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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by: Tobias Endres (Technical University of Berlin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(P4) The whole is the truth.

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

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

(C2) Pluralism is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The ‘Motherless’ Age

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

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

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

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

A Feminist Phenomenology of ARTs

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Layout

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

Belu’s Heideggerian Debt

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

Couching “Motherless Age” as a Useful/Critical Resource

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

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

Conclusion:  Interdisciplinary Dialogue/Action is Needed

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lester Embree, Michael D. Barber (Eds.): The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973

The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973 Book Cover The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973
Series in Continental Thought, Vol. 50
Lester Embree, Michael D. Barber (Eds.)
Ohio University Press
Hardcover $110.00

Reviewed by: Justin Humphreys (The University of Pennsylvania)

In his Vienna Lecture of 1935, Edmund Husserl argues that the emergence of philosophy from the surrounding world of the Greeks marks the primal phenomenon of Spiritual Europe, which puts in place the ideal of science as the infinite task of reason. Modern science’s objectification and mathematization of the world at once satisfies this teleological demand of reason and endangers it. For the replacement of the rational, thinking subject with a naturalistic psychology threatens to make senseless the teleology of Europe. Europe’s historic project thus falls into a weariness of spirit, in which faith in reason is lost, and European humanity is brought to a crisis in which irrationalism seems to be the final step of its rational development.

Phenomenology, which begins with Brentano’s discovery of an actual method for grasping the activity of consciousness in constituting the meaning of its objects, plays a fundamental role in the resolution of this paradox. Purified and systematized in Husserl’s own transcendental phenomenology, this method suspends all commitment to objective-naturalistic explanation, and thus offers itself as an absolutely self-sufficient science of spiritual intentionalities. The resultant reorientation of science, in which the role of the constituting intellect can be radically clarified, allows the rationality of the task of knowledge to be regained. Though European rationalism has nearly burnt itself out, constitutive phenomenology offers a new spiritualization of reason, in which Europe’s mission for humanity may rise up like a phoenix from the ashes.[i]

For Husserl, the European identity of phenomenology was not to be understood in terms of geographical or ethnic boundaries but rather in spiritual terms, as the infinite demand of reason. Nevertheless, it is only because of the antecedent constitution of a European spiritual sphere that the peculiar methods and aims of phenomenology have a meaning and motivation. Though phenomenological investigation can be undertaken by non-Europeans, as phenomenologists, these investigators become “Europeanized” in taking up the European spiritual project. The possibility of phenomenological investigation is therefore bound up, at least for Husserl, with the spiritual crisis and progress of Europe. But is phenomenology essentially European, so that descriptive science has meaning only within a living tradition of rational inquiry? In that case, the universalizing tendency of the European scientific interest would rightfully be considered as the endogenous force driving phenomenological investigation. Or, alternatively, is phenomenology only accidentally European, so that reflective analysis as a method of philosophizing was merely codified in the German university but is in principle amenable to non-European interests? If that were so, the particular content of a phenomenological analysis might be given exogenously by a surrounding world that is not essentially European. The historical examination of the phenomenological movement in North America has the potential to clarify how these two seemingly heterogenous pictures of phenomenology – one of the expansion of a European cultural sphere to new lands and persons, the other of the absorption of way of seeing that is enjoyed by diverse subjects who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise – can be reconciled.

Lester Embree and Michael D. Barber’s new volume, The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973 makes the plausible point that development of North American phenomenology depended on the New School for Social Research as a site of transference between two distinct surrounding worlds, the pre-war European university and the post-war American mass culture. The introduction, one of Embree’s final works before his death last year, presents a periodization of American phenomenology in which the New School mediates between the world of the German university and the post-Husserlian global phenomenological movement (2-11). According to Embree, the first stage of American phenomenology, beginning before the outbreak of World War I, and ending with Husserl’s death in 1938, was characterized by a few individual students of philosophy – notably the Harvard students Marvin Farber and Dorion Cairns – introducing Husserl’s “new” (post-1900) thought to the United States. The second, New School stage, marked the creation of a philosophy department in which phenomenology was both a topic of research, especially in the work of the “New School Three” – Alfred Schutz, Aron Gurwitsch, and Cairns – and a central pedagogical concern, educating a generation of American phenomenologists, who are represented in this volume. The later stages, in which American phenomenology turned toward existentialism, then to embodiment, and was ultimately absorbed into so-called “Continental” philosophy are, by Embree’s lights, a bastardization of the constitutive phenomenology that began with Husserl. Whereas constitutive phenomenology was concerned largely with Wissenschaftslehre, the theory of the natural and cultural sciences, these later stages are presented as falling away from the Golden Age tradition, increasingly focusing on merely “anthropological” concerns (5). The absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy, the introduction suggests, threatens to replace the original conception of phenomenology as a project of grounding universal and rational knowledge with personalistic questions about finitude and embodiment. Interestingly, Embree claims that it was he who coined the term “Continental philosophy” in 1978, a designation about which he later became “at least ambivalent.” According to Embree, “Continental philosophy” is like NATO, a mere political alliance of conflicted parties, who are united only in their shared opposition to analytical philosophy (11). In any case, if his periodization is correct, the stage considered in this book marks an important moment of unity in American phenomenology, between the individualistic pursuits of Husserl’s first American students, and the diversity of the post-constitutive phenomenological movement.

The remainder of the introduction provides an admirable discussion of the centrality of the New School in introducing phenomenological approaches not only in philosophy but also in the social sciences, a role that has been unwittingly downplayed in previous histories (18-32). If Embree is right, it seems that the book proposes to investigate an important site of transference between European constitutive phenomenology and post-war American intellectual culture. One hopes, then, for an intensive historical study of American phenomenology that would render valuable insight into phenomenology’s “dual citizenship,” on the one hand as a European descriptive science, and on the other hand as a global philosophical movement. However, in my view, the book does not offer such insight, since it fails to present a philosophically unified picture of phenomenology as it was practiced during the Golden Age, and of the American phenomenological movement that stemmed from that allegedly fertile soil. This failure is due to the fact that both the interests and methods of phenomenological investigations presented in the book are largely unrelated to one another. As a result, the book reads more like a compilation of phenomenologists and their projects than as a unified treatment of the period in question.

The book is split into two sections, the first on the teachers of phenomenology at the New School during the Golden Age, the second on students who graduated from the program under their tutelage. Both sections follow roughly the same format, consisting of a memoir concerning the individual’s time at the New School (or, if the person was deceased at the time of writing, a short biographical section) and a study by that individual.

The first part, on teachers, focuses on six figures – Schutz, Cairns, Marx, Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm. Michael Barber’s description of Schutz at the New School is mainly an epitome of certain sections of his biography of Schutz. Though it contains a number of interesting anecdotes about the period – such as Schutz’s quip that he deserved a sabbatical “every sixtieth year” and Leo Strauss’s dismissal of Schutz as a “philosophically sophisticated sociologist,” it tells little about how the peculiar environment of the New School affected Schutz’s already-formed intellectual outlook. This is followed by a masterful essay in which Barber addresses the question of how a phenomenologically informed theory of social science, which stresses the constitution in consciousness of the objects of inquiry, can allow for unintended consequences of actions, such as are required in “invisible hand” explanations in economics. Drawing on Schutz’s work on Goethe, Barber argues convincingly that the Schutzian should regard the spontaneous orders cited in such explanations as not being “brutely there” in the world of economic action but rather as “correlates of the conscious activity of the economist” (50). Far from insisting that unintended consequences not consciously grasped by the individual actors who cause them are covertly in the minds of those actors, Schutz can attribute the spontaneous orders cited in social scientific explanations to the conscious activity of the theorist. The essay by Schutz that follows, a critique of positivism in the social sciences, relates to Barber’s essay insofar as it postulates that the objects of social science – which presumably include those spontaneous orders of concern to Barber – are “constructs of the second degree,” that is, outcomes of the selective activity of the theorist who observes agents acting in their shared social world (65-66).

Embree’s summary of Cairns’ involvement with phenomenology contains some interesting excerpts from unpublished works, especially concerning the latter’s studies in Freiburg in the 1920s. In one anecdote, attending professor Husserl’s office hours, the enthusiastic young American defends the thesis that, strictly speaking, only “perspective appearances” can be seen. Gazing at a box of matches he is holding and turning it in his hand for some time, the professor finally and rather loudly responds, “Ich sehe den Streichholzschachtel.” In four words, Husserl demolishes the theory of sense-data so popular at the time, while Cairns is “startled into recognition of the obvious” (82). However, the following essay, composed in the late 1930s or early 1940s, in which Carins critiques Nazism as a form of “epidemic” irrationalism (97-98), seems unrelated. As interesting as his analysis may be, especially in light of Husserl’s own critique of European irrationalism discussed at the outset of this review, this essay seems to have no bearing at all on phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School over a decade later. Though we have been told that New School phenomenology is to be understood as a continuation of the Husserlian theory of science, that concern seems to be absent from this essay.

The chapter on Werner Marx is arguably even less helpful for understanding the New School stage of phenomenology. Despite Thomas Nenon’s able summary of Marx’s career, the essay included, which intends to reinvigorate Hegel’s notion of the “necessity of philosophy” for the realization of a pluralistic society, seems to have little to do with phenomenology. True – it ends with opposed characterizations of traditional, Aristotelian ontology as fundamentally theological and thus as leading to a teleological conception of philosophy, and the phenomenological conception of Lebenswelt (120-122). But Marx’s reflections are not themselves phenomenological in any recognizable sense. Moreover, the date of the essay is never given, and one wonders what bearing, if any, his views might have had on the development of American phenomenology.

The chapters on Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm are also unmotivated, given the stated purpose of the volume. Zaner’s discussion of Gurwsitch at the New School is, I suppose, interesting enough. But it does not even mention of his adoption of William James – after Gurwitsch’s emigration to the United States – as a seminal, proto-phenomenological figure. This is a shame, because Gurwitsch’s essay on the object of thought is arguably even more influenced by James than by Husserl or Gestalt psychology (see e.g.134-138). Again, though there is much to be said about Gurwitsch’s Jamesian understanding of the object of thought, the entire topic is out of place here: the essay was composed in 1946, long before his tenure at the New School, and has already been reprinted in a widely available edition of Gurwitsch’s essays.[ii] The sections on Mohanty and Seebohm also have little to do with the period in question. Mohanty (150) reports, in his somewhat telegraphic memoir, that he arrived at the New School not long before Gurwitsch’s death in 1973, and no essay by Mohanty is included in the volume. Seebohm taught at the New School from 1980 to 1982 and his essay, on the human sciences, was apparently composed in 2004. Though Seebohm was by all accounts a kind colleague and considerate teacher, he was absent during the Golden Age. One wonders whether he should have been included in the volume at all.

Though it is possible that such anachronistic inclusions might still contribute to our understanding of what made the New School stage of American phenomenology distinctive, one finds nothing in the book itself to justify such a view. The fact that the figures included attended conferences, offered courses, and gave talks on a variety of issues and figures, does not by itself offer any insight into American phenomenology, except by suggesting that the movement (if there was one) was thoroughly integrated into the routines of American academic life. Judging by these diverse contributions, it seems that the teachers at the New School were unified neither in their method nor in their doctrine but were simply rather successful merchants in the post-war American marketplace of ideas.

The second part concerns the students during the Golden Age and has roughly the same format, though I will focus primarily on the essays. The chapter on Maurice Natanson is quite short, consisting of a description of the mentor-student relationship between Schutz and Natanson, and a summary of Natanson’s existential phenomenological work on literature, both by Barber. This misses the opportunity to include unpublished work by Natanson or some of the Schutz-Natanson correspondence, which is cited here but never discussed in detail.

The chapter on Thomas Luckmann is more substantial, including both a memoir and a 1972 essay, the main claim of which is that language could never be exhaustively explained by empirical science, since the presuppositions of the empirical sciences present philosophical problems that must be resolved within language (201). What follows is a somewhat technical but certainly rewarding account of the polythetic constitution of the experience of a speaking other in the face-to-face situation (208). Here, Luckmann’s view seems to be that in linguistic communication, I directly experience an individual “like me,” due to an automatic polythetic constitution of his experience in my own stream of consciousness. In the face-to-face situation, my own stream of consciousness and his stream of consciousness are therefore experienced as “synchronized” durations, though his experience might become thematic for me, when he uses a certain form of expression that keys into a relevance structure that is part of my stock of knowledge at hand.

The chapter on Helmut Wagner consists of two short and encomiastic (we hear, for example, of Wagner’s “selfless desire to bring phenomenology to sociology,” 218) pieces by George Psathas, which nevertheless present Wagner’s fundamental contribution as “synthesizing” the work of Schutz (225). In the course of this treatment, we are told that Wagner left an unfinished philosophical anthropology of the life world (226). An excerpt from this work would have undoubtedly added value to the volume, by showing how Wagner came to understand a fundamental phenomenological idea late in his life. Instead, the reader is offered nothing by Wagner himself.

Fred Kersten’s essay, the longest in the collection, is an extended meditation on the connection between imagination and fiction. Beginning with the work of David Hume and Sir William Hamilton, the essay distinguishes depictive, feigning, and presentative functions of the imagination (232-240). A phenomenological clarification of these aspects of imagining allows one to understand the double sense of imagination as an intentionality that makes present non-presentive objects and as a feigning intentionality (243-244). The essay then turns to a discussion of the epistemology of fiction, focusing on Natanson’s concept of the “disjunctive convergence” of the worlds of imagination and reality. In the activity of reading a novel, for example, one can attend to the feigned world of the fiction only by suspending the real world, in which one nevertheless continues to read. The disjunction between the world of fiction and that of reality thus depends on a convergence between them, which itself is an achievement of feigning consciousness of the reader (256-257). The upshot of this line of thought is the claim that the world disclosed in a work of fiction is autonomous but feigned, such that I can take responsibility for it, but never enter into it, as I do the actual world of everyday life (263).

Richard M. Zaner’s essay focuses on the connection between cognition and embodiment in two cases of “locked-in syndrome,” in which a patient’s mind is left intact while his body is almost completely paralyzed. In the first case, after suffering a massive stroke, M. Bauby is able to perceive normally but unable to control any part of his bodily “husk,” except for his left eyelid (282-283). Zaner focuses on Bauby’s increasing dissociation from the world and resultant sense of grief. This at once shows the close connection between Bauby’s sense of personal identity as being dependent on his embodiment, but also problematizes the connection between mind and body, since his sense of loss is due to his awareness of the increasing separation of his “living” mind from his “dead” body. In the fictional second case, after being bombed in the trenches of World War I, a soldier called Joe is rendered blind, deaf, and dumb, but nevertheless retains the ability to feel touch and to move his head. Long unable to express that he is conscious, Joe’s rhythmic head-tapping is finally recognized as Morse code by a nurse, who responds by tracing letters on his chest that spell out “Merry Christmas” (283-285). Zaner’s concern in this case is to describe the act by which Joe finds himself recognized as a subject. The discussion here turns to Schutz’s contention that the experience of social reality is founded on a second-personal attitude, in which I posit another subject “like me” (290). Though Zaner’s argument is somewhat obscured by a block quote of uncertain origin, in which Max Scheler’s work is compared to that of Schutz (290-291), its central claim is that Schutz’s conception of the second-personal attitude was not wrong but one-sided. Though Schutz was correct in saying that I understand myself as a self by orienting myself to the other, he ignored how the other becomes attuned to me as another self (296). Thus, Joe’s self-recognition is constituted in part by the nurse’s recognition that within his husk of a body, there is a conscious subject, capable of thinking and communication. The upshot is that the theory of intersubjectivity must accommodate not just Schutz’s point that one is oriented in the social world by one’s recognition of other subjects, but also the more radical view that this orientation depends on one’s willingness and ability to be treated as other, the special target of second-personal attitudes.

The following section by Embree continues his criticism in the introduction of American phenomenology’s turn toward scholarship. For Embree, the elevation of scholarship at the expense of investigation, which he calls the “philologization” of phenomenology, is the most important and most deleterious effect of the recent absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy (12). According to this view, the “Continentalization” of phenomenology runs directly counter to the original intentions, not only of Husserl but also of the New School phenomenologists, who extended the research program of constitutive phenomenology to domains never imagined by Husserl, not through scholarship on texts but by what Gurwitsch called “advancing the problems.” Embree continues this critique of the present focus on scholarship in his memoir, claiming that primary research in phenomenology consists of investigation, that is, in the reflective analysis of a certain domain, with scholarship only serving the secondary purpose of clarifying concepts used in such investigations (306-307). Accordingly, Embree’s essay provides a reflective analysis of valuation, focusing especially on the distinction between the noesis of valuing and the noema of the thing-as-valued. Though this descriptive account is undoubtedly of some interest, the finest feature of this chapter is how it exhibits the work of reflective analysis to the reader. Embree’s introductory methodological comments (312-315) are delivered in plain language, such that they could be read by someone with minimal prior exposure to phenomenological texts. Likewise, the analysis itself offers a compelling way into the question of how valuing intentionality is related to willing, believing, and experiencing. This section is perhaps best understood as an invitation to the reader to engage such in reflective analysis, and thus to practice phenomenology itself.

Jorge García-Gómez’s chapter, on Julián Marías’s interpretation of José Ortega y Gasset’s notion of belief, focuses on an interesting distinction between a “true” or genuine belief, and a belief that is true (326-333). The distinction is worth making because, it seems, the possibility of beliefs being true depends in part on the possibility that human beings can authentically undertake responsibilities for our beliefs about the world. This section would have benefitted from the addition of introductory paragraphs connecting it to broader philosophical concerns of commitment and epistemic normativity. However, it appears to be an excerpt from a longer work, in which its role is surely more perspicuous.

Giuseppina C. Moneta’s “notes on the origin of the historical in the phenomenology of perception” is a kind of reflective analysis of historical perception. Following Piranesi, who would “let the ruins speak” to him, this essay takes the ruins of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Villa Adriana, located at the outskirts of Rome, as its theme (340). According to the view developed by Moneta in the course of this investigation, historical “seeing” is constituted by a complex interplay of the complementary but not fully integrated appearing and non-appearing aspects of a built environment (343). Though her analysis is suggestive, it would have been strengthened by more description, both of the architectural site itself and of the constitution of that site as meaningful, instead of relying as it does on quotes from the great men of phenomenology, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

Osborne Wiggins’s essay argues that Natanson is to be understood as a philosopher of freedom, for whom existential experience marks a break from the typified, social world (364). This essay is very convincing and clarifies at least one respect in which constitutive and existential phenomenology are complementary rather than dissonant. However, it would have fit much better into the section on Natanson, in which his existential turn is one of the central issues.

William McKenna’s final chapter argues that the adoption of a concept of relative truth would help experts in conflict resolution bring opposed parties to “agree to disagree” (378). McKenna’s essay is thus mostly concerned to spell out a concept of “lifeworld truth” that avoids the consequence of “subjective idealism” but allows for multiple, correct interpretations of a single reality, through a reactivation of Husserl’s concept of evidence (381-382). According to McKenna, the same statement (such as “these mountains are holy”) may be true for one cultural group while being neither true nor false for another group, since the qualities necessary for reaching such a judgment are simply not available in the latter’s lifeworld (384). This is an interesting proposal but is a peculiar interpretation of Husserl’s notion of evidence. Surely Husserl’s conception of evidence was intended to clarify the foundation of the sciences, rather than to relativize the concept of truth. Though it is plausible that it could be put to other uses, it seems that this would require further argument than is given here.

The book ends there, without a conclusion, leaving at least this reader confused. What is this volume is meant to do? Is it primarily an historical work about phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School for Social Research from 1954 to 1973? If so, it fails to shed light on what phenomenological investigation looked like during that period: hardly any of the essays are from the era in question, and most of them are not reflective analyses. Is it a collection of thematic essays illustrating a particular style of phenomenology? In that case, how are the essays connected with one another? The broad collection of topics – economics, value, architecture, and truth, inter alia – ensures that whatever else may be at stake, no single theme ties them together. Or is the book an encomium, publicly honoring a generation of American phenomenologists? In that case, we should expect essays on a wide variety of topics, written as continuations of the work of Golden Age phenomenologists. Yet even here, the book provides few uniting features either methodologically or in terms of the figures cited. Though it focuses almost exclusively on Western European writers, the figures mentioned are so diverse in attitude and interest, it is hard to detect any unifying purpose in their work. What has Hume to do with Piranesi, or Hegel with Ortega y Gasset? The absence of any suggestion of an answer within the book leads one to the conclusion that, although nearly all the essays are of interest individually, some offering masterful treatments of difficult topics, there is apparently no inner logic to the book itself.

The promise of the book, to elucidate a Golden Age in American phenomenology, is a noble one. In failing to deliver on it, the book both misses the opportunity to shed light on an allegedly important moment in the history of phenomenology and shirks the task of clarifying the relation between the descriptive attitude of phenomenological analysis, the authority of phenomenology as a science, and its status as the product of a European spiritual sphere. Consequently, the reader is not put in a place to reconcile the two competing images, one of the world phenomenological movement as the expansion of European culture beyond its continental limits, the other of the absorption of a way of seeing by diverse practitioners who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise. Is it possible that the various anecdotes about and citations of the teachers at the New School do not cover over some more basic problem with the book’s conceptualization of American phenomenology? The nostalgia of the volume makes one wonder whether the Golden Age itself, rather than being a real movement or distinctive era in phenomenology, is nothing more than the myth of a more innocent and progressive post-war America. Perhaps what the New School phenomenologists offered as gold and diamonds, turned out to be no more than copper and glass.

[i] Carr, D. [Ed.] 1970. Edmund Husserl: The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 276, 298-299.

[ii] Gurwitsch, A. 1966. Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Rafael Winkler (Ed.): Phenomenology and Naturalism

Phenomenology and Naturalism Book Cover Phenomenology and Naturalism
Rafael Winkler (Ed.)
Hardback £115.00

Reviewed by: Andrei Simionescu-Panait (Romanian Society for Phenomenology)

Phenomenology and Naturalism is a collection of original philosophical essays dealing with the complicated relationship between various strands of naturalism and Husserlian-oriented phenomenology. These essays were delivered in their inceptive form at the 2014 Johannesburg conference on the same topic. There are two types of texts here. One analyzes the relation between phenomenology and naturalistic positions. Some defend phenomenology. Texts by Dan Zahavi, David Papineau, David Cerbone and Jack Reynolds fit this description. The rest showcase some philosopher’s hidden phenomenologies or focus on correlated topics. Benedict Smith, John Sallis, Paul Patton and Bernhard Weiss fit this bill.

The volume is edited by Raphael Winkler. He introduces readers to a contemporary frame dominated by two opposing forces. On the one side, there are Anglo-American philosophers that justify the concept of nature with mathematical instruments, or by importing results from physics and biology. The main characteristics are precision and a broad focus on thinghood. On the other side, there are European philosophers that build on materialism and phenomenology. Their arguments rely on nuance and depth. The tension between these two philosophical orientations competing towards a new and innovative concept of nature takes the limelight in Phenomenology and Naturalism.

Dan Zahavi’s essay opens this volume with a defense of phenomenology against speculative realism. This direction has recently gained popularity and has attacked Husserlian phenomenology in various ways. Zahavi takes a stand in this context and shows that the problem in naturalizing phenomenology arises from naturalism’s commitment to some form of metaphysical realism. These philosophies support the idea that consciousness is a mere object in the world. Speculative realism enters the scene as the latest supporter of this idea. Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier and Tom Sparrow all reject the Kantian Revolution and its correlationism; they all reject the idea that subjectivity and objectivity cannot be understood apart from each other. Harman wants to bypass Kantianism by proposing equality in all relations. For him, consciousness must not be prioritized. Meillassoux attacks Kantianism from a different angle: he thinks the scientific statements are not taken at face value (Meillassoux 2008, 17) and correlationism is to blame for this. If they would, then the mathematical sciences will again have enough of a commanding appearance to describe the in itself and touch on what Meillassoux calls the ancestral. Another speculative realist—Brassier—stands at the nihilistic opposite of what Meillassoux hopes to find. Unlike an interest for the thing in itself, Brassier proposes the concept of extinction. “Philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction.” (Brassier 2007, 239) Last, Sparrow rejects Kantianism and phenomenology because they never delivered what they promised, namely “a wholehearted endorsement of realism.” (Sparrow 2014, xi)

Dan Zahavi identifies three main issues in what speculative realists try to argue. First, he considers that their account of phenomenology is superficial. Classical texts in phenomenology are highly misinterpreted by speculative realists. Zahavi then shows how philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty or Husserl hold views that are opposite to or different from what speculative realists think they are. Last, speculative realists lack novelty (p. 19). All encountered criticism was already raised in the last century by philosophers arriving from the analytic tradition, by empirical researchers or even by other phenomenologists. Zahavi’s text leaves us to wonder whether speculative realism is now able to deliver a counter-criticism or not.

David Papineau shifts focus on representationalism. He argues against the idea that sensory experience is representational and proposes his own phenomenological version of representationalism. He identifies two motivations for representationalism—cognitive science and phenomenologically inspired introspection—and claims that these two are often interconnected in representationalist writers. He is interested in focusing only on the second motivation because he explicitly takes the first for granted.

Papineau first argues that the concept of representation is broad. Representational broadness occurs when two intrinsically identical subjects have corresponding mental states with different representational contents (p. 41). On the one hand, intrinsic aspects of subjectivity are rigidly connected to mental states. On the other hand, both subjectivity and mental states are loosely connected to representational contents. Because of having a dual appearance of precision and flexibility, representation-driven arguments can be used for both sides of the story: similar individuals can view the world in the same way (same mental states and similar representations), or they can view the world in a different way (same mental states and different representations). Papineau admits that this is problematic because representation ends up as either an overdefined or an underdefined concept.

Then Papineau proposes his own version of representationalism. He forwards an analogy between typographical properties of a text and its representational content: the former are contingent to the latter. In a similar fashion, consciousness is related to representational content. The benefit of such a move, Papineau says, is that it eliminates the broadness problem. On the other hand, his phenomenologically-inspired representationalist account separates properties as part of experience from thing properties. For instance, it separates perceived redness from redness in itself. Papineau’s account almost becomes a case of phenomenological realism akin to those of the first wave of Husserl pupils from the Logical Investigations era. Unlike Husserl, Papineau denies that sensory experiences are intentional (p. 57). Papineau ends his paper with a discussion on whether his non-relationist account is worth pursuing against the double background of representationalist arguments and intuitions about consciousness.

Cerbone argues that the opposition between phenomenology and Quinean naturalism is not obvious, because naturalism’s rejection of transcendental philosophy places naturalism in a similar position. Cerbone calls this position an exile. Such an exile is prompted by the phenomenological reduction because it places the phenomenologist in a position that transcends results offered by the natural sciences. This exile is facilitated by Husserl’s distinction between phenomena and objects, between what is immanent to consciousness and what is foreign to it (p. 86). It is a transcendental exile. This contrasts with the Quinean “exile from within” that characterizes naturalized epistemology. Against Husserl, naturalized epistemology denies that fundamental epistemological questions are outside natural attitude. On the contrary, they lie at the heart of evident facts. When attempting to explain visual perception, a naturalized epistemologist would most likely make use of scientific data and try to build up a picture of how some processes work, despite those processes transcending experiential evidence (e.g. I do not see photons as such). Cerbone criticizes this position by saying that, if there are no specific data to be taken into account, the distinction between true and false belief would collapse. Such an epistemology would thus fail to explain how knowledge is possible in general.

Cerbone concludes his article with an exposition of his alternative that aims to create a phenomenology without epistemology. He relies on Merleau-Ponty. Both Quine and Husserl are committed to the idea of objective thought; both philosophers are engaged in a reconstructive effort and both are aware of two directions, explaining the subjective with objective instruments and vice versa. Merleau-Ponty rejects this design and insists that reality must be described, not constructed. Phenomenologists should not pretend they discover a constituting power within the depths of consciousness (p. 93). The focus on description would allow the phenomenologist, on Merleau-Ponty’s account, to avoid exile and remain in the homeland of thoughts, the human world.

Reynolds writes about the compatibility between a minimal phenomenology and the ontology in naturalism. His account of a minimal phenomenology is not compatible with scientific naturalism. Reynolds’ first claim is that transcendental phenomenology’s autonomy regarding the natural sciences is insufficiently justified. His second claim is that a neutral scientific method discarding the first-person perspective is also an insufficiently justified idea. Reynolds hopes to find a middle solution between these two problems. He admits this is hard to achieve because Husserl’s principle of principles, which states that every intuition is a legitimate source of cognition, flies in the face of empirical science and its way of investigating nature. The separation between transcendental phenomenology and science prohibits the former to be able to learn from the latter. A sort of quarantine (an exile) is self-imposed by rigorous phenomenology. Reynolds reminds us that even Zahavi and Gallagher, who generally work towards a truce between phenomenology and science, will proceed and distinguish between transcendental phenomenology and phenomenological psychology. The first will remain intact, Husserlian, proper; the latter will safely mingle with naturalism. Reynolds thinks otherwise.

He devises a three-pronged argument: the first is historical and appeals to authority, the second deconstructs the phenomenological quarantine, and the third shows the downsides of the present separation. Merleau-Ponty’s idea that the phenomenological reduction is by definition incomplete opens Reynolds’ main move: to deconstruct the purity of method that phenomenology promotes. He asks himself whether phenomenology can accept itself without its presuppositionless character. He argues that phenomenology should appreciate the ground that the natural attitude provides for phenomenological endeavors. Then, Reynolds says that transcendental arguments use a category of first-person experiences, such as shame, to spell out the conditions for that category to arise altogether. But if pathological cases deny the original phenomenological account, then the phenomenologist should be prepared to revise. Transcendental phenomenology does not benefit from resting on itself only. Reynolds thus proposes a minimal phenomenology that abandons the transcendental self-sufficiency (p. 118). This minimal phenomenology appears to be compatible with a liberal naturalism. It rejects scientific naturalism but respects the findings and methods of science. Such a compromise on sides highlight that phenomenology and naturalism actually need each other (p. 125).

Zahavi, Papineau, Cerbone and Reynolds have defended or adapted phenomenology in relation to naturalism. The other four texts proceed differently. They unearth phenomenological ideas from well-known philosophers. Or, they use some of the concepts pertaining to the phenomenology vs. naturalism debate for proving something else.

Benedict Smith shows that Hume’s concept of science of man is closer to phenomenology than it is to naturalism. Hume’s interpersonal aspect of experience is a fundamental and irreducible element of his science of man. Smith argues that the interpersonal concept can be linked to the Husserlian concept of intersubjectivity. Hume further claims that he can rely on the only solid ground he has: experience. Therefore, Hume’s aspiration is not to formulate a disenchanted version of the world, as if he were a metaphysician whose worldview is conclusive. Instead, he looks for essences in interpersonal experience.

In the second part of the chapter, Smith illustrates Todes’ reading of Hume. Todes thinks that Hume is a disembodied visualist philosopher when thinking about human experience, because he dissects experience into instances. Smith defends the phenomenological Hume by saying that Todes primarily views Hume as a skeptic who has metaphysical aspirations. This appears to be a straw man for Smith. Let’s have an example. Phenomenologists usually criticize metaphysicians by default. Todes takes himself to be a phenomenologist. Therefore, Todes criticizes a metaphysical Hume he forges with his own reading. This strategy is shared by Smith. Nevertheless, Smith works in opposition to Todes. Smith’s overall position promotes a David Hume without metaphysical commitments and defends a study of human nature that relies on a continuous input from human experience.

Patton’s text explores the reasons why Deleuze’s philosophy is incompatible with scientific naturalism. He focuses on Deleuze’s concept of pure event and shows that it is more inclined to work in a more pluralist –so to say, a more philosophical—naturalistic frame. Patton traces Deleuze’s position all the way back to Lucretius’ philosophy and to Epicurean naturalism. Their main trait, according to Deleuze and his Nietzschean reading, is to banish negativity from investigations pertaining to Nature and grasp the affirmation that dwells at its heart (Deleuze 1990, 279). This idea is reflected in Deleuze’s pragmatic conception about what philosophy is: the invention of concepts. The concept of doing is more important to Deleuze that the concept of givenness. Yet, philosophy is a special kind of doing. While science produces mathematical or propositional functions, philosophy deals with the production of concepts. Both are affirmative, yet they take different paths of affirmation: the role of concepts is to describe pure, non-empirical events. Deleuze’s position, Patton claims, is reinforced by the concept of pure event which relies on the distinction between being and becoming. Philosophy, in Deleuze’s signature naturalism, is conceived as a process, a becoming, rather than substance or being. As process, philosophy should address pure events that are either finished or envisioned and conceptualize their core meaning. This idea paves the way for Deleuze’s naturalist ethics. Action should be coherent with the succession of events that leads to it. The will to coherent action takes form as the philosophical activity of concept production. Patton’s conclusion suggests that Deleuze’s conception about philosophy is complementary to science.

John Sallis reviews the most important philosophers that have supported the call of returning to nature. He begins with Chrysippus’ idea that choice should be exercised in accordance with nature. This includes the choice of seeing nature as an end and not only as a means. This idea infiltrates Rousseau’s project about the original nature of man: the state of nature. Rousseau promotes the return to nature because this return enriches any theoretical description of the initial conditions that led to human civilization. Rousseau’s project is genealogical. Kant’s transcendental project, on the other hand, is concerned with the conditions that lie in the cognizing subject. Kant’s own return to nature, Sallis explains, takes the form of contemplating the beauty of natural things and provokes an attunement to moral feelings. The Kantian return to nature is not methodological or epistemological, but related to moral subjectivity. Thoreau fully embraces this connection between nature and morality and underlines its existential character. He supports the idea that one should practice a life surrounded by nature because the confrontation with nature is the primary way of knowing oneself. Nietzsche expands on this by promoting the concept of life-affirming values. The most important sensibility a human can develop is a sensibility for nature. The will to power is a will to harvest one’s own inclination towards nature. Sallis’ text ultimately suggests that the philosophical problem about the concept of nature transcends the phenomenology-naturalism debate.

Weiss’ text is connected to the book’s topic because of using the concept of representation. He starts by distinguishing between two facets of belief. Belief is a reaction to evidence; but beliefs represent the world. One facet is directed from the world to the subject. The other proceeds in reverse. The former is called the Threshold view, while the latter the Representational view. They are opposites. Weiss argues for the Representationalist view because it defuses what Weiss refers to as the Preface Paradox. The Preface Paradox is that even though a person has a set of beliefs, not all facts can be believed to the same of degree of intensity and still maintain Logical Coherence. In light of this, the advantage of Representationalism over Thresholdism is that Representationalism endorses Logical Coherence, while Thresholdism does not. The Thresholdist resolves the Paradox by saying that it depends on the threshold of beliefs that is taken into consideration, so the paradox does not necessarily appear. Weiss criticizes this position by saying that levels of credence shaped by thresholds are too broad. The introduction of levels of credence does not develop any visible relation to coherence. Thus, any level of coherence can claim to be coherent by default. Thresholdists can always argue that coherence exists because of threshold’s design. Weiss argues for the existence of three ways to deal with the Paradox without becoming a Thresholdist: (1) is to find fault in the inferential steps that lead to the paradox, (2) is to absolve the subject from committing to one of the sentences that leads to the paradox and (3) is to accept a paradoxical appearance of an otherwise plausible situation. Weiss goes for (3). He supports Representationalism via Logical Coherence by thinking that the Preface Paradox is not actually a Paradox from the viewpoint of its relation to Coherence.

The volume is an important step for the discussion about adapting phenomenology to naturalism, or vice-versa. It joins another Phenomenology and Naturalism (2013) volume that was edited by Havi Carel and Darian Meacham. The book should be of interest to anyone who studies embodiment, the philosophical aspects of empirical science, but also to phenomenologists and epistemologists. The book’s strongest point arrives from the novelty its texts bring; the weakest, a partially disparate character. The volume now provokes discussions about the irreconcilable relation between Husserlian phenomenology and scientific naturalism. The problem in bringing transcendental philosophy and empiricism together does not appear to have a convincing resolution in some compromise-driven middle ground between the two.


Brassier, R. (2007). Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, Palgrave Macmillan.

Deleuze, G. (1990). The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, (ed.) Constantin Boundas, New York: Columbia University Press.

Harman, G. (2005). Guerilla Metaphysics: phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Chicago: Open Court.

Meillassoux, Q. (2008). After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, London: Continuum.

Sparrow, T. (2014). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Saulius Geniusas (Ed.): Stretching the Limits of Productive Imagination: Studies in Kantianism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

Stretching the Limits of Productive Imagination: Studies in Kantianism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics Book Cover Stretching the Limits of Productive Imagination: Studies in Kantianism, Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Social Imaginaries
Saulius Geniusas (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95

Reviewed by: Roger W. H. Savage (University of California)

In his introduction to this timely volume, Saulius Geniusas underscores the diverse ways in which the essays collected in this book address the concept of the productive imagination. By asking what this concept entails, Geniusas outlines the reach of the contributors’ various investigations into the history of this concept, the role of productive imagination in social and political life, and the various forms that it takes. Geniusas astutely points out that the meaning and significance of the productive imagination cannot be confined to the philosophical framework or frameworks in which it was conceived. Moreover, as Geniusas and several contributors points out, the power that Kant identified with the art of intuiting a unity of manifold sensible impressions was for Kant secreted away in the soul. As the faculty of synthesis, the workings of the productive imagination prove to be elusive, as the essays in this volume attest. While Kant was not the first philosopher to employ the concept of productive imagination (Geniusas explains that Wolff and Baumgarten had taken up this concept in their work), the central philosophical importance he accorded it vests the concept of the productive imagination with its transcendental significance. In his introduction, Geniusas accordingly provides an instructive summary of Kant’s conceptualization of the productive imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason and in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

Kant’s treatment of the productive imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment is the staging ground for post-Kantian engagements. Geniusas remarks that the transcendental function Kant identifies with imagination in the first Critique leads him to draw a distinction between the productive imagination as an empirical faculty and the imagination as the a priori condition for producing schemata of sensible concepts. Geniusas’s review of the role of the schema provides the reader with an introduction to Kant’s philosophical enterprise. According to Geniusas, Kant “identifies productive imagination as the power than enables consciousness to subsume intuition under the concept the understanding” (ix) by engendering schemata of substance or of a cause, for example. From this standpoint, experience is possible due to this act of subsumption. Hence, one could “qualify productive imagination as the power that shapes the field of phenomenality” (ix).

Conversely, the account Kant provides in the third Critique places the accent on the productive imagination’s creative function. Whereas in the first Critique the power of imagination is operative in subsuming an intuitive manifold under the categorical structure of a universal, in the third Critique the direction of subsumption is reversed. Hence, in aesthetic judgment the power of imagination is operative in the way that the individual case summons its rule.[1] Conceptualizing the “experience of beauty as a feeling of pleasure that arises due to imagination’s capacity to display the harmonious interplay between reason and sensibility” (ix), as Kant does on Geniusas’ account, underscores the difference between determinative and reflective judgment. Geniusas here identifies the productive imagination’s conceptualization with its medial function within the framework of Kant’s philosophy. Furthermore, this medial function is at once both reconciliatory and procreative. By generating the schemata that provide images for concepts as in the first Critique, or by creating symbols that harmonize sensible appearances and the understanding as in the third Critique, the productive imagination “reconciles the antagonisms between different faculties by rendering the intuitive manifold fit for experience” (ix). Geniusas can therefore say that for Kant, the productive imagination acquires its transcendental significance by reason of the fact that this faculty of synthesis is the condition for the possibility of all phenomenal experience.

The several difficulties and drawbacks of Kant’s conception of the productive imagination that Geniusas subsequently identifies sets the tone for several of the chapters in this book. First, the concept of productive imagination as Kant employs it “appears [to be] too thin” (x) to accommodate post-Kantian philosophies in which the productive imagination figures. Second, one could object that Kant’s use of the term “productive imagination” in his various writings, including the first and third Critiques, differs in significant ways. Third, most post-Kantian thinkeoers, Geniusas emphasizes, do not subscribe to the ostensible dualisms of sensibility and understanding, phenomena and noumena, nature and freedom, and theoretical and practical reason that pervade Kant’s philosophical system. Post-Kantian philosophies, Geniusas therefore stresses, seek to capitalize on the productive imagination’s constitutive function while purifying it of its reconciliatory one. As such, the volume’s success in engaging with the Kantian concept of productive imagination while attending to this concept’s history in relation to the different philosophical frameworks in which it figures rests in part on the ways in which the contributing authors situate their analyses in relation to the broader themes set out in the editor’s introduction.

Günter Zöller’s study of the transcendental function of the productive imagination in Kant’s philosophy highlights the parallel treatment of reason and the understanding with regard to the imagination’s schematizing power. Charged with bridging the gap between sensibility and the understanding, the faculty of imagination assumes this transcendental function in order to account for the production of images that constitute cognitive counterparts to the sensible manifold of a priori pure intuitions. Zöller explains that as the source of these images, transcendental schemata provide the generative rules for placing particular intuitive manifolds under the appropriate concepts. As such, these transcendental schemata evince the extraordinary power of the productive imagination. The imagination’s medial role vis-à-vis sensibility and reason is no less extraordinary. Zöller subsequently emphasizes that Kant introduces the term “symbol” in order to differentiate between “a schema, as constitutively correlated with a category of the understanding, and its counterpart, essentially linked to an idea of reason” (13). Zöller concludes by remarking on the analogical significance of the natural order for the moral order in Kant’s practical philosophy. On Zöller’s account, a twin symbolism either “informed by the mechanism constitute of modern natures sciences … [or] shaped by the organicism of [the then] contemporary emerging biology” (16) thus give rise to different conceptions of political life in which normative distinctions between rival forms of governance take hold.

By emphasizing the formative-generative role of the imagination as Wilhelm Dilthey conceives it, Eric S. Nelson situates Dilthey’s revision of Kant’s critical paradigm in the broader context of Dilthey’s “postmetaphysical reconstruction” (26) of it. For Nelson, “Dilthey’s reliance on and elucidation of dynamic structural wholes of relations that constitute a nexus (Zusammenhang) is both a transformation of and an alternative to classical transcendental philosophy and philosophical idealism that relies on constitution through the subject” (26). Reconceived as historically emergent, structurally integral wholes, transcendental conditions that for Kant were given a priori are eschewed in favor of the primacy of experience conditioned by the relational nexuses of these dynamically emergent wholes. Since it “operates within an intersubjective nexus rather than produce it from out of itself” (28), the imagination is productive in that it generates images, types, and forms of experience that can be re-created in the process of understanding. Nelson here cites Dilthey: “all understanding involves a re-creation in my psyche …. [that is to be located] in an imaginative process (cited 32-33). According to Nelson, for Dilthey the imagination’s formative-generative role plays a seminal part in enacting a historically situated reason and in orienting the feeling of life rooted in specific socio-historical conditions and contexts. While Dilthey rejected aestheticism, poetry and art for him are nevertheless “closest to and most expressive of the self-presentation of life in its texture, fulness, and complexity” (38). Aesthetics consequently provides an exemplary model with regard to the human sciences’ “systematic study of historical expressions of life” (Dilthey, cited 39).

Claudio Majolino’s examination of the phenomenological turn reprises significant moments of the history of the concept of the productive imagination. Starting with Christian Wolf’s definitions of the facultas imaginandi and the facultas fingendi, Majolino follows the course of different philosophical accounts of the imagination’s productive character. Unlike Wolff’s definition, which stresses the imagination’s power to feign objects that in the case of phantasms have never been seen, Kant on Majolino’s account replaces the “idea of ‘producing perceptions of sensible absent things’ … with that of ‘intuiting even without the presence of the object’” (50). Kant’s insistence on the productive imagination’s a priori synthetic power consequently opens the door to a Heideggerian strand of phenomenology. According to Majolino, the productive imagination manifests its solidarity with the main issue of ontology as the source of the upwelling of truth. The stress Paul Ricoeur places on metaphor’s redescription of the real in light of a heuristic fiction and on fiction’s power to project a world that is unique to the work accentuates the productive imagination’s ontological significance and force in this regard. Ricoeur accordingly illustrates the “first ‘hermeneutical’ way in which PI [productive imagination] turns into a full-fledged phenomenological concept” (61). For Majolino, Husserl’s account of Kant’s concept of productive imagination opens a second way to phenomenology, which following this other path describes the eidetic features of a form of phantasy consciousness that in the case of poetic fictions are free of cognitive constraints. Majolino consequently asks whether the “eidetic possibility of the end of the world” (73), which he credits to the originality of free fantasies that in Husserl’s view mobilize emotions, offers a more fecund alternative to the course inaugurated by Heidegger.

Like Majolino, Quingjie James Wang credits Heidegger with singling out the productive imagination’s original ontological significance. According to Wang, Heidegger identifies two competing theses within Kant’s system: the “duality thesis,” for which the senses and the understanding are the two sources of cognition, and the “triad thesis,” for which an intuitive manifold, this manifold’s synthesis, and this synthesis’s unity are the conditions of possibility of all experience. For this latter thesis, the transcendental schema, which for Kant is the “medium of al synthetic judgments” (Kant, cited 83), constitutes the third term. On Wang’s account, Heidegger endorses the triad thesis by interpreting Kant’s concept of the transcendental power of imitation in terms of a “transcendental schematism, that is, as schematization of pure concepts within a transcendental horizon of temporality” (87). This transcendental schematism precedes, phenomenologically speaking, psychologists’ and anthropologists’ conception of the imagination’s power. Wang remarks that for Heidegger, the transcendental power of imagination is the existential and ontological root from which existence, life, as well as the phenomena amenable to phenomenological inquiry proceed. Wang accordingly concludes by stressing that for Heidegger, the “originality of the pure synthesis, i.e., its letting-spring-forth” (Heidegger, cited 88) reveals itself as the root of the imagination’s transcendental power.

Saulius Geniusas’s engagement with Miki Kiyoshi’s philosophy brings a transcultural dimension to this volume. Miki’s philosophy, Geniusas stresses, is one of productive imagination. Moreover, “[b]y kōsōryoku, Miki understands a power more original than reason, which is constitutive of the sociocultural world” (92). On this view, the productive imagination shapes our world-understanding through generating collective representations, symbols, and forms. Miki’s phenomenology, Geniusas accordingly explains, is Hegelian and Husserlian. Furthermore, for Miki, “imagination can only be understood within the standpoint of action” (94). Hence, only from this standpoint can one thematize the productive imagination’s transformative power. Contra Ricoeur, whose goal, Geniusas maintains, is to develop a typology of forms of the productive imagination, Miki aims to “ground productive imagination in the basic experience from which productive imagination as such arises” (96). According to Miki, the logic of action, which is equivalent to the logic of imagination, is rooted in group psychology. Geniusas remarks that Miki’s insistence that the logic of imagination differs from the logic of the intellect is difficult to understand. Accordingly, Geniusas’s account of the way that collective representations, symbols, and forms both shape our understandings and experiences and refashion the given order of existence ties the logic of productive imagination to the real’s formation, reformation, and transformation. For Geniusas, a “philosophy that grants primacy to imagination over reason and sensibility provides a viable alternative to rationalism and empiricism and a much more compelling account of the Japanese … 1940s than any rationalist or empiricist position could ever generate” (104-105). For such a philosophy, the notion that imagination plays a seminal role in the constitution of historical, socio-cultural worlds would seem to open the door to a further consideration of the nexus of reason and imagination vis-à-vis the initiatives historical actors take in response to the exigencies and demands of the situations in which they find themselves.

In order to attend to everyday experiences, Kathleen Lennon adopts the idea that imagination is operative in images that give shape and form to the world. By rejecting the concept derived from Hume that images are faint copies of sensory perceptions, she espouses a broader conception that she initially relates to Kant. Similar to several other authors in this volume, she remarks how Kant credits the synthesis of a manifold apprehended in a single intuition to the productive imagination. As such, she identifies the work of the productive imagination with the activity of schematizing this synthetic operation. Lennon stresses the relation between schema and image by citing Kant: “imagination has to bring the manifold of intuition in the form of an image” (115). From this standpoint, the activity of “seeing as,” which she points out has been emphasized by several writers including P. F. Strawson and Ludwig Wittgenstein, draws its force from the way that the image schematizes the unity drawn from a manifold of sensations. At the same time, for her, the “picture of a noumenal subject confronting a noumenal world” (118) in Kant’s second Critique haunts his account of the imagination. Unlike Kant, who Lennon maintains tied both reproductive and productive imagination to perception, Jean-Paul Sartre bifurcates perception and imagination. According to Lennon, on this account the act of imagining for Sartre evinces the ground of our freedom through negating the real. In contrast, Maurice Merleau-Ponty “introduces the terms visible and invisible” (120) in place of the distinctions drawn by Sartre between presence and absence, being and nothingness, and the imaginary and the real. Rather than impose a conceptual form on intuited matter, Lennon says that for Merleau-Ponty the synthesizing activity of the imagination is the “taking up or grasping of shape in the world we encounter” (123) as it emerges in relation to our bodies. Lennon rightly maintains that feelings are felt on things as they manifest themselves to us.[2] For her, that both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty view the “imaginary as providing us with the affective depth of the experienced world” (125) is therefore constitutive of the ways that we respond to it.

The subversive power that Annabelle Dufourcq attributes to the field of the imaginary for her calls into question the pattern of the world based on a synthetic activity “concealed in the depth of the human soul” (Kant, cited 129). In her view, both Gaston Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty recognize the imaginary’s capacity both to distort the real and to render it in striking ways. Dufourcq accordingly searches out the ontological roots of the productive imagination in order to understand how, in contrast to the “arbitrary activity of a subjective faculty called my imagination” (130), the being of things makes images and fantasies possible. Following Husserl, who she maintains “rejects the idea that imagination is first and foremost a human faculty” (131), she adopts the notion that fantasies provide a more accurate model for thinking about images than do pictures. Unlike perceptions, in the case of fantasy, an imaginary world competes with the real in a way that it might even be said to supplant it. Hence for Dufourcq, reality itself become problematic in light of fantasy’s power to unseat the set of significations adumbrated within a limited perceptual field. Her assertation that “Cezanne’s paintings are integral part of the reality of the Mount Santie-Victorie [as] Merleau-Ponty claims in Eye and Mind” (136) resonates with Ricoeur’s claim that works iconically augment the real.[3] Unlike Ricoeur, for whom the real’s mimetic refiguration of the real brings about an increase in being, Dufourcq maintains that Being lies “in the echo of itself. …. [as] the shimmering that … gives birth to beings” (138). How, she therefore asks, can an ontology of the imaginary escape the nihilism born from the belief that there is no reality beyond the imagery of its representation. In response to the question: “[H]ow can one know what the right action is?” (140), the ethics she espouses assigns a profound meaning to any “symbolic” action the value of which ostensibly will be recognized later by those who follow after.

Kwok-ying Lau’s defense of Sartre ostensibly offers a response to Ricoeur’s critique of the representative illusion and by extension of Ricoeur’s theory of mimesis. For Lau, as a writer of fiction, Sartre could hardly have been ignorant of the imagination’s productive power. Hence according to Lau, for Sartre the creative imagination’s essential condition consists in its capacity to produce the irreality of an image posited as the “nonexistence of an object” (152) presentified by it. Conceived as “nothingness,” the irreality of the imagined object is for Sartre an ontological category won through the imagination’s nihilating act. By insisting that fiction for Ricoeur is ontic, Lau overlooks Ricoeur’s insight into how a work’s mimetic refiguration of the real brings about an increase in being. Following Sartre, Lau instead insists that the production of image-fictions takes place in “a void, a nowhere” (153) outside or beyond the real without the need to refer to any existent things. The act of “irrealizing” the real is undoubtedly attributable to the productive imagination’s subversive force. Yet, one could ask whether by giving a “phenomenological and ontological explication of the absolute status of consciousness, whose freedom allows it to express and operate as … the constitutive origin of the world of reality” (153), Sartre in Lau’s reading of him supplants the model of the image-picture and the attendant metaphysics of presence with an aestheticizing idealization of the “[m]imesis of the imaginary” (159) that preserves intact the Platonic theory of imitation while seemingly reversing its direction.

The relation between reason and imagination figures prominently in Suzi Adams’s reflections on Cornelius Castoriadas’s theory of the radical imaginary. Adams stresses that for Castoriadas, the “radical imaginary is a dimension of society” (163). Like Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadas regards phenomenology as a means of interrogating the interplay between history, social formations, and creative impulse that, as the “‘other’ of reason in modernity” (167), unsettles philosophy. At the same time, unlike Merleau-Ponty, Castoriadas embraces the radicality of the social imaginary as instituting the particular set of significations that constitute the real. Adams emphasizes that for Castoriadas, the real is irreducible to functionalist determinations, since any functionalist approach to society “already presupposes the activity of the imaginary element” (171). Accordingly, Castoriadas sets out a tripartite structure in which functional, symbolic, and imaginary aspects of social institutions operate together. Overturning the long-received distinction between the imaginary and the real in this way brings to the fore the radical imaginary’s significance vis-à-vis the networks of symbolic significations that constitute reality for a particular society. For Castoriadas, “the imaginary institution of the real” (176) thus takes shape as a “new form created by the socio-historical out of nothing” (177)—that is, as a creatio ex nihilo that is irreducible to any prior antecedents. Adams remarks the Castoriadas’s turn to ontology and his “radicalization of creation to ex nihilo meant that he could no longer account for the world relation of ‘the meaning of meaning’” (161). From this standpoint, Castoriadas’s contribution to our understanding of the social imaginary opens an avenue for exploring the relation between the productive imagination, the rational, and the real.

Richard Kearney’s attention to the difference between phenomenological accounts that regard imagination as a special mode of vision and Paul Ricoeur’s turn to language underscores the ineluctable role of imagination in the production of meaning. Most philosophies of imagination, Kearney remarks, have failed to develop a hermeneutical account of the creation of meaning in language. Ricoeur’s tensive theory of metaphor redresses this failure by highlighting how a new meaning is drawn from the literal ruins of an initial semantic impertinence. The semantic innovation that in the case of metaphor leads to seeing a peace process as on the ropes, for example, owes its power to disclose aspects of reality that were previously hidden to the power of imagination. Kearney accordingly stresses that imagination is operative in the “act of responding to a demand for new meaning” (190) through suspending ordinary references in order to reveal new ways of inhering in the world. Kearney subsequently sets out Ricoeur’s treatments of the symbolic, oneiric, poetic, and utopian modalities of the imagination. The power of the imagination to open the “theater of one’s liberty, as a horizon of hope” (189) bears out the specifically human capacity to surpass the real from within. Kearney points out that “without the backward look a culture is deprived of its memory, without the forward look it is deprived of its dreams” (202). The dialectical rapprochement between imagination and reason made possible by a critical hermeneutics is thus a further staging ground for a philosophical reflection on the imagination’s operative role in the response to the demand for meaning, reason, and truth.

The two chapters that conclude this volume explore how the concept of productive imagination might apply to nonlinguistic thought and imaginary kinesthetic experiences. By claiming that scenic phantasma (which he equates with “social imaginary”) play out fantasies concerning complex social problems, Dieter Lohmar ostensibly extends the role played by the imagination to regions in which the symbolism at work subtends or supersedes language-based thinking. On Lohamr’s view, scenic phantasma draw their force from nonlinguistic systems of symbolic representations that he maintains are operative in human experience. At the same time, the narrative elements that he insists inhere in scenic phantasma vest the “series of scenic images” (207) that he likens to short and condensed video clips with an evaluative texture. According to Lohmar, “it is nearly impossible to represent the high complexity of social situations by means of language alone” (208). For him, the recourse to scenic phantasma offers a nonlinguistic alternative for representing these complex situations in an intuitive way. Weaving series of scenic representations together into a “kind of ‘story’” (209) redresses the apparently insurmountable problem of conceptualizing adequately real-life situations and calculating accurately the probabilities of possible outcomes. Scenic presentations of one’s attitudes and behavior in response to a personal or social problem or crisis thus supposedly provides a more reliable basis for judging the situation and making a decision as to how to act than linguistically mediated accounts of events. Lohmar insists that “[o]nly in the currency of feeling are we able to ‘calculate’” (212) possible outcomes through appraising competing factors in order to arrive at a decision. For him, this “‘calculation’ in the emotional dimension” (210) thus provides a greater surety with regard to one’s motives and convictions than propositional abstractions.

The theory of kinesthetic imagination that Gediminas Karoblis advances extends the concept of productive imagination to the corporeal reality of bodily movement. According to Karoblis, Ricoeur voids the corporeal moment of kinesthetic movement by ridding the imagination of the spell of the body in order to account for the productive imagination’s transformative power.[4] In Karoblis’s view, Ricoeur insistence on fiction’s capacity to place the real in suspense accords with the idea that the “kinesthetic sphere in principle pulls us back to reality” (232). Similar to Lohmar, Karoblis sets kinesthetic phantasy against the linguistic domain. For him, contemporary virtual and augmented realities are as much phantasy worlds as are the worlds projected by narrative fictions. Kinesthetic phantasy, he therefore maintains, involves a phantasy body that is “positively imagined as free” (234) as, for example, in the case of flying. According to Lohmar, positing bodily movement as quasi-movement, as though the act of flying was physically enacted, fulfills the “necessary requirement of the irreality and the freedom applicable to any imagination’ (233). We might wonder whether a future in which kinesthetic experiences manipulated by designers of fully immersive computer games will be one that supplants fiction’s mimetic refiguration of the practical field of our everyday experiences. Conversely, the kinesthetic imagination’s role in figuring nonnarrative dance, for example, evinces its productive force through revealing the grace and power of bodies in motion.

The essays in this volume thus not only explore the enigmas and challenges posed by Kant’s conceptualization of the productive imagination, but they also broaden the scope of inquiries into the imagination’s operative role in various dimensions of our experiences. The sundry directions taken by post-Kantian critiques and appropriations of the concept of productive imagination is a testament both to this concept’s fecundity and to its continuing currency in contemporary philosophical thought. Furthermore, the degree to which the authors in this volume draw upon, and in some ways are inspired by, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Castoriadas, and Ricoeur bear out the extent to which the work of these authors adds to, and augments, the history of this concept. We should therefore also recognize how, in these essays, philosophical imagination is at work. For, every question, difficulty, or challenge calling for an innovative response sets the imagination to work. Genius, Kant maintains, “is the talent … that gives the rule to art.”[5] Correlatively, he insists that the products of genius must be exemplary. Phronesis, which according to Aristotle is a virtue that cannot be taught, has a corollary analogue in the power by reason of which of social and historical agents intervene in the course of the world’s affairs. The essays collected in this volume are indicative of the productive imagination’s ineluctable significance. As such, this volume broadens the scope of philosophical deliberations on the often highly-contested terrain of a concept the operative value of which is seemingly beyond dispute.

[1] See Paul Ricoeur, The Just, trans. David Pellauer (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000). Ricoeur explains that by allowing for a “split within the idea of subsumption” (95), Kant reverses the direction of a determinative judgment, which consists in placing the particular case under a universal. Consequently, in aesthetic judgment, the individual case expresses the rule by exemplifying it.

[2] See Paul Ricoeur, Fallible Man, trans. Charles A. Kelbley (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986). Ricoeur emphasizes that is definitely intentional, in that a feeling is always a feeling of “something.” At the same time, feeling’s strange intentionality inheres in the way that the one hand, feeling “designates qualities felt on things, on persons, on the world, and on the other hand [it] manifests and reveals the way in which the self is inwardly affected” (84).

[3] Paul Ricoeur, A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, ed. Mario J. Valdés (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 130-133; Paul Ricoeur, François Azouvi, and Marc de Launay, Critique and Conviction: Conversations with François Azouvi and Marc de Launay, trans. Kathleen Blamey (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 179.

[4] Cf. Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature: The Voluntary and the Involuntary, trans. Erazim V. Kohák (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966).

[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1987), 174.

Marklen E. Konurbaev: Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech

Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech Book Cover Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech
Marklen E. Konurbaev
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 96,29 €
XX, 234

Reviewed by: Michael S. Dauber (St. John’s University School of Law)


Marklen E. Konurbaev’s new book, Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech provides a rich phenomenological account of speech in its varied forms. The book not only focuses on the phenomenology of the speech act itself, but addresses what it is like to hear, read, compose, process, understand, and respond to speech. This review will provide a summary of Konurbaev’s account and rhetorical style. The first section provides a general overview of Konurbaev’s overall account. The second section addresses the phenomenology of creating (i.e. composing and performing) speech. The third section examines the phenomenology of receiving (i.e. hearing or reading) speech, including the mental processes we perform to internalize and understand speech. In the fourth section, I examine Konurbaev’s rhetorical style, both in terms of the structure and elements of his argument and with regard to the material he chooses not to include in his book. This section also proposes a brief critique of Konurbaev’s account and methodology, although the main substance of his account is strong and will remain unchallenged in this article. While portions of the book pay special attention to specific parts of speech (i.e. different kinds of terms and the relationships between them), I will primarily focus on Konurbaev’s account of speech as a phenomenon as we encounter it in speaking, listening, and reading.

I. A Brief Overview of Konurbaev’s Account

Before fully exploring Konurbaev’s book, it is crucial to define the scope of his account and the terms with which he explores speech. Konurbaev speaks often of “life” (ihya) and “awakening.” He is primarily interested in the ways in which speech prompts us to create vivid visual representations in our minds and prompts us to engage with the world and individuals around. “Life,” then, does not refer to anything biological, although it certainly depends on a biological organism to produce it. Rather, Konurbaev uses “life” to refer to the living, changing mental concepts and representations in our minds when hearing, creating, performing, or understanding speech. He writes that “’Life’ … is a phenomenon that is largely dependent on the speech agent’s ability to build in his or her mind a dynamic, evolving and balanced reflection of interrelated objects caused by the act of linguistic communication…” (Marklen E. Konurbaev, Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech, 5)[1]. “Awakening” is the process by which speech stimulates this mental life, the process by which the listener builds “a dynamic, evolving and balanced reflection” of the life in the speaker’s mind.

Two other concepts are vital to understanding Konurbaev’s account: foregrounding and backgrounding. Foregrounding essentially consists of the concepts at the focus of our attention, the material with which we are primarily concerned, while backgrounding consists of the concepts, emotions, and other material through which we interpret and analyze the concepts in the foreground. Konurbaev writes:

In the highly changing world of speech perception where the weight and value of every linguistic element in speech may change several times, the mental vision of life strongly depends on the ‘ratio’ of the span between the currently prominent elements and those that remain in the dark, in the perspective. As we move on during speech comprehension, this proportion should certainly change. But the twilight area, or the proportion of the positive and negative prominence should always remain stable. If it does not, the representation of the reality becomes ‘lopsided’ in a sense that the element that was bright and perceptually strong a page or a minute ago cannot possibly retain this condition in the new linguistic circumstances. This variation of phenomenological objects in speech gives them the volume that is so necessary for their natural human perception. (63-64)

Decoding speech thus requires balance between the “prominent elements” (the terms and concepts that are the focus of the message) and the background concepts and perspectives through which the message is interpreted.

With these concepts in mind, the central claim of his book is that “every act of communication should be a phenomenological act in a sense that it causes the experience of life awakening in the minds of readers or listeners. A phenomenon then is neither the sun when it rises, or the moon when it appears, or the stars scattered in heaven, or the clouds after the rain—but the dynamic mental representation of the reality caused by the act of speech” (x). Konurbaev is primarily interested in the first-person experience of life awakening and of interacting with speech phenomena. Readers should thus not be surprised when they primarily encounter examples from literature or personal anecdotes from the author rather than hard biological material. I return to this point in section IV.

How best to summarize Konurbaev’s account? The clearest explanation is that Konurbaev sees speech as a dynamic process in which we internalize and integrate information and concepts as part of our mental life; when we wish to stimulate life awakening in others, we engage in a process of searching and composing the proper terms to recreate our own mental life in the mind of the person receiving our speech, responding to the visual and verbal cues they provide to alter our speech accordingly. We receive a speaker’s words and construct tentative mental representations of their ideas, transforming those images as more information becomes available. When speaking, we gauge whether or not the receiver understands the message; if they do not, we seek new ways of conveying the message.

II. The Phenomenology of Creating Speech

Although Konurbaev spends most of the book exploring the phenomenology of linguistic interpretation and the ways messages generate life in the mind of recipients, he also provides a rich phenomenology of speech creation. The goal of speech is to stimulate life in the mind of the receiver. Speech, then, “is a representation of its author’s thoughts, ideas, communicative intentions and emotional states” (31). To do this, speakers employ language, which Konurbaev says “is like a chain of ‘genes’ that are reproducible and recognizable, and yet, susceptible to variation that may or may not introduce a change into a long-established system” (56). Language changes over time just as genetic material evolves across generations, incorporating new elements and discarding outdated and ineffective terms through the series of human speech interactions. In crafting speech, “Every user of language invariably checks the elements available to him or her in the process of communication and decides whether their potential is strong enough to express the desired meaning or attitude” (Ibid).

Crafting a message requires both a consideration of the potential meanings of terms and of the background context through which the message will be interpreted. Speakers must be aware of the receiver’s frame of reference and the cultural assumptions he or she may hold to understand the range of possible interpretations he or she may form, and thus select the words, emotions, and rhetorical style that will best stimulate the life the speaker wishes to create. Speakers produce their messages by gathering previously used concepts and speech interactions and anticipating the ways receivers may interpret the message.

Speech is not just about conveying concepts and information the way textbooks do, however. Speakers aim to produce emotions, to persuade, to win approval, to convey feelings and experiences in the minds of receivers. The ultimate goal is to produce “faith, which is an authentic representation of reality in speech, a synthesis, an effect of a moving life, of ‘living’ through a new experience, which is mental and yet real, ample and organic, mixed with the person’s past experience—a phenomenon of sustainable movement and change” (115). To do so, speakers must use terms and a rhetorical style “that would evoke the complete scenes of life in the reader’s or the listener’s mind as quickly as possible” (123).

Konurbaev writes that speakers compose messages essentially by taking a “general vision” (Topos) and compiles words to convey that vision to the receiver, “[returning]… as many times as possible to add all the features discovered during the communication act to its overall vision as life” (148). This involves “drafting” a vision of the topology, breaking the concepts up into parts, forming bonds between the elements of the Topos, and then selecting terms and phrases that capture these elements (149-150). This process is subsequently mirrored in the perception of speech, as receivers analyze the bonds and interpret the message through the hermeneutic circle and compose their own Topos.

III. The Phenomenology of Receiving Speech

The process of receiving and internalizing speech occurs in many stages. In his introduction, Konurbaev writes that “we decode the linguistic message at least eight times” (7). First, we decode speech syntactically, analyzing the structure of the message. Second, we examine the message for “logical integrity with fact” (Ibid). Third, receivers examine the message for its expressive meaning in terms of foregrounded material. Fourth, receivers begin to analyze the overall meaning, to hypothesize about the life the speaker wishes to prompt in the receiver. Fifth, we begin to use emotional cues to integrate background concepts and memories to deepen our understanding. Sixth, receivers predict or anticipate the overall direction of the remainder of the message and subsequently use this information to inform the seventh step of correcting the draft mental representations produced in the first five steps. Finally, “the eight level of the genesis of life in speech permeates and encapsulates all the previous ones through mental audition, the chief function of which is to support one of the main constituents of life balance and hierarchy of the key reference points of speech” (Ibid).

Crucially, each of these processes occurs within the wider context of backgrounding and foregrounding, and of the background assumptions and beliefs we hold about the world and of each other. Assumptions and other conceptual elements in the background become lenses through which we interpret the speaker’s message; elements of the message jump into focus, into the foreground or spotlight of our attention, while others drift to the background to help construe the foreground elements properly. Konurbaev writes that the interpretation of speech involves both historical and predictive elements (25-26), calling to mind the Heideggerian emphasis on gathering the historical and present facts about oneself and projecting them into the future to assess one’s possibilities (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927)). In the same vein, receivers gather background assumptions, historical events, and knowledge about the speaker and the message to predict the direction that message will take, anticipating the meaning and adapting one’s mental representations of the message accordingly.

The result of these processes is a world of visual and conceptual representations, of life in the mind of the receiver. Moreover, Konurbaev argues this type of life presents an objective reality, “as real as our material bodily life is, in a sense that it is built on our vision of the whole undivided body of vision, because ontologically only the whole has the potential of sustainable living” (Konurbaev, 38). This world is unstable, however, and relies on the internal consistency of the message elements: “Life is a hierarchical world where every element of reality is deemed real only when its existence is justified by other elements and is not at odds with them” (39). If elements disagree, life collapses and the receiver must begin to construct their mental representations anew. Thankfully, the human mind is adept at handling the processes of creating and sustaining life: Konurbaev acknowledges that we seldom get bogged down in the fine nuances of everyday messages, and life is capable of rapidly “regenerating” itself in the face of errors and new information (40-41).

But how do our minds successfully interpret messages and construct life from concepts? Konurbaev lays out what he calls the String Theory of Foregrounding. The basic concept of the theory is that “A string is a mental association drawn between the words in the context of speech. Once the correlation is established, the reader draws the mental map of relative prominence of words and their relationship to each other in representing the subject of the text” (65). Readers scan the text for elements to bring to into focus (into the foreground) and then connect conceptual strings of meanings to form “shapes” of larger concepts and meanings. Konurbaev calls the places at which strings (meanings) intersect and converge “impact zones,” areas in which the meaning of the message is strongest (68).

There are several kinds of conceptual strings involved in producing life. Structural strings, composed of the syntactical elements of the message, connect the conceptual elements of the message to each other, conveying the relationships between the terms. Semantic strings pertain to the meaning and flavor of the concepts and terms in the message. Epistemic strings contribute to the formation of knowledge, and “rely on the preliminary vision of the whole [message]” (77). Attitudinal strings seek to invoke “feelings and judgments ranging between acceptance and rejection” (92). Although we must possess all of the strings to weave the full meaning of the message together, Konurbaev observes that the mind generates life before the message is complete, and receivers must continuously alter their mental images as more information becomes available.

Konurbaev writes that “Speech perception is unthinkable without empathy and Dasein” (152), pointing to the idea that receivers must understand the lived experience and life situation of the speaker, predicting those elements that may not appear in the words of the message itself. Just as Dasein incorporates one’s previous lived history, context, and the facts about one’s existence in projecting one’s possibilities into the future, the phenomenology of speech involves careful consideration of one’s life experience, “general worldview, erudition, level of education, emotionality and linguistic proficiency” (156). Speakers and recipients essentially make observations, recall previous observations, make generalizations based on “the realities of our lives,” and project this information into the future, forming mental representations of messages and observations “and their influence on the course of our lives” (160).

IV. Konurbaev’s Rhetorical Style

Konurbaev’s book explores speech in vivid terms. While the basic concepts could be conveyed in a comparatively dry, brief style, Konurbaev employs examples from literature to demonstrate the ways readers or receivers of speech explore messages for meaning, building complex and rich strings of concepts as they proceed and more information becomes available. He uses examples ranging from the book of Isaiah in the Bible (5-11) to a parable written by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (15-16), from Søren Kierkegaard (23) to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (52). Konurbaev also uses rich language to produce an artistic phenomenology of speech, using metaphors and similes to describe the true flavor and experience of speech. Describing the phenomenon of conveying an idea to others, he writes:

‘I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known; and I spake and made myself known to the multitudes and they harkened unto the manner of my speech and then unto the matter thereof; and then spake in return and while beholding how I felt about their speech they knew me, and I, in beholding their reaction unto what I ere said—knew them; and, finally, I began to know myself through the contemplation of these people’s reaction unto my words and, alas, gained but little satisfaction in this pursuit, but am still struggling in good earnest to understand if I actually live and have the enthralling vigour of life in my veins or have already evaporated into the thin air of ephemeral illusions of the multitude.’ (1-2)

As mentioned in section III above, Konurbaev uses the imagery of strings and canvasses to artfully describe the ways our minds construct visual representations and meanings from perceived speech. His artistic language and varied examples makes for a flavorful, lively read.

For all of the things Konurbaev’s book does well, there are two critical points to be made about his rhetorical style. The first concerns the materials he includes and the materials he ignores. The book does not provide any true biological account of the ways our brains process messages and speech. Granted, Konurbaev clearly states that his book is meant to present a phenomenological account of the lived experience of speech, not a biological or neurological account of how we process and create speech. However, he spends considerable time focusing on what he claims are thought processes that occur in our brains, and on page 164 provides a graphic representation of a brain carved up by sections corresponding to different neurological functions. While the graphic is suited to the purpose and context of the passage, readers may often catch themselves wondering how much of Konurbaev’s account is based in actual observation, in actual scientific data. Moreover, even if Konurbaev’s account is completely accurate, the book would only benefit from a brief chapter or several sections detailing the biological side of speech. Philosophy is concerned with completion, with grasping all aspects of a phenomenon, and the book would only be stronger by including that material.

Further, Konurbaev only truly addresses the biological in the beginning of Chapter Seven, “Organon of Life as a Phenomenon of Speech,” where he writes that “The biological aspect [of speech] has little or no effect on the quality of life as we, people, see it and live by—as humans, not merely as one of the members of the animal kingdom” (169). He divides life (i.e. the mental representations involved in speech) into Life(p), life as a mental phenomenon and lived experience, and Life(b), the biological processes and senses on which we base Life(p) (170). There are two rhetorical issues with this section. First, it simply seems false that the biological aspects of speech have little effect on mental life, given that the lived experience of speech and interpretation supervene on the proper functioning of biological processes. Second, the distinction between Life(p) and Life(b) is crucial to parsing Konurbaev’s account in the proper context. Up to that point in my reading I often wondered why he hadn’t addressed the role of biology in his account, and many readers may have the same experience. Konurbaev’s account would be best served by including this material earlier in the book and simply recalling it as needed in Chapter 7, rather than waiting to introduce it until the later stages of the work.

A second point of criticism concerns the order in which Konurbaev discusses his ideas. He does not address the whole of a concept or factor of speech in one location in the book; he does not proceed sequentially from what it is like to create speech to what it is like to receive and decode that speech, for example, but rather meanders through topics as the chapters progress. The result is that one only fully grasps the phenomenology of the various components of speech by the end of the book, but not very clearly throughout, making it difficult to anticipate where the account is heading. This actually resembles Konurbaev’s central claims about speech interpretation: receivers construct hypotheses and mental representations of the message and continuously revise and incorporate new information as it becomes available, only reaching true understanding once the whole message has been delivered. Similarly, speech is a complex phenomenon that Konurbaev’s readers may only fully grasp by the end of the book. Whether or not the metaphor is intentional, it would be easier for readers if Konurbaev organized his book around the individual parts of speech as a phenomenon (i.e. creating speech, receiving speech, speech parts, etc.) rather than drifting between topics.

V. Conclusion

Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech provides a compelling, broad phenomenological account that captures all of the varied aspects of speech as a lived phenomenon. The book is well-suited for anyone interested in the philosophy of speech or in phenomenology in general, and is an excellent contribution to the field.


Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (SUNY University Press, 2010). Originally published in 1927.

Marklen E. Konurbaev. Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all references are taken from Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech by Marklen E. Konurbaev (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).