Giulia Cabra: Il valore dell´altro. Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl

Il valore dell’altro: Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl Book Cover Il valore dell’altro: Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl
Itinerari filosofici
Giulia Cabra

Reviewed by: Celia Cabrera (CONICET/ National Academy of Sciences of Buenos Aires)

Giulia Cabra’s book, Il valore dell’altro. Intersoggettività, amore ed etica in Edmund Husserl, proposes an insightful analysis of the intersection between two central themes of Husserlian phenomenology: Intersubjectivity and ethics. As indicated by the title, the guiding question that runs through the work concerns the value of the other, a topic of great relevance in phenomenological ethics. The question can be resumed as follows: How is the other given as a subject of value? More specifically: What conceptual elements of Husserl´s phenomenology provide the basis for recognizing the value of the other? Answering this question makes it necessary and justifies Cabra’s proposal for a complementary approach, insofar as it is a theme that besides being addressed at the axiological-ethical level must be anchored in the most basic foundations of Husserl´s theory of the experience of the other. Cabra´s book shows that this overlap of themes is fruitful in both directions: Ethical-axiological analyses expose the deeper meaning of some basic elements of Husserl´s transcendental theory of intersubjectivity (especially, with regard to his understanding of the lived body), and the transcendental theory of intersubjectivity lays the groundwork for an ethical account of alterity that goes beyond its own means (especially, through the analysis of love). In the author´s own words, the hypothesis that serves as a point of departure of the work is that “a synergistic reading of Husserl’s reflections on intersubjectivity and ethics allows for theoretically original and fruitful outcomes for the deepening of both realms within the author’s thought” (p. 307). Certainly, the task is not easy and requires a reading of a wide range of texts in which Husserl devoted himself to reflections on both intersubjectivity and ethics, at various stages of his philosophical production and with different methodological approaches. Cabra’s work proposes a journey through multiple writings of Husserl, tracing a thread that extends from the analyses of the experience of the other in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation to the research manuscripts on ethics from the Freiburg years, and which covers static, genetic, transcendental, personalist, and communitarian approaches.

In the process of laying the groundwork for addressing the question of the value of the other, the book delves into various topics in detail, many of which cannot be fully covered in this review. In the following sections, I will outline the main aspects developed in the book and delineate its broader argumentative strategy.

The book is divided into two main sections, each of which follows one of the two proposed paths: The first section follows the path through the lived body (Leib), while the second section follows the path through love (Liebe). Broadly speaking, the three chapters that make up the first section of the book (entitled La via del Leib: Individuazione, libertà, valore) aim to shed light on the fundamental elements that explain the constitution of the experience of alterity. This is accomplished by first delving into Husserl´s analyses of the sphere of owness and later going deeper into the intersubjectively shared world.

The first chapter is devoted to the transcendental theory of the experience of the other (Fremderfahrung) as developed by Husserl in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation and in related research manuscripts published in volumes XIII, XIV, and XV of Husserliana. The key question posed by the author there is whether such transcendental analysis contains elements that make it possible to highlight how the other subject is experienced as a subject of value (cf. p. 21). The chapter begins with a focus on the primordial sphere. Against this background, the author aims at showing the centrality of the lived body as an organ of perception (Wahrnehmungsorgan) and an organ of the will (Willensorgan). The role of corporeality in the constitution of perception, as developed by Husserl in the Dingvorlesungen (Hua XVI),  is addressed showing that the lived body is a system of passive and free kinesthesia, on which perception depends. In order to clarify how the passage from the perceptual level to the volitional level is motivated, Husserl´s analyses of the “I can” in Ideas II are considered. The result of these analyses is that the lived body is the primary form in which the “awake subjectivity” (wache Subjektivität) manifests itself. Moreover, the Leib is the place where the perceptual-sensory layer and the personal-spiritual layer intermingle, and where the freedom of the incarnated transcendental ego is established (cf. p. 310). 

Chapter 2 turns to the dynamics of the encounter with the other subject. A special analysis is devoted to the phenomenon of expression (Ausdruck), i.e., to the fact that the other appears always through an expressive body that manifests different degrees of will. It is by virtue of expression that the other appears as a subject of free movement, as a free subject. This chapter introduces one of the most important ideas of the work, namely, the freedom of the person which the author anchors on Husserl´s conception of the lived body. According to Cabra, given the conditions that make it possible for the other subject to be recognized as a transcendental subject, the same conditions also enable their recognition as a free subject. The Leib makes this transition possible and indicates the fundamental freedom of the other (cf. p. 313). This freedom is evidence of the fact that the person has a value of its own (Eigenwert). The proper value of the person is linked to their status of being a free individual, capable of being an ethical subject (as she will show later, this means responding to the categorical imperative). As she claims later on: “This confers upon it the predicate of the value of dignity (Würde): freedom makes the person different from every other worldly being and confirms the initial intuition of inviolability by the personal subject, already indicated by the identification of the Eigenheitssphäre” (p. 313). Bringing the themes of freedom and dignity to the fore is one of the merits of this book. To my knowledge, few works in the exegesis of Husserl´s writings address these themes, which remain in the background of his ethical account of the human person.

In this point, it is noticed that those elements of the experience which are the conditions of possibility of the intersubjective experience are not completely reducible to the primordial sphere, but refer to a personal intersubjective dimension of the Umwelt that only are disconnected from the Eigenheitsphäre by means of abstraction. This indicates the path taken in Chapter 3, which serves as a bridge to the second part of the book devoted to the axiological and ethical analyses. Cabra shifts there to the personalist perspective to consider intersubjective experience as a part of the surrounding world (Umwelt), which is a shared world. This shift of perspective to the personalist attitude is a crucial step to approaching the topic of the work: the comprehension of the other as a subject of value. As Cabra explains, “The encounter with the other, which is made possible because they appear through the Leib, is always inserted in a personal horizon. Only from this perspective is it possible to find the value of the other” (p. 159).

The second section of the work (La via della Liebe: Dovere e chiamata, empatia, prossimità), divided into four chapters, proceeds along the lines of the previously announced change of perspective, from the attitude focused on the sphere of owness to the personalist attitude. This section focuses on Husserl´s reflections on ethics from the Freiburg years, especially, on his analyses of love published in the fourth section of Husserliana XLII, Grenzprobleme der Phänomenologie.

Having introduced the Husserlian approach to love in Chapter 1 of this section, in which the author highlights the intentional emotional nature of love and its normative dimension, Chapter 2 has the precise aim of elucidating its inherently intersubjective character. Love takes on various forms, one of which is love as a phenomenon between persons, distinct from love for an object, for science, nature, etcetera. According to the author, personal love is love in the original, primary, and fundamental sense (cf. p. 232) or, as she also points out, the “paradigm of love” in that, through the experience of love, the value of the other subject and the duty toward them are experienced. Love is, thus, the founding moment of ethics. Since the primary reference (Bezug) of love is the other person, “neighborly love” (Nächstenliebe) is characterized as the highest ethical form of love.

The consideration of love as inherently intersubjective calls for an elucidation of its intentional structure and fulfillment. This is the task of the third chapter which explores the relationship between love and empathy (Einfühlung). Love does not fully coincide with empathy, it is a special form of empathy and, in a certain sense, it transcends empathy (cf. p. 237).  In order to understand the connection between love and empathy, the double meaning of empathy, which goes back to Husserl´s manuscripts published in Hua XLII, is emphasized. On the one hand, empathy in a basic sense, which is analyzed by Husserl in the Fifth Cartesian Meditation, is a theoretical-cognitive form of grasping the other. This fundamental form of empathy is to be distinguished from empathy in an emotional sense, as a “participation in the life of the other” (p. 238) which enters into the individuality of the other person and is fulfilled through love. The introduction of the theme of individuality gives the reader a glimpse of the author´s aim: love grasps the other in their individuality, and this lays the grounds for grasping them as having a “value of uniqueness” (Einzigkeitswert). This aspect is developed in Chapter 4, which presents the guidelines for an axiology of love. I will discuss this final chapter in more detail since it introduces some complex ideas that deserve a deeper analysis, and it integrates the previous results of the investigation into its own argumentation.

While the previous chapters have reflected on the specific features of love as an intentional act -emphasizing its emotional and volitional character-, Chapter 4 aims to analyze the values of love (Liebeswerte). In other words, the focus now shifts from love as an act to what love is directed at. Among the aspects developed in this chapter, I would like to draw attention to three themes that hold a central place in the author´s line of reasoning: (1) The discussion of the subjectivity-objectivity of the values of love; (2) The comprehension of the relationship between the descriptive, axiological, and normative dimensions; (3) finally, the approach to the universality-singularity of the ought revealed through love. These aspects, which I separate only for the sake of exposition, are interrelated in the work.

With the first theme, Cabra addresses a classic problem of the philosophy of values: Is the value dependent upon the subject giving the value? And, if so, does this imply that the value is reducible to such act of giving? The question becomes more compelling when we consider that the focus of the work is the value of the other. That is, that the elucidation of the status of the values of love is a corollary to addressing the value of the other subject. In this context, the question can be reformulated as to whether the value of the other person is contingent upon the subjective turning towards in the act of valuing, or if it is an objective value “recognized” by the subject. In the author´s view, the values of love have both a subjective and an objective dimension. On the one hand, values of love are dependent upon the turning towards of the subject from her personal core, since they are connected to the innermost center of the person. In this regard, they possess a subjective dimension. On the other hand, love in a proper sense is directed toward that which holds value (cf. p. 271). In other words: Genuine love is love for what is worth loving. How is this dual character of values of love, both subjective and objective, to be understood? Cabra´s proposal can be summarized as follows: Values of love are objective values which have subjective relevance because they have a unique meaning for the singular person. In this way, the author seeks to illustrate the dynamics of constitution wherein something given as objective is apprehended through a subjective position taking. The textual foundation of her interpretation is to be found in the lecture Einleitung in die Philosophie from 1919/1920 where Husserl refers to values of love as “the same objective value as individual, subjective value of love” (Hua Mat IX, 146, note 1). In light of this, two implications can be drawn: (1) every value of love has an objective value and (2) every objective value can become a value of love (p. 266). With this, the author aims at distancing from the interpretations that “emphasize solely the subjective side of the constitution of the values of love without considering that subjective preference does not lack a fundamental objective level” (p. 267)

What is the outcome of this interpretation for the understanding of the value of the other? Applying the same dynamic between the subjective and objective dimensions, the conclusion is that the other subject is subjectively preferable (vorzüglich) and at the same time objectively endowed with value. The other is objectively a subject of value to the extent that they have a fundamental dignity as a person (p. 285).

At this point the work turns to the distinction between two forms of empathy developed in Chapter 3. The basis for recognizing the other as a subject of value is established by recognizing the other as a transcendental subject in empathy (in the first sense previously distinguished). What does love add to this level of recognition in empathy? The dimension of “exclusivity” and the “value of uniqueness” (Einzigkeitswert) of the other, which cannot be reduced to any of the previous levels of constitution (cf. p. 288). In the author´s words: “Love fulfills this first objective-formal level of personal valuation recognizing not only the `objective´ value of the other, that is, their being a transcendental subject with their individuality, but also considering them as a `unique´ subject, `subjectively preferable´ concerning other values, and deciding in their favor.” (p. 317) Interestingly, the general idea that the other is the primary value to be promoted, i.e., that love is primarily love for the other, which has been defended throughout the work, leads the author to an incisive proposal of a hierarchy of values of love, which could solve Husserl´s conclusion of a tragic “sacrifice” when confronted with the choice between values of love. Since, according to the author, each value of love derives from the value of the other, “the choice between different values of love would not have the character of a tragic conflict if it were a matter of Liebeswerte of different hierarchy according to different degrees to which love is realized as Nächstenliebe.” (p. 302)

With regard to the second point mentioned, although Cabra`s analyses in this chapter concentrate specifically on the values of love, her reflections also put forward a thesis regarding the broader question of the relationship between facts and values, broadly considered. In the author´s interpretation, Husserl´s theory of value responds to the demand to consider that facts and values are not opposing categories, and that there is no unbridgeable gap between the descriptive and normative moments (cf. p. 279). In fact, the idea that something has value because it is worth of value aims to express the close connection between empirical properties and value properties (although, as the author affirms, Husserl does not clarify the nature of this connection). This would bring Husserl´s position closer to that of Brentano and distance it from Schelerian axiology (cf. p. 277).

It is also interesting to note how the work thematizes the absolute ought (absolutes Sollen) that is manifested to the person through love. The values of love have a normative and motivational force that becomes a guiding principle for the person´s life. Because of its connection to values, it is argued that in love the absolute ought is manifested immediately to the person. This means that the normative level does not “supervene” or is superimposed, but is implicit in the axiological dimension (cf. p. 304). In this way, not only is the axiological level not extrinsic to the descriptive level but  also the  normative level is not extrinsic to the axiological level.

Finally, the transition from the axiological level of values of love to the normative level of the absolute ought provides the author with the opportunity to reflect on the special relationship between universality and singularity that love brings about: In the dynamics of love, the universal is manifested in the singular. The other subject is experienced as a value whose realization enables the fulfillment of the universal categorical imperative. In other words: Through love, the universal categorical imperative is unveiled to the singular individual. Thus, love and vocation represent the “singularized universal” ( p. 302) since it is only in the encounter with another subject that the person can respond to the call to act according to the categorical imperative.

A final aspect of this chapter that I would like to mention is that throughout the analyses devoted to Husserl´s phenomenology of values, the author offers a clarification of the meaning of concepts that can easily lead to ambiguities, and proposes its own interpretation regarding their distinction: Among other things, a special consideration is given to the use of the terms “value of love”, “personal value”, “subjective value”, and “individual value” (cf. pp. 267-270), and to the difference between “having value”, and “being a value” (cf. p. 271). These clarifications are important not only for the reader of this book but also for the reader of Husserl’s work, especially when dealing with texts on the emotional-evaluative sphere, which due to its elusive nature requires the use of a complex set of terminology for its description.

The work wraps up with a conclusion that summarizes how the two paths taken (Leib and Liebe) intersect and it offers a methodological reflection on how the static approach inherent in the analysis of the Fremderfahrung is complemented by the genetic perspective. According to this, love brings with it a revision of the static foundational model in that the other subject is immediately experienced as endowed with value, as a ‘phenomenological absolute’: “On the one hand, the analysis of the Fremderfahrung, and within it the primary role of the Leib, show the static conditions of possibility for recognizing the other subject as a subject of value, through the consideration of their freedom, expressed in the Leib. On the other hand, love as a gaze that reveals the genesis of the primary manifestation of the value of the other subject and the duty towards them, represents the place where intersubjectivity and ethics meet at its highest form” (p. 319).

Summing up, it is impossible not to notice that this book is the result of an extensive and meticulous research. In addition to the level of detail achieved in the analyses, and the careful interweaving of the different themes and methodological approaches in the construction of the work,  I would like to highlight the originality of Cabra’s proposal.  From the perspective of the precise question she aims to answer, she puts forward reading hypotheses on difficult aspects of Husserlian phenomenology of values that are still not settled by Husserl´s scholars. This is very fruitful in a context where Husserlian analyses of values are being rediscovered and increasingly debated, thanks to the publication of the Studien zur Struktur des Bewusstseins (Hua XLIII, 1-3). More generally, as the author affirms, with the exception of Janet Donohoe´s work Husserl on Ethics and Intersubjectivity from 2016,[1] the explicit connection between Husserl´s analyses of intersubjectivity and his ethical thinking has been missing in the critical literature on his work to date (cf. p. 5). Il valore dell`altro fills this gap through a deep study, documented in detail in Husserl’s texts that reveals to the reader a path to grasp the profound connection between these two themes. In addition to being a valuable tool for scholars, her work contributes to the understanding of the unity that permeates Husserl’s philosophical project, and to further promote the growing studies of Husserlian ethics and value theory.

[1]     Janet Donohoe. 2016. Husserl on Ethics and Intersubjectivity. From Static to Genetic Phenomenology. University of Toronto Press.

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Martin Eldracher: Heteronome Subjektivität. Dekonstruktive und hermeneutische Anschlüsse an die Subjektkritik Heideggers

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Reviewed by: Viktoria Huegel (University of Brighton)

Why we hesitate

Halfway through Heteronome Subjektivität, Eldracher explores Derrida’s idea of différance in order to engage it for a restoration of the subject in a heteronomous understanding. In a footnote in the same chapter the author indicates that this appropriation of Derrida’s work is not self-evident:

The late works (of Derrida) (after around 1985) are often marked by an indecisiveness (Unentschlossenheit) concerning the question whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role in deconstruction or whether it was so disrupted by Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein that there is no place for it anymore.[1] (52)

It is true. Not without reason, Heidegger had dismissed the term from his thinking and instead replaced it with the notion of Dasein. Certainly, as Heidegger himself writes, “Da-sein is a being which I myself am, its being is in each case mine.” (Heidegger, 1996: 108) It experiences its own self primarily by distinguishing itself from all other beings it comes across in the world. This determination however indicates an ontological constitution: the assumption of the substantiality of Dasein describing it as the ontological interpretation of a subject is nothing more than that, an assumption. Any notion of an “I” must consequently be understood as a noncommittal formal starting point for a hermeneutical examination of the Dasein’s being, always being aware that it might well not be me that is the who of the everyday Dasein. As Dasein is in-the-world there is no such thing as a subject behind it which is isolated from its surrounding world.

In order to justify his endeavor, Eldracher therefore appeals to Heidegger’s earlier work in which he still speaks of an exit out of a philosophy of subjectivity without having to give up the “subject” as a term.

There is world only in so far as Dasein exists. But then is world not something “subjective”? In fact it is! Only one may not at this point reintroduce a common, subjectivistic concept of “subject”. Instead, the task is to see that being-in-the-world, which as existent supplies extant things with entry to world, fundamentally transforms the concept of subjectivity and of the subjective. [2]  (108)

Eldracher demonstrates how the figure of Dasein opens up the metaphysical subject toward its temporal dimension. The subject is decentered and temporalized as it only understands itself in its throwness into a world which it shares with others. Subjects are therefore not understood as initially autonomous actors whose subjectivity is grounded in the subject itself; instead its constitution rests in the subject’s existence.

Still, Heidegger falls back into an individualized understanding of the subject by interpreting this existence from the perspective of the subject’s constitution. After his turn he shifts the perspective from Dasein to Being (Sein), which suggests that ontological phenomena are no longer thought as aspects of Dasein, but instead as moments of withdrawal. Being is now depicted in the figure of an abyss (Ab-grund). It is Being that brings beings and therefore Dasein into existence. Yet it cannot be grasped as a foundation (Grund) due to Being’s temporal character. In the moment of founding, Being is always already withdrawn. Being moves between presence and absence. With this deconstructive gesture Heidegger is able to capture how the impossibility of foundation is the condition for its possibility. The metaphysical moment of foundation becomes temporalized and with the gift of Being man too becomes temporalized: man ek-sists (ek-sistiert) (cf. 87).

Eldracher argues that Heidegger himself misses the decisive conclusion from his analysis: The subject owes its constitution as a subject to an experience which is profoundly foreign to it (49). With that the metaphysical opposition between the subject and the world collapses. Yet Heidegger himself does not realize the possibility of a re-interpretation of the subject, because the subject as a term and concept is liquidated.

Heidegger’s critique of the subject is therefore ambivalent: It provides us with all essential movements for evading the philosophical tradition of the subject and to re-think subjectivity as heteronomous; it however resists this venture as a project which focuses on ontology neglects freedom (to act, Handlungsfähigkeit), responsibility and self-understanding. (16)

Eldracher’s book commits to the subject as a philosophical category and therefore to the enterprise of an affirmative turn in Heidegger’s subject critique which is appropriated for a re-interpretation of the subject as heteronomous. This understanding aims to respond to an aporia which lies at the heart of the metaphysical idea of an autonomous subject: even though autonomy is assumed as being immanent to the subject, the subject constitutes itself through a liberation from all those dependencies that threaten the subject’s autonomy. This however implies an existential dependency on something other than the subject itself: “without the heteronomous there is no opponent, against which it needs to be fought” (10). Eldracher therefore attempts to comprehend those heteronomous aspects which are constitutive for the subject’s constitution in the concept itself. With this heteronomous subjectivity Eldracher hopes to write a counter-narrative against the dominant idea of autonomy.

Eldracher chooses Heidegger’s subject criticism as the bedrock for his venture because he was “the first philosopher who alludes to exposure of human beings to something other” (90). Although, for a heteronomous understanding of subjectivity, Heidegger’s figure of the abyss still needs to be radicalized. It needs an appropriation of it from an ontic, rather than ontological perspective in order to open up the subject towards alterity.

With this prospect in mind, Eldracher first adheres to the ethical turn in the work of Levinas which is meant to renounce Heidegger’s ontology. Levinas reproaches Heidegger for still attempting to incorporate alterity into an underlying structure of Being. The unity and symmetrical movement of the ontological structure ultimately rejects alterity and thereby makes it impossible for a philosophical analysis to take into focus the exposure of the subject towards the Other. According to Levinas, it is not Being but the Other that touches and thus forms the subject.

With that Levinas is able to break with the notion of totality by describing alterity with the experience of infinity over the “absolute Other” (119). It cannot be grasped by the subject; it evades our language. The Other obstructs the closing of totality, it disrupts the homogeneity of the order and does not integrate within its logic. Here, Levinas connects Heidegger’s explication of temporality with the idea of infinity. The face of the Other is the (non)place where infinity and temporality meet, and at the same time constitute subjectivity. Levinas translates the abyssal relationship found in Heidegger’s thought: the subject encounters the Other at the very border of the world which means that the encounter has already happened before the subject identifies itself, and is identified as a subject. The Other repeatedly divides and thus re-constitutes the subject which is therefore always disrupted in its autonomy and self-referentiality. Levinas is thereby able to avoid Heidegger’s individualizing notion of the conscience and instead interprets the possibility of responsibility as originating in the constitution of a heteronomous subject (137). According to Levinas the call to responsibility which Heidegger originated from within Dasein, reaches the subject from a constitutive externality, namely the Other. The subject cannot determine whether it is called or not –  the (non)relation to the Other is always already there. Yet it can still choose whether it responds to the calling and this is where the freedom of the subject can be located. Freedom arises in dependence and the subject’s limitations and is only experienced in the burden of an infinite responsibility for the Other. The responsibility which cannot be refused becomes the content of identity. The subject becomes singular not through its inner unique personality but the fact that it is not able to delegate its guilt to someone else.

For Eldracher, this suggests that Levinas proceeds Heidegger because with the ethical turn to the Other he is able to address the question of how subjects can develop an idea of the self. The quasi-normative conclusion the author draws is that subjects can understand themselves best in their experience of alterity (148). He locates the corresponding decisive shift from the deconstructive towards the affirmative aspects of Heidegger’s subject criticism in the work of Michel Foucault.

While genealogy describes Foucault’s rather deconstructive project, his later works explore the possibilities of resistance and freedom by including the constitutive aspects of power. Close to Levinas’ account, freedom here needs to be understood as relational and not an inherent capacity of the subject. It happens in the very resistance against, thus dependence on, those powers to which the subject is already subjugated. Foucault’s understanding of freedom further allows us to consider the participation of the subject in the process of its constitution. In fact, it constitutes a decisive step to understand how subjects can form self-referentiality which allows them to understand themselves as agents in a historical and cultural context (249).

Foucault draws upon the Ancient concept of self-care to describe how the subject forms itself in taking on a stance to the given moral codes and thus a certain way of life. Instead of the sole subjugation to moral laws and norms, social practices such as relation of power and truth are understood as a framework within which the self cultivates itself. In this context, the idea of parrhesia indicates the subject being open to the world, which does not stand opposed to him as its object, but instead always already asserts itself in the subject. With this, Foucault is the first to introduce an affirmative notion of subjectivity into his thought which enables him to address the role of self-relationality in the subject’s constitution (260).

The chapter on Foucault’s work heralds a decisive hinge for Eldracher project: A deconstructive tradition which breaks down the concept of subject by laying bare moments of alterity meets a hermeneutical approach which is used to incorporate these moments of alterity in the constitution of self-understandings.  According to Eldracher, it needs both traditions for an affirmative turn of Heidegger’s critique of the subject. Deconstruction aims to destruct erroneous self-understandings by demonstrating the impossibility of a fixation and naturalization of subjectivity and point out how the self of subjects always relies on alterity.  It thereby intervenes when the hermeneutical approach risks to close the openness of the subject. Similarly, hermeneutics aims to reveal all those obstructions due to which the subject is not able to understand itself as being open to the world and others, but instead understands itself (erroneously) as a substance. It steps in where deconstruction risks to losing sight of the constitution of self-understandings of the subject, or in fact the subject itself.  For Eldracher hermeneutics and deconstruction hence describe two sides of the same coin. The proximity of both approaches is already illustrated by Heidegger himself: “Hermeneutics is destruction!” (62).

For this reason, the project leads towards Taylor’s work to which Eldracher turns in order to develop the participatory aspect of subjectivation which Foucault already touches on in his analysis of self-care. Eldracher uses Taylor’s concept of moral ontology in order to demonstrate how being human is always a being. Moral ontology in this context is understood as fundamental and ontological condition of potentiality. Every subject is always somehow thrown into the world, which the subject cannot determine and which stipulates its existence. Taylor emphasizes that world always appears in historical concrete relations; there are thus always worlds. At the same time, moral ontology is bound to the ontic: it depends on its reproduction and interpretation through subjects. With that, the self-understanding of the subject is thus always captured between past and future. The self-understanding has always already formed but simultaneously needs to be actualized through future interpretations. Eldracher claims that with this ontologically re-interpreted humanism Taylor is able to address freedom and self-understanding without understanding them as belonging to the substance of a subject (315f).

Taylor and Foucault take on different perspectives on the genesis of modern subjectivity which is why they can complement each other. While Foucault reveals illegitimacy of subordinating processes of subjectivation, Taylor’s affirmative genealogy draws out how self-understandings are stabilized and how they overcome previously dominant self-understandings. Like Foucault, Taylor draws on the contingency of certain self-understandings; however, he does not follow Foucault’s move to simply delegitimize them. Instead, a genealogy needs to affirm positive historical narratives in order to keep identity in the sense of a reference point for subjectivity (333).

Similar to deconstructive authors before him, Taylor reveals which narratives have laid the discursive ground for the idea of autonomous subjects. He overlooks problematizing how those narratives and in particular the narrative of nature as the source for morality not simply ground autonomy, but further suppress any notion of heteronomy. Nevertheless, Eldracher argues that Taylor’s anthropology of being human is able to avoid falling back into a metaphysical humanism as it is bound to a moral ontology. It is not transcendental but instead always refers to a certain historical praxis.

Eldracher insists on the contribution Taylor’s approach made by including the inner perspective of the subject and the role of self-interpretation. He argues that without an affirmative re-interpretation of the subject the criticisms raised by deconstructive works remain politically insignificant. This is why the author is rather dismissive of Derrida’s work as being limited to a structural analysis (197).

Derrida follows Levinas’ criticism in his venture to open up metaphysical thought towards alterity. He resumes Heidegger’s explication of temporality on the structural level asking how language subjugates the three-dimensionality of time under presence and thus affirms the closure of metaphysics into totality. Derrida attempts to demonstrate this supremacy of presence in language though the notion of différance. Like Heidegger’s figure of the abyss and Levinas’ call of the Other, différance describes a play of withdrawal and reference. It puts metaphysical logic into question as it exposes the supplement or the doubling in any transcendental signified. In every meaning of a signified there is subsequently a surplus of meaning; this surplus is contained in the meaning of the signified itself at the same time breaks with its unity. The identity of any phenomenon including the subject therefore always already relies on something which is foreign to it; the phenomenon is never identical to itself (175).

Derrida’s critique focuses on how the criticism of the metaphysical subject is consequently interwoven with a deconstruction of our understanding of meaning. According to Eldracher, it therefore appears to be more precise than Heidegger’s critique of the subject because not only does it reject the category of the subject as a metaphysical construction, but it further problematizes a specific, historically contingent understanding of subjectivity (160). He concludes that it needs a heteronomous understanding of the subject which is able to acknowledge those traces of alterity and non-identity which can be discovered by différance.

As stated above there is an indecisiveness to be found within Derrida when it comes to the subject, similar to the hesitation we can also detect in Heidegger’s work. For Eldracher, this moment of indecisiveness constitutes an important juncture in the deconstructive project. It needs a decision as to whether the concept of the subject should play a significant role. Eldracher’s response is yes. He commits Derrida’s thought to a re-constitution of the subject in a heteronomous understanding and thereby attempts to comprehend Derrida’s notion of différance to utilize it for his own endeavor. It seems however that by that Eldracher misses the depth of Derrida’s venture and the extent to which he radicalizes Heidegger’s subject criticism.

Let us take a moment at this juncture to take Derrida’s indecisiveness more seriously. Taking the named conversation with Jean-Luc Nancy as a whole, Derrida’s indecisiveness is not simply a transitory moment. He is not temporarily torn between an acceptance or rejection of the term because, according to Derrida, there no such thing that could be accepted or rejected. In fact, what has been shown by deconstructive work is that there is no agreement of those thinkers who speak of the subject on what the term actually means. Instead it seems that once certain predicates have been deconstructed, we cannot be sure anymore what we are even designating with the term; the unity and the name have been radically affected. As it turns out, “the subject is a fable” (Derrida 1991, 102).

For Derrida something happened when Heidegger introduced the idea of Dasein, a gap opened. For the first time, thinking was decentered, it moved away from the subject. But it did not go far enough. Ultimately, his endeavor was still restricted and came with new problems as Dasein ultimately repeats the metaphysical logic of subjectivity. Derrida reminds us that “We know less than ever where to cut – either at birth or at death. And thus means that we never know, and never have known, how to cut up a subject” (Derrida 1991, 117), or Dasein in fact.

He hence follows Heidegger’s late shift of perspective away from human beings as those carrying language, to language itself. Certainly, there is a possibility that there is a who as the power to ask questions (which is how Heidegger defines Dasein). But Derrida is interested in how the question of the who? itself is overwhelmed if language is no longer defined as being reserved for what we call man. He speaks of an “originary alliance”, an affirmation, a “yes, yes” of language (Derrida 1991, 100). Before any question can be raised, language is already there. This original alliance is why, according to Heidegger, language cannot be anymore an attribute which characterizes the human. Instead language withdraws itself from us: “In its essence, language is neither expression nor a confirmation of man. Language speaks.” (Heidegger 1950 cited in Eldracher, 105) Derrida continues this by asking: “What if one reinscribes language in a network of possibilities that do not merely encompasses it but mark irreducibly from inside, everything changes.” (Derrida 1991, 116).

Derrida does not go beyond a structural critique as there might be nothing behind the subject. It remains a metaphysical construction. This however does not support the argument that such a structural critique remains ethically and political neutral thus insignificant, as Eldracher states. Derrida puts into doubt Eldracher’s assertion that the traditional position of the subject is the self-evident center for any inquiries on political and ethical dimensions of freedom (Handlungsfreiheit) and responsibility (345).

Derrida warns us to not rush into those words because they risk to over-hastily reconstituting the program of metaphysics together with the suffering that comes from its “surreptitious constrains” (Derrida 1991, 101). Instead he intends to start with responsibility itself, a responsibility which cannot first come after a subject has been established, but is an axiom that must be assumed (108). The reason for this is that there simply is no understanding of the subject, in fact no concept at all, which could be adequate for the responsibility Derrida emphasizes; a responsibility which is “always more and to come” (108). Any endeavor to reconstitute the subject, even in a heteronomous understanding would still assert a calculation and therefore a limitation of responsibility.

For that reason, Derrida demands to eschew the term to some extent. Certainly, he agrees with Eldracher that it is impossible to forget it; yet one might be able to re-arrange it in a way that it no longer dominates the center of ethical or political enterprises.

Against Eldracher’s perception, Derrida’s work does not simply languish indecisiveness, instead it declares an undecidability when it comes to the subject which is demanded by responsibility itself: “there is no responsibility, no ethico-political decision, that must not pass through the proofs of the incalculable or the undecidable. Responsibility demands an “unconditional commitment to deconstruction” (107). It appears that Eldracher’s project seems to struggle with its own indecisiveness: Accepting the aporias of subjectivity which have been laid bare by deconstructive ventures, he still holds tight to the term of the subject. Let us therefore turn the question on its head for a moment: Eldracher seems to acknowledge the extent to which certain predicates of the subject have been deconstructed, in Heidegger’s critique as well as in the works of Levinas, Derrida and Foucault. What is the benefit, and to what right then does he still speak of the subject? Throughout the book, Eldracher only mentions the “traditional connection” of the term to discussions of political and ethical dimensions of freedom and responsibility to defend the subject, as well as the idea that the metaphysical discourse of subjectivity could never be eliminated and corrected (349). But is this enough? In light of Derrida’s work these arguments appear rather rash. Disregarding potential flaws for a moment, both Heidegger’s and Derrida’s ventures remind us to slow down, to take a moment before throwing oneself into the enterprise of re-interpreting the subject. They demand to first ask oneself to what questions such a project even intends to answer. And at times, it might even be the rightly posed question, and not the answer that can prompt political consequences.


Derrida, Jacques. ‘“Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’. In Who Comes after the Subject?, edited by Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, 96–119. London: Routledge, 1991.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

[1] All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Translation found in Heidegger, Martin, and Michael Heim. The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 195.