R.D. Ingthorsson: McTaggart’s Paradox

McTaggart's Paradox Book Cover McTaggart's Paradox
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
R.D. Ingthorsson
Hardback £115.00

Reviewed by: Kristie Miller (The University of Sydney)

Revisiting McTaggart

Few articles in the recent history of philosophy have yielded as large, and confusing, a literature as has McTaggart’s 1908 the Unreality of Time. Whatever one thinks of the status of the argument contained in that paper—what has became known as McTaggart’s Paradox—there is no denying that it, and the distinctions McTaggart introduces in that paper, have shaped the philosophy of time in many and deep ways. Each of us working in the philosophy of time locates ourselves by appealing to McTaggart’s terminology of the A, B and C series, and by noting the ways in which we agree (and disagree) with McTaggart. Indeed, frequently philosophers’ preferred view in the philosophy of time is heavily influenced by the way they see McTaggart’s Paradox. Had McTaggart known what the future held, and had he, perchance, needed to complete an ‘Impact Statement’ for some kind of quality assessment metric, we can safely say his score would have been excellent. (Fortunately for McTaggart, he died before he ever had to turn his attention to Impact Statements). All of this makes Ingthorsson’s book length treatment of McTaggart’s Paradox in McTaggart’s Paradox, a valuable addition to the literature.

What makes the book of particular interest is that it carefully contextualises McTaggart’s arguments in his 1908 paper in terms of his overall metaphysical picture laid out in his two companion monographs The Nature of Existence I (1921) and The Nature of Existence II (1927). Ingthorsson’s book is a careful explication of McTaggart’s Paradox in the context of McTaggart’s broader metaphysical commitments. Indeed, Ingthorsson compellingly argues that failing to see the argument in these terms can, and has, led to various confusions. One of the many merits of the book is that not only does it present and interpret the argument in context, but, in so doing, provides an account of why the argument has been so very controversial, and why it remains so today. Ingthorsson argues that one of the primary causes of disagreement and confusion have been competing misinterpretations of the argument that have arisen due to viewing it as an entirely stand-alone argument that can be understood and evaluated in isolation from McTaggart’s broader commitments. Whether contemporary philosophers of time share those broader commitments or not, it is valuable to set the argument within the broader context and to see how various interpretations (or misinterpretations) of, and responses to, the argument, sit within that context. To that end, this is an important contribution.

The book is also valuable because it offers an historical overview of the various strands of responses to McTaggart’s Paradox. Ingthorsson carefully shows where contemporary responses have historical precursors, and what those are. That makes it an interesting piece in the history of philosophy. More than that, though, the book does a commendable job of categorizing the kinds of responses that have been made to McTaggart’s Paradox over the years. This is no small feat given the wealth of responses that the argument has garnered. It is much to be admired that someone has managed to sift through the various papers as they appeared from 1908 onwards, with a view to articulating and categorising those responses in a useful manner. This allows the reader to ignore the many small differences in approaches and instead focus on the important philosophical similarities between approaches. For anyone who wants to get to grips with the major threads of thought that developed in response to McTaggart, this is an invaluable resource.

While the book’s principal aim, at least as I read it, is to articulate McTaggart’s argument, place it in context, and then consider the ways in which the argument has been interpreted and responded to, the book certainly ought not be thought of as primarily about hermeneutics or history of philosophy.  Ingthorsson has plenty to say, along the way, about where he thinks responses to McTaggart’s Paradox hit the mark, and where he thinks they do not. He also offers a number of positive arguments of his own about what he thinks the argument establishes, and what he does not. These are also valuable additions to the literature. So there is much that is interesting and rewarding about the book—too much to cover in this review. Instead, in what follows I will consider just two of the issues that jumped out at me as I read, and which I thought deserved particular attention.

In reading the book I was particularly interested in its explication of McTaggart’s account of how it is that it comes to appear to us as though there is a temporal dimension—the appearance as of there being a temporally ordered succession. (Here I suppose that successions have a direction, not merely an ordering, and so the appearance is as of there being a temporal ordering that runs from past, to future). Since McTaggart thinks there is no such ordering (no such temporal ordering that is) he incurs the explanatory burden of explaining why it seems to us as though there is. This is a burden that he takes up. McTaggart’s explanation of these seemings are of particular interest in the contemporary context, since the issue of why things seem the way they do to us, temporally speaking, is one that has become pressing over the last few decades. We find contemporary A-theorists arguing that because it appears to us as though there is an A-series—it appears to us as though events occur in a particular ordered succession and that time itself passes—we have reason (albeit defeasible) to suppose that this is the way things are, and that in fact some version of the A-theory is true.[1] Or, put more strongly, such theorists argue that the best explanation for these appearances are that time is indeed this way.  B-theorists, unsurprisingly, have responded in one of two ways. They have either argued that in fact things do not appear to us this way at all[2] (though perhaps we mistakenly believe that things appear to us this way[3], or they have argued that things do indeed seem this way, but them seeming this way is an illusion.[4] The latter have attempted to spell out how it is that we are subject to this illusion, the former have attempted to spell out how it is that we come to have such false beliefs about the way things seem.

In this regard, then, the B-theorist is in something like the same boat in which McTaggart found himself. To be sure, the B-theorist does not need to explain why it seems to us though there are temporal relations despite there not being said relations, since unlike McTaggart B-theorists think that the presence of B-relations in the absence of A-properties is sufficient for the existence of temporal relations. Yet the B-theorist does owe an explanation of why it appears to us as though there is an A-series (or why we falsely believe that it seems to us that way) and in this regard she shares a common explanatory burden with McTaggart. Moreover, in that, the B-theorist is not alone. The C-theorist, who thinks that it is sufficient for the existence of temporal relations that there exist C-relations in the absence of B-relations or A-properties, incurs all the explanatory burdens accruing to the B-theorist, and more still. For the C-theorist must, in addition, explain why it seems to us as though there is a B-series: that is, she must explain not only why there appears to be an ordered temporal sequence, but also, why that ordering appears to have a direction when, according to her, it does not.[5] By contrast, since the B-theorist thinks the temporal ordering has a direction (but does not have any A-theoretic flow) she can explain this appearance as veridical. Finally, some contemporary physicists, in their desire to reconcile quantum mechanics with the general theory of relativity, have defended so-called timeless physical theories, according to which there is not even a C-series ordering of events.[6] These theorists incur all of McTaggart’s explanatory burdens, since they need to explain why it seems to us as though there is a temporal ordering, when, in fact, there is none.

Given the extent to which contemporary theorists incur some, or all, of the explanatory burdens McTaggart incurred, the question of how McTaggart discharges that burden is of considerable interest. This is how Ingthorsson describes McTaggart’s approach:

McTaggart suggests that they [the terms in the C-series] are related in terms of being ‘included in’ and ‘inclusive of’ (S566 of NE). Very briefly, the only way he thinks we can explain the appearance of a series of entities related by the earlier than/later than each other is if we assume that, for any two terms in the series (except the first and last is there is a first and last) the one includes the other. The perception of a mental state that includes another can give rise to the misperception that the included content is a part of the content that includes it, and mutatis mutandis for mental states that are included in another. The relations of included in and inclusive of are asymmetric and transitive and so give a sense of direction, and are meant to be able to give rise to a false sense of change, and that in turn gives rise to a false sense of one term being earlier or later than another. (McTaggart’s Paradox pg 59).

Unsurprisingly, McTaggart appeals to the existence of the C-series, alongside certain features of our mental states, to explain the way things seem. This is important, since in doing so McTaggart appeals to the very same resources the C-theorist takes herself to have. So if his explanation is good (or at least, on the right track) then it is an explanation to which the C-theorist can avail herself. If I understand the proposal correctly, McTaggart’s explanation for the appearance as of succession (and with it, change) looks something like what have become known as retentionalist models of temporal experience. According to such models, roughly speaking, the mental state that obtains at one time can, as part of its content, include content from mental states that obtained at other times. So, in theory at least, mental states can have a nested structure, whereby one, as part of its content, includes the content of another mental state, which, in turn as part of its content, includes another mental state and so on. This complex nested structure is precisely the structure McTaggart supposes mental states to have. One might have attempted to explain this nested content in terms of the relations of earlier/later than, by noting that later mental states include content from earlier mental states (but not vice versa). But the proposal, here, would be to explain the appearance as of there being relations of earlier/later in terms of the nesting of mental states by suggesting that the appearance as of a directed succession is given by the existence of these nested states. In particular, since the relation of inclusion is itself asymmetric and transitive, then if mental states have that nested structure along the C-series ordering, then they are ordered by a relation that has the same formal features as the earlier/later than relation.

Indeed, something like this picture seems to be a precursor of contemporary C-theoretic explanations for the appearance as of temporal direction in terms of, inter alia, asymmetries of memory, knowledge, and deliberation.[7] In fact, something very close to McTaggart’s proposal is to be found in the work of contemporary timeless theorists. Those theorists, of course, do not have recourse to the existence of a C-series as a partial explanation of the way things seem. So they appeal entirely to unordered (temporally unordered, that is) nested mental states to explain why it seems to us as though there is an ordering (the appearance of ordering is, as it were, the product of the nesting) as well as why that ordering appears to have a direction.[8]

The explanation cannot, of course, end there. It might be right that this nested feature of our mental states gives rise to the appearance as of temporal succession where there is none. But there remains the question of why our mental states have this feature at all: why do some mental states include others? Given the rich resource of McTaggart’s thought, it would be of significant interest to pursue the question of what more he has to say about why mental states have these features. Of course, contemporary philosophers of time will typically point, at least in part, to features of increasing entropy to explain why mental states exhibit this ‘nesting asymmetry’; but it would be of interest to investigate McTaggart’s own views on this.

Interestingly, what all this tells us is that the gap between McTaggart and the C-theorist is, in fact, quite slender. McTaggart agrees with the C-theorist that what gives rise to the appearance as of a temporal succession is the existence of the C-series, combined with certain (asymmetric, transitive) relations (i.e. inclusion) that obtain between our mental states. Where they disagree is in whether the C-series, absent any B- or A-series, is properly called temporal or not. And there, of course, we come back to the issue of whether such a series can give rise to ‘genuine’ change. For the reason that McTaggart concludes that the C-series is not temporal is that in the absence of an A-series, there would be no genuine change, and genuine change is necessary for an ordering to be temporal. Thus neither a C-series nor a B-series, absent an A-series, could count as a temporal series. Both B-theorists and C-theorists reject the claim that there can be no genuine change in the absence of an A-series, and Ingthorsson takes up this issue in chapter 7. There, he argues that McTaggart was right in at least the following way: the B-theory is incompatible with genuine change, since genuine change requires enduring objects—objects that are wholly present at each time they exist rather than being merely partly present as are perduring objects—and the B-theory cannot accommodate such objects.

The reason endurantism is suppose to be the only view of persistence that captures genuine change, is that it entails that persisting objects are numerically identical over time, so that one and the same object exists at multiple times, and at those times instantiates different properties. Thus persisting objects endure through changes, rather than change being a matter of persisting objects having parts with different properties at different times (as per perdurantism). The idea that the B-theory is incompatible with endurance, then, is an interesting (and important) claim, and one that it is worth further consideration. For if time does require genuine change, and if genuine change requires endurance, then McTaggart was right all along: if all events, objects, and properties exist (if eternalism is true) then there exists a C-series and perduring objects, but there does not exist any temporal ordering of the objects in the C-series.

Let’s set aside the issue of whether genuine change requires endurance, and whether, if it does, genuine change is, in turn, required for an ordering to be temporal. Instead, let’s just focus on Ingthorsson’s contention that the B-theory is incompatible with endurance.

Ingthorsson argues that endurance requires temporal passage at least in the sense that enduring things have to move from one time, to another. But there is no way for them to do that given the B-theory. Another way to put this is that what it is to be wholly present is to be entirely at one time, and to be nowhen else (that’s why enduring objects move, being first at one time, and later at another). But B-theorists are committed to what Ingthorsson calls the temporal parity thesis—the view that all objects events and properties that ever did, do, or will, exist, exist simpliciter (i.e. co-exist). (The temporal parity thesis is the view that is sometimes known as eternalism). If that thesis is true then enduring things co-exist with themselves at many times. So in what sense are said objects wholly present, given that each of them exists not only at the time in question, but also outside of it. Ingthorsson writes that

…the very idea of an enduring particular, in the sense I initially described it, is as of a three-dimensional thing that exists wholly and exclusively at one time at a time i.e. not multiply located in time any more than a football that crosses the pitch is multiply located at all points of it spatial trajectory. (McTaggart’s Paradox, 102)

The idea is that just as the football sweeps across the field, and is at no time at multiple places on the field (but rather, at each in succession) somehow the same ought be true of enduring objects.

It is worth noting that this argument, if it succeeds, succeeds against views that accept something weaker than the temporal parity thesis. It succeeds against any view that says that there exist a least two times t and t*, such that whatever objects, properties and events exist at t, and whatever objects, properties and events exist at t*, all of those objects, properties and events co-exist (i.e. exist simpliciter). Presentism denies even this weak thesis, but other non B-theoretic views such as the growing block and moving spotlight theories do accept that weaker thesis. If the argument succeeds, then, it shows that every view of temporal ontology is incompatible with endurance (and hence, perhaps, with genuine change and with temporal relations) aside from presentism.[9] That’s because Ingthorsson’s view about what it would take for an object to be wholly present, and hence to endure, requires that said object exists at only one time, and nowhen outside that time. But if any other times exist than the present one, then this would flout that requirement.

To be sure, if being wholly present means being at one time, and nowhere else, then it must be the case that endurance is incompatible with any view but presentism. But ought we think this is so? Of course, in the case of the moving football—what we might call the spatial case—what it is to move through space (very roughly, setting aside issues of relativity) is to exist at different spatial locations at different times. Hence at any one time one will see the football at a single position along its trajectory: we will see it at one place on the field, and at no other. But if one ‘sees’ all times, one will see that object at each location along its trajectory: that is, in fact, what a worldline is, in Minkowski space-time. So one sees a whole set of co-existing three-dimensional objects, each of which is the football at one time. Why should that be puzzling? Why should it show that the football is not, in any good sense, wholly present at each spatial location at which it is located at each time?  What is the sense in which the ball is wholly present at each of those locations, given that, quite clearly, it is present at more than just one location? It is the sense in which at each time, what exists is all of the ball—all of the three-dimensional object that is the ball, as opposed to there existing some three-dimensional object that is a mere part of the ball.

To be sure, what we see when we look at the full four-dimensional representation of the ball’s movement across the field is that the ball fills a four-dimensional region of space-time (namely its four-dimensional trajectory through space-time). But that doesn’t make the ball four-dimensional, since one way of accomplishing this filling of space-time is for the ball to endure, and to fill that region by being wholly located at each of the three-dimensional regions. The ball moves across the field, and it does so by existing at different places at different times, not by existing only at a single time, and by different times themselves existing sequentially.

Ingthorsson is aware of such a view, noting that, many contemporary endurantists (those who think persisting objects endure) think that endurance is compatible with the temporal parity thesis. Such endurantists hold that we should understand what it is to be wholly present in terms of a multi-location thesis spelled out in terms of different location relations that objects bear to regions of spacetime. [10]  To be sure, they say, the enduring ball is located at different times (all of which are equally real) but it endures nonetheless, since it is the very same, numerically identical, three-dimensional ball, that exists at each of those times.

Ingthorsson, however, thinks that such a view falls foul of the problem of temporary intrinsics. Does it? I don’t see why. If the ball is, indeed, multiply located then there is just one ball, located in many places. It doesn’t sweep through time, to be sure, but the entire ball is located at each time, and each such three-dimensional object is one and the same thing. That ball has a single complete set of properties—the properties that completely characterise the ball—which mention how it is at each of those times. One might worry, as Ingthorsson does, that this makes the instantiation of properties into disguised relations to times, since the ball must instantiate properties such as being dirty at one time, and being clean at another (let’s suppose the ball picks up dirt as it traverses the field). But it’s hard to feel the force of this worry, given the picture on offer. If it turns out that objects persist by being multiply located along the temporal axis, then they do so by bearing location relations to each of the three-dimensional regions they occupy. A single persisting ball bears a series of location relations to a series of such regions. But in that case one might expect that at each of such region, the ball will instantiate properties relative to that location. It’s not as if this is an ad hoc proposal borne of the need to reconcile change with Leibniz Law (a la the problem of temporary intrinsics); rather, it seems to be the natural thing to day for someone who endorses this picture. No doubt, however, there is much more to be said here, and McTaggart’s Paradox sews the seeds for such discussion.

Whatever one makes of the arguments, the book is a rich source of argumentation and discussion of a number of core issues in the philosophy of time, and for that reason is well worth a read.


Barbour, J. (1999). The End of Time.  Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Baron, S., Cusbert, J., Farr, M., Kon, M, & Miller, K (2015). Temporal Experience, Temporal Passage and the Cognitive Sciences. Philosophy Compass. 10 (8): 56—571.

Baron, S and K Miller (2015). “What is temporal error theory?” Philosophical Studies. 172 (9): 2427-2444.

Baron, S and K Miller (2014). “Causation in a timeless world”. Synthese. Volume 191, Issue 12, pp 2867-2886 DOI 10.1007/s11229-014-0427-0.

Braddon-Mitchell, D (2013). Against the Illusion Theory of Temporal Phenomenology. CAPE studies in Applied Ethics volume 2  211-233.

Gilmore, C. (2014). “Location and Mereology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/location-mereology/>.

Eagle, A., (2010a). “Perdurance and Location”, in D. Zimmerman, ed., Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, vol. 5, pp. 53–94.

Hoerl, C. (2014). Do we (seem to) perceive passage? Philosophical Explorations, 17, 188–202.

Kutach, D. (2011). The Asymmetry of Influence. In Craig Callender (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Time. Oxford University Press.

Latham, A. J. Holcombe. A. and K Miller (ms). “Temporal Phenomenology: Phenomenological Illusion vs Cognitive Error.”

McTaggart, J. M. E. (1908). The Unreality of Time. Mind, 17(68), 457–474.

McTaggart, J. M. E. (1921). The Nature of Existence Vol 1. Cambridge, CUP.

McTaggart, J. M. E. (1927). The Nature of Existence Vol 2. Cambridge, CUP.

Parsons, J.  (2007). “Theories of Location”, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, vol. 3., pp. 201–232.

Paul, L. A. (2010). Temporal experience. Journal of Philosophy, 107, 333–359.

Price, H. (1996). Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prosser, S. (2012). Why does time seem to pass? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 85, 92–116.

Torrengo, G. (forthcoming). “Feeling the passing of time”. The Journal of Philosophy.

[1] See Baron et al (2015) for an articulation of such arguments.

[2] See for instance Braddon-Mitchell (2013); Hoerl (2014); Torrengo (forthcoming) and Latham et al (ms).

[3] See for instance Latham et al (ms).

[4] See for instance Paul (2010); Prosser (2012).

[5] See for instance Price (1996) as an example of a C-theorist.

[6] See Barbour (1999); for philosophical discussion see Baron and Miller (2014 and 2015).

[7] See for instance Kutach (2011).

[8] See Barbour (1999).

[9] Ingthorsson uses the term ‘A-view’ to pick out presentism exclusively, and uses A/B hybrid to pick out other views that include an A-series, such as the growing block and moving spotlight view which hold that some non-present objects exist.

[10]See Parsons (2007); Gimore (2014) and Eagle (2010).

Daniela Vallega-Neu: Heidegger’s Poietic Writings: From Contributions to Philosophy to The Event, Indiana University Press, 2018

Heidegger's Poietic Writings: From Contributions to Philosophy to The Event Book Cover Heidegger's Poietic Writings: From Contributions to Philosophy to The Event
Studies in Continental Thought
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Indiana University Press
Paperback $39.00

Inga Römer: Das Begehren der reinen praktischen Vernunft: Kants Ethik in phänomenologischer Sicht, Meiner, 2018

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Paradeigmata 36
Inga Römer
Hardcover 78.00 €

Francesco Alfieri, Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann: Martin Heidegger. La vérité sur ses «Cahiers noirs», Gallimard, 2018

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Francesco Alfieri , Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann. Trad. de l'allemand et de l'italien par Pascal David
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Toon Horsten: De pater en de filosoof. De redding van het Husserl-archief, Uitgeverij Vrijdag, 2018

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Toon Horsten
Uitgeverij Vrijdag
Paperback € 22,50

Leonard Lawlor: From Violence to Speaking Out

From Violence to Speaking Out: Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze Book Cover From Violence to Speaking Out: Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze
Leonard Lawlor
Edinburgh University Press
Paperback £19.99

Reviewed by: Lode Lauwaert (Husserl-Archives: Center for Phenomenology and Continental Philosophy, Institute of Philosophy, University of Leuven)

Beyond Technicity: On Violence and Otherness

For two decades — and certainly since the bloody attacks in London, Paris, and Brussels, among others — on the old continent and elsewhere, people have the impression that violence has increased worldwide. Even though leading scientists claim that humankind is constantly improving (life expectancy has increased, environmental awareness ameliorates, etc.), it seems that there is more violence than there was roughly two centuries ago. However, the question is whether this impression is justified or not.

According to some, including linguist Steven Pinker (2012) and historian Ian Morris (2014), it is in fact not the case that violence is on the rise. It may be that we believe ourselves to be living in the cruelest of times, yet that impression lacks solid ground. Moreover, according to both Pinker and Morris, the fact that there is such an impression has everything to do with the fact that there are fewer and fewer acts of violence. It is precisely because our living environment has become safer that we have become more sensitive to everything that relates to violence, whether it actually ‘is’ violence or not. This is what has ultimately led to the misconception that violence is on the rise. Although this explanation seems plausible, it nevertheless raises many (especially methodological) questions. Is it possible, for example, to make scientifically reliable statements on this subject, given that we know that acts of violence are now being recorded more frequently than in the past?

Although there is great disagreement among scientists concerning the question of whether violence has increased or decreased, there is no doubt that the scientific interest in violence has increased considerably in recent years. This is not only the case in disciplines such as history, sociology, and psychology, but also in philosophy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, and specifically since the pioneering work of, among others, Walter Benjamin and Georges Sorel, thinking about violence has a firm footing in philosophy. This increase in the philosophy of violence applies to different domains within philosophy. For example, in analytical philosophy, Robert Audi focuses on analyzing the concept of violence, whereas in normative ethics, thinkers such as Michael Walzer work within the ancient tradition of Just War Theory. And with regards to the tradition of continental philosophy, it is clear that, for example, (post)structuralists reflect upon the relationship between power and violence, and that phenomenologists focus on the experience of violence.

If we zoom in on the phenomenological tradition, we see that violence has also become an important topic there. In this context, we are, of course, thinking primarily of the works by Jacques Derrida and Jan Patočka, but more recent authors within that tradition are also considering this subject matter. Take, for example, the volume The Phenomenologies of Violence (2014) by Michael Staudigl and two studies by James Dodd: Phenomenology and Violence (2009) and Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach (2017). Within this line of thought we must also situate the last study of Leonard Lawlor (Edwin Earle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University): From Violence to Speaking Out. Apocalypse and Expression in Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze, in a beautiful edition published by Edinburgh University Press.

It would come as no surprise if, in the future, this study was to become one of the most influential philosophical contributions on violence. There are several reasons for this: not only because the author’s profound knowledge of the subject is evident, but also because of his original approach. The point of departure of Lawlors’ study are two phenomena that, at first sight, have little to do with each other but which, it is argued, have the same ground structure. The first phenomenon is the contemporary late-modern variant of capitalism, namely neoliberalism. Lawlor argues that neoliberalism is primarily characterised by the fact that all subjects and all objects acquire a kind of value in order to be exchangeable. The author emphasizes not so much the economic logic behind this, but the regime that lies behind that logic: everything is comparable to each other, so everything falls under the name of the One. This logic is not limited to the West alone, however, but spreads to all corners of the world. Capitalism oppresses all local lifestyles and rituals, making them a commodity on the global free market. Today’s capitalism can therefore be described, following Lawlor, as the globalisation of commodification.

The second phenomenon from which the author begins his study is likewise a form of violence that, however, takes place on a more individual level and is always physical. In this category, Lawlor primarily gives the example of hate crimes committed by Einzalgängers, whereby an individual indiscriminately kills passing civilians in a public space, and finally kills himself (in an act of murder-suicide). Of course, the countless (often religiously inspired) suicide attacks in which a perpetrator inflates himself with the aim of killing as many innocent people as possible, also fits into this category. The logic behind these murders is crystal clear, according to Lawlor: anyone who has a different way of thinking from the murderer (usually atheists or other believers) must disappear from the globe. This form of violence is characterised by globalisation. The shootings and suicide attacks do not only occur in the West and North, but also in the East and South; they are furthermore not only carried out in the name of Christianity or Islam, as we know, there are also Jewish or Buddhist inspired terrorist attacks. In short, just as neoliberalism is all-encompassing, physical violence is both total and limitless.

Many scholars believe that there is a causal link between the two phenomena. The physical violence, such as religiously inspired suicide terrorists, is a reaction to the violence of neoliberal capitalism. Moreover, the same scholars also stress that although these two phenomena are causally linked, they differ fundamentally in ontological terms. Lawlor distinguishes himself from these scholars, first of all because he does not make any statements about a possible causal connection. This is actually not particularly surprising, since making such empirically verifiable claims is not the task of the philosopher, but of the social scientist. More importantly (and philosophically more relevant) is that Lawlor argues that the ground structure of both phenomena is clearly the same. Broadly speaking, one can argue that both fall under the primacy of the One, which means that, in both cases, the other is radically ignored, or worse still: destroyed. Or to put it in Heidegger’s jargon (which is virtually absent from Lawlor’s study, although traces of the German philosopher’s ideas can be clearly sensed therein): both neoliberalism and physical violence are the cruel expression of (a platonic-inspired) onto-theology. However, on the other hand and following Lawlor, we must not lose sight of the differences between the two kinds of violence that suppress the other. While capitalism is displacing the other by expressing everything in economic value and thus making it interchangeable, suicide bombers will kill anyone who does not like their dogmatic view of the world.

Both phenomena are referred to by Lawlor, after Derrida’s famous expression, as examples of “the problem of the worst violence”. Before we expand upon this topic, I first reflect on Lawlor’s understanding of globalisation. Globalisation, in its common use, connotes a certain levelling of intercultural differences. The author shares this deeply rooted belief, but never explains why we should accept it. This assumption is striking, not only because it is the starting point of the study, but also, and above all, because it is not at all certain that this claim is as justified as it appears to be. Slavoi Žižek (2004), for example, argues convincingly that globalisation is characterised by the opposite; namely by the opening-up of the Other. But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that Lawlor is correct. In that case, is it justifiable to state, as Lawlor does, that the neoliberal hegemony is nothing other than violence? Indeed, the author believes that the failure to respect the otherness of the other — of the face, to employ Lévinas’ term — also means that violence is done to this other. If Lawlor does not understand ‘violence’ here in a metaphorical sense — and that is something we can take for granted, given the structure of the study — then the author allows the meaning of ‘violence’ in this context to fit in with the etymology of the word. One of the original meanings of the Latin violare was “crossing a moral border”. This assimilation of violence and violation is not further justified by the author. This is also striking, because violence and violation do not necessarily encapsulate each other. For example, it is clear that most but not all forms of violence imply the transgression of a moral border. A building company can destroy a building by means of explosives in order that the construction of a new building may begin in its place. Likewise, it is common in various fight sports to “play hard”, to tackle or kick, for example, a member of the opposite team in order to win. In both cases, we speak of violence without exceeding the limit of what is permissible. Conversely, of course, it is not the case that “violation” means that an act of violence was committed. Lying, for example, is usually interpreted as an act that is morally reprehensible, while we do not typically understand it is a form of violence.

After emphasizing the ontological similarity between neoliberalism and physical violence (shootings, religious terror, etc.), Lawlor makes a new step in his line of argument. With this step, the author addresses the transcendental level, in the Kantian sense of the word. After all, Lawlor aims to explore the conditions of possibility of experience, more specifically, the experience that a subject has of himself and of the way that subject experiences the other. Lawlor explains that the two phenomena mentioned earlier (neoliberalism and physical violence) are both a reaction to the transcendental structure he exposes. This is, at the very least, a surprising statement especially as most researchers look primarily at psychological and socio-economic factors to explain violence. Let us therefore focus on the transcendental part of the study, a part with which the author, who previously published intriguing studies such as The Implication of Immanence and This is not Sufficient, once again demonstrates why he is one of the most prominent scholars in continental philosophy.

The starting point of Lawlor’s transcendental research, about which the author is explicit, coincides with the phenomenological reduction, which breaks down into two steps. First, the scientific attitude, and second, the natural attitude is replaced, meaning that any belief in the existence of the world that exists independently of experience is given up. When all external assumptions are suspended, phenomenology ultimately collides with consciousness; that is to say, we end up with the most fundamental level of auto-affection and internal monologue. More importantly, however — Lawlor clearly indicates that he owes much to countless phenomenological and Bergsonian thinkers — this auto-affection is not absolute. The reason is that it is marked by the movement of time. How should we understand this?

When we state that Lawlor’s study is based on earlier research, we mean that the author is very clearly on the Derridean trail². More specifically, he refers to the ingenious analysis of time consciousness in La Voix et le phénomène from 1967. This earlier study highlights the two following aspects of time consciousnesses: On the one hand, this analysis shows that experience in the present always differs from the past. There is a gap between the present and the past and we clash with alteration. This means, according to Lawlor, that the movement of time can be described as an event (here, Lawlor employs fashionable terminology, it seems, somewhat indiscriminately). Lawlor’s remark about “events” is all the more compelling since his study does not seek any connection with recent work on “the event”, and also because he uses “event” here in a very broad sense: not every alteration has an eventful character. On the other hand, we also know that the present can be remembered and thus be repeated, so that it installs the expectation that the same will also take place in the future. In short, besides difference there is always also repetition, to speak with Deleuze. Or, in the vocabulary of Lévinas (who, incidentally, is as good as absent in Lawlor’s study): the movement of time must be understood in terms of le même and l’autre.

This double structure is the ontological foundation for both the experience that the subject has of himself and for the experience that the same subject has of another person. First, looking at self-experience, we must ask ourselves whether we really hear ourselves talking when we speak to ourselves. According to a long tradition in phenomenological research, we must answer this question negatively, which means that every auto-affect is less pure than one usually assumes and is always hetero-affective. Lawlor endorses these findings, as we read in the following passage (which illustrates the clear and sometimes evocative style of Lawlor): “In other words, we must unlearn how to hear badly, hearing only oneself, and learn to hear better, so that we hear those others inside of us. The essential fact that the sphere of interior life is not strictly my own implies, positively, that there are others within me.” (282) This ambivalence between sameness and otherness also characterizes interpersonal relationships. On the one hand, I am involved in a performance that is inextricably linked to the signifier “man”, which I employ every time I meet a member of the species of man, whereby I immediately recognize living beings that are human beings as such. It is precisely this representation that gives the interpersonal relationship a repetitive character, and thus also ensures continuity. Lacan, with whom Lawlor himself does not enter into discussion, would argue that the relationship with the other has an imaginary meaning in this context, and is the result of an identification with the overall image of the other. On the other hand, the relationship with the other can never be completely homogenised, so that the other never fully merges into the image we have of the other, and so that the other inevitability is permeated by strangeness and otherness. In this context, Lacan would speak of le réel; Lévinas has taken that dimension into account when he talks about the distinction between le visage on the one hand and la face on the other.

The fact that the homogeneity of the other is always partially cancelled by heterogenization is violent, according to Lawlor. More specifically, he refers in this context to ‘transcendental violence’. Once again, we can raise the question that we have already asked (especially because Lawlor himself remains completely silent on this): why, precisely, is the heterogenization of homogeneity a form of violence? Although it may be the case that the abolition of equality is regrettable, it does not necessarily mean that it is violent. There are, in fact, many things that we would prefer to see continue to exist, without describing them as violence. Moreover, Lawlor seems to forget that ‘violence’ is a normative concept. It brings together deeds that may not all appear to be unjustified at second glance (because of utilitarian considerations) but, at the very least, those deeds are prima facie morally wrong because they stem from the intention to inflict harm. However, my question to Lawlor is this: how can we describe a transcendental given (the heterogenization of the homogeneous) as violent given that it inevitably occurs and, more importantly, since such heterogenization does not result from an intention? This transcendental violence, in addition to the two forms of ‘worst violence’, is the third violence that Lawlor distinguishes. Apart from the fact that he never explains why he understands these things as violence, he also never explicitly indicates his definition of transcendental violence, and what exactly the differences and similarities are between the three forms of violence. These lacunae are extremely puzzling for a philosophical book, the title of which suggests that it is primarily about violence.

This critical note to Lawlor, however, does not change the author’s original position in the debate on violence, especially in the philosophical debate. The central thesis of his book is that both forms of violence must be understood as reactive phenomena, a position that runs counter to the thinking of a number of prominent thinkers. Freud, for example, in his writings on war and violence (think of the famous correspondence with Einstein, published as “Why war?”) argues that the propensity for violence is in human nature, which means that it regularly comes to the surface and must then be satisfied. Such a view, which can also be found in Georges Bataille, among others, is interesting because violence is understood as the expression of a force, and therefore as an active fact. Lawlor goes against this by claiming that the violence to which he refers is rather an answer to another prior fact. More specifically, he defends the proposition that the two forms of violence are a reaction to fundamental violence. Or better formulated: both forms of violence are a reaction to the inability to deal with transcendental violence, more specifically the fact that the self-experience and experience of the other person are not only a matter of repetition and togetherness, but also of difference and otherness. However, Lawlor rightly emphasises that we must not lose sight of the differences in the way in which both forms of violence specifically deal with this inability. For example, if we look first at the hate crimes and religious terror, according to Lawlor, this is based on the fact that the subject’s identity has always been marked by differences. Terror, understood here as the radical destruction of any radical other thing, is an attempt to destroy the other person who has always been part of me. Second, if we focus on the violence of neoliberalism, on the other hand, we see that this violence is trying to reduce the other’s ‘differentness’, to homogenise the other. In Lacan’s vocabulary: neoliberalism brings the other into the register of the imaginary.

That Lawlor understands violence as a reactive phenomenon implies that his study is less distant from other non-philosophical studies on the same subject than might be expected. Indeed, the author claims that the violence is a consequence of the subject’s inability to deal with the fundamental element of difference. This means that Lawlor tries to understand violence from a causative, and therefore scientific, point of view: the inability is the cause of the violence because without it there would be no violence. The formal structure of this reasoning is identical to what researchers in scientific disciplines such as psychology, sociology or anthropology claim: X (think of a mental disorder or socio-economic situation) is the cause of violence because without X there, would be no violence. Moreover, can we not speak of a similarity in terms of content? For while the inability does have to do with a transcendental given, that inability is of course a psychological fact, so that Lawlor is not at all far away from, for example, psychologists who claim that certain forms of violence are related to an unprocessed past or a somewhat untenable mental situation. For these similarities alone, it is quite striking that Lawlor makes no reference in his study to other scientific research on violence.

Yet even if the author had made such references, the reader could nonetheless raise at least two interrelated questions. First, what exactly is the gap in the existing debate that Lawlor wants to fill with his study? Secondly, and more importantly, it is not clear why precisely the statement proposed by Lawlor is plausible. Although he may claim that the violence, namely the homogenisation of the other, is a reaction to the inability to deal with the other, nowhere is there any detailed argument as to why we should adopt this explanation. For the author, it seems sufficient that there is a similarity between the two facts (physical violence and neoliberalism on the one hand, and transcendental violence, on the other hand) to conclude that there is also a causal connection. This is not enough, however, because there are many things that chronologically follow each other, without a causal connection.

If, however, Lawlor’s thesis proves to be true, it is not at all surprising that a particular solution is linked to the problem of violence. If violence does indeed intend to deal with difference, then Lawlor’s cognitive solution could signal a shift in philosophical thought since his is a solution that indicates a paradigmatic shift in a Kuhnian sense (with the help, according to Lawlor, of Deleuze, Foucault, and Derrida). Lawlor explains: “If we want to reduce the impulses that drive the hate criminal, the suicide bombers and the hegemony of the economic genre, we need a new way of thinking, or, more precisely, a new way of writing and speaking.” (3) This solution, which one could say can be formulated in Heideggerian terms as ‘a thinking beyond technicity’, sounds particularly attractive. But, as mentioned above, the effectiveness depends entirely on the accuracy of the explanation behind it. As a reader, it is precisely at this point that we are simultaneously slightly disappointed and yet still looking forward to Lawlors’ new study; perhaps even more so, since it is quite possible that the validity of the author’s thesis may well emerge in that new book, which, as outlined in the book’s introduction, will be about peace.


Derrida, Jacques (1967). La voix et le phénomène. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Dodd, James (2009). Phenomenology and Violence. New York; Routledge.

Dood, James (2017). Phenomenological Reflections on Violence. A Skeptical Approach. New York: Routledge.

Morris, Ian (2014). War! What Is Is Good For?. London: Profile Books.

Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking.

Staudigl, Michael (Ed.) (2014). The Phenomenologies of Violence. Leiden: Brill.

Žižek, Slavoj (2004). Plaidoyer en faveur de l’intolérance. Paris: Climats.

Raffaele Pisano, Joseph Agassi, Daria Drozdova (Eds.): Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science: Homage to Alexandre Koyré 1892-1964, Springer, 2018

Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science: Homage to Alexandre Koyré 1892-1964 Book Cover Hypotheses and Perspectives in the History and Philosophy of Science: Homage to Alexandre Koyré 1892-1964
Raffaele Pisano, Joseph Agassi, Daria Drozdova (Eds.)
Springer International Publishing
Hardcover 139,09 €