceptions of Time and Ancient Society, pp. 152-174.

[xv] Schütz, A. (1940) Phenomenology and the Social Sciences. Initially published in: Farber, M. (Ed.) Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press. In: Luckman, T. (Ed.) (1978) Phenomenology and Sociology: Selected Readings. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, pp. 119-141.

[xvi]  Mohanty, J. N. (1997) Phenomenology: Between Essentialism and Transcendental Philosophy. Northwestern University Press, p. 23.

[xvii]  Moran, D. (2000) Introduction to Phenomenology. Abingdon: Routledge.

F. Buongiorno, V. Costa, R. Lanfredini: La fenomenologia in Italia. Autori, scuole, tradizioni

La fenomenologia in Italia. Autori, scuole, tradizioni Book Cover La fenomenologia in Italia. Autori, scuole, tradizioni
Gulliver
F. Buongiorno, V. Costa, R. Lanfredini
Inschibboleth
2018
Paperback
318

Reviewed by: Vittoria Sisca (Independent Scholar)

Raccogliendo undici contributi degli allievi più vicini ai personaggi che hanno dato avvio alla tradizione fenomenologica italiana, il volume a cura di Federica Buongiorno, Vincenzo Costa e Roberta Lanfredini intitolato La fenomenologia in Italia. Autori, scuole, tradizioni mostra la possibilità di raccontare la fenomenologia attraverso un’operazione che non si esaurisce in una sterile ricostruzione storica ma si configura come il tentativo di convertire un tema “a portata di fanciullo” in una Rückfrage: un esercizio intimo, che consiste nel ricercare le parole adatte per descrivere il proprio maestro, in una domanda che scava all’indietro cercando di scorgere anche la propria storia nel movimento di quella stessa vicenda di pensiero. Il risultato di questo esercizio è il quadro di un percorso che attraversa almeno tre generazioni di filosofi: un itinerario decentrato, dislocato in varie “scuole”, eppure tutt’altro che scolastico se col termine “scuola” intendiamo «la ripetizione, malgrado allargata, di temi di origine» (109). Leggendo il testo, in effetti, risulta difficile tracciare delle parole-guida che lo caratterizzano, nella misura in cui ciò che sopravviene è la netta impossibilità di ridurre il variegato panorama fenomenologico italiano a una «preconcetta visione d’insieme» (11) o altrimenti l’inadeguatezza di coprire, a beneficio di una definizione, l’intreccio di autori, scuole e tradizioni che gli dà forma.

Partendo dal principio, si potrebbe dire che il pensiero di Edmund Husserl abbia fatto capolino, in Italia, sull’onda di una reazione storica alle ipoteche metafisiche che ostacolavano l’emergere di una ragione differente. In particolare, come si legge nei contributi di Luca Maria Scarantino e Angela Ales Bello, Antonio Banfi riconobbe alla trattazione husserliana dell’intenzionalità il merito di aver trasformato la necessità ontologica della «correlazione metafisica fra percezione e rappresentazione» (17) in una necessità di ordine storico; mentre Vanni Rovighi, pur attribuendo al pensiero di Husserl una cifra idealistica di fondo, si avvalse di quella teoria o, come direbbe lei, di quel «guardare come stanno le cose» (44), per contrastare il neoidealismo imperante ai suoi tempi. I saggi successivi di Roberto Gronda e Elio Franzini esemplificano perfettamente come, coerentemente rispetto al proposito di porre le «condizioni di una teoria del sapere relazionale, antidogmatica e aperta a una pluralità di forme culturali» (16), l’insegnamento di Banfi ebbe un’influenza molto diversa all’interno delle opere dei suoi allievi. Comparando i due scritti, infatti, è possibile notare che, se Preti continuò e approfondì il razionalismo critico banfiano, Formaggio ereditò dal maestro quella capacità di «“tentare la sordità dell’esperienza”» (117) che gli consentì di comprendere, a partire dall’arte, «come un corpo in azione» riesca ad «essere protagonista di una trasformazione del mondo»: una trasformazione che, per un verso, ne rivela le qualità e, per l’altro, «scopre se stesso come dimensione percettiva, memorativa e immaginativa» (127).

Leggendo il contributo di Amedeo Vigorelli è possibile constatare, invece, che fu Enzo Paci a proseguire la missione pedagogica del maestro Banfi. Egli vi riuscì perché, analogamente a Banfi, non si limitò mai a guardare a Husserl solo come a un interlocutore privilegiato per il proprio pensiero, bensì fece della fenomenologia husserliana il punto di partenza per la costruzione di una vera e propria Gemeinschaft: una dimensione culturale «aperta, che “senza essere ostile al pensiero scientifico” evitasse di “farsene colonizzare e di sviluppare complessi di inferiorità”» al fine di reagire a un «diffuso scetticismo anti-filosofico» (88). Una tappa fondamentale di questa costruzione, nel percorso di Paci, è la rivista “aut aut”, che egli fondò nel 1951. Attorno ad essa, infatti, si svilupparono dei legami particolarmente significativi per lo sviluppo della fenomenologia italiana, al punto che si potrebbe paragonare questo progetto all’ossatura di quella Husserl Renaissance che, soprattutto in seguito alla pubblicazione nella Husserliana del secondo volume di Ideen e della Krisis, interessò il panorama culturale italiano degli anni Cinquanta e Sessanta. Fra questi, il legame fra Paci e Semerari di cui si parla nel contributo del Ferruccio De Natale ha il merito di mostrare come, oltre alla volontà di «superare i pregiudizi legati ad una lettura pigra, stereotipata della fenomenologia» (90), alla base della rilettura italiana dei testi di Husserl vi fosse anche quella «avvalersi delle analisi husserliane per configurare un “atteggiamento”» suscettibile di essere trasformato «in prassi, in lotta per l’emancipazione del soggetto da ogni forma di reificazione della sua attività intenzionale» (141) attraverso il confronto col materialismo storico di Marx.

I richiami marxiani che innervano le opere di Enzo Paci si colgono perfettamente nell’entusiasmante Prefazione alla terza edizione de La crisi delle scienze europee e la fenomenologia trascendentale che egli scrisse nel ’68, all’interno della quale paragonò le idee di coloro i quali attaccavano «la fenomenologia come una fuga della realtà che mancava di praxis» a quelle degli «intellettuali della Russia zarista» che «consideravano puramente teorici e astratti i ragionamenti di Lenin e di Trockij». Tuttavia, l’audace paragone paciano dice qualcosa anche in merito alla tendenza del filosofo a ricomprendere il pensiero husserliano dalla fine all’inizio, mostrando l’insensatezza di distinguere fra un “primo” Husserl logico e slegato dalla prassi, e un “secondo” Husserl storico, impegnato a recuperare la problematica della Lebenswelt. Un’attitudine che dalla sua opera si riverserà sull’intero panorama fenomenologico italiano, dando avvio a un cammino che si proporrà riallacciare, dentro e fuori i testi husserliani, il piano della logica a quello dell’esperienza, la sfera del sapere a quella della vita.

Tutto questo però richiede una precisazione: dal momento che la fenomenologia italiana è lo specchio di una postura che non veicola tendenze dogmatiche, questa tendenza si realizzerà in maniera ogni volta diversa, rendendo difficile per molti versi rintracciarne i connotati. Come si legge nel contributo di Roberto Miraglia, ad esempio, Giovanni Piana, a differenza di Paci, criticò alcuni aspetti dell’opera testamentaria di Husserl riscontrando come gli scritti husserliani, nel corso del tempo, tendessero sempre di più a far spazio a «un Hussel ideologico che ripropone i temi etico-fondazionalisti, senza che questo incremento di drammaticità» potesse però «rendere più adeguata ad affrontarli una cassetta degli attrezzi pensata invece in vista della realizzazione di una analitica fenomenologica» (243).  Un discorso analogo, peraltro, si potrebbe fare in merito ai riferimenti che contribuiranno, insieme a Husserl, a determinare le linee della scena fenomenologica italiana, perché se lo Husserl di Paci e Semerari va a braccetto con Marx, mentre è humeano invece lo Husserl di Enzo Melandri di cui tratta il saggio di Stefano Besoli, quello di Sini, conformemente alla convinzione che tornare alle cose stesse (come scrive Federico Leoni) significhi tornare alle operazioni «attraverso cui le cose stesse si costituiscono», diventa un Husserl copernicano, e cioè «radicalmente kantiano» (222).

Ovviamente, si possono individuare anche dei punti comuni negli studi fenomenologici italiani, come l’antiriduzionismo che accomuna ad esempio due personalità per molti versi differenti come Paolo Parrini, di cui scrive Andrea Pace Giannota, e Paolo Bozzi, a cui è dedicato il contributo Roberta Lanfredini. Ma quello che bisognerebbe chiedersi è: posto che quelle che abbiamo individuato non siano affatto le uniche spaccature individuabili all’interno della Fenomenologia in Italia, ha davvero senso parlare di una fenomenologia italiana? Il contributo finale di Federica Buongiorno suggerisce che per affrontare questo problema occorra spostare la questione su un piano diverso rispetto a quello della mera teoria. Questo perché sul piano dell’esperienza, e cioè di un esercizio filosofico che si fa, lo scontro di prospettive differenti muta di senso. Al suo posto, come avviene quando si traduce un testo e ci si trova, da un lato, ad affrontare «la sfida di trovare, se non per certi versi “inventare” la “parola giusta” con cui rendere il termine originale» e, dall’altro, a doversi confrontare con le «scelte già consolidate e difficilmente aggirabili» (299) di una terminologia già presente, emerge l’idea di una comunità di studiosi grazie alla quale l’eco primitivo di un pensiero si è prodotto (o riprodotto) in un determinato contesto.

Quello che si tratta di capire, se è vero che non è affatto semplice individuare i caratteri della fenomenologia italiana, è che questa difficoltà però non è un elemento accidentale, e neanche la dimostrazione che si debba per questo parlare per forza di una pluralità di pensieri che apre le porte a una deriva scettica. Piuttosto, essa è la conseguenza dell’impossibilità di circoscrivere a priori qualcosa che somiglia più a uno stile, a una maniera «che esiste come movimento ancor prima di essere giunta a un’intera coscienza filosofica», come diceva Merleau-Ponty nella Fenomenologia della percezione. Se consideriamo che non si può ripetere quello stile, quella maniera, come si ripeterebbe un proverbio, non possiamo che convenire con i curatori de La fenomenologia in Italia rispetto al fatto che l’unico modo per raccontare la fenomenologia è allora quello di procedere von unten, e cioè quello di ricollegare questo racconto all’esperienza degli autori che le hanno dato forma. Volendo, però, potremmo spingerci anche oltre: riprendendo le parole di John Keats, potremmo affermare che non solo una particolare vicenda di pensiero, ma «Niente può mai diventare reale, senza essere vagliato dall’esperienza. Persino un proverbio: che proverbio è, prima che la vita te l’abbia mostrato?».

Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.): A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir

A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir Book Cover A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir
Laura Hengehold, Nancy Bauer (Eds.)
Wiley-Blackwell
2017
Hardcover $195.00

Reviewed by: Rose Trappes (Department of Philosophy, Bielefeld University)

On the back cover of Margaret Simons’ 1995 edited collection Feminist Interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, you can find a story about Beauvoir scholarship at the time:

For almost twenty years, feminist readings of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex have been dominated by dismissive interpretation of Beauvoir’s philosophy as Sartrean and phallocentric. […] It was not until Beauvoir’s death in 1986 that this interpretive impasse would be broken. […] Some of the most exciting new interpretations of Beauvoir’s philosophy that have resulted are brought together here for the first time.

Beauvoir scholarship has travelled a long way since that impasse was broken. The idea that Beauvoir is a philosopher is no longer quite so revolutionary, and following Simons’ breakthrough volume, a number of collections of Beauvoir scholarship have been published.[1]

Yet it has now been over ten years since a major companion to Beauvoir has been released. The intervening years have seen a new and improved publication of The Second Sex (Beauvoir 2009) and a great number of original publications concerning various aspects of Beauvoir’s thought in ethics, metaphysics, phenomenology, and social and political philosophy. A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is thus a timely and necessary update of Beauvoir scholarship. With forty articles spread across four parts, the book combines overviews of Beauvoir’s social and intellectual context, her philosophical influences and the reception of her work, with discussions of major conceptual and methodological questions. Many of these essays respond to the new translation and build on the last twenty to thirty years of burgeoning work on Beauvoir, making the collection an important publication for taking stock of Beauvoir’s position and relevance for contemporary feminism.

The volume attests to Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary and far reaching influence, exhibited by her entire œuvre as intellectual, writer, and autobiographer. The essays together develop several themes in contemporary feminist readings of Beauvoir’s work, including the questions of Beauvoir’s treatment of race and intersectionality, her understanding of biology, childhood and motherhood, the relationship between fiction, life writing and philosophy, and her ethical and political thought. Though The Second Sex features prominently, most authors in the volume also confirm the philosophical and historical importance of Beauvoir’s earlier ethical essays, her life writings and letters, her fiction and travel writings, and her work on ageing, The Coming of Age. The Companion thus serves to demonstrate Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary reach as well as her philosophical import.

Readers can find contributions from some of the most reputed Beauvoir scholars, but the collection also introduces a number of younger academics. With this combination of voices, the Companion covers old ground as well as demonstrating the changing interests of scholars. Beauvoir’s ethics and politics, her discussion of motherhood, and her intellectual engagements with thinkers like Hegel, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre continuing to feature prominently. On the other hand, there seems to be far greater interest in topics like biology and race than in earlier collections, while conversely less attention for phenomenology, socialisation, and sexuality.

Now, often these kinds of reviews step through essays section by section. Unfortunately, the articles in the Companion are rather indifferently distributed to sections and parts in a way that often obscures rather than draws out main themes and connections and debates between papers. For instance, while analyses of Beauvoir’s account of motherhood are grouped together, discussions on race and on biology are scattered throughout the volume. In addition, the choice to structure the text around The Second Sex belies the way that almost all the authors in the volume cite a variety of Beauvoir’s writings in their articles. Thus, in part one (“Re-reading The Second Sex”) and especially in the “Central Themes” section, one finds discussions of Beauvoir’s ethical writings and life writings, as well as discussions of her intellectual engagements and references to contemporary feminism. On the other hand, some key themes of The Second Sex are developed in other parts and sections, as in Penelope Deutscher’s discussion of intersectionality (appearing in Part III section C) and the two discussions by Shannon Sullivan and Alexander Antonopoulos of the “Data of Biology” chapter of The Second Sex (appearing in Part IV).  Moreover, while Laura Hengehold introduces the volume with a brief overview of each chapter in turn, she neglects to provide an overarching picture or satisfactory discussion of the central themes and connections. For this review I will therefore discuss the contributions by their themes and the debates generated between articles in the collection, rather than according to their place in the Companion.

Beauvoir’s Context

A number of essays in the volume discuss the philosophical context of Beauvoir’s works. Two essays by Kimberly Hutchings and Zeynep Direk debate and ultimately disagree about the way Beauvoir takes up Hegel’s thought. Hutchings contends that Beauvoir encountered Hegel’s thought on her own terms and rejected the absolutism of Hegelianism as a system. In contrast, Direk claims that Beauvoir largely took on the dominant French version of Hegelianism popularised by Alexandre Kojève in the 1930s, and that she consequently accepted the Hegelian Absolute and understood history as a meaningful totality.

Two essays, this time more concordant, cover Beauvoir’s relationship with fellow phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Jennifer McWeeny argues that Beauvoir generated an idea of “flesh,” the ontological ground of the ambiguity between being at once bodily object and bodily subject, before Merleau-Ponty could put a name to it. William Wilkerson, on the other hand, compares the ideas of freedom and authenticity in Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, arguing that Beauvoir is ultimately more sensitive to the difficulties subjects face in everyday life in acting freely and authentically.

Much ink has been spilled on the relationship between Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet the topic must be dealt with, and several articles in the Companion do so. Like the essays on Merleau-Ponty, Christine Daigle’s analysis of Beauvoir’s intellectual relationship to Sartre highlights the active contributions Beauvoir made to her philosophical milieu. The article by Margaret Simons (which I also mention below) accords with this view, claiming that Beauvoir originated many of the ideas Sartre later took up in his philosophical works.

A notable feature of the Companion is the inclusion of two essays on Beauvoir’s relation to both Marx’s thought and Marxism in its twentieth century French form, often not a focus in other collections on Beauvoir. Missing, however, is a discussion of many of Beauvoir’s other important influences. For instance, the influence of other phenomenologists like Heidegger and Husserl is not treated, and I am sure that productive discussion could be had concerning Beauvoir’s relationship with other philosophers (for instance, with Descartes’ philosophy).[2]

Somehow, what I found more interesting were the essays on Beauvoir’s social and historical context. Sandra Reineke provides a helpful overview of the state of French feminism prior to The Second Sex, written twenty years before the popular French feminist movements began. The delightfully personal recount of Margaret Simons’ fraught quest to understand Beauvoir’s relationship with philosophy and with Sartre reveals a trail of investigation, from interviews in the 1970s to reading Beauvoir’s diaries and letters, in which Simons attempts to come to terms with Beauvoir’s apparent denial of her own originality. William McBride reads Beauvoir’s travel memoirs America Day by Day and The Long March to discuss Beauvoir’s relation with the political and social situations in America and China respectively, praising her acuity with respect to America’s hypocrisy and fatalism and China’s future-directedness, though he challenges her overly apologetic attitude towards the Chinese communist regime.

Receptions and Translations

Beauvoir has had a varied reception over time in France. Ingrid Galster’s posthumously published chapter covers the scandal and intellectual neglect generated by the original publication of The Second Sex in France. Turning to more recent times, Karen Vintges challenges the way Elisabeth Badinter and other French liberal feminists cite Beauvoir in support of their stance against Islamic veiling. Critiquing Badinter’s interpretation of laicism, Vintges highlights Beauvoir’s belief in the importance of respecting Islamic women’s views of their own lives and their potentially different ways of practicing freedom. On the other side of French feminism, Diane Perpich examines the way young feminists from poor migrant neighbourhoods in France take up Beauvoir’s famous phrase (“One is not born…”) for their own purposes. Perpich’s discussion is enlightening and it would be nice to see more discussion of how Beauvoir’s famous words have travelled through popular feminist movements in other contexts.

The English translation of The Second Sex has been much discussed, and Emily Grosholz’s article is particularly valuable for its overview of the failings of HM Parshley’s original translation as well as a discussion of the merits of the new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Though she concludes that the new translation is more philosophically adequate, Grosholz calls for a complete scholarly edition of The Second Sex, complete with full citations and elaborations. Grosholz provides a detailed plan for such a work and I encourage anyone who is interested to contact her to offer their assistance. Kyoo Lee’s contribution adds to the discussion of translation, bringing in Chinese and Korean translations of Beauvoir’s famous phrase “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (On ne nait pas femme: on le devient) and inviting further discussion of its translation in a wide variety of other languages, certainly a crucial task for the future.

Finally, Beauvoir’s reception in and relationship to contemporary feminist theory receives treatment in a number of essays throughout the volume. With the first chapter Stella Sandford considers Beauvoir’s role as a founder of feminist philosophy and gender theory. Beauvoir’s interdisciplinary research, she argues, introduced the very question of sex and gender as a philosophical and theoretical question. In addition, as I discuss below, a number of the chapters on biology, motherhood, and race and intersectionality contain useful summaries of how Beauvior’s ideas have been received by later feminist theorists.

Biological Body

The topic of biology and its relation to bodily existence is treated in many of the essays. Many of these discussions focus on reading The Second Sex’s chapter “Biological data” (Les données de la biologie), as well as its forceful descriptions of female physiology, in light of contemporary feminist discussions. Ruth Groenhout’s “Beauvoir and the Biological Body” does an excellent job of elaborating Beauvoir’s view that the meaning of biological factors depends on social, cultural, environmental and economic factors. As Groenhout attests, Beauvoir’s understanding of biology is surprisingly similar to that of feminist science scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling and could prove useful for the feminist critique of evolutionary psychology. Emily Anne Parker’s “Becoming Bodies” compares Beauvoir with poststructuralist theories of bodily materialisation, finding that Beauvoir is more sensitive to bodily agency than theorists like Judith Butler. Similarly, Alexander Antonopoulos brings Beauvoir’s understanding of biology into contact with trans studies.

As well as these explicit articles, the theme of biology also returns in contributions on motherhood, childhood, and race. It is thus far more prominent here than in previous collections, indicating that there is a growing interest in this topic. This is perhaps related to the growth of new materialist and feminist science studies discussions of biology in the past twenty years. The contributions in the Companion provide a starting point for an important dialogue about the relevance of Beauvoir for these new fields of research.

Motherhood and Childhood

Three contributions renew discussion of Beauvoir’s relation to maternity, with Alison Stone, Sara Cohen Shabot, and Nancy Bauer all concluding that Beauvoir is not as anti-motherhood as she is often supposed to be. Instead, these three authors highlight the ambiguity of motherhood in The Second Sex as well as in some of her fictional and autobiographical writings. Being a mother involves a specific set of physiological states as well as a special and often fraught kind of relation with other beings, and the authors highlight Beauvoir’s sensitivity to the multiple meanings that can attach to motherhood and the importance of social and economic factors in shaping mothers’ and children’s experiences.

Turning to childhood, Emily Zakin looks at Beauvoir’s understanding of childhood dependency and development in light of psychoanalytic theories, while Mary Beth Mader compares Foucauldian emphasis on institutional discipline with Beauvoir’s focus on the role of the family and intimacy in child development. Both of these essays invite further research into Beauvoir’s conceptual frameworks and how they can be combined with other paradigms to yield new insights on topics like childhood. Also relevant here is Shannon Sullivan’s article on black girlhood (which I also discuss below), where she considers the different roles that physical activity and violence play in child development for white and black girls.

Race and Intersectionality

Beauvoir is often criticised for drawing an analogy between racial and gender-based oppression in a way that excludes multiple oppression and the insights of intersectionality. Here this argument is voiced by Tanella Boni, Katherine Gines, Patricia Hill Collins and Shannon Sullivan, as well as being mentioned in several other papers. Rehearsing the argument, Gines criticises Beauvoir’s analogy and her inattention to Black and Black feminist thought in the 1950s. Although Gines fails here to provide a satisfactory treatment of the method of analogy, this can be found in Collins’ chapter. Collins offers an in-depth exploration of the function of analogy in Beauvoir’s work, arguing that Beauvoir ultimately relies on ideological connections between animal, child, Black person and woman.

Acknowledging these arguments, Sullivan nevertheless finds Beauvoir’s emphasis on the implication between the physical and biological body and social and cultural factors fruitful for a critical theory of race that goes beyond social constructionism. Interestingly, Sullivan echoes Groenhout in referring to Anne Fausto-Sterling, this time to her work on how race comes to exist physiologically.

Providing a counterpoint, Penelope Deutscher argues that Beauvoir’s analysis of old age is sensitive to issues of multiple oppression, especially of class and gender intersecting with age. Deutscher’s paper is surprisingly the only chapter on Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, a shame given the great importance of this often neglected work. It is also worth noting that Debra Bergoffen contextualises Beauvoir’s analogy between racial and gender-based oppression, arguing that Beauvoir was making a powerful political claim for women by associating them with a group that was more easily recognised as oppressed in mid-twentieth century France.

Ethics and Politics

Beauvoir’s ethical and political philosophies have received considerable recognition in the past twenty years. The Companion adds to this with a number of chapters discussing aspects of Beauvoir’s ethics and politics. Examining Beauvoir’s reflections on love from her teenage diaries to her later life, Tove Petterson discusses the importance of mutual recognition for ethical relationships and thus for authentic love. Kristina Arp provides an excellent essay arguing that Beauvoir’s “Pyrrhus and Cineas” is ideal as an introductory text on existentialist ethics, and she facilitates this with an explanatory text that is suitable for the earliest of undergraduates or even late high school students.

The three contributions from Laura Hengehold, Lori Marso and Debra Bergoffen together provide extensive and informative examination of the place of violence and vulnerability in Beauvoir’s ethics. While Marso and Bergoffen focus on the effects of violence and human vulnerability to violence, Hengehold emphasises Beauvoir’s acknowledgement of our vulnerability to committing violence. Bergoffen’s text, with its discussion of rape, prostitution and race is an especially interesting chapter for its extensive scope and largely sensitive analysis. Hengehold’s is also notable for the way she presents Beauvoir as a counterpoint to the focus on vulnerability in recent feminist and queer ethics such as that of Judith Butler.  It is also worth mentioning that other contributions, such as those from Vintges and Collins, contain thorough discussions of aspects of Beauvoir’s ethical and political theory.

Writing

Finally, a number of essays deal with Beauvoir’s approach to writing and her considerable body of fiction and life writing. In an enlightening discussion of literary techniques and the history of the novel, Meryl Altman argues that Beauvoir must be recognised as an important novelist with a specific literary approach designed to convey lived experience, one which she employed even in parts of The Second Sex. Sally Scholz adds to this with her discussion of Beauvoir’s idea of the metaphysical novel as disclosing lived experience rather than delivering a message. Anne van Leeuwen and Shannon Mussett complement these pieces with analyses of Beauvoir’s novels for insights about ethical relationships and the difficulties of achieving authentic subjectivity.

In addition, Ursula Tidd’s contribution provides an excellent discussion of Beauvoir’s extensive collection of many varieties of life writing, arguing that Beauvoir displays a sensitivity to the way histories and events are co-implicated and use to interpret each other, something she calls “ethical witnessing”. Reinforcing Tidd’s point, Michel Kail argues that Beauvoir’s understanding of history as situation is an important alternative to dominant Hegelian and Marxist understandings of history as mechanistic, naturalistic or essentialist. We can also cite here Margaret Simons’ reflection on the way Beauvoir’s life writings sometimes conflict with each other, and William McBride’s recognition of Beauvoir as a sensitive and astute witness of mid-twentieth century cultures.

Concluding Remarks

The essays in the Companion cover a vast swathe of topics in contemporary feminist theory and Beauvoir scholarship. As mentioned earlier, the main drawback of the collection is that the arrangement of chapters sometimes seems arbitrary and often obscures connections and debates occurring between the various contributions. Hopefully this review amends some of this lack. It is also worth noting that there is an extensive index that enables researchers or students looking for particular topics to find their way around the text.

One of the more unique features of the Companion is its inclusion of contributions with diverging views on the same topic. For instance, the chapters discussing Beauvoir’s Hegelianism—including the two by Hutchings and Direk as well as others like Vintges’ and van Leeuwen’s—provide conflicting interpretations of whether Beauvoir took on Kojève’s reading of Hegel. As another example, while Gines, Boni, Collins and Sullivan see Beauvoir as lacking sensitivity to intersectionality (especially concerning the race-gender intersection), Penelope Deutscher qualifies this assessment by arguing that Beauvoir did employ a kind of intersectional analysis with respect to gender, class and age. Such disagreements can be important and productive, and their inclusion in the collection certainly serves to give readers a sense of the lay of the contested fields.

Despite its decidedly wide scope, there are some topics missing from the Companion. It would have been nice to have seen more discussions of ageing, for instance, and of Beauvoir’s phenomenological approach to women’s lived experience. And though the discussion of the reception of Beauvoir in the French context was enlightening, it would have been interesting to have had similar pieces on her reception in other places and times.

The Companion could also have benefited from more chapters that review and respond more directly to the recent literature on certain aspects of Beauvoir’s theory since its rise to prominence in the past thirty years. Some chapters do summarise the past literature: Grosholz surveys the debates about the English translation of The Second Sex, Sullivan gives an excellent review on literature about Beauvoir and race, and the articles on motherhood nicely summarise the field. However, none of the chapters on Beauvoir’s ethics and political philosophy gave a clear overview for the student or researcher wishing to get oriented in the vast amount of literature published on these topics.

That being said, the collection for the most part builds on and extends previous Beauvoir scholarship. Moreover, with its clear documentation of the rising popularity of topics like biology and race, it reinforces Beauvoir’s continuing relevance to current new materialist and intersectional trends in feminist theory and provides new avenues for research employing Beauvoir’s work in relation to current debates. A Companion to Simone de Beauvoir is thus a worthy, indeed essential, addition to any library wishing to stay up to date with Beauvoir scholarship and provides some useful texts for students and researchers alike.

References

Bauer, Nancy. 2006. Beauvoir’s Heideggerian Ontology. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays, pp. 65-91. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2009. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. London: Jonathon Cape (also 2010, New York: Alfred A. Knope).

Card, Claudia (ed.). 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fallaize, Elizabeth (ed.). 1998. Simone de Beauvoir: A critical reader. London: Routledge.

Gothlin, Eva. 2003. Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger. In: Claudia Card (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 45-65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grosholz, Emily (ed.). 2004. The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Heinämaa, Sara. 2006. Simone de Beauvoir’s Phenomenology of Sexual Difference. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays, pp. 20-41. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Heinämaa, Sara. 2004. «The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir.» In Feminist reflections on the history of philosophy, pp. 137-151. Dordrecht: Springer.

Simons, Margaret (ed.). 2006. The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Simons, Margaret (ed.). 1995. Feminist interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Vintges, Karen. 1995. The second sex and philosophy. In: Margaret Simons (ed.), Feminist interpretations of Simone de Beauvoir, pp. 45-58. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.


[1] In chronological order: Simone de Beauvoir: A critical reader (Fallaize 1998), The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir (Card 2003), The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir (Grosholz 2004), and The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Critical Essays (Simons 2006).

[2] Useful discussions of these topic can nevertheless be found in earlier work on Beauvoir. On Beauvoir and Heidegger, two examples are Nancy Bauer’s chapter “Beauvoir’s Heideggerian Ontology” (2006) and Eva Gothlin’s “Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger” (2003). On Beauvoir and Husserl, see Sara Heinämaa “Simone de Beauvoir’s Phenomenology of Sexual Difference” (2006) or Karen Vintges (1995) “The second sex and philosophy,” amongst many others. On Beauvoir and Descartes, see Heinämaa «The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir» (2004).

Anthony J. Steinbock: It’s Not About the Gift: From Givenness to Loving

It’s Not About the Gift: From Givenness to Loving Book Cover It’s Not About the Gift: From Givenness to Loving
Anthony J. Steinbock
Rowman & Littlefield International
2018
Paperback $29.95
156

Reviewed by: Simon Thornton (University of California, Santa Barbara)

In his provocative text, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, Jacques Derrida exposes what he takes to be an aporia in the concept of the gift. Firstly, he notes that exchange is indispensable to our prephilosophical concept of the gift. The concept of the gift entails that ‘“some ‘one’” (A) intends-to-give B to C, some “one” intends to give or gives “something” to “someone other”’ (Derrida 1992, 11). Secondly, however, he suggests that a defining feature constitutive of our concept of the gift is that it be aneconomic, i.e., that it breaks with the economic cycle of exchange: A gift is given freely or gratuitously, without calculation or considerations of reciprocity; ‘for there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift or debt’ (Ibid., 11). For Derrida, these two features of our prephilosophical concept of the gift stand in tension: Insofar as a gift is exchanged – that is, intended and received as such in an instance of gift-giving — it becomes entangled within an economy of exchange which annuls the gratuitousness of the gift. As Derrida has it, this is because the recipient of a gift always gives back – even if only with symbolic gestures, such as thanks. Similarly, the gift-giver is apt to ‘pay himself with a symbolic recognition, to praise himself, to approve of himself, to gratify himself, to congratulate himself, to give back to himself symbolically the value of what he thinks he has given or what he is preparing to give’ (Ibid., 13). So, on Derrida’s estimation you can have either the gratuitiousness of the gift, without the exchange, or the exchange without the gratuitousness of the gift, but not both, where this makes the ‘pure’ gift – that is, an instance of the gift that properly fulfils its concept — aporetic or impossible.

This putative aporia has animated much debate in the so-called ‘theological turn’ in French phenomenology, notably in the work of Jean-Luc Marion, but also in the work of Anglo-American commentators such as John Caputo, John Milbank and others. As Steinbock notes, Jean-Luc Marion, who has spent much of his career developing a phenomenological reduction to givenness, undertakes to overcome Derrida’s aporia by ‘leav[ing] the “natural attitude” (Derrida) and mov[ing] to a phenomenological perspective (Marion). Accordingly, bracketing the empirical transcendencies (or reality or being) of the givee, the giver, and the gift,’ where ‘in principle, [these] analyses should entail the phenomenological reduction of transcendence to my lived experience of the givee, the giver, and the gift to show the gift without reciprocity and exchange’ (Steinbock 2018, 109).

Evidently, in their discussions neither Derrida nor Marion are primarily concerned with the concrete practice of gift-giving: for Marion, the theme of the gift encompasses fundamental features of Christian faith, such as revelation. And, more generally, as Steinbock puts it, philosophically, Derrida’s and Marion’s work encompasses a ‘broad swath of the phenomenological tradition, which [Derrida, Marion and others] presuppose, and the pervasive concept of givenness,’ adding that ‘in particular, they retrieve Heidegger’s thoughts on the “Event,” the “It gives” or Ereignis, and Husserl’s phenomenological reduction to “givenness”’ (Ibid., x).

In It’s Not About the Gift, Steinbock canvasses the claim that these ‘discussions of the gift are really not about the gift, or should not be mistaken to be about the gift,’ arguing that ‘the gift is not the point because the gift only becomes the gift in the context of interpersonal loving’ (Ibid.). Prima facie, Steinbock’s intervention here promises to be refreshing and illuminating – not least because, arguably, the French debate surrounding the gift often runs together themes from theology, anthropology and phenomenology that are not obviously connected, so that it becomes difficult to parse what is actually at issue. Steinbock’s strategy in the book is to critically appraise some of the key arguments by major thinkers associated with the debate surrounding the gift, before providing what he considers to be the enabling condition for gift-giving – namely, interpersonal love – where this putatively overcomes Derrida’s aporia by reframing the concept of the gift, while also avoiding the difficulties Steinbock sees in the philosophies of Marion and others.

Steinbock begins in the first chapter in a resolutely phenomenological register by attempting to clarify the ‘belief-structure’ of surprise, where Steinbock appears to take surprise to be a central feature of gift-exchange that is often simply assumed and has, thus, not been subject to any kind of rigorous phenomenological analysis. Although Steinbock does not make the connection explicit, considering the belief-structure of surprise makes sense in relation to Derrida’s aporia: For Derrida, the pure gift ‘must interrupt all economy, all exchange. To be a gift, it must escape all motivation and all intention, all anticipation, all “present” and all fulfilment; to be “gift” in its pure essential sense as gift, it must be able to arise unprovoked, unbidden, unannounced, unreceived, unattended’ (Ibid.,105). Viewed in this way, the element of surprise may become all important, since, as Steinbock suggests, ‘it is commonly held that surprise is simply a rupture of what is expected’ (Ibid., 2).

In the first part of the chapter, Steinbock compares surprise with other related phenomena such as wonder, shock and startle, arguing that what distinguishes surprise is that it involves ‘an overall reconstitution or reconfiguration of sense where the event in question is concerned’ (Steinbock 5). More specifically, Steinbock characterises this reconstitution of sense in terms of coming to believe in and accept that which was previously unbelievable in an experience of being caught off guard. While shock and being startled both involve the experience of being caught off guard, neither of them, in Steinbock’s view, involve the kind of acceptance he wants to associate with surprise. A second feature Steinbock appeals to in distinguishing surprise is that it re-focuses attention on the reconstituted or reconfigured reality: surprise ‘throws me back on the experience…I can examine it further, I can become curious’ (Ibid., 11). Finally, Steinbock categorises surprise as an emotion, arguing that ‘It is an emotion in part because of the creative way in which we receive the situation in feeling through which we are moved’ (Ibid., 14).

In the second part of the chapter, Steinbock goes on to consider surprise in relation to what he calls ‘diremptive experience,’ namely, ‘an experience in which I am given to myself as in tension with a basic sense of myself as before another or others’ (Ibid., 16). That is to say, a diremptive experience is one that calls into question my sense of self. And, linking surprise understood as a kind of diremptive experience back to the notion of the gift, Steinbock suggests that surprise, by calling my sense of self into question, reveals to me that I am ‘not self-grounding’ (Ibid., 18), where this diremptive experience gives rise to a sense of humility and openness proper to the receiving of gifts.

There is much that is thought-provoking in this chapter – perhaps too much: While Steinbock makes some persuasive and insightful claims concerning the belief-structure of surprise and its relevance to our understanding of the gift, other claims made in the chapter would have benefitted from further discussion. In particular, the transition from the discussion of the belief-structure of surprise to considerations concerning diremptive experiences and humility seemed awfully quick: Steinbock switches the focus of the discussion from the belief-structure of surprise to the calling into question of the self in a way that is somewhat disorientating.

In the second chapter, Steinbock changes pace, moving from phenomenological investigations into the structure of the gift to considerations of the work of thinkers in the phenomenological tradition who have taken up the issue of the gift. Specifically, in this chapter, Steinbock deals with Heidegger. In the context of phenomenological debates concerning the gift, Steinbock’s consideration of Heidegger should come as no surprise: After all, the later Heidegger’s considerations of the es gibt (it gives) in works such as On Time and Being (1969) provide important context for understanding Derrida’s and Marion’s later discussions. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is Steinbock’s starting point in the chapter: Rather than focusing initially on texts such as On Time and Being, he begins with a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of ‘machination,’ including Heidegger’s anti-semitic claim that machination is an archetypally Jewish attribute. Here, Steinbock enters the fray of ongoing debates surrounding Heidegger’s links to Nazism, debates that have been renewed in light of the recent publication of Heidegger’s incriminating Black Notebooks. On this issue, Steinbock provides what seems to me to be a rather hedged justification for continuing to take Heidegger seriously, suggesting only that ‘we can…maintain that it is not only too easy, but both ingenuous and misleading for us to point the finger at Heidegger while supposing that we are somehow absolved from or not complicit in the general problem of evil’ (Ibid., 28). I would suggest that this attitude would fail to appease many critics!

Turning to the substantive content of the chapter, Steinbock highlights a fundamental problem that animated much of Heidegger’s later work. Namely, that today the world is technologically ‘enframed:’

Machination was expressed in the war as technological prowess, power and the will to calculate; it had further implications for reducing the earth to a resource under quantitative measure, bringing all beings under our dominion as controllable and at our disposition, as well as reducing human beings to the status of beings deprived of decisive resoluteness. (Ibid., 31)

In a word, Heidegger thought that advanced technological society was in many important respects greatly impoverished. But rather that claiming that this impoverishment arose principally as a result of socio-economic factors, Heidegger frames it in terms of a metaphysical problem; a problem to do with our understanding of Being. And his task, then, is to provide a way for us to overcome our problematic understanding of Being and to forge a new beginning.

It is in this context, Steinbock continues, that Heidegger’s concern with the gift comes to the fore. In Steinbock’s summary,

Heidegger notes that from the very beginning of Western thinking, Being and Time are thought, but not the “Es gibt” that gives the gifts of Being and Time. How is it that we have missed the Es gibt? It is because, according to Heidegger, the Es gibt, the It gives, withdraws in favour of the gifts that It gives. This retreat opens the space for the gifts to be thought misleadingly and exclusively as Being with regard to beings, conceptualizing Being as the ground of beings, as Time with regard to the present. (Ibid., 34-5)

That is to say, for Heidegger, what is central for his project of ‘overcoming the metaphysics of presence’ is a thinking that thinks the It gives that in the first instance grants being (and time) while withdrawing from it.

After reprising Heidegger’s philosophical position in this regard, Steinbock then makes some critical observations. In particular, Steinbock wants to challenge Heidegger’s claim that the It gives withdraws as it grants being by instead claiming that ‘giving accompanies its givenness in and as gifts’ (Ibid., 40). While I have to admit that Steinbock’s critical observations here are rather difficult to follow (admittedly, perhaps owing in the most part to the difficulty of parsing Heidegger’s later writing), his conclusion is clear enough:

What is called for when confronting the stranglehold of calculating managerial technologies or machination is not a novel paganism of thinking, but a rehabilitation, a reclamation of the emotional sphere of human persons, and in particular, the interpersonal emotions, which give us novel ways of freedom, critique, normativity, and specifically, a deeper sense of person. (Ibid., 46-7)

In essence, then, Steinbock appears to appreciate Heidegger’s worries concerning ‘machination’ and technological enframing, albeit in a qualified way. But instead of turning to a kind of pious thinking that attempts to think the It gives, Steinbock proposes that we focus on the kind of affective interpersonal relations – such as loving – that ‘machination’ tends to occlude.

In Chapter 3, Steinbock then turns to a figure who, amongst the figures considered in the book, is perhaps the least well known in Anglo-American philosophy: The Christian phenomenologist Michel Henry. This move, in a certain way, might seem to make sense: The previous chapter motivated a reframing of the gift from Heideggerian paganism to thinking of the gift within the context of love, where refocusing on Christian themes such as agape, as considered in Henry’s work I am the Truth, seems to be a logical step. Yet, for the bulk of this chapter Steinbock focuses on the issue of forgetfulness and the task of overcoming forgetfulness as it arises in Henry’s sprawling doctoral dissertation, The Essence of Manifestation, only touching on I am the Truth in the concluding part of the chapter.

Praise must be given to Steinbock here for rendering intelligible the formidably abstract and difficult work of Henry. Indeed, one of the best features of this chapter consists in its provision of a clarifying precis of some of the central themes of Henry’s work. This is not the place to attempt to reprise Henry’s philosophy or even Steinbock’s precis: It suffices to say that the central dynamic underlying Steinbock’s discussion of Henry begins with the claim that ‘As transcendence…I am simply given to myself, [I] receive the gift of myself to myself as a projection beyond myself’ (Ibid., 56). But, Steinbock continues, for the most part, through various mechanisms of forgetfulness, this structure of self-givenness is covered over and occluded.

In order to combat and overcome this forgetfulness, Henry promotes a form of ‘doing’ which Steinbock describes as ‘the work of mercy…as forgetfulness of the ego and bearing absolute Life as its presupposition; in doing, it is no longer me who acts, but God, or the Archi-Son of God, who acts in me’ (Ibid., 70). In a way, then, despite the phenomenological sophistication of Henry’s position, he in fact advocates a fairly well trodden path in Christian thinking; one which emphasizes a move from self-centredness and egoism, forgetful of one’s createdness, to an openness and humility in which the self relates to itself as the created being that, for Henry, it is. And Steinbock’s overall assessment of Henry’s work seems to be one that broadly appreciates the basic Christian dynamic motivating his phenomenological enterprise, while being critical of some of the details of Henry’s phenomenological procedure, concluding that Henry doesn’t really move us much beyond the Heideggerian conception of the It Gives.

In Chapter 4, Steinbock turns to the work of Jean-Luc Marion. As I mentioned above, Marion is perhaps the foremost phenomenologist working on issues surrounding the gift, and he has written many works that take the concept of the gift as a central theme. Steinbock’s way in to Marion’s work is through a critical appraisal of Marion’s conception of the poor phenomenon. The poor phenomenon comes in different valences – such as the common phenomenon; the humble phenomenon and the denigrated phenomenon – and, paradigmatically, it stands in contrast to the saturated phenomenon, namely, a phenomenon ‘marked by an excess of intuition (i.e., givenness) over the subjective intention of meaning-giving’ (Steinbock 86): The saturated phenomenon is associated with ‘revelation,’ whereas the poor phenomenon is delimited by representational intentionality. The question Steinbock poses in relation to Marion’s taxonomy of phenomena is whether the difference between the saturated phenomenon and the poor phenomenon is one of kind or one of degree: Can some poor phenomena open up a kind of ‘vertical’ experience that is typically associated with the revelatory character of saturated phenomena, or is such ‘verticality’ the preserve of saturated phenomena alone? Steinbock argues that for Marion the latter is the case, whereas Steinbock himself wants to propose the former.

In this connection, Steinbock recounts the following parable from St. Teresa: ‘When some of her novices were getting disturbed at being drawn away from contemplative prayer to undertake putative menial, mundane tasks, St. Teresa offers the following instruction: “Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly”’ (Ibid., 94). Steinbock avers that ‘“pots and pans” are not simply what Marion calls saturated phenomena. Nor are they “poor” or “common” phenomena…[t]he pots and pans give themselves in “the epiphany of the everyday”…’ (Ibid., 94). In other words, in contrast to Marion’s conception of poor phenomena as phenomena whose givenness is mundane and restricted (at least in comparison with saturated phenomena), Steinbock proposes that some seemingly poor phenomena can in fact have a ‘vertical’ or revelatory dimension — equal to that of the saturated phenomena — when taken in the spirit of poverty, as is exemplified in St. Teresa’s parable. Thus, as Steinbock concludes, ‘if we are to speak of poverty at all, then it should be in the way the mystics use the term, namely, the poverty of spirit as an opening to the opening, or more personally, the vertical delimitation accomplished through loving’ (Ibid., 101).

Here, again, Steinbock’s critical appraisal aims in a direction that takes ‘loving’ to be central to the meaning of the gift rather than something about the character of the gift itself, where in this case he has in mind a kind of mystical poverty of spirit that can relate to seemingly mundane phenomena in such a way that reveals their character as gifts. Steinbock’s reversal of the meaning of the poor phenomena in this chapter is enlightening, and surely goes some way to motivating his ultimate claim in the book; namely, that the gift takes on its gift-character not thanks to any qualities inherent in the gift itself, but thanks to the context of loving in which the gift emerges.

Steinbock begins the final chapter by returning to Derrida, reprising Derrida’s deconstruction of the gift that I highlighted at the beginning of the review, while also considering Marion’s response to Derrida. Interestingly, in this discussion Steinbock notes that Marion in fact comes close to his own thesis concerning the relation between the gift and love, when, in God without Being, Marion places ‘emphasis on loving as agape or divine giving – which gives (itself) – in which God does not fall within the realm of Being, but comes to us in and as “gift”’ (Ibid., 108). However, Steinbock nonetheless marks a distinction between Marion’s approach to the gift and love and his own by insisting that, in contrast to Marion’s resolutely theological account, Steinbock’s conception of gift-giving has ‘an interpersonal significance from the very start’ (Ibid., 112). What seems to be at stake for Steinbock here is the relative concreteness of his account of gift-giving – as emerging in contexts of interpersonal relations – in relation to the admittedly rather abstract configurations provided by Heidegger, Henry and Marion.

In making his case, Steinbock turns to the work of Maimonides. In particular, Steinbock draws on Maimonides’s ‘unique laws of tzedakah (charity, gift-giving, but also “righteousness” and “justice”)’ (Ibid., 112). In addition to its focus on concrete interpersonal relations, what attracts Steinbock to Maimonides’s tzedakah is the fact that it admits of degrees of gift-giving, where this kind of subtlety is apparently absent from the work of the figures he has been considering up to now: For Derrida and others, focus has been on the pure gift, which places rather high success conditions on the appearance of the gift. Steinbock, by contrast, drawing on the work of Maimonides, suggests that the gift can appear across different contexts, some of which are less than ideal and yield something ‘less’ than a ‘pure’ gift, but which is nonetheless a gift.

Steinbock’s Maimonides-inspired taxonomy of gifts is as follows:

(1) those that conform to the economy of the gift, (2) those that are expressive of the bracketing of the gift, and (3) a style of gift-giving that goes beyond each of the former and is expressive of the dynamic of loving, issuing from what we could call the interpersonal nexus of beloveds. (Ibid., 114)

Importantly, for Steinbock, these ‘styles’ of gift-giving are united by their common ‘interpersonal connection’ which aims at the ‘liberation’ of the other – the givee – from ‘material and/or spiritual restrictions’ (Ibid.). More specifically, Steinbock canvasses Maimonides’s conception of the greatest kind of giving – the giving that issues from the ‘interpersonal nexus of beloveds’ – as a possible alternative to conceptions of the gift considered so far. On Steinbock’s Maimonides-inspired conception, the gift emerges within the context of a ‘partnership with others, supporting them by endowing them with a gift or loan or finding employment for this person to strengthen him until he needs no longer to be dependent upon others’ (Ibid., 122). What is essential to this conception of the gift is not its conceptual ‘purity’ – it is not focused on the gift itself – but rather the ‘interpersonal relation that is oriented towards the liberation of other persons’ (Ibid., 123).

In the book’s conclusion, Steinbock summarizes how he sees his reconfiguration of the gift as responding to Derrida’s aporia: for Steinbock, worries concerning narcissistic reappropriations of the gift are overcome as soon as one reconfigures the gift as something that emerges within the context of interpersonal loving. Love, for Steinbock, precludes narcissistic reappropriation and initiates a kind of interpersonal relation – a relation with ‘verticality,’ as Steinbock puts it — in which it is in no way aporetic to think of gift-giving, in the best sense of the term. In addition, by associating the love-relation with ‘verticality,’ Steinbock also canvasses his conception of gift-giving as a way of responding to the technologically enframed machination highlighted by Heidegger: It is through interpersonal loving, and, thus, gift-giving in the best sense of the world, that machination can be overcome.

Whilst there is something deeply attractive about Steinbock’s position on these issues, I have some critical comments. The first concerns whether his reconfiguration of the gift in terms of interpersonal loving does in fact overcome Derrida’s aporia. It seems to me that whether one takes Steinbock’s intervention to be successful in this regard depends on how pervasive one takes our narcissism to be. John Caputo has observed that, for Derrida

…there are many narcissisms, various degrees of narcissism, the best of which are hospitable and welcome the other. There is always a movement of narcissism in any gift and, indeed, “without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed.” Even love, the affirmation of the other, would be impossible without the trace of narcissism. When I love the good of the other, this is the good I love. In the most hospitable, open-ended narcissism, the good I seek for myself is the good of the other. (Caputo 1997, 172)

It, thus, seems that from a Derridean perspective, Steinbock’s reconfiguration of the gift would not overcome the aporia of the gift, but merely reconstitute it at a different level: Steinbock, insofar as he takes Derrida’s aporia seriously, appears to maintain that it can be overcome by turning to the love-relation as an enabling condition of the gift. But Derrideans would likely object to this move by claiming that narcissism affects the love-relation too: Indeed, Derrideans would likely home in on Steinbock’s use of Maimonides’s tzedakah in support of their view: While, admittedly, Steinbock’s reading of Maimonides should be taken in the spirit of interpretive reconstruction, it nonetheless remains the case that the taxonomy of gift-giving provided in the tzedakah is decidedly economic. Even the ‘greatest kind of giving’ is spoken about in terms of business and loans, and seems quite alien to the kind of gratuitousness Derrida associates with the concept of the gift. Arguably, then, Steinbock’s reconfiguration of the gift might look – to Derrideans – to simply gloss over the problem of the gift’s gratuity, rather than overcome it.

Of course, Steinbock might respond to this, arguing that the whole animus behind the book consists in an attempt to reject the framing of debates concerning the gift provided by Derrida and others. Yet, on this point, I wonder whether Steinbock’s project is somewhat derailed by the attention he gives to the details of the debate spawned by Derrida concerning the gift throughout the book: As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there is something frustrating in the way that Derrida, Marion and others take up the issue of the gift, where, in their discussions, they often elide many different issues from the domains of theology, anthropology and phenomenology. I had hoped on the basis of its title that Steinbock’s work was finally going to call time on the tendentious aspects of this debate and clear the air a little. But in fact he seemed to sometimes get sucked in and bogged down by issues raised by Heidegger, Derrida and others that do not obviously have any bearing on his thesis, where I feel this diluted the polemical impact of the book as a whole.

Nonetheless, in It’s Not About the Gift, Steinbock achieves two things well: The first is that he provides an illuminating critical appraisal of the debate concerning the gift as it has emerged in the phenomenological tradition. Secondly, he provides an interesting and compelling alternative to the conception of the presented in that tradition, while drawing on resources from phenomenology. I take it that this intervention constitutes one part of a broader project that Steinbock is undertaking, and should be read alongside his works Moral Emotions, Phenomenology and Mysticism as well as his forthcoming work. And, despite the fact that the book under review leaves some issues unresolved, it seems to me that Steinbock’s overall project is going in an interesting and illuminating direction.

Bibliography

Caputo, J. 1997. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Derrida, J. 1992. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. P. Kamuf. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Steinbock, A.J. 2018. It’s Not About the Gift: From Givenness to Loving. London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Sebastian Luft: The Space of Culture: Towards a Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture (Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer)

The Space of Culture: Towards a Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture (Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer) Book Cover The Space of Culture: Towards a Neo-Kantian Philosophy of Culture (Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer)
Sebastian Luft
Oxford University Press
2015
Hardback £55.00
272

Reviewed by: Tobias Endres (Technical University of Berlin)

For over a decade, Sebastian Luft has contributed to important research on the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer and is currently playing a crucial role in bridging recent Cassirer scholarship beyond the Analytic-Continental-Divide. His new book, based on his earlier habilitation thesis, The Space of Culture is a comprehensive study of the so-called Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism; it follows both historical and systematical intentions with respect to elucidating current philosophical scholars’ views on the ambitions of this school’s general idea of a philosophy of culture and connects this idea to contemporary research. The self-declared center and peak of the book relates to the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer, the last and, in Luft’s opinion as well as many others, most important representative of the Marburg School. Luft’s goal, hence, alongside others, should be seen as an important step to push forward the so called “Cassirer-renaissance”, a project that has been taken on by Donald Philipp Verene and his student John Michael Krois in the late seventies and carried out by many[i] as an international and collective endeavour that has not lost momentum since.

Against this background, I will address two main questions in Luft’s book: (1) does it succeed in justifying the validity of the idea of a “space of culture”, and (2) does it succeed in contrasting this idea to Sellars’ idea of a “space of reasons” and hence to show the current relevance of such a philosophy of culture?

The book is divided into six chapters: an introduction, a chapter about Hermann Cohen, one about Paul Natorp, one about Ernst Cassirer, one dedicated to metaphilosophical discussions and a conclusion. The overall split into two parts, the first containing the introduction plus the chapters about Cohen and Natorp presenting the basic position of the Marburg School, the second containing an analysis of Cassirer’s philosophy and its actuality, makes it formally clear that Luft’s overall aim is to defend Cassirer’s transcendental philosophy starting from his teachers’ transformation of Kant’s philosophy into a philosophy of culture. Because of the strong identity of form and content in the conception of Luft’s book and the many, sometimes surprising, and always original side remarks in the discussion, I will comment chapter by chapter and sometimes go into significant detail where it often seems, at first sight, not obviously necessary.

The introduction already sets out everything that Luft wants to show in a systematic respect: first, to demonstrate that a philosophy of culture is a meaningful and “valid project” (p. 1), and second, to show that it has been “carried out most successfully by Ernst Cassirer” (ibid.). Though the emphasis lies on those systematic aspects, they cannot be defended apart from a genealogical approach concerning the Marburg School itself as well as its reception. Following the self-image of this school as seen by its founders Cohen and Natorp, and the expectation they obviously had towards their most promising student Cassirer, there might follow a simple equation that would identify Cassirer right away with Marburg, and hence with Neo-Kantianism. On the contrary, reading Cassirer nowadays and noting the divide between research on Neo-Kantianism on the one hand, and Cassirer scholarship on the other, it seems that “one cannot but conclude that Cassirer is not (or no longer) a Neo-Kantian or a member of the Marburg School” (p. 18). Luft challenges both views that Cassirer simply is a Neo-Kantian or is no longer a Neo-Kantian by pointing out an important desideratum: there exists no study that places Cassirer legitimately within the common core project of Neo-Kantianism, which is the project of a philosophy of culture. The originality of Luft’s study lies exactly in this approach, showing that “the Marburg School can neither be adequately appreciated without Cassirer; nor can Cassirer be fully understood in his intentions, without viewing him as deeply rooted in the Marburg School” (p. 19). Anticipating the result, I, already here, at this early juncture would like to state that Luft succeeds in defending this thesis. Nevertheless, I will focus on some problematic claims within Luft’s line of argumentation that finally should lead to his view. According to Luft, “culture” is the neo-kantian “operative term” (p. 3) of the project of a philosophy of culture that “has reflected on the path from Kant to Hegel and takes the best of both, while having undergone the transition from Kant to German Idealism to Positivism” (ibid.). Though it seems plausible to establish a connection between Positivism and Cohen’s alleged scientism, one would ask how a position, informed by Hegel and the thought of German Idealism, could possibly come up with such a scientistic reading of Kant’s Critique as presented by Cohen? Luft answers twofoldly by (1) reading Kant through the eyes of Sellars and by (2) connecting the methodology of Neo-Kantianism to Kant and to Hegel. Inhabiting a space of culture, hence, for Luft means that by reflecting on the space of reasons, i.e. the project of a Critique of Pure Reason, we become essentially both citizens and rulers of this space. Whilst this idea might be in line with Kantian orthodoxy, one might still object that Sellars hardly stays within this conception of two realms as he is inclined to naturalism and the primacy of the “scientific image of man”.[ii] Against this, the claim that an extension of the space of reasons to a space of culture is motivated by Hegel’s introduction of objective spirit, just without the idea of absolute spirit, is rather adequate, though Cassirer’s metaphysics of the symbolic forms can again give rise to the idea of philosophy as absolute spirit.[iii] Regardless of these details, it is nonetheless correct to connect Hegel’s idea of objective spirit to the method of Neo-Kantianism, to the analytic method taken from Kant’s Prolegomena: to subject culture to critique means to first describe culture as it is and then to regressively analyse the normativity of each cultural form that had been found and thus to extent the space of reasons to a space of culture. With this strategy one should escape the stranglehold of either defining culture a priori (as e.g. philosophy, hence as “high culture”), an objection Luft anticipates from the Cultural Studies that point out the plurality of cultures[iv] (cf. p. 2), or as plainly empirical as suggested by modern anthropology (cf. ibid.), which would lead, at least from a philosophical point of view, to the problem of relativism. So, whilst the transition from an overly static apriorism to a dynamised transcendental philosophy of culture can be achieved with this shift in focus on Kant’s own methodology, Hegel’s stance that “the whole is the truth” should help us to avoid relativism, because Luft sees in it a forerunner to Cassirer’s alleged anti-hierarchical pluralism, “where each form [of culture] has its legitimate position in the general space of culture” (p. 5). But here lies a deep problem of Luft’s reading, both of Hegel and of Cassirer: Firstly, Hegel’s forms of consciousness evolve towards absolute spirit, which eliminates any attempt to reconcile them in a pluralistic manner, where each form of spirit has its own right retrospectively. Then, if I understand Luft correctly, he wants to solve the problem of relativism with the following argument (cf. pp. 13-14):

(P1) Forms of consciousness are forms of symbolic formation.

(P2) Thoses formations are phenomenologically found as facts of culture.

(P3) Each one’s validity is proven by analysing their internal, functional logics.

(P4) The whole is the truth.

(P5) The whole is the forms’ pluralistic coexistence without an absolute standpoint.

(C1) Without an absolute standpoint the internal logics do not compete.

(C2) Pluralism is true.

Thus, according to Luft, Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms should be interpreted as a “complementarism” (p. 14), in which the plurality of cultural descriptions is seen as horizontal, not vertical, complementaristic instead of competitive. Though I will come back later to this crucial point, one can already state here that the complementaristic view comes with two major objections that are both of transcendental nature. First, one might ask how the break between myth and logos would phenomenologically be best described and how at all it is possible if forms of consciousness do not practically rival with each other. Although Luft recognises a disruption between myth and all other symbolic forms, he does not discuss at this point Cassirer’s thought that “in the course of its development every basic cultural form tends to represent itself not as a part but as the whole, laying claim to an absolute and not merely relative validity, not contenting itself with its special sphere, but seeking to imprint its own characteristic stamp on the whole realm of being and the whole life of the spirit.”[v] Secondly, one might ask how the problem of relativism at all could arise, if the symbolic forms of mythical thinking and knowledge are in no competition whatsoever. As this is the crux of Luft’s interpretation of Cassirer, I will drop this point for the moment and show where the book succeeds: by reconstructing the idea of a philosophy of culture as a common project of Cohen, Natorp, and Cassirer.

The chapter about the philosophy of Hermann Cohen makes it very clear right from the beginning to what extent Luft’s ambitions are of purely systematical character, and to what extent those ambitions need to be historically informed. Luft wants to take the project of a Neo-Kantian philosophy of culture out of its historical context and keep only its best elements that we still today can benefit from. To drop other elements that are of historical importance is especially justified, because Neo-Kantianism was a serious propaganda force during the First World War and could no longer convince the youth of the Weimar Republic to be the standpoint of reason. This disappointment of the youth, hence, is important to understand the demise of Neo-Kantianism. On the other hand, the idea of a philosophy of culture itself, to look at actual culture and judge it by its rational ought “even where it seems there is none” (p. 33), is neither overly idealistic nor historical, but plainly Kantian. Going back to the transcendental method for Luft is “the key to understanding everything else” (p. 28) in the school of Marburg Neo-Kantianism. Cohen then applies Kant’s analytic method from the Prolegomena to Kant’s own writings in order to establish his interpretation of the Kantian corpus. He could do so legitimately, because Kant himself regarded the synthetic and analytic methods as equal. Luft concludes that Cohen was right to choose freely and hereby, besides already using the reconstructive method that became so important for Natorp, anticipated the idea of a Problemgeschichte that one is rather prone to connect to Wilhelm Windelband, Ernst Cassirer, Nikolai Hartmann, Hans-Georg Gadamer or Hans Blumenberg. This observation, though it is evident to place the idea of a Problemgeschichte within the movement of (Baden and Marburg) Neo-Kantianism, demonstrates brilliantly Luft’s ambition to interlink systematical and historical theses to gain new insights: To interpret a classical author, for Cohen, means “an application to one’s own understanding and one’s own time” (p. 43). As a result, Cohen clearly sees that the Critique of Pure Reason is an expression of the Newtonian worldview[vi] which is why he assumes that philosophy, instead of being metaphysics, has to be a theory of existing scientific knowledge. And because scientific knowledge is the most advanced form of knowledge when it comes to objectivity, science has to be seen as “the peak of all cultural activities” (p. 48). Theorizing aesthetics, morality, history, literature and so on, hence, can only be done scientifically. This clearly shows that Cohen was in no way ignorant of other forms of culture than science and in this bad sense scientistic. Rather he, i.e. Cohen, saw philosophy as “the reconstruction of culture in all its directions from out of this constant factor of science” (p. 60). Although throughout Cohen’s writings the idea of a static apriori had shifted to a genetic one, it is still a strict apriori view on all forms of culture that ultimately leads Luft to dismiss Cohen’s project where it aims at applying the same method to all cultural expressions and becomes “an implausible endeavour” (p. 73). Finally, Luft also rightly points out that another essential key to understanding Neo-Kantianism as a common project of a philosophy of culture is the journal LOGOS. Internationale Zeitschrift für Philosophie der Kultur as it existed between 1910 and 1933 (superseded by Zeitschrift für deutsche Kulturphilosophie and since 1994 again LOGOS). With such figures as Heinrich Rickert and Wilhelm Windelband (Baden School), but also Georg Simmel, Benedetto Croce, Ernst Troeltsch, and Edmund Husserl (to name but a few) already contributing to its first volume, it becomes plainly visible that Neo-Kantianism’s “defining moment” (p. 30) was the problem of contemporary modern culture and the problem of science being only one aspect of it. To conclude: Luft’s general findings here are firstly (1) that the reduction of the Marburg School to a theory of scientific experience is, though widely considered as being a truism, a “serious misreading” (p. 29). Secondly (2), beholding Cassirer’s famous phrase that “the critique of reason becomes the critique of culture”[vii] in the introduction to part one of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as stepping out of the Marburg School and distancing oneself from Cohen and Natorp “is egregiously mistaken” (p. 37). Luft convincingly makes the case for seeing Cassirer’s so often quoted words as a hommage to his teachers. Both these demonstrations are a highly original progress in research on Neo-Kantianism and especially on Cassirer.

Seen from the perspective that within Cassirer the Marburg method culminates, the philosophy of Paul Natorp is the necessary link between Cohen’s thought and Cassirer’s. Whilst Marburg Neo-Kantianism had its inception and representation to the outside with Cohen, Natorp was considered to be its “minister of the interior” (p. 78) and to represent the unity of the Marburg School. Luft nonetheless diagnoses what at first glance may appear heretic, but in fact is a rather subtle modification of Cohen’s method by Natorp taking up the inverse path to subjectivity in his writings on psychology. The overall achievement of this chapter on Natorp can be seen in Luft redefining, again, the standard view within the reception of Neo-Kantianism: for one thing the notion that Natorp was completely in line with Cohen and for another thing that Natorp was, as famously alleged by Hans-Georg Gadamer, a “method fanatic” (p. 82). To refute those views, it is first of all important to see that Natorp’s work has “a much more humanistic outlook on culture than Cohen’s” (p. 79) with publishing on the history of philosophy, logic, theory of science, pedagogy, psychology, and politics. Luft then demonstrates how Natorp implicitly criticises Cohen twice (cf. p. 81) by (1) underlining that the basic principle of thinking is relating and to deduce from this that the synthetic unity can only be created by a correlation, as well, by (2) not at all interlinking the transcendental method equally to science and to other forms of culture. From here, Natorp does not at all appear as a “method fanatic”, but rather as a methodological pluralist. Hence, by investigating subjectivity, Natorp does not depart from the Marburg method, but broadens it towards the “life of consciousness” (p. 83). As I will not go into further detail here, I will certainly state that Luft’s presentation of the whole of Natorp’s philosophy is illuminating, rich in detail, and with a special emphasis on Natorp’s last, largely unknown because unpublished, phase where he departs from Neo-Kantianism. Here, Natorp develops a general logic that follows three directions: (1) a theoretic, (2) a practic, and (3) a poietic one (cf. p. 107). It is this third direction of poiesis that Luft will connect to Cassirer’s notion of the symbol. But to make the case for Natorp, it seems worthy to me to further investigate his late philosophy and to connect it to the works of Heidegger and Schelling. This certainly goes far beyond the scope of Luft’s project, but he nonetheless shows his readers important desiderata that have not been addressed up until now.

The chapter on Ernst Cassirer exhibits Luft’s rationale right from the beginning: Besides multiple influences, such as Kant and Leibniz, the “bedrock” of Cassirer’s philosophy “remains the Marburg Method” (p. 119) and despite his innovations Cassirer stays within the movement of Neo-Kantianism. This new route in Cassirer scholarship follows a little and a big agenda (cf. p. 120), whereas the idea just expressed would be the little one and the big one, extending beyond, to demonstrate the nowadays importance of a critique of culture. Luft sees himself confronted with two problems concerning Cassirer: (1) His strength of writing a history of problems supposedly is also his weakness, because being “coolly distant from the subject matter” (p. 120) gives the impression of “hiding behind the authors” (ibid.) having “nothing to say on his own” (ibid.). (2) Along with this comes the reproach that current Cassirer scholarship takes the same path of hiding too much behind Cassirer without connecting the dots to contemporary philosophy. This diagnosis is especially true, because up until recently[viii] the conciliatory power of Cassirer’s thinking has not been of much use to bridging the Analytic-Continental-Divide in philosophy. To offer the contrary, to think with Cassirer beyond Marburg, Luft wants to introduce the idea of a symbolic formation of culture by “three unorthodox inroads” (p. 123): Firstly (1) by a symbolic reading of Natorp’s notion of poiesis, secondly (2) by undercutting Hegel by introducing mythical consciousness as a layer below sense-certainty, and thirdly (3) by reading Cassirer through the writings of Goethe. Whilst (2) and (3) can hardly be presented as unorthodox, but rather as commonplaces in contemporary Cassirer scholarship, there lies a true novelty in presenting the idea of the symbol by the late Natorp’s principle of poiesis. One might object that this unorthodoxy is unmotivated, because Arno Schubbach recently[ix] has delivered a comprehensive study on the genesis of the symbolic that is based on a until recently unpublished manuscript of Cassirer dating back to 1917. Against this, I still would defend Luft’s introduction of the symbolic by (1) as groundbreaking, because the late Natorp is, as said before, almost unknown, but still very important to Cassirer as one could derive easily from the fact that the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms is dedicated to Natorp and with Cassirer positively commenting on Natorp’s late unpublished lectures. Now, for Natorp the principle of poiesis is life expressing itself in the form of meaning, poiesis is life or being and logos at the same time. And this view is just in line with one of Cassirer’s most central claims, namely the idea of symbolic pregnance, Cassirer’s claim that the given is already always meaningful. The only aspect that Luft misses out on here is an important shift from Cohen via Natorp through to Cassirer: whilst for Cohen reality is completely defined as law and at no point whatsoever measured from perception, but only from thought (cf. p. 52), the ideas of poiesis and symbol can reconcile life and thought and hence connect the symbolic to perception. For Cassirer too, meaning in scientific theories is largely detached from perceptual states, but the given and its symbolic expression throughout the development of different mythical, linguistic and scientific concept formations takes off at expressive perception where meaning and perceptual presence are at the start widely identical.[x] Leaving this aside, Luft then succeeds in pointing out another crucial drift away from Cohen and from Natorp by asking what status the idea of law has for symbolic forms, concluding that Cassirer will not take interest in the lawfulness of e.g. religious studies when it comes to the symbolic form of religion, but in those studies, viz. their results “themselves” (p. 130). Whereas I disagree with Luft that this leads to the conclusion that Cassirer does not search for unity anymore (cf. p. 131) at all – I would rather say that the concept of symbol is the unity of spirit in a functional manner –, the observation is right that Cassirer breaks with the “scientism” of his teachers and “opens the philosophy of culture to its true material” (p. 132), which leaves the philosopher with facta of culture instead of a factum of science. This extention of the Marburg method finally leads Cassirer beyond Cohen and Natorp to both of which a critique of primitive cultures was unthinkable (cf. p. 136).

The second path to introduce Cassirer’s philosophy of the symbolic through mythical consciousness is the most disputable, because Luft, here, evades entering scholarly literature too deeply, where in my point of view it is required. I will give some examples in the following. Luft beholds myth as being the lowest “rung” of symbolic forms and justifies this with reference to Cassirer’s allusion to Hegel (cf. p. 142) while seeing a “temporal order” (p. 143) at work here. This does not only go against Luft’s own intention to show that there is no hierarchical order whatsoever between symbolic forms, but also conflicts with the observation that especially from a genetic point of view myth and language are rather inseperable. Cassirer states this himself[xi] and scholars, such as Enno Rudolph[xii], even have tried to defend a primacy of language. Despite these difficulties, Luft claims that the primacy of myth is one of few “systematic claims about which Cassirer is unambiguous” (p. 176). Given such controversial interpretations, one might rather expect a deeper discussion within the field of myth. Then, another notion that has troubled me is the qualification of mythical space as a “transcendental illusion” (p. 142), an assumption that comes by great surprise, because one of Cassirer’s essential claims concerning the mythical world view is that it comes with absolutely no contradistinction between reality and illusion whatsoever. Perhaps, from the viewpoint of science, one could retroactively qualify myth as a transcendental illusion, but particularly the reference to Kant’s dialectic did not become clear to me. One last remark is concerning Luft’s classification of myth as “purely impressional” (p. 142) and its comparision to Husserl’s “pure passivity” (ibid.). It is true that Cassirer points out that reality in myth is perceived and experienced as purely overwhelming initially. But an essential part of any symbolic form is its productive character, its “spiritual energy” that leads to a transformation of any sensuous impression to symbolic expression. Luft’s view, hence, that religion is the first expressive force in myth through rites and customs seems problematic. Instead, I would rather propose to characterise early forms of mythical life in comparison to the middle voice in ancient Greek, a mode that is set between being purely active or purely passive. Life in myth, by extension, would rather be a process in which humans are both agents and those affected. This set aside, I want to emphasize that the presentation of Cassirer’s philosophy by the three mentioned inroads is a success. The only disadvantage in my point of view is the deliberate suspension from scholarly literature, e.g. when introducing the concept of myth, for the sake of pushing through the basic rationale and discussing obvious problems not until chapter four (cf. p. 124).

A first conclusion about Luft’s study can be drawn now by introducing the chapter about the metaphilosophical discussions that essentially deal with problems Cassirer has left for his readers. My thesis is that the strength of The Space of Culture is at the same time its weakness. Luft suggests that he has no exegetic interest, but wants to make a case for a theory of culture and “go beyond Cassirer, where neccessary” (p. 187). The problem with that is that Luft gives his readers the impression of having presented a “neutral” version of Cassirer’s philosophy, which is not the case. Against this, I want to insist that a stronger position could be developed by deriving the systematical points from a more careful interpretation, also and especially in order to show their current relevance.

Luft sees the most neuralgic point of Cassirer’s transcendental philosophy of culture in the “question as to an ethics” (p. 187). But to understand and to answer this point with and beyond Cassirer, it is mandatory to give an interpretation of quantity and order of the symbolic forms. Luft’s answer to this will be a position he calls “complementarism”, an attempt which I in the following will prove to be inapplicable to Cassirer’s thought. A first assumption of serious consequences is that Luft, approaching the question of a system of symbolic forms, makes an either-or decision: either the symbolic forms are fixed and completely presented throughout Cassirer’s works or he has presented an open, incomplete system, which would demand further interpretation. One would have to answer why the three volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms only deal with language, myth, and knowledge and why other symbolic forms, such as technology, art, law, history and so on, are only mentioned peripherally or summarized within Cassirer’s anthropological work An Essay on Man. But Luft, as so many other interpreters, misses out on the possibility of a third way: Cassirer’s magnum opus essentially investigates the functionality of the symbolic that is driven by a dialectics from perception via intuition through to pure thinking. The considered symbolic forms can be seen as ideal-typical instantiations of the three underlying symbolic functions of (1) expression, (2) presentation[xiii], and (3) pure meaning. That would leave us with a completeness of symbolic functions and at the same time the possibility of an open system of symbolic forms. Further symbolic forms, then, would feed on an amalgam and a difference in balance of their underlying symbolic functions.[xiv] But this is, for the moment, not incompatible with Luft’s idea of a “dynamization” (p. 192) of the symbolic forms that regards human civilization in need of constantly creating new symbols in order to express whatever (mental) life itself comes up with. Luft’s view that there simply is no need to determine all possible symbolic forms a priori and that new forms are always possible in principle is systematically and exegetical well-founded. Luft, for this reason, rightly establishes the idea that symbolic forms are “overlapping, intertwined, and interrelated” (p. 196), and in the end only “separate by abstraction” (ibid.).

A central problem now arises by Luft’s answering the question of a possible teleology towards knowledge resp. science. Cassirer clearly states that every single symbolic form has an inward tendency to set its underpinning world view absolute. At the same time, Cassirer suggests that this tendency is only relatively justified, because due to the internal logics of each symbolic form one form cannot be measured by the standards of another. The standards of the natural sciences simply do not apply to understanding the rational core of e.g. myth or religion. On the other hand, one needs to look scientifically (in the sense of the humanities) at the relation of the sciences and other symbolic forms to understand their rationality and their difference (if one would not just want to live a life of a mythical or religious world view). Cassirer supposedly has steered at this point into the quagmire of either defending the superior standpoint of the sciences and hence threatening his idea that every symbolic form has its own right and importance in human mental life, or defending an “initially implausible” relativism[xv] of symbolic forms that would hold that the sciences cannot explain the world better to us than e.g. mythology. This dilemma is further fuelled by Cassirer’s idea that spiritual life follows the telos that all forms of symbolic expression start with the sensuously given, but progress towards its complete liberation and enter the realm of pure thinking. This idea, and this is also important for Luft’s reading, is also connected to Cassirer’s ethico-political stance, as he regards the process of civilization as a “progressive self-liberation” where humans build up “an »ideal« world”[xvi]. Bringing those thoughts together in a coherent way is a topos in Cassirer scholarship long-since and one wonders why Luft sees his standpoint only challenged by Michael Friedman, who indeed is troubled with the compatibility of Cassirer’s “teleology without a concrete telos” and a “relativity of symbolic forms without relativism”. “Complementarism”, thus, should solve this conflict, but what is complementarism? If I understand Luft correctly, it simply is the view that (1) there is neither a true conflict between symbolic forms nor (2) is scientific thinking, philosophically speaking, the highest standpoint to judge and contemplate the symbolic cosmos. Against (1) I have already argued in the beginning of my review: from a transcendental point of view it is not comprehensible how we could at all arrive at the questions formulated here, if symbolic forms would not practically contradict themselves. Luft tries to solve this problem by distiguishing between a view from within the symbolic forms and a view from without (cf. pp. 166-168 & 178), but this strategy already presupposes the philosophical standpoint and does not take into consideradtion the genealogical dimension of Cassirer’s presentation of the symbolic. Luft argues for (2), and this is unparalleled in Cassirer scholarship, by pointing to putative textual evidence that the stage of science eventually will “be overcome by the power of the symbolic itself” (p. 205). Luft wants to show that from the philosopher’s point of view there is a “beyond science” (ibid.) in religion, art, and other dimensions of the symbolic. Complementarism then eventually means that each standpoint is by virtue of its own claim to universality “per se critical of others” (p. 210), hence a form of critique, and that Friedman simply is “conflating” (p. 204) different types of universal validity. The biggest problem with this view is that Luft’s neglect to develop his interpretation as equally exegetical as systematical backfires here: There is no textual evidence whatsoever that possibly would point in the direction that the stage of science will be overcome by the symbolic itself. To prove the hypothesis that science is not an endpoint in Cassirer’s system, Luft quotes Willi Moog’s proposition that is part of one of two reports of a lecture that Casssirer gave in 1927 under the title Das Symbolproblem und seine Stellung im System der Philosophie, which are followed by a discussion between Walther Schmied-Kowarzik and Alois Schardt.[xvii] In the closing remarks, Cassirer clearly states that opposing the symbolic and the rational might be justified from a historical point of view, but could not go more against his intention of finding a unity for the Problemgeschichte of philosophical thinking by the concept of the symbol.[xviii] The “revenge-assumption” (cf. pp. 205 & 235), hence, is an interpretation of Willi Moog that is not in line at all with Cassirer’s thinking. I therefore want to reason that complementarism is neither systematically nor exegetically a coherent position to settle the case between teleology and relativism.

The concluding chapter deals with a summary of the previous chapters and a prospect on the philosophical works of Martin Heidegger and Wilfrid Sellars in contrast to Cassirer’s. Just like his interpretative main rival Michael Friedman, Luft focusses on Davos and the famous debate between Heidegger and Cassirer. Surprisingly, Luft states that “nothing new” (p. 236) can be said about this topic, which might please Friedman but can also leave the reader baffled. Certainly Friedman wrote one of the most important works on the Davos debate, but I would like to indicate another desideratum that has not been investigated properly yet: Luft correctly works out that Heidegger’s reproach of a missing terminus a quo in Cassirer’s philosophy is unfounded (cf. p. 237), because cultural life is created by finite individuals, by exactly what Heidegger calls “Dasein”. But Cassirer actually has more to say about it throughout his anthropological phase, which culminates in An Essay on Man. Now, a true blind spot in Cassirer scholarship is that this anthropological phase already had started when Cassirer and Heidegger met and that the general topic of the Davos University Conferences was nothing less than anthropology. I thus suggest that a lot more can be said about Davos if the question of anthropology would be investigated deeper in this context.

The very last remarks finally deal with the connection between Sellars and Cassirer. Luft argues that “the space of culture is a wider concept that nevertheless integrates Sellars’s idea of the space of reason” (p. 240). As much as I agree with this thesis as somewhat disappointing is Luft’s concession that a proper comparison between their philosophies, particularly when it comes to the notion of myth, “cannot be the task here” (ibid.). Nonetheless, Luft hints precisely at the most challenging problem here: what kind of justification in the sense of the Kantian quid iuris could one give that is not linguistic or non-conceptual? For those who have studied Sellars and his follower John McDowell intensely, it should be obvious that the answer has to be given by a philosophical account of perception –something Cassirer has to say a lot about. Further investigations about those relations are hence demanded.[xix]

In closing, I want to go back to the initial two questions that I had addressed to Luft’s book: does it succeed in justifiying the idea of a philosophy of culture and showing its contemporary relevance? It has become quite clear above that Luft’s main ambition, to prove the homogeneity of a philosophy of culture within Marburg Neo-Kantianism, had been achieved unprecedentedly. Especially showing successfully that Cassirer never stepped out of the Neo-Kantian movement, but rather accomplished a common project is a true advance in Cassirer scholarship. The question for its current relevance should not alone be measured by connecting it to currently fashionable authors like Sellars alone. Surely, one could have expected a deeper comparison just by following the allusive title of the book. On the other hand, Luft has left his readers an enormous amount of worthy desiderata that would give rise to further studies on the path Luft has opened. The Space of Culture certainly is the right direction the “Cassirer renaissance” has to go to successfully revive the project of a transcendental philosophy of culture.


[i] Cf. Endres, T., Favuzzi, P., Klattenhoff, T. (2016). Cassirer, globalized. Über Sinn und Zweck eines Neulesens. In: Endres, T., Favuzzi, P., Klattenhoff, T., ed., Philosophie der Kultur- und Wissensformen. Ernst Cassirer neu lesen, Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, pp. 10-13.

[ii] Cf. Sellars, W. (1963). Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. London: Routledge, pp. 32-37.

[iii] Cf. Kreis, G. (2010). Cassirer und die Formen des Geistes. Berlin: Suhrkamp, p. 475.

[iv] Luft makes the witty observation that even philosophy itself nowadays is split into “sub-disciplines” (p. 10) in the sense of sub-cultures.

[v] Cassirer, E. (1955). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 81.

[vi] The current relevance of this thesis has once more been shown by Capeillères, F. (2004). Kant philosophe newtonien. Paris: Cerf.

[vii] Cassirer, E. (1955). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 80.

[viii] Cf. among others the forthcoming publication Breyer, T./Niklas, S. (eds.) (2018). Ernst Cassirer in systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie. Berlin: DeGruyter.

[ix] Cf. Schubbach, A. (2016). Die Genese des Symbolischen. Zu den Anfängen von Ernst Cassirers Symbolphilosophie. Hamburg: Meiner.

[x] Cf. Cassirer, E. (1957). The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 73.

[xi] Cf. Cassirer, E. (2006). An Essay on Man. An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture. Hamburg: Meiner, p. 126.

[xii] Cf. http://savoirs.ens.fr/expose.php?id=1021.

[xiii] Here I follow Stephen Lofts proposition of a new translation of “Darstellung” that has become pivotal recently in the anglophone Cassirer scholarship. Nonetheless I want to suggest that this translation comes with difficulties that did not arise with the old translation “representation”. An intermediate translation could be “depiction”. Luft implicitly uses this translation when writing: „the curve represents the mathematical law; it depicts it“ (p. 178).

[xiv] I will argue for this in detail in Endres, T. (2019). Phenomenological Idealism as Method and the Completeness of Cassirer’s Matrix of Symbolic Functions together with its Layers. In: Polok, A./Filieri, L. (eds.): The Method of Culture. Pisa, in preparation.

[xv] Cf. Sellars, W. (1948-49). “Review: Language and Myth. Ernst Cassirer”. In: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 9, p. 326.

[xvi] Cassirer, E. (2006). An Essay on Man. Hamburg: Meiner, p. 244.

[xvii] This discussion is unfortunately not included in Lofts’/Calgano’s translation of The Problem of the Symbol and Its Place in the System of Philosophy from 2013.

[xviii] Though Moog’s name is not explicitely statet, I read Cassirer’s final remarks as a critique of Moog’s “revenge-assumption”, but leave the final judgement to the readers by just reciting the original text (Cassirer’s words): “Das eine möchte ich jedenfalls hervorheben, daß alle Begrenzungen und Einengungen, wie sie hier im Lauf der Diskussion vorgeschlagen worden sind, nicht geeignet scheinen, das Ganze der Anwendungen des Symbolbegriffs, wie sie sich in den verschiedensten Gebieten des Geistes und der systematischen Philosophie durchgesetzt haben, wirklich zu umspannen. Wenn wir das »Symbolische« dem »Rationalen« entgegensetzen, wenn wir es als Ausdruck dessen nehmen, was der strengen Erkenntnis nicht faßbar und zugänglich ist, so mag dies vom Standpunkt des geschichtlichen Ursprungs des Begriffs gerechtfertigt erscheinen […]. Aber wer es auf diese seine Grund- und Urbedeutung beschränken wollte – der müßte große und weite Gebiete seiner heutigen Anwendung, und zwar die wichtigsten und fruchtbarsten, von ihm abscheiden.” Cf. Cassirer, E. (2004). Aufsätze und kleine Schriften (1927–1931). Hamburg: Meiner, pp. 280-281.

[xix] Meanwhile, Luft has continued investigating this route and hence did not just compare Cassirer’s and John McDowell’s positions, but was also able to establish a link between the philosophies of Cassirer and John Dewey. Cf. Luft, S. (2018). Mind als Geist in der Welt der Kultur. Kulturphilosophie, „Naturalistische” Transzendentalphilosophie und die Frage nach dem Raum der Kultur. In: Breyer, T./Niklas, S. (eds.): Ernst Cassirer in systematischen Beziehungen. Zur kritisch-kommunikativen Bedeutung seiner Kulturphilosophie, Berlin: DeGruyter, pp. 129-149.

Dana S. Belu: Heidegger, Reproductive Technology, & The Motherless Age

Heidegger, Reproductive Technology, & The Motherless Age Book Cover Heidegger, Reproductive Technology, & The Motherless Age
Dana S. Belu
Palgrave Macmillan
2017
E-book $39.99
IX, 137

Reviewed by: Tamara Cashour (The New School, New York City)

Introduction

This book succeeds as a phenomenological project guided securely by Heideggerian principles, in its philosophical assessment of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), which conspire literally, in the making of mothers.  Belu draws almost exclusively and analogously upon Heidegger’s concepts outlayed in The Question Concerning Technology (most overarchingly:  the principle of Gestell [Enframing]) to fashion a critique of ARTs protocols and practices, which, since their initial inception/acceptance in the last quarter of the 20th century, have achieved globalized integration into the process of bringing a new human into the world.  Although in-vitro fertilization (IVF), the premier ART, was successfully employed to fertilize a human egg in 1944; not until 1977 was an in-corpus pregnancy achieved; it’s outcome was unsuccessful.  A year later in 1978, the famous ‘test-tube’ baby Louise Joy Brown was conceived via IVF technologies and successfully birthed.  Today, some forty years hence, several variations of ARTs are in common use not only by heterosexual couples experiencing negative fertility, but by same-sex couples, single-mothers or fathers seeking to start a family or add an additional family member, and others who claim a banner along the now-evolved gender identity spectrum.  Belu relates how the original IVF procedure has morphed into ever-more sophisticated technologies and methods designed to assist in the coming to fruition of a live birth, such as cytoplasmic transfer, the use of donor eggs and/or gestational surrogates.  She also makes clear how the latter two protocols function as particularly egregious political economies which implicate younger and older women alike in a market project of conception:  younger women sell their viable eggs, and surrogates of proven child-bearing capacity ‘sell’ the services of their wombs, to those [often older] women or couples who desire a child but who are either infertile, cannot physically carry to term or who simply cannot, or do not, wish to participate in the pregnancy process.  The ARTs industry has succeeded in «medical fragmentation» of a women’s reproductive system into components—eggs, womb, tubes, ovaries and cycles—which are ‘optimized’ via drugs and various surgical procedures and kept primed in the manner of Heidegger’s standing reserve for use in achieving the desired goal of conception of an embryo.  The reproductive parts no longer need be attached to or within the singular corpus of an intact female body, in fact, more often they are not.  Such mechanistic fracturing destroys women’s bodies as wholistic “autonomous agents” according to Belu (5, 23), and has ushered in what she terms the ‘Motherless Age’.

The ‘Motherless’ Age

Belu’s use of the term motherless seems at first blush metaphysical meaninglessness[i]—an ontological dystopia or ontically obtuse ‘teaser’.[ii]  Mothers are in fact in existence in our epoch—we do not lack mothers, per se, yet the traditional mother-child biological dyad relationship, which begins at conception and ends with the death of either the mother or child (some would argue against that as well), has experienced a post-modern existential crisis (if late in the game), brought on by the extended, if not ubiquitous, use of ARTs on a worldwide scale.[iii]  Belu’s position sets forth (and ostensibly argues against) the phenomenological logic of ARTs which has encouraged ‘the splitting of the atom’ in relation to the term mother, historically defined as a secure subject with distinct boundaries and a single physical corporeal existence.  Motherhood is now conceptually plural across an array of subjectivities that all qualify to be defined by, or at least attached to, the term.  It is now possible for a baby born via gestational surrogacy to potentially have four different mothers if cytoplasmic transfer is employed:  two genetic mothers (one who has lent her eggs and the other who lends her cytoplasm) (Belu, 59, fn 80), the gestational mother who bears and births the fetus, and the ‘social’ mother who rears the child (Belu, 45).  In market terms, the first two mothers are the sellers, the third the worker or laborer, and the fourth and final (who is responsible for the child’s care) is the buyer, or consumer.  Conversely, IVF also allows the production of offspring with no living genetic mothers at all—as viable eggs are collected from the ovarian tissue of aborted fetuses, and coaxed into near maturity via hormone stimulants.   Thus a child can now be borne from a ‘mother’ who was never an actual fully grown person, much less an adult (Belu, 70).  It is the offspring i.e. the child, in this process, who must ultimately face the «motherless» aspects of his/her birth.   As the situation presents itself, it may even be more appropriate to use the term motherfull; the latter suffix however, conveying a generally positive connotation of maternal agency which Belu clearly argues that ARTs subvert (Belu, 79, 105).

Belu establishes ontological erasure of the ‘mother’ in the original etymological sense, at virtually every turn, particularly in Chapter 4 wherein she engages and privileges Heidegger’s concept of enframing over Aristotle’s causal concepts of physis and techné, in the argument over whether IVF processes ‘assist’, or ‘replace’, natural conception.  Belu does not so much detail the legal ramifications of determining «the spark of life» (Belu, 61)[iv], but urges phenomenological clarity and currency as it might reroute a prevailing cultural attitude of «complacency» toward human artificial reproduction.  We shrug off the extent of IVF’s practical ramifications for humanity, because we persist in (along Aristotelian lines), and even dote on, the misunderstanding of the role of technological prowess as a handmaid  to, and not creator of, human life.  This is of course, the «forgetting of the clearing»  (Lichtungvergessenheit) which  Heidegger says chiefly enables the chokehold of  Enframing.  As we do not do what Heidegger urges:  «experience its unthought essence first of all», or else we broach  it superficially, we cannot see «the extent that the essence of enframing does not appear as the danger, and the essence of the danger does not appear as Beyng [sic]»; which «accounts for our misunderstanding» [of] above all technology» (Belu, 12-13, 21, fn. 26).

Citing the wry ‘twist’ of analogizing Aristotle’s male-active/female-passive principle of nature to IVF procedures within our causa efficiens-hegemonic techno-modernity (Belu, 68), Belu seriously implicates the medical establishment in the authority of its arché position, which allows it to usurp the agency of a natural mother in order to supervise the engineering of life.  Ultimately, in the motherless world, the mother-effect, a term first coined by Kelly Oliver,[v] obliterates both the participation of the ‘real’ mother and ‘mother nature’, such representatives of our lingering cultural dedication to biological ownership.  Moreover, these absences are «covered over» in the persistent need to preserve normativity:  the arché role of the fertility doctor and the techné role of the IVF procedure are minimized as the birthed child is attributed to nature’s grace, or termed something like a miracle «Child of God».  Belu states:

IVF participants (the women, doctors, and media) can be seen to reproduce the mother-effect, caught up in a play of affirming the significance of technology for conception and gestation, yet undermining this significance in the final product, calling it (mother) nature (Belu, 71).

A Feminist Phenomenology of ARTs

In her zeal to establish a feminist phenomenology for ARTS, Belu details various reproductive enframing processes, where human life is engineered from start to finish (challenged forth).  It is still startling to read, in 2017, how, after a woman’s body is shot through with hormones [via extremely painful injections] to spur superovulation (wherein her ovaries will produce up to 10 eggs or more at once) that «the eggs are then sucked out of the woman’s ovaries» and

fertilization is engineered in the Petrie dish.  These procedures reveal the woman’s reproductive body as passive, fungible material, a biological system that is broken up into its component parts of uterus, tubes, eggs, endometrium and hormone cycles that are worked upon by the technités (Belu, 66).

Belu notes as well the striking ambivalence toward women, such as surrogates and/or egg/cytoplasm donors, who have offered up their body and/or its reproductive components to the commercial market toward the end goal of a live birth.[vi] Often, a woman’s psyche is outrightly neglected as it undergoes this process. The woman is treated as a «purely functional» resource (Belu, 32).  Feenberg terms this autonomization, «the interruption of the reflexivity of technical action, its impact on the user, so that the subject can affect the object of technical production seemingly without being affected in return.» (Belu, 32).  Heidegger’s concept of fungibility rears its significance in an extremely ugly duality in this situation:  the laboring subject is also the object of technical imposition, yet any mental or physical distress she may encounter in her dual role is downplayed or remains unaddressed by the life-engineers (Belu, 32).

Belu is also keen to cite the lack of medical follow-up studies over the years on certain groups of women who have participated in any part of the IVF process (Belu, 58, fn 66).  She particularly notes the plights of young women egg donors (27) which have not been studied in depth.  Moreover, there is a lack of research on the children who have been borne from these procedures, in terms of issues surrounding their mental and physical health (58, fn 66).

Ultimately, Belu sufficiently establishes patriarchal bias of IVF procedures, particularly when healthy women undergo IVF in the service of men whose sperm are unhealthy or otherwise deficient (Belu, 35), or when cross-fertilization (the use of sperm from many different men in a ‘lottery’ setup in order to determine which will fertilize a woman’s egg) is employed (Belu, 34).  However, she misses an opportunity to make certain inroads as to how ARTs may functionally chip away at patriarchy; she instead places their use and control firmly in the hands of patriarchy as powerful instrumentum.

Chapter Layout

Belu’s introductory chapter states her intent to devise a feminist phenomenology of ARTs and summarizes content of succeeding chapters.  Chapters 2-6 each open with a brief abstract which functions as a sort of a mini-«Heidegger 101» for the uninitiated.  Belu weaves each chapter’s argument in strong relation to stated Heideggerian terms or tenets, which she evidences have proven themselves as prescient ontological reasoning vis-a-vis ARTs proliferation. The book’s through-line leads from Belu’s attempt to solidify a binarist interpretation of Heidegger’s concept of Enframing as partial or total—which reinterpretation holds serious implications for female agents as they experience reproductive enframing via the IVF process; to an engagement of Heideggerian thought with Aristotelian concepts of physis and technê in determining the authority of IVF procedures to ignite «the spark of life» (Belu, 61); continuing through technophilic and technophobic representations of modern-age childbirth; and culminating in Belu’s ‘solution’ (to what she perceives are complications and difficulties caused by technical childbirth) via poiésis.  Belu’s  compelling argument and concluding proposal in themselves embody Heidegger’s concept of safeguarding,[vii] the idea that Being (life) is granted as a gift, which we must foster and husband via Heidegger’s suggestions of meditation, waiting, and careful use of artisanal methods, rather than mindless challenging forth via quantization, endless ordering and stockpiling.  ARTs processes, Belu is saying, are often hell-bent on a singular result (conception of Life) while heedlessly disregarding of the suffering of those (mothers) who are used or even abused, to obtain such result.

Belu’s Heideggerian Debt

Acknowledging Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology as a key resource,[viii] Belu is quick to note that Heidegger «writes virtually nothing about reproductive technology» although from his chronological position in history he does foresee processes of «artificial breeding of human material» (witness his 1954 essay Overcoming Metaphysics). Whether Heidegger’s comment of foresight launched this book (given current ART practices), Belu does not make clear, but the extended analogy of enframing to reproductive enframing holds sway.  Throughout, Belu engages phenomenologically with select other philosophers, both of antiquity (Aristotle, and to a lesser extent, Plato) and modernity (Arendt, Feenburg, Oliver, Marcuse, Ruddick, others).

Couching «Motherless Age» as a Useful/Critical Resource

Heidegger, Reproductive Technology and the Motherless Age is first and foremost a phenomenological critique of social (medical) practices which have in the 21st-century become institutionalized.  That is to say, ARTS are now viewed as mainstream medical procedures marketed to women of all strata as viable options for live birth, rather than «luxury» alternatives to natural sex in the service of conceiving a live human.  It is still the case however, that women who enjoy economic freedom and possess excellent health insurance to pay for the still-astronomical cost of these procedures, are most often slated to benefit from the ARTS industry.[ix]

As such, this book will most likely not find a table or shelf position in the reading rooms or professional libraries of ARTS medical professionals.  Such industry professionals are essentially selling a service [technological assistance] to produce a product [a live birth], in Belu’s overwhelming view.  Yet some women (including the range of ARTS participant mothers) do not have a problem with this type of economic exchange, and in fact happily undergo these procedures in committed fashion, hoping for a successful outcome.  A major drawback of this book is that Belu virtually ignores the scores of women and men whose lives changed toward the better via the use of ARTS technologies by granting them children—however and by whomever these children were conceived, gestated and borne.  Belu sets up an overarching negative polemic of  Technology (ARTS Doctor) vs. Subject (Patient) at the beginning of her argument; such polemic holds sway until the end of the book.  Additionally, Belu concerns herself neither  with individual case studies reflecting either positive or negative outcomes, nor with applications of ARTS to male-gendered subjects.   Finally, Belu’s text is also woefully deplete of statistical input; while it does remain primarily a work of critical theory, a chart or two inserted to support her claims—particularly those regarding ARTS damages to the psyches and physical bodies of women—would not hurt.  (In her defense, Belu does state that the industry itself has largely failed to undertake either national or international studies that would statistically emphasize the negative aspects of ARTS (Belu 58, fn 66)).  Ultimately, Belu’s phenomenological argument holds many truths, which are corroborated by a number of current texts on this issue which are more sociological and/or statistical in nature, in particular: Reassembling Motherhood:  Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, also published in 2017.

Conclusion:  Interdisciplinary Dialogue/Action is Needed

In conclusion, this text reflects the state of dialogue, conversation and problem-solving among the disciplines in place to move civil society forward:  that is to say, these types of interdisciplinary activities are still in their infancy.   Inter- and trans-disciplinary dialogue between and among medical ARTS professionals, academic philosophers, sociologists and social workers, ethics consultants and economists to improve the conditions and levity for all those across the board who seek to conceive/bear a child could only work for the good of these persons, and ultimately, for the human race.  Unwittingly, Belu’s critical stance points the way forward toward such a dialogue even as her text concludes in what technophiliacs might consider highly Ludditian fashion:  with an accent on waterbirth as an alternative to technologically-ruled live births.  (A water birth assumes there is something to be born, whether technology has assisted in conception/gestation or not).

As we move into an ever-increasing technologically-mediated age for nearly every human activity or thought, a return to Heidegger’s prescient phenomenological warning to humanity is seemingly warranted.  This, Belu accomplishes, with deft reverence to Heideggerian principles.

Epilogue

Dr. Belu ethically provides a short epilogue to her main text, explaining her position on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks (as revealing of his anti-Semitism.) Belu points out, but does not de-crypt, Heidegger’s «equivocation» (Belu, 122)  regarding the ontic or ontological origins of machination.  Confirming Heidegger’s conflation of machination and «World Jewry» (via causality) as «racist and condemnable» (Belu 122), Belu nevertheless finds that Heidegger’s expression/espousement of a political stance that is overwhelmingly viewed as reprehensible does not specifically deconstruct the actual application of  the phenomenological principle of enframing to a study of ARTS as implicated in women’s reproductive processes (Italics mine).


[i] See Michael Wheeler, «Martin Heidegger», The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaphysics/. Section 5. “Is Metaphysics Possible?”

[ii] Belu explains her quasi-titular use of the term motherless thusly: «I do mean…that in the age of reproductive enframing the figure of the mother is being replaced by various technologies and maternal figures who perform maternal work. In this new context, almost anyone can be seen to be a mother—so that no one is the mother” , 51.

[iii] Linda G. Kahn and Wendy Chavkin, «Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Biological Bottom Line» in Reassembling Motherhood:  Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2017), Kindle version,39.  The authors note the sociobiological implications of the proliferation of ARTs use from 1978-2012, during which period «five million babies had been born worldwide using IVF».  See also Belu,  25.

[iv] Belu offers  an explorative footnote in this regard.  See fn 14, 75.

[v] Kelly Oliver, Technologies of Life and Death:   From Cloning to Capital Punishment  (New York:  Fordham University Press, 2013).  Oliver defines mother-effect as «the result of the absence of a real mother who is therefore mythologized and romanticized as the origin and plentitude of Nature, but whose disappearance is a prerequisite for the myth itself», 57.

[vi] The one exception to this ambivalent treatment of the female ‘resource’ is the surrogacy market in India, whose surrogacy clinics take great pains to ensure that their ‘worker’ mothers (gestational surrogates for wealthy individuals and couples) are «as comfortable as possible, healthy, well feed, well rested, entertained, and well paid”  See Belu, 50; Bailey, 19.

[vii] See Martin Heidegger, Building, Dwelling, Thinking p. 352 in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York:  Harper & Row, 1977) (http://designtheory.fiu.edu/readings/heidegger_bdt.pdf) and Michael Wheeler, «Martin Heidegger», Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Section 3.4, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/.

[viii] Belu also references, to a lesser extent, material from Heidegger’s earlier essays The Danger, The Turning and Building, Dwelling, Thinking, (as well as Being and Time) the first two of which he drew upon significantly in writing The Question Concerning Technology.

[ix] Reassessing Motherhood notes the lack of agency for women situated in disadvantaged economic strata in terms of their ability to choose ARTS procedures for their own wombs, rather than lending their own wombs to those women who can easily afford to «purchase» their services. A double standard based on economic capability is firmly in place in which poor women are implicated as «tools» for economically secure women.  This produces a «double whammy» for women from underdeveloped countries, who find themselves in the position of «seller», although this phenomenon is not necessarily a Western/underdeveloped nation problem.  See pp. 185, 224 and 295..