Giorgio Lando: Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction

Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction Book Cover Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction
Giorgio Lando
Paperback $35.96

Reviewed by: Alessio Persichetti (University of Aberdeen)

Mereology studies the nature and relationships of parthood in objects, considered in the most general way. The book by Giorgio Lando, “Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction,” aims to provide an oriented introduction to the topic.

The literature on the subject does not lack examples of introductory volumes. However, monographs until now have had two weaknesses: they were either too focused on a specific aspect of mereology or provided merely a broad-spectrum summary. Regarding the former, there are F. Moltmann’s Parts and Wholes in Semantics (1997) regarding linguistic structures,  A. Varzi and R. Casati (1999) and Kleinschimdt (2014) on parts and space, and C. Calosi and P. Graziani (2014)’s collection on mereology and special sciences. In the latter case, there are the good — but outdated —  introductions of P. Simons (2000) and M. Libardi (1990), and the recent H. Burkhardt et al. Handbook of Mereology (2017). Lando’s book is the first real attempt to present an accessible general introduction to the problems of the field from a precise standpoint. In particular, this book adopts the perspective of CEM (Classic Extensional Mereology), the theory of parts and parthood that has its roots in Nelson Goodman’s A World of Individuals (1956) and David Lewis’ Parts and Classes (1991) and On the Plurality of Worlds (1986).

The book is organised into one introductory chapter, three main parts, and an appendix. The first part describes how mereology works and which relations and features a mereological theory must satisfy; the second part defends the idea that CEM is the only correct theory of mereology (i.e. argues for monism); the final part defends and clarifies the core principle of Unrestricted Composition from different kinds of criticisms.

The introduction (Chapter 0) expounds the main concepts of Classic Extensional Mereology. CEM is the theory according to which: 1) parts are in transitive relationships with other parts; 2) given n objects, there exists another thing n+1 composed by the n objects; and 3) given some objects, there exists only one fusion of them. Giorgio Lando then distinguishes the semantical senses of the term “mereology”: mereology can be intended as the sub-discipline of metaphysics that studies parts, as a theory that explains the parthood relation, or as the correct theory that describes parts. Lando identifies mereology with the third sense; specifically, he chooses CEM as the best candidate for being a unique and proper mereological theory. In this perspective, Lando claims that he has oriented his explanation towards a defence of CEM. Afterwards, he explains how the CEM arises from David Lewis’s attempt to develop a topic-neutral tool to solve problems concerning classes. Lando’s primary aim is to develop Lewis’ account into a full metaphysical theory with ambitions of generality. At the same time, the secondary goal is to clarify CEM and monism against the most common objections.

The first part, “Methodology of Mereological Monism,” is dedicated to methodological remarks concerning the scope of mereology — and the role CEM plays in it. Chapter 1 explores the semantic sphere of mereology: it starts by clarifying the semantics of the term “part” and formulating criteria a part must satisfy.  Lando argues that a part should satisfy spatial location, selectivity and formality. A part is spatially located when it has a spatio-temporal location relationship through the same region of space.  In addition, a part must satisfy selectivity, that is, it must have clear boundaries in order to be identified. Finally, a part must stand in a binary relation with another part; in this sense it must satisfy formality. Furthermore, Lando wants to make clear that mereology concerns literal parthood, not metaphorical cases. For example, the notion of parthood invoked in the sentence “You are part of my heart” is not a genuine example of parthood as investigated in mereology, because it is not literal.

Chapter 2 defends mereological monism and shows why CEM could be useful in a range of different cases. Lando argues in favour of monism that it gives clear and unambiguous criteria to decide what is a part and what is not a part. This is an advantage that pluralism, in which one accepts multiple mereological theories, does not have. Because pluralism accepts numerous ways to discriminate parthood, each different from the others, it offers no unified notion of part.

Chapter 3 elucidates the relationship between mereology and formalism. The fact that mereology aims at generality and must be characterized as neutral does not imply that mereology is a kind of logic. Mereology aims to describe parthood in the broadest way possible. In this sense, it must be understood as formal: mereology can be applied to every part-whole relationship, independently from what “part” means in the context. Consequently, Lando argues, CEM is the best candidate to achieve the ambition of generality.

Having described the overall requirements and goals of a mereological theory, Chapter 4 argues in favour of the axioms of CEM. Here, Lando expounds and justifies the axioms of Transitivity, Reflexivity, Antisymmetry, and the Proper-Parthood definition.

The second part, on “Extensionalism,” enters into fine-grained details in responding to examples against Extensionalism and the Uniqueness of Composition. Chapter 5 analyses why uniqueness of composition and extensionalism are not negotiable points of CEM, and how these two points are essential to a nominalist account of structures of parts. Lando claims that nominalism is necessary in order to have a general mereological theory that is independent of single structures. By “structure” Lando means the configuration and order of individual parts. If a mereological theory is case-sensitive regarding structures, then it would lose some degree of generality.

Chapter 6 clarifies the conceptual distinction between Extensionalism and Uniqueness of Composition: firstly, how they differ in their formalization; secondly, which tasks the quantifiers in the formulations cover.

Chapter 7 offers a concrete application of CEM in order to show its virtues. Taking the example of a mountain, Lando demonstrates that CEM is able to: a) distinguish parts (e.g. the trees on its surface) from the proper parts of the mountain; b) give a clear account of cases of counterparts; and c) settle the issue of overlapping objects, that is, the mountain and the “mountmatter” on it, such as rocks, forests, rivers, etc.

Chapter 8 faces the most difficult mereological cases, which relate to abstract objects. For Lando, a theory that aims for generality must also be able to explain parts of abstract entities, such as numbers and sets. But a problem for CEM arises when one allows for the stipulation of entities that the theory cannot accommodate, namely facts and propositions. In what sense does a fact have parts, or does a word share the same letters with other words? Lando solves the issue claiming that these sorts of objects do not belong to mereology: abstract entities have their own identity criteria, independent from those of CEM.

Chapter 9 examines alternatives to Extensionalism useful for fictional and controversial scenarios. These include, for instance, objects without clear boundaries among their parts (e.g. forms), or scenarios where it is no clear relationship involved (e.g. reciprocal parts). Nevertheless, non-extensional variants must be employed if and only if there are strong metaphysical motivations to apply them.

The third part of the book, “Unrestricted Composition,” is dedicated to defending the principle of Unrestricted Composition. Chapter 10 treats the notion of fusion and its relationship with ontological economy. Specifically, Lando settles the issue regarding how quantifiers in Fusion’s axiomatization have plural variables as domain. Chapter 11 refines further this formal definition of the concept of Fusion. Chapter 12 upholds the existence of counterintuitive fusions, like that of the Statue of Liberty and a chair. However, Lando stresses that CEM accepts the plurality of fusions only as long as the parts involved are actual existing parts.

Chapter 13 examines the problem of vague fusions. Unrestricted Composition could give rise to disquieting consequences like spatial or temporal disconnected fusions. However, the principle accommodates many of our standard intuitions, for instance, the case of spatially distributed things. A classic example is that of a fleet, in which the sum of the ships is not spatio-temporally contiguous. Despite this non-contiguity, on Unrestricted Composition, each ship counts as a part of the fleet.

Finally, Chapter 14 evaluates the consequences of Unrestricted Composition for meta-ontology. In particular, Lando examines how the principle interacts with Quinean meta-ontology, Meinongianism, Williamson’s conception of being, and Kit Fine’s meta-ontology. In the brief Appendix that closes the book, Lando argues against the equivalence between Composition and Identity in mereological monism.

Giorgio Lando’s book has the virtue of offering a clear introduction to mereology from CEM’s perspective. It explains what the methodology of the discipline is, and what is required for a theory of parthood. Every axiom of the theory is expressed and explained with clarity, and supported by a multitude of useful examples. Furthermore, it does this from the specific point of view of monism and CEM theory. In this sense, Lando covers an important gap in the literature: here we have a monograph that expounds a major topic and at the same time suggests to the reader a definite approach to follow.

This approach avoids a deficiency possessed by many other introductions. Quite often, they are merely compendia of positions and notions. In contrast, this book starts by immediately giving reasons why CEM is the best candidate among competitor mereological theories. This is helpful in two ways: on the one hand, it benefits newcomers by offering a precise way of facing mereological problems; on the other hand, it helps the expert reader evaluate from the beginning whether CEM is convincing or not.  Regarding the defence of CEM, Lando’s arguments are solid: he succeeds in defending the main principles of CEM from classic objections. His criticism regarding fusion and the unrestrictedness and uniqueness of composition — the most contentious points of CEM – is especially strong. The volume is also successful in upholding monism as respectable choice in meta-mereology: for example, by demonstrating why pluralism has problems in managing criteria of identity about parts and objects.  In this regard, Giorgio Lando has reached his goal.

Although the book is an extremely welcome addition to the study of mereology, it is not perfect. The first flaw is theoretical, while the second concerns the third part of the book, and the third regards some choices in the exposition. As already mentioned, Lando provides good arguments in favour of both monism and extensionalism. However, his account fails in its treatment of abstract objects. Lando’s justification of CEM is successful only in the case of spatio-temporal located entities. A mereological theory aspiring to be the single correct theory and the most general explanation does not have this luxury. Lando claims in Chapter 8 that CEM cannot treat stipulated cases violating its principles, or that abstract things such as numbers and words lack definite identity criteria. Thus, his argumentative strategy is to maintain that abstract objects are not in the scope of CEM. Nonetheless, on this issue he is not persuasive: CEM in conjunction with monism and the pretence of topic-neutrality cannot rule out abstract objects. Otherwise, CEM would lose its status of generality or one would be forced to admit that abstract entities require different mereological criteria. These are two unpleasant outcomes for a monist mereology. Excluding a class of entities from a theory is a respectable move, but it cannot be accepted as long as the goal of the theory is generality.

About the second flaw of the book: as mentioned earlier, most of the book is accessible; however, the third part becomes a bit complex for a beginner. In particular, from Chapter 13 to 15, the discussion presupposes knowledge of many metaphysical positions. Despite the fact that they are summarized briefly, this treatment is insufficient for understanding these positions. The non-expert reader or philosopher with a different background will have some difficulties in following the explanation. This renders the last part more appealing to a philosopher already engaged in the debate than to a student with no expertise in the subject. My last critical remark concerns the space given to the pluralistic arguments: the discussion would have gained even more from the confrontation of CEM with other types of theories and pluralistic options. A deeper comparison of CEM with the competing alternatives would have been beneficial for the introductory purposes of the monograph. But I suppose that precise editorial requirements might have led the author not to include material on these different perspectives.

To sum up, “Mereology: A Philosophical Introduction” is a fundamental addition to the extant literature on mereology: it describes systematically the basics of Classical Extensional Mereology, and the relevant arguments in its favour. It is the first introduction explicitly oriented to monism in the literature. Moreover, it addresses the classic objections to CEM; this makes the book valuable also for specialists interested in defending this approach. Moreover, the book discusses with completeness collateral issues like meta-ontological consequences, nominalism, etc. Nevertheless, it has some limits, theoretically speaking. Giorgio Lando is able to defend CEM in the case of spatio-temporal objects; however, it appears that there is a difficulty in treating abstract objects and defending CEM’s generality at the same time. Moreover, a confrontation with different theories would have been preferable for two reasons: it would have emphasized the strength of CEM in comparison and, simultaneously, would have informed the reader about opposing views in the field. An opinionated introduction does not mean that other positions must be excluded. Finally, the third part is sometimes too difficult for introductory purposes. Nevertheless, I warmly recommend the book, perhaps not to newcomers in metaphysics, but to a graduate student or philosopher with metaphysical commitments, who wants to deepen his or her understanding of CEM.


Burkhardt, H., Seibt, J., Imaguire, G., Gerogiorgakis, S. (Eds.), 2017. Handbook of Mereology, Analytica. Philosophia Verlag GmbH, Munich.

Calosi, C., Graziani, P. (Eds.), 2014. Mereology and the Sciences. Parts and Wholes in the Contemporary Scientific Context, Synthese Library. Springer, Cham Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London.

Goodman, N., 1956. A World of Individuals, in: Bochenski, J.M., Church, A., Goodman, N. (Eds.), The Problem of Universals. A Symposium. Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, pp. 13–31.

Kleinschmidt, S., 2014. Mereology and Location. Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

Lewis, D., 1991. Parts of Classes. Blackwell, Oxford.

Lewis, D., 1986. On the Plurality of Worlds. Blackwell, Oxford.

Libardi, M., 1990. Teorie delle parti e dell’intero. Mereologie estensionali, Quaderni del Centro Studi per la Filosofia Mitteleuropea. Trento.

Moltmann, F., 1997. Parts and Whole in Semantics. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Simons, P., 2000. Parts. A Study in Ontology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Varzi, A., Casati, R., 1999. Parts and Places. The Structures of Spatial Representation. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, London.

Vittorio Hösle: A Short History of German Philosophy

A Short History of German Philosophy Book Cover A Short History of German Philosophy
Vittorio Hösle. Translated by Steven Rendall
Princeton University Press
Hardback $35.00

Reviewed by: Chiu Yui Plato Tse (Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich)


The task to write a short history of German philosophy is daunting. Hösle approaches this task with erudition, precision and admirable polemical style. Readers should note that Hösle’s account is not meant to be a neutral encyclopaedic one which narrates the entire history of philosophical ideas in the German-speaking world. While his selection and evaluation of certain figures might appear questionable, it would be unfair if one judges it with an expectation of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness. Indeed, it is a specific account representing the German Spirit in a specific way. He gives four criteria for his selection of German philosophers: 1. quality of the philosophical work, 2. influence on subsequent developments in the history of philosophy, 3. whether the work paradigmatically expresses the basic ideas of the time and of German culture and 4. whether the philosopher helps us make sense of the developmental logic of the process of development. Along with the use of the German language, these make up the formal necessary requirements of Hösle’s historiography of German philosophy. On this basis of selection, he identifies a set of material features that characterize the German Spirit, and they are: 1. rationalist theology; 2. a commitment to synthetic a priori knowledge (trust that God created the world in a rational way); 3. a penchant for system-building; 4. grounding ethics in reason not in sentiment and 5. a combination of philosophy and philology. This review consists of two main parts. I will first sum up the line of ideological development given by Hösle, and then I will critique Hösle’s account of the withering of German philosophy and its Spirit.

Part I

In Hösle’s account, which consists of 16 chapters arranged by chronological order, German philosophy first started with Meister Eckhart and reached its climax in German idealism. Eckhart is not only the first medieval philosopher who expresses his original philosophical ideas in vernacular German language, his rationalist theology and mystic idea of an unmediated relationship to God are characteristic traits of the German Spirit. Nicholas of Cusa, though he did not write philosophical treatises in German, was influenced by Eckhart’s rational theology and conceived the project of an a priori, theologically-grounded natural philosophy, which sees the universe (and human mind) as an image of the Trinitarian infinite God and critiques the Aristotelian geocentric worldview of finite cosmos. The reasons for Hösle to include him despite the fact that Nicholas did not write his works in German seem to be his use of the distinction between understanding and reason and his epistemological optimism about human mind’s approximation to divine infinity. Paracelsus is a natural philosopher in the Spiritualist tradition that was partly inspired by the Reformation and partly broke with the dogmas of orthodox Lutheranism and biblical authority. His polemic against traditional medicine called for founding medicine in chemistry and mineralogy and he sees the forces of nature as God’s manifestation and particular sciences as subordinated to theology.

But it is Jakob Böhme whom Hösle identifies as “the first epoch-making German philosopher of the modern period.” Böhme considered himself a pious Lutheran and his experience of mystical visions brought him to provide a deeper theosophic foundation for Lutheranism. In his contemplation on the problem of evil and suffering, Böhme recognizes in God three principles: the positive (the “Yes”), the negative (the “No”) and their synthesis. Devil and Hell are the expression of the negative divine principle, and it is through this opposition that God becomes knowable and apparent. The reunion of the Yes and the No was found in Christ.

Leibniz must be included in any historical account of the emergence of German philosophy. Not only did he contribute to raising German to the rank of a language suitable for academic purposes and founding the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (now the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities), his philosophical contributions also earned him a place among the greatest philosophers. Interestingly, Hösle understands modern philosophy as a competition between ontology-first and epistemology-first thinkers (or “ancientizers” and “modernizers” in Hösle’s own terms). The prime example of the former camp is Spinoza, and the leader of the latter is Descartes. Whereas Spinoza starts with an ontological proof of ​natura naturans with extension and thought being its two knowable attributes, Descartes starts from the undeniability of the cogito, with the physical and the mental being two different kinds of substances. Though Hösle did not clearly assign Leibniz to either side, Leibniz seems to be straddling both with a stronger sympathy for the modernizers. Despite Leibniz’s personal admiration for Spinoza and the partial agreement in their philosophical positions, Hösle is quite right in stressing their differences regarding the concept of necessity, the moral status of God and the notion of substance. The appropriation of possible worlds in Leibniz’s metaphysics is bound by the axiological view that the actual world must be the best possible world created by God if God exists, and Leibniz’s pluralistic view of substances is supplemented by the notion of pre-established harmony.

By tying God down to the actual world as the best possible world, Leibniz in effect exacerbated the theodicy problem. Not only did Kant uncover the problem by critically examining previous proofs of God and pointing out their implausibility, he is also a revolutionary in ethics because his practical philosophy detached the foundations of ethics entirely from any hopes of an after-world. The value of moral conduct no longer depends on God’s reward or on subjective feelings, but rather it lies within the act as an end in itself. Ethics so conceived is grounded on a categorical, unconditional imperative that is owed to practical reason’s self-determination and not to any heteronomous factors. This alignment with practical reason generates a stream of anti-eudaimonism in Kant’s ethics, in which human dignity consists in the capacity of sacrificing one’s own happiness for the fulfilment of obligation, and one’s relation to God is grounded internally through the compliance with moral obligation. Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm along with his epistemological distinction of the capacity of understanding and reason allow him to reserve a regulative role for the idea of God while restricting its objective validity in accordance with his criterion of significance for the phenomenal realm.

The development of a new human science is another important achievement of the German eighteenth century alongside Kant’s critical philosophy. The historical reliability of biblical narratives was challenged and the narrow-minded salvation history of Jews and Christians was discredited by the universalistic spirit of Enlightenment. But the Lutheran pathos of sincerity prevented the German intellectuals, many of whom came from a Lutheran parsonage, to adopt a detached attitude of irony. Instead, modern philology provided the means to reconstructing the meaning of the Scriptures in response to not just biblical criticism but also Enlightenment universalism. This led to the idea that understanding the word of God is not simply understanding the Bible (literally), but rather the whole history of the human spirit; and the establishment of human science became a religious duty. In this regard, Herder’s contribution to German philosophy is unmistakable, for he gave it a new focus in philosophy of language, history, aesthetics and anthropology. Schiller’s aesthetic theory attributes a moral function to the traditional aesthetic category of beauty, and aesthetic education was conceived as an apolitical alternative to political revolution for the realization of moral ideas and the unification of all spheres of life. Through the Schlegel brothers and Novalis philosophy and poetry achieved an integral and yet anti-systematic cohesion, which became an essential characteristic of early Romanticism. Schleiermacher’s theology of feeling granted religion an autonomous status within human sciences, making it accessible via rational standards for those who had detached themselves from the dogmatic authority of tradition. Humboldt’s linguistic works and his analysis of the relationship between thought and language constitute an important contribution to the German tradition of the philosophy of language. He also played a significant role in the institutionalization of human science in the modern blueprint of the research university.

German idealism is for Hösle the most ambitious philosophical school of thought in the history of German philosophy and he focuses on the three most prominent figures: Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. The philosophizing of each of the three philosophers manifests not just the essential character of religious seriousness that defines the German Spirit, but also the longing for a comprehensive metaphysical system that defies the current prevalent trend of specialization. Fichte’s ​Wissenschaftslehre ​is a reflexive transcendental philosophy that seeks to uncover (or “deduce”) the implicit presuppositions, or the fundamental principles (and their implications), of the faculties of the mind assumed by Kant’s philosophy. Fichte traces the foundation of the laws of logic (identity and contradiction) in the I’s self-positing and counter-positing act, and all theoretical knowledge is based on the mediation of the divisible I through the divisible not-I. His ethics, like Kant’s, not only recognizes autonomy as the necessary condition for moral acts, but it represents a view more radical than Kant’s in that it does not allow for morally neutral acts. The mutual recognition of the spheres of freedom among individuals is enacted by law; and it is with Fichte that intersubjectivity is deduced for the first time as a necessary condition of autonomous self-consciousness. Practical belief takes priority in his system, as it is the only way to avoid nihilism.

Schelling started out as a Fichtean philosopher but soon broke with Fichteanism by attributing to nature a much higher status than Fichte’s Wissnschaftslehre​ ​allowed. Instead of deducing nature as the field of ethical striving for rational beings, Schelling’s objective idealism sees nature and consciousness as manifestations of the Absolute, and the basic structures of reality are conceived as the results of the development of a polar structure. Built on a metaphysical view that seeks to accommodate the real and the ideal, Schelling took inspirations from the contemporary development of natural science and attributed metaphysical significance to its latest discovery. Schelling’s view on religion is closer to traditional Christianity in that he does not content himself with a negative philosophy that postulates God as a logical abstratum but demands a positive account that affirms the vitality of a personal God.

Hegel started his philosophical career as a loyal follower of Schelling’s absolute idealism, but he established it with much greater brilliance and systematic rigor than Schelling was ever able to do. His mature metaphysical system contains three parts: logic, nature and spirit. In contrast to what Hegel calls “the reflective philosophy of subjectivity,” the a priori categories in Hegel’s system are not to be understood as subjective concepts imposed on an objective reality. Instead, reality is conceptually structured, and the categorial structures of reality are not ​ens rationis from a transcendent realm, but dynamic moments in the teleological self-movement of the Absolute. Thus, the theological significance of Hegel’s Science of Logic is prominent, since the entire system can be taken as an ontological proof of God. Hegel also places intrinsic value on social institutions and intersubjectively shared ways of life.

Schopenhauer is an essential key to understanding the transition from German idealism to Nietzsche. Clearly, his epistemology was influenced by Kant’s subjectivism and the German idealists’ wish to bring the thing-in-itself to light, and he reacted to them with an alternative, pessimistic worldview that parallels Indian Buddhism. His epistemology adopts space, time and causality as our subjective constructions, and takes the will to live for the ultimate ground of reality. Prioritizing intuition over concept and the will over reason and understanding, Schopenhauer sees reality as a series of objectivizations of the will, which is fundamentally driven by unconscious biological drives for procreation and self-preservation. Reason is therefore nothing but a symptom of the will, and human knowing is in continuity with animal knowing. With great philosophical depth and eloquence Schopenhauer expressed Europe’s hangover after the gradual flickering out of Christianity, anticipating Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

In the wake of Schopenhauer, two Hegelian philosophers emerged and determined the history of European consciousness. Feuerbach’s investigation of the essence of Christianity uncovers contradictory ideas in Christian dogmas. He gives an anthropological explanation of religion, according to which God is the hypostatization of human understanding or moral experience. His critique of Christianity seeks to free humans from “religious alienation” which he sees detrimental to morality. Although Feuerbach was a member of Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, he was not a political activist and the influence of his revolt against Christian dogmatics remained within the intellectual circle. On the other hand, with the goal of changing the world, Marx and Engels left the domain of philosophy. Marx’s historical materialism is directed against German idealism and any metaphysical tradition in philosophy that stands on ideas. From a historical materialist point of view, morality, religion, metaphysics, and the rest of ideology are to be explained externally by social economic activities and conditions. Although Marx’s critique of the modern state and his analysis of the effects of alienation are pioneering, he underestimated the influence the “superstructure” can have on material conditions, leaving human capacity for grasping truth incomprehensible. His claim to be scientific was indefensible, not only because his prediction of communist society did not accord with our experience, but also because his emphasis on the primacy of the economic is one-sided and prejudiced.

The prominence of Nietzsche’s philosophy lies in its attempt to provide a philological explanation of the origin of Greek tragedy, in which he identifies and upholds the irrational element in ancient Greek culture represented by Dionysus. As the Antichrist in the history of German philosophy, Nietzsche is no less critical of metaphysics, morality, and Christianity. According to Hösle’s judgment, Nietzsche’s genealogical account of the emergence of religion and morality contributes to the “the German adventure of crushing the Christian order of values and the creation of an alternative value system that dripped with the desire to kill” (158). Against any universalist democratic ethics, Nietzsche demands a higher culture of the noble and the strong. His doctrine of the superman and his theory of the will to power replace all theological or religious grounding of values and express his rejection of transcendence.

Contrary to Nietzsche’s expressive language, Frege’s concept script was a precision instrument that achieved not only absolute clarity in inference, but it also brought about a logical revolution by attempting to ground arithmetic in logic. Although Frege’s new logic is incomplete and he was forced by Russell’s paradox to abandon his logicistic program, the new logic, compared to the traditional logic, was a much better candidate for providing a foundation for the new science and for accommodating its results and methods. This led to the very fruitful contributions to philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of physics made by the Viennese and Berlin Circles of logical positivism. Characteristic of this movement is its deflationary or anti-realist approach to metaphysical as well as moral statements, such that it recognizes no synthetic a priori judgments. The most prominent figure from this tradition is Wittgenstein, who once claimed that the limits of one’s language mean the limits of one’s world. The logical and mathematical structures underlying our languages reflect the structures of the world. The late Wittgenstein moved away from his early position, but the boundary of philosophy remained for him to be that of our language. His reflections on rule-following led him to conclude that meaning consists in the concrete use of language and not in any inner image, hence also his rejection of the possibility of private language and his reluctance to recognize any individualistic transcendental grounds of language.

Parallel to the development of logical positivism and Wittgenstein, the enterprise of grounding human and social sciences in reaction to the emergence and domination of natural sciences was undertaken by the Neo-Kantian philosophers, Dilthey, Husserl, and others. Hermann Cohen, founder of the Marburg School, gives a rationalistic interpretation of Judaism as a kind of universalist ethics that preserves its originality and at the same time rejects Zionism. Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert from the Baden School were concerned with the status of the knowledge in human and social sciences in contrast to natural sciences and they made important contributions to the investigation of the role of values. Wilhelm Dilthey tries to ground human sciences in an understanding of psychology and offers a critique of historical reason that objectivizes human mind and philosophical systems on an historical dimension without any idealistic commitment to the validity of any single system. Having lost the religious consciousness characteristic of the Protestantism of traditional German philosophy, Dilthey’s historical relativism loses at the same time the religious and ethical claim to absolute truth. Husserl is the most loyal defender of the traditional concept of reason in the 20th century. Having taken up the influences of Brentano’s and Frege’s realism, Husserl’s phenomenology is a scientific philosophy that seeks to determine the foundation of all the sciences without any theological ambitions. On this basis, his analysis of the phenomena of consciousness takes the relationship between meaning and expression seriously, investigates the dependency relation between contents and the laws that are the a priori conditions of meaningfulness. His phenomenology made not only advances in the investigation of the structure of subjectivity and intentionality, his concept of the life-world also offered a modern alternative to transcendental solipsism and a foundation for regional ontologies of essences. Although Husserl himself was not keen on building a comprehensive system, his phenomenology inspired some of his best students to apply it in new domains, e.g. aesthetics and practical philosophy.

Hösle then ponders in chapter 13 the question whether ideas in German philosophy play any role in the rise of National Socialism or in the hindrance of the opposition to it. He sees in the central figures of the German tradition (i.e. Luther and Kant) the lack of a plausible theory of resistance. The recess of universalist ethics brought about by Nietzsche and logical positivism, coupled with the rise of an anti-democratic right after the First World War in response to the threats of communism and British hegemony, contributes to the weakening of the binding power of an ethical order, paving the way to the emergence of a totalitarian regime. In this light, Hösle offers a critical assessment of Heidegger, whose philosophy redefines and undermines the traditional moral sense of terms such as conscience and guilt. His empty notion of resoluteness, even though it does not necessarily lead to National Socialism, is said to have encouraged the radicalization of irrational convictions.

For the Third Reich period, Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt are picked as the determining figures of German philosophy. Gehlen’s pragmatist anthropology, taking into account a broad range of results from various sciences as well as the influence of Fichte but without any transcendental reflection, centers on action and the stabilizing function of social institutions, which are necessary for the constitution of consciousness. However, Gehlen fails to ascribe any moral significance to questioning unjust institutions. Despite the moral repulsiveness of Schmitt’s refusal of denazification after the Second World War, the influence of his political philosophy has to be acknowledged. His competence of intellectual history is unusual for a jurist, which enables him to see the plausible continuity between legal and theological concepts. But Hösle points out that Schmitt’s reference to the absolute decision as the ultimate ground of law is as problematic as Heidegger’s “resoluteness.”

After the Second World War, Germany could no longer retain the special cultural status it enjoyed since Kant. Not only did several intellectuals leave the country, the occupation and integration the country underwent made it impossible to travel further with the especially German philosophical paths. Gadamer’s attempt at breaking out of the aporias of historicism increased confusion in human sciences. Despite his concept of the anticipation of completeness that re-established some hermeneutic sense of truthfulness and his attempt at constructing an equivalent of first philosophy, he inspired the deconstructivist undermining of human sciences. The first Frankfurt School, for which Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are the best representatives, reacts against the progress-oriented philosophy of history as well as the culture industry, but carries the Marxist ideal of eliminating concrete suffering through a cooperation with empirical sciences. Its lack of a normative foundation following from a rejection of Kantian ethics becomes the main concern of the second Frankfurt School represented by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. They seek to ground normativity by a theory of intersubjectivity influenced by American pragmatism. Though much originality can be found in the two Frankfurt Schools’ social critical stance and Hans Jonas’ environmental concern, it becomes clear to Hösle that up to this stage the Spirit of German philosophy has lost much of its earlier appeal.

Part II

Hösle’s account of the history of German philosophy shows an admirable intellectual capacity of synthesizing various materials and understanding them in a coherent, unifying manner that pieces together a pessimistic developmental picture. It is a pessimistic picture, because, as the title of the final chapter clearly suggests, it is likely that German philosophy will not exist in the future. Hösle points out sharply and accurately the current conditions of German philosophy that prevent it from having a bright future. The internet culture of our digital era has witnessed an explosion of information and it has become practically impossible to keep track of the works of all intellectuals. This phenomenon significantly dilutes the influence of any intellectual. The trend of specialization in the knowledge industry makes every attempt at system-building untimely and unattractive. And the institutional policy of German universities makes it hard for them to compete with Anglo-American universities, which in comparison offer much better financial support to junior researchers and systematically encourage the academic performance of professors. Given the global trend of technical specialization and the dominance of English as the lingua franca in the academic world, Germany has now become a “second-rate scientific power,” as Hösle put it. It sounds as if German philosophy has already sung its swan song, and what is left for researchers in German philosophy to do is only preservation of this repertoire of valuable ideas, so that these can be carried by the ark of culture “to the salvific shore of a new beginning” when environmental problems force human civilization to start anew.

The diagnosis in the final chapter that German philosophy has come to a dead end is disputable even if one accepts the preceding account of its historical development. One cannot help but suspect that this lament over the withering of German philosophy is rather a consequence of sticking to the letter (viz. the German language), and not the Spirit, of German philosophy. It is not necessary to restrict the domain of German philosophy to only those works written in German. Although most of the canonical works in German philosophy were written in German, making a logically necessary condition out of a genetic factor is a confusion. When the academic lingua franca in Europe was Latin and German philosophy was still in a nascent stage, tracking the intellectuals who first composed philosophical works in German is the philologically reasonable thing to do in recording how German philosophy came into existence. But over the course of development, it has gained worldwide attention and multilingual contributions. One might argue that contributions in foreign languages are not works in German philosophy, but about it. For instance, there are numerous careful and sophisticated exegeses on Kant and Hegel in English and although many of them are excellent scholarly works that are useful to readers of German philosophy, they do not extend the scope of German philosophy nor do they determine its course of further development by adding original insights. And when they do, they count as original works in foreign culture. British idealism and French phenomenology can be seen as prime examples of such cases. However, not every case is as clear. For example, as long as one cares not only about the historical genesis of Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy but also their validity, ignoring the related works of Peter Strawson, John McDowell, Robert Brandom and others on the ground that they are not German philosophers and their works are not written in German and hence fall outside of the relevant scope, is counterproductive for the prosperity of German idealism. Here we need not draw a rigid line to settle the question whether original, non-German works that take positive reference to German philosophy should be counted as canonical works in German philosophy. Hösle’s historical account informatively and polemically demonstrated what kind of Sonderweg the German spirit has travelled, but this path is not an isolated (abgesondert) one, instead it has many crosses and sometimes even merges with other paths. Perhaps it is not Hösle’s intention to announce the death of German philosophy when he warns of its extinction, and philosophers in this field should heed the warning; but Hösle gives no advice as to how the withering of German philosophy can be avoided (one even has the impression that it is not avoidable at all).

If Hösle were not so insistent on abstracting from his historiography all Anglophone and Francophone influences, he should observe that, in recent years, the porous spirit (now with a small “s”) of German philosophy has crossed other paths, from which it has found new inspirations and directions. Phenomenology and German idealism, two outstanding branches of German philosophy, have seen important transformations after encountering foreign influences. The encounter with speculative realism, neuroscience and cognitive psychology forced phenomenology to defend against naturalistic criticisms or to reconcile them by broadening its own conceptual space. The encounter with American pragmatism, contemporary philosophy of mind and analytic philosophy of language brought idealist philosophers to incorporate ideas from external sources in order to generate a broader and more cogent foundation that would require a conceptual reorientation in epistemology, philosophy of mind, as well as other fields of philosophy. But all these cannot happen without philosophers, who seek not only to study the past history of German philosophy but also to participate in its future course of development, writing and engaging others in English (or other non-German languages), even though it is reasonable to require from them a robust knowledge of the German language. More generally speaking, the institutional structures of philosophy faculties in Germany have become much more diversified, new chairs and institutes that encourage applied ethics and interdisciplinary co-operations on research have been established, to mention only a few; a focus on the interaction of contemporary philosophy of mind and language in Bochum; pioneering works on philosophy of mathematics and science in Munich; analytic German idealism in Leipzig; an interdisciplinary approach to mind and brain in Berlin, etc. Just as it is too early to register these occurrences in any account of the history of German philosophy, it would be premature, too, to say that they evidence its disappearance. German philosophy is no natural object, and as a cultural enterprise undertaken by finite rational beings who do not just think but also feel and will, its essence cannot be the same as that of natural entities.

Stefan Kristensen: La Machine sensible

La Machine sensible Book Cover La Machine sensible
Stefan Kristensen
Paperback 28,00 €

Reviewed by: Louis Schreel (Ghent University, Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences)

  1. Introduction

In his new book, La Machine sensible, Stefan Kristensen conceives the human mind as a sensible machine: a machine that seeks to stabilize incoming fluxes of sensory stimulation, before being rationally reflected. This opens up a thought-provoking discussion with contemporary phenomenological conceptions of the minimal self, which reappears as a technical invention, an artifact produced by the sensible machinery that works beyond our conscious grasp and reflective understanding. Like the technical object, the minimal self is for Kristensen an artifact produced to stabilize the relation between man and his environment. But in La Machine sensible technical invention does not amount to the application of a given system of knowledge. Machinic invention has its roots in the irrational and becomes rational ordering only after having fulfilled its primordial function: the organization of matter by life.

For the sake of brevity, this review will focus strictly on the theoretical issues that animate La Machine sensible. The true strength and originality of Kristensen’s book lies in combining a rich conceptual framework with detailed commentaries of empirical work both in psychopathology and in twentieth century art. Of the three parts that make up the book, I will discuss only the first (“The Self and the Machine”) and the third (“The Essence of the Machine”), the second (“The Machine and the Figuration of the Self”) being entirely devoted to the motive of the machine and the figuration of the self in art brut, James Tilly Matthews, Fernand Deligny, Victor Tausk, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Epstein and Jean-Luc Godard. Kristensen has a deep background both in the phenomenological and psychoanalytical traditions and his astute appreciation of their respective virtues does not make him any less perceptive of their respective weaknesses. Honest about its goals and the unresolved puzzles pertaining to its rather brief examination of phenomena of biological organization, the book is most sharp in its ability to set up a dialogue between Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Szondi, Maldiney and Deleuze & Guattari. With that in mind, La Machine sensible is highly recommendable for anyone interested in the crossovers between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, and the way these can open up an original reflection on contemporary visual art.

  1. Aisthesis Disturbed: Machinic Delusions

The first part of Kristensen’s book begins by turning to the literature on schizophrenia, in which the motif of an ‘influencing machine’ (une machine à influencer) represents a particular kind of delusion that is important for a good understanding of schizophrenia. The delusion of an influencing machine stands for an experience in which the patient is convinced to be manipulated through a machine, which itself remains beyond his or her grasp. Examining the subjective dimension of schizophrenia, Kristensen approaches this delusional experience as a particular kind of feeling. This avoids categorizing schizophrenia as a disturbance of either the psyche or the soma, since feeling usually involves both. Kristensen argues that whatever the person’s predominant schizophrenic symptoms, these can be regarded as instances, appearances, expressions of the same disturbance, the same fundamental kind of psychotic feeling of an influencing machine.

To situate the disturbance at the level of feeling is not to deny, however, the neurobiological basis of schizophrenia. Discussing the early clinical work of Viktor Tausk and Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault in the light of recent work of Alfred Kraus, Thomas Fuchs, Louis A. Sass and Josef Parnas’ phenomenological Examination of Anomalous Self-Experience (EASE), Kristensen acknowledges that neurally based cognitive dysfunctions often play an important role, and indeed that they may often play the causal role in terms of kicking off symptoms. This does not mean, however, that subjective experiential phenomena, together with subjective responses to these phenomena, may not also play a key role. Rather than proposing an either/or dichotomy between neurological explanation and phenomenological description, our author follows Parnas in the viewpoint that phenomenology may just as well offer an explanatory contribution for the understanding of psychotic delusions. Accordingly, ‘the investigation concerns here the sense of this experience of alterity, from the point of view of the subject undergoing it’ (29).

In the most general terms, it is for Kristensen a person’s most immediate and fundamental, affective relationship to self and to world, which is disturbed in schizophrenic psychosis. This disturbance is a feeling of losing contact and connectedness with the world, of withdrawing into a world of one’s own, and of sensing the world as a hostile otherness. In schizophrenia, patients lose their sense of ownership; they seem to have no sense of property, not of a world but also not of themselves, even to the point of owning their bodies. It is this alienating feeling, which the patient’s language is unable to articulate and make sense of, and which may lead to a breakdown of personality, a cleavage of several personalities, and to several kinds of corporeal symptoms.

The sense of losing possession or control, at once over the world and over oneself, implies that possession, power or control lie elsewhere. The delusion of the influencing machine involves ‘the experience of domination, of a relation of asymmetrical force, which the machine is a particularly emblematic image of’ (36). One may certainly have the feeling of great energy and feel compelled to use it, but one seems to have no power to control it. It is as though something else is exercising this control and the patient does not know what this other is: he or she feels it as a foreign power that is mechanically triggered by an external causality.

Whatever form these experiences take, their presence is for the subject always an ordeal that gives rise to different strategies to confront these impulsions, whose essential trait is that the subject cannot escape them. It is due to this experience of passivity and powerlessness on the noetic level that one can speak of a machinic phenomenon on the noematic level (taking up a Husserlian vocabulary here) (30).

In an important concluding passage of the first chapter, Kristensen argues that one shouldn’t understand the schizophrenic delusion only negatively, as the delusional construction of a threat. Following Kraus, Fuchs and the psychoanalyst Ludivine Beillard-Robbert, he argues the schizophrenic delusion is ‘a fundamentally ambiguous phenomenon’ (13, 23) that can be considered at once as a symptom of disturbance and as an act of resistance, offering a certain stabilization. Indeed, ‘the simple fact that a hallucination is produced, that an image be drawn, that a text be written, either in front of the psychiatrist or in the most intimate reclusion, means that the delusional subject is in a process of resistance in the experience that he goes through’ (36). Kristensen emphasizes this point to debut the idea that the delusion would be itself a phenomenon empty of meaning. One must distinguish the patient’s primordial experiences, which appear to him or her as meaningless, and the delusion, which is produced as an attempt to make sense of them. Without this distinction, one cannot account for the fact that the schizophrenic is still a self and that he or she maintains a perspective onto the world. Like the drowning man who cannot swim, the patient continues to struggle[1]:

The creation of an influencing machine in the psychic realm of the schizophrenic subject corresponds to a situation of complete powerlessness within which, nonetheless, the possibility of emancipation is given, although it is remote and inaccessible. This is exactly the paradoxical meaning of the delusion: to express the need of liberation by giving form to the confinement (38).

  1. The Bodily Self and the Sensible Machine

Kristensen’s understanding of the delusion of the influencing machine as at once a passive confrontation to something unknown and an active response to it, is central not only to his analysis of schizophrenia, but also to his philosophical understanding of selfhood (ipseity) in general. Against a conception of the self as characterized by full-fledged autonomy and self-reflective transparency, Kristensen argues the self is ‘structurally constituted by the internal tension between necessity and liberty’ (37). More precisely, Kristensen proposes a two-level model of the self, whereby the higher-level properties (the intentional, cognitive structure which has a degree of autonomy from the world) emerge from lower-level, sub-personal and non-conscious dynamical processes that act deterministically. The reflective, cognitive structure of the self, which is the mark of subjective autonomy, is for our author constituted by three fundamental, pre-reflective dimensions of experience: temporality, embodiment and self-differentiation inherent to pre-reflective experience. For Kristensen, these pre-reflective dimensions manifest dimensions of internal or intra-subjective alterity, which are never fully dominated and controlled by the subject. In Dan Zahavi’s terms, which Kristensen cites approvingly:

Subjectivity seems to be constituted in a way that allows it to relate to itself in an othering way. This self-alteration is something inherent in reflection. It is not something that reflection can ever overcome (Zahavi 2004: 150).

Although the pre-reflective, embodied level of the self is perpetually self-differing within the ‘diachronical’, egoless flow of time-consciousness, Kristensen agrees with Zahavi that one can speak already at this rudimentary level of a ‘minimal self’ (122).[2] However, he disagrees with Zahavi’s view that minimal self does not depend upon social interaction for its development and/or its sustenance. Following Matthew Ratcliffe, Kristensen argues the constitution of minimal self should be re-conceptualized in interpersonal terms: ‘the primitive level of self-experience is always already of an intersubjective nature’ (126).

Our author develops this reconceptualization around two ideas. The first is that minimal self and alterity construct each other reciprocally through a pre-reflective libidinal and social dimension of ‘body schema’ (47, 54, 64). Drawing on the late work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder (whose influence on Merleau-Ponty he reconstructs in detail), Kristensen conceives bodily ‘sensing itself’ (le sentir lui-même (49)) as a perceptual process that happens independently from conscious intentionality and reflection, and is interdependent on action. According to this account, sensing is a skillful bodily activity in which perception and action are constitutively interdependent, unlike at the personal level, where the action a perception leads to may depend on the agent’s intentions (105, 271). In Schilder’s sense, the body schema designates an integrated set of dynamic sensorimotor processes that organize perception and action in a sub-personal and non-conscious manner. As such, the body schema must be distinguished from what is sometimes called the ‘body-image’, which is the body as an intentional object of consciousness, i.e. the body as experienced as owned by the experiencing subject. For example, the body schema appropriates certain habitual postures and movements automatically. The body schema also incorporates certain significant parts of its environment into its own schema: the painter’s brush becomes an operative extension of her hand; the blind person’s cane becomes a sensing extension of the hand.

At this primordial level, a minimal self emerges from a libidinal, bodily relation to alterity. That is to say, the sensorimotor contribution of the body schema is actually constitutive of selfhood, rather than being merely causally implicated in experiences. But this dimension of embodiment is not of the order of personal ownership: the libidinal production of the bodily self through body schema precedes the constitution of an ego that distinguishes itself from its libidinal investments, and the primordial relation between self and alterity is characterized by a ‘fundamental polymorphism’ (52). This means that the libidinal body forms with the environment a system of reciprocal implication, stimulation and expression, a pre-personal, essentially ‘anonymous and general existence’ in which there is ‘confusion of an individual body schema with that of the other’ (53). Being essentially anonymous, non-personal and non-conscious, the body schema forms a ‘sensible machine’ that is not phenomenologically available to the reflective subject: it is neither the perception or imagination, nor the cognitive understanding, nor the emotional apprehension of ‘my’ body, but rather the libidinal drives that organize the body as it spontaneously interacts with its environment.

From this perspective, the unconscious is this libidinal dimension of my being in the world; if it remains inaccessible to consciousness and to explicit intersubjective sharing, this is not due to its radically intimate [psychic] character, but rather to its pre-reflective, corporeal generality (56).

As Henri Maldiney writes, paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty, the bodily sensing itself forms the ‘untouchable’ side of the self, ‘that of the self which I will never touch [cela de moi que je ne toucherai jamais]’ (Maldiney 2007: 138).

The second idea is that human subjectivity, that is to say, full-fledged selfhood with a degree of ‘ontological depth’ (123), emerges from a cultural-reflective dimension of interpersonal relations and symbolical-cognitive structures, such as language. Our author is fully aware that this second idea, as well as the identification of the libidinal basis of embodiment with the impersonal, non-subjective order of the unconscious, brings him particularly close to the position of Lacan. In fact, one of the strengths of the second chapter of La Machine sensible lies in showing how – despite the different conceptions of the unconscious in the early Merleau-Ponty and Lacan– the late Merleau-Ponty’s identification of the unconscious with the anonymous ‘flesh’ (chair) of the world is compatible with Lacan’s views on the discontinuous, problematic relation between consciousness and the unconscious. Despite valuing this proximity, however, Kristensen is also critical of Lacan. In conceiving the developmental emancipation to the symbolical dimension of subjectivity, Lacan neglected the importance of the productive role of the libidinal body and of affectivity in the constitution of the self. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, Lacan’s conception of the symbolic led him into an ‘idealist deviation’ (58, 63), conceiving the emergence of subjectivity strictly in terms of the symbolic and conscious mediation of instinctually driven life. For the generative constitution of the self, a model which does not do right to its bodily, affective, emotional and temporal constitution remains incomplete indeed.

By contrast, the psychoanalytically inspired work of the phenomenologist Henri Maldiney and the schizo-analytical work of Félix Guattari (both with and without Gilles Deleuze), demonstrate for Kristensen the possibility of a constructive conversation between phenomenology and psychoanalysis, which is in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty’s late project of an ontology of the generativity of the flesh. Reading Guattari, Maldiney, Deleuze and Leopold Szondi in this light (whose influence on Deleuze & Guattari he also reconstructs in detail); our author’s goal is as follows:

… to construct a position from which to sketch a critique of the dominant reception of Merleau-Ponty in the domain of the theory of the self – a reception that draws mostly on the Phenomenology of Perception and leaves aside the objections and new perspectives in his seminars at the Collège de France and in the corpus of The Visible and the Invisible (47).

  1. The Minimal Life of the Self: Three Challenges

There are three general theoretical points that are key to Kristensen’s two-level model of the self that are helpful to see where his challenges lie. These points concern the emergence of self, the relational role of the environment, and the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

i). Emergence: In thinking about the productive character of the self-organizing dynamics of sensorimotor processes, Kristensen seeks to conceive of a sub-personal level at which the biological and the mental are fundamentally indistinct (108). Against Szondi, who still remained caught in a dualism between blind sub-personal biological processes and the autonomous, mental realm of the self (‘le moi pontifex’ (106)), Kristensen aims to show how minimal self emerges in development from repetitive cycles of sub-personal, ‘infra-subjective’ sensorimotor processes of perception and action (235). In a touching passage on the work of the Feldenkrais therapist and choreographer Mara Vinadia (178-181), Kristensen notes how higher level cognitive processes and symbolical, linguistic forms of communication can be entrapped by sensorimotor disorders; as in the case of an autistic girl of three years and nine months old who expressed herself only by crying and shouting, who didn’t allow any eye contact and who didn’t let anyone get closer to her than three meters.

Faced with any kind of frustration or transgression of these limits, she would respond with immediate violence, bending her body like an arc and hitting her head against the ground. The therapist approaches this situation as follows: keeping her distance from the patient, her face and body averted, she takes on a series of immobile bodily postures, holding each figure for a fixed time interval, followed by a few steps in the room. When Vinadia arrives at her sixth posture, she notices the child has risen and begins to imitate her accurately, step by step. Yet, the patient doesn’t imitate her last posture: rather, she begins with the first, forcing Vinadia to start over from zero, and maintaining a lag of six between her and Vinadia’s postures. Astonishingly, after a number of weeks of repetitive sequences the child allows for more and more proximity, imitating Vinadia’s with lags of 5, 4, 3… up to the point of allowing the therapist to face her, and moving in perfect unison with her, such that it becomes impossible to designate who is initiating and imitating. Eventually, the child allows for more people, even strangers, to approach and address her.

Kristensen emphasizes that the initial refusal to enter into relation is not a sign of indifference but of a hyper-sensibility to the presence of others – an interpretation confirmed by neuro-scientific approaches of autism. The therapist’s work has consisted in establishing a reciprocal relation between the child and herself, a corporeal relation of sensing reciprocity that restored the sensorimotor dynamics constitutive of minimal self. This does not mean, of course, that a sequence of physical gestures alone could implement a cognitive state or a sense of possessing a self. The main takeaway is rather, that aside from higher-level neural processes, sub-personal sensorimotor processes of perception and action make a special, constitutive contribution to the machinery of selfhood.

ii). Environment: The second issue is about the relational role of the biological and social/collective environment and concerns the idea that minimal self is not only intimately embodied, but also intimately embedded in its environment. How does attention to this environmental embedding contribute something important to an understanding of the emergence of minimal self? In this regard, Kristensen distinguishes the kinds of account that typically stress features of organic integration, unitary functioning and sense-making across different levels of bodily embeddedness, from the more radical dynamic viewpoint he finds in Guattari and Deleuze, which stresses features of instability, chaos and heterogeneity characteristic of the energetic dynamics constitutive of minimal self (244-255).

For Kristensen, Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of our perceptible integrations with the world in Phenomenology of Perception is exemplary of the first kind of account, as he conceives these integrations as the emergence of one unified ‘flesh’ by means of a reversible ‘chiasmic’ relation between body and environment. This approach emphasizes there is a minimal ‘nucleus’ of stability that constrains and directs the ongoing dynamics, a self-organizing nucleus that enables meaningful interactions to take place between the system and its environment (254, 294). Kristensen refers in this regard to Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, which defines living ‘autopoietic machines’ by the self-referential organization of the causal interactions taking place in material systems, i.e. the self-referential, recursive organization of the causal loops that determine the particular dynamics within or between systems (254, 260). As the name suggests, autopoietic machines are essentially self-producing: the system produces ‘itself’ through the reciprocal causation between the components of the system and relations between them. One might say that from this viewpoint, one focuses on the product (minimal self) that emerges from dynamic processes: a composed, structured, organizationally closed system of self-production that to a certain extent determines the range and meaningfulness of its material interactions.

On the other hand, Guattari and Deleuze’s approach, which Kristensen is more sympathetic to, places emphasis on a system’s material, intensive dynamics, which are essentially driven by perturbations, ruptures in direction, breakdowns and failures, and which have no meaningfulness at all (they can acquire meaningfulness only for an eventual emergent system capable of controlling these dynamics). For Kristensen, the first, phenomenological point of view, tends to remain too one-sidedly focused upon the result: connections of meaning, autonomy and structure (254).The schizo-analytical viewpoint, however, stresses the primacy of dynamic material processes, and as such it emphasizes the heterogeneity underlying all constructed unity, the initial ‘chaosmos’ from which all order and stability emerge:

The point of view of the schizophrenic reveals the fact that the machinic assemblages [agencements machiniques] do not self-organize according to a meaningful order [selon un ordre sensé], but consist in the coexistence of heterogeneous elements whose mutual presence creates movements, displacements, production of novelty (245).

Within the phenomenological viewpoint, it is difficult to include the dimension of force or intensity. Merleau-Ponty’s ontology of the sensible is a philosophy of the birth of meaning [la naissance du sens] and as such it tends to suspend or neglect the dimension of force. (…) The main merit of the notion of the machine within the perspective of a theory of subjectivity is that it allows for the articulation of these two dimensions and to make them appear as reciprocal conditions: the force of the machine is the condition of manifestation of meaningful forms, and the meaningful forms are conditions of apparition of the movements of the machine, which are heterogeneous to the register of meaning and which appear precisely as perturbations of meaningful structures (269).

iii). The relation between the personal and sub-personal: We have seen that instead of assuming minimal self as a kind of a priori form that is necessary for any kind of sensorimotor processing or cognition to take place, Kristensen argues that a better viewpoint on minimal self should help to understand how it might itself emerge from dynamic sensorimotor systems and the role of environmental embeddedness in such systems. These two points about emergence and the role of the environment naturally have consequences on how to view the relation between the personal and the sub-personal.

One way of considering the relation between the sub-personal and the personal is to conceive sub-personal sensorimotor processes as a kind of primordial, mute intentionality of the animal body with regard to the world – a Merleau-Pontian ‘I can’. Again, this insistence on the necessity of a primordial kind of subjective structure that is formally present in organic processes of self-regulation and self-production points to a tension with Kristensen’s point of view. Drawing on the work of Guattari and Deleuze, he stresses that the regulatory structures constitutive of the organism are not only constraining, but are themselves also constrained by material processes of individuation. These are morphodynamic, structure-making processes which grow out of intrinsic physical (thermodynamic, chemical) properties of their material elements. Preceding the passage to functional life, which they organize, these structure-making processes form a kind of static life that is intermediary between inorganic reality and functional life properly speaking. This intermediary order between matter and life fully organized is not a property of a self-referential, organic machine (a homeostatic, autopoietic, or organizational whole), but rather of an inorganic machine (an ontogenetic system of individuation).

Kristensen points out that for Guattari and Deleuze as well the organizational closure of psychic systems manifests itself as the emergence of a minimal self, i.e. an ‘I sense’ (129-130). But this minimal self is always secondary with regard to material processes of individuation, which it emerges from. Unlike Varela, Guattari and Deleuze do not consider the organism’s unity to be derived from a particular type of minimal selfhood or internal unity that is essentially intrinsic to it, over and against the mere aggregates encountered in physical nature. What distinguishes them from the Varelian view of the organism as subjectivity is that they posit rather something like an inorganic machine, which ‘processualizes’ subjectivity. It is not minimal self which is the ground of the process of individuation, but rather it is individuation which grounds minimal self.

La Machine sensible makes a convincing case that in postulating the essence of minimal self is an irreducible first-personness, an intentionality or organizational closure, phenomenological viewpoints risk neglecting the material conditions within which minimal self is produced and meaningful interactions between the self and its environment take place. This is probably due to the fact that these approaches seek to refute reductionist approaches to consciousness, which would reduce the latter to its material basis. Although Kristensen shares this non-reductionist Husserlian spirit, he argues the opposite gesture is no less unfortunate as it risks disregarding the matter and keeping the organizational structure, emptied of all “ontic depth” (121). For Kristensen, psychic phenomena such as minimal self must also be conceived of in materialist terms, which means one must understand sub-personal, generative processes also in terms of specific, concrete mechanisms that are applicable to material elements. The challenge here is to define the continuity between the material, the living and the psychic, whilst acknowledging that material elements are ‘a-signifying’, i.e. heterogeneous to the semiotic domain in which the living and psychic create meaning (65-6, 74). This final challenge, then, is what allows Kristensen to inscribe Guattari’s ‘machinic phenomenology’ (80) into the phenomenological program as formulated by the late Merleau-Ponty:

The ultimate task of phenomenology as philosophy of consciousness is to understand its relationship to non-phenomenology. What resists phenomenology within us – natural being, the ‘barbarous’ source Schelling spoke of – cannot remain outside phenomenology and should have its place within it. The philosopher has his shadow, which is not simply the factual absence of future light (Merleau-Ponty 1960: 176).


Maldiney, Henri. 2007. Penser l’homme et la folie. Grenoble: Éditions Jérôme Millon.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1960. Signes. Paris: Les Éditions Gallimard.

Stein, Waltraut J. 1970. ‘De-Animation: The Sense of Becoming Psychotic’, p. 87 in: Straus, Erwin W., and Griffith, Richard M. (eds.). 1970. Aisthesis and Aesthetics. The Fourth Lexington Conference on Pure and Applied Phenomenology. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Zahavi, Dan. 2004. ‘Alterity in Self’, p. 150 in: Gallagher, S., Watson, S. , Brun, Ph. and Romanski, Ph. (eds.). 2004. Ipseity and Alterity. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Rouen: Presses Universitaires de Rouen.

[1] This metaphor of drowning appears in an article by the phenomenologist Waltraut Stein. She writes: ‘Like the drowning man, the schizophrenic continues to struggle with surprising energy. He tries to “learn to swim” to come to terms with his psychosis in some way. Perhaps if he can go along with it for a time it will cease to disturb him so and he can find a way to overcome it, he thinks. But eventually he finds that it is too late and that there is no going along with it. Whatever he does, this power is always against him. Usually he finds that his efforts even increase his sense of being dispossessed’. (Stein, 1970: 99)

[2] In Zahavi’s characterization, the ‘minimal self’ designates the most fundamental sense of subjective ‘mineness’ or ‘first-personal givenness’ that accompanies all of our experiences and functions as a condition for the spatiotemporal structuring of experience. Cf., Dan Zahavi, Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy and Shame. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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
Paperback 68.00 €

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
Hardback $100.00

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
Paperback $27.95

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
Hardback £34.99

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
Paperback £35.99

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
F. Buongiorno, V. Costa, R. Lanfredini

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.)
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.


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.


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).