John Panteleimon Manoussakis: The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change

The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change Book Cover The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
John Panteleimon Manoussakis
Hardback $102.60

Reviewed by: Samuel D. Rocha (University of British Columbia, Canada)

Augustine’s Confessions is not a book. It has no title in the titular or thematic sense. It is simply what it is: confessions. What more could it be? A collection of thirteen small books? An evangelical memoir? A developmental prayer diary? A pre-modern work of speculative non-fiction? These are tedious questions. No one cares whether the Confessions is a book or not. Augustine does not seem to care. This reveals that, as with most things taken for granted, we do not know what books are when we address or review them as books. So what is the intellectual genre of Augustine’s Confessions? Jean-Luc Marion has remarked that the Patristic period of theological thought would have understood itself as philosophy, not theology, and thus scholastic theology begins after the end of theology.[i]

It is helpful to keep these opening remarks in mind if one seeks an encounter with John Panteleimon Manoussakis in The Ethics of Time. It is a book that cannot be read, even if one tries to read like a cow through rumination, as Nietzsche demands in his preface to Genealogy of Morals.[ii] The Ethics of Time must be encountered. Reading is certainly an encounter of a certain kind, but the kind of encounter this book demands goes much further than any other recent philosophical book I have read. This may be because our present mode of reading is detached from the type of reading we find in Ezekiel, where the prophet is fed a holy scroll, and I suspect that my suggested encounter beyond reading is in many respects nothing but a truer form of reading. Nonetheless, there is a distinction to be drawn between a literary encounter and the phenomenological encounter that Manoussakis’ book investigates (through desire) and demands (through ethics). (This distinction is carefully attended to by Manoussakis in the theological realities of the beginning, logos, and flesh throughout the book, but especially in chapter 7, “The Time of the Body.”)

To encounter something implies many things. The adversarial sense of an encounter is perhaps the most obvious. Manoussakis seems to suggest these terms of encounter in the book’s epigraph that quotes from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon: “It is a violent grace that gods set forth.”[iii] After all, to “encounter” is to be en contra. This may begin to explain why wresting and sex are hard to distinguish from each other en vivo. No one can deny that the one I lay with until the break of dawn is one I have encountered. When Jacob wrestles the angel of God in Genesis, it is not so different an erotic description from the one we read in the Song of Songs. This means that the encounter is not adversarial so much as it is erotic. Manoussakis seems to endorse this erotic notion of encounter in his analysis of the emptiness of the pouring jug, broken jar, and eucharistic chalice. He writes, “the body’s corporeality does not lie at all in the material of which it consists (the body as object), but in the void that holds (the body as flesh).”[iv] This account of incarnate emptiness, among many other passages, eventually repeats itself enough to demand an erotic encounter with Manoussakis. An encounter, as we will see, that ends in kenosis.

One might object that presenting ideas in a book is not the same thing as demanding them as the terms for a specific kind of encounter, but this takes us back to the reason why I insist that this book must be encountered as opposed to being read, however unsatisfying that opposition may be for philosophical logic-chopping (to use the Jamesian expression). More important for my purposes here, if I take the erotic terms for this encounter seriously, then this review must struggle and fail to break free from Manoussakis in the course of re-viewing his book. Perhaps he will break my hip as I beg him for a blessing. We will have to see, again and again. That is what it means to re-view something.

One might consider The Ethics of Time to be an eclectic book in light of its variety of sources. This would be a mistake. It is true that Manoussakis works from Ancient Greece and the Early Church to contemporary phenomenology and cinema. However, this seems to be more of a personal reflection of Manoussakis—more reasons for my insistence on an erotic encounter—than evidence of technical or systematic pyrotechnics. It may be hard to ignore the sheer volume of philological, theological, psychoanalytic, exegetical, and phenomenological resources put to use in this volume, touching equally upon ancient scriptures as recent films, but this quantified sense of eclecticism misses more than it hits. It mainly misses the book’s constant refrain: Augustine’s Confessions. Unlike Heidegger, who despite his occasional explicit turns to Augustine is in constant dialogue with him throughout the entirety of Being and Time, Manoussakis never pretends to stray from him. In other words, Manoussakis repeatedly draws upon the only other book I can think of that can to the same degree be misunderstood through its voluminous variety. Perhaps he is being vain in tempting this comparison? Or maybe he is too humble to admit it?

Beyond the constant presence of Augustine’s Confessions in the book as a musing refrain, Manoussakis just as constantly invents original interpretations of the classic text. Before I mention any of these insights, and immediately attract the philosopher’s skepticism, I would like to remark on how Manoussakis phrases his inventions. This is not a note on method in the sense of construction or composition; it is more a note on voice and style. If one would permit the expression, I would say this is a brief note on the musicality the book. For me this was the most philosophically challenging aspect of the book but also the most delightful.

“What we call life is a series of intervals from sleep to sleep.”[v] This line comes within a discussion of boredom and just before a deeper look into the radical implications of having “nothing to do.” Even without puzzling together the meaning of the line within its proper textual context, it serves as an example of the barrage of poetic impulses that assault the Academician and exhort the Artist. They often come in swift lines and fine-tuned associations. The urge to call them hasty is the desire to read, the desire to take Manoussakis at his word is the urge to encounter.

All of this is to say that there is an active wit in the book that is sharp and playful enough to verge on being unserious. But these risky moments of “Will and Grace”—anyone who misses this is too dull to understand this book—are contained with a form and structure where metaphors bear the mythopoetic weight of the book’s absent thesis. For instance, Manoussakis titles his Chapter 5, “After Evil,” hinting at the ethics of time where we move beyond evil without ventured beyond it entirely. This chapter features a stunningly clear and original rendition of Augustine’s account of the privation of evil—where evil is not simply metaphysically privitive of the good, but where sin becomes the ethical condition for the possibility of freedom—and reveals a powerful account of the book’s major preoccupations. The account does not so much make this preoccupation clear so much as it makes it serious enough, to the one willing to accept the terms of encounter, to see with eyes of faith.

For Manoussakis, the difference that lies in the interval between evil and goodness is only time. This difference is presented by Manoussakis through the two gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, which allude to his most steady companions, the Confessions and Christian scripture. These two gardens hold within them the capacity to re-present an ethics that is opposed to stasis; in other words, an ethics of time. This rendition of an ethics of time is central to the book’s unmet desire to address itself as a book titled The Ethics of Time.

A key feature of the above analysis is important to understand on its own terms, without too many distractions. Manoussakis makes this point plain, but rather than quote him directly, I would like to try and bend his words in my direction. Rather than resolve the apparent tension in sin or evil by positing a Manichean notion of the good, Manoussakis asserts the goodness of sin and evil revealed in time. This is not as radical as it may seem. I recently asked the question “What is an ethical way to teach ethics?” Socrates answers this question when Meno raises it by rejecting the assumption of the possibility of knowing what is ethical. In De Magistro, Augustine rejects the possibility of teaching entirely. Manoussakis, for his part, follows suit in a clever way. When we admit that we know not what we do, when sin admits to being sinful, when evil can encounter itself as evil, there we find the goodness and the ethics of time. The implications of this idea in moral theology and normative philosophical theories are interesting in their own right, but the phenomenological scope of this book takes us in another more scandalous direction.

The book ends with three scandals. The first two—evil and goodness—have been mentioned to some extent already. The third is grace but becomes more articulate as what Paul calls “the scandal of the cross.”[vi] Here the enigmatic and aphoristic wit of Manoussakis makes its last attempt to call the reader into encounter—the encounter of conversion. One may reject this encounter since it has now modulated from Manoussakis himself to Christ, but this raising of the pitch and register of the erotic appeal seems to be the entire point of the final scandal and, indeed, the book that exists beyond its title. In the cross we find the ultimate body, the broken body that survives the violence of resurrection. After all, Christ’s resurrected body was glorified with all five wounds sustained on the cross still intact and poor saints wear them as scandalous signs of grace. One cannot speak of open wounds as being good and no one can speak of these wounds as being evil. Within Manoussakis’ phenomenology of change presented as the ethics of time, I find a profound and moving meditation on the suffering, sacrifice, and salvation of wounds and woundedness.

Whatever ethics may be, I am fairly certain that it cannot afford to be entirely blind to the moral significance of things, especially the things that go beyond the recognizable the boundaries of moral significance. As we have seen, this would include a genuine ability to understand, as Augustine did and as Manoussakis clearly does, the evil of goodness and the goodness of evil within the interval of time.

Judging something to be morally important is not the same as seeing it as it is. There is a moral field of vision that goes well beyond judgement’s moral capacities. In at least this sense, phenomenology is fundamentally ethical. But this is not always true in practice. Phenomenology as well water is little more than a series of constructive historical notes and debates, on the one hand, and methodological squabbles, on the other. Phenomenology as living water is always opposed to every “ology” and “ism”—including phenomenology and constant opposition. In other words, as its rich history and methods suggest, phenomenology is fundamentally philosophical and this philosophical conception applies equally to phenomenology after the so-called “theological turn.” This turn would be a poor way to try and capture Manoussakis’ project, unless it is to show that every real turn is in some sense a theological one, preceded and anticipated in the Hellenistic tradition. The beginning chapters of The Ethics of Time bear this out in a series of preliminary meditations on movement but they only arrive at their fundamental insight as one allows time—not only the time of duration but above all the time of the interval, the sliding, wailing, and fretless interval—to work across the pages of the book to transform the reading into a dynamic encounter of time in the place of das Ding.

[i] In his Berkeley Center Lecture, “What Are the Roots of the Distinction Between Philosophy and Theology?”, delivered at Georgetown University on April 7, 2011.

[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morailty, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swenson, (Indiannapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998), 7.

[iii] John Panteleimon Manoussakis, The Ethics of Time, (London and New York: 2017), front matter.

[iv] Ibid., 156.

[v] Ibid., 21.

[vi] Ibid., 161.

International Conference – Humboldt Kolleg – “Cassirer’s Children” – Turin – February 8.-9. 2018

Elena Paola Carola Alessiato

It is well know that Friedrich Nietzsche was decided not to have heirs or disciples. Ironically, he was one of the most influential thinkers in history. The history of philosophical thought is actually made up by legacies – sometimes also by kinship. This was the idea underlying the title of the intellectual historian Richard Wolin’s book “Heidegger’s Children”. The book, published in 2001 and reissued in 2015, meant this kinship provocatively and of course not in a biological sense. Following this provocation, a conference on the topic “Cassirer’s Children” has been organized in Turin on February 8 and 9, 2018 by Sebastian Luft, Professor of Philosophy at the Marquette University (Milwaukee), and Massimo Ferrari, Professor of the History of Philosophy in Turin University. The conference, financially supported by the Humboldt Foundation in the frame of its Alumni Program and organized in collaboration with the Philosophy Department of the University of Turin, offered Cassirer’s scholars from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, USA and Canada the opportunity to gather in Turin.

The speakers took seriously the provocation about the kinship. Many of them confronted the question about the different possibilities of describing the relationships of intellectuals and thinkers from the 20th Century with Ernst Cassirer: rebellious or “turbulent” children? Legitimate or not? Outspoken or “hidden” heirs? At the end a variegated portrait emerged, focusing on an important segment of 20th century philosophy not only from Germany but also from the USA, Italy and Japan.

As the title suggested, the conference aimed at reconstructing the influence exerted by Cassirer directly or indirectly. At the same time, the assumed personality-based criterion allows building a discipline-based map of the philosophical science in the 20th Century, in which Cassirer’s trails are detected. So, for instance, Rudolf Makkreel and Muriel Van Vliet explored the implications of Cassirer’s thought for aesthetics. More precisely, the first one investigated the meaning and function of arts, particularly of music, and their connection with myth and symbols, according the interpretation of Susanne Langer, an American philosopher 21 years younger than Cassirer, but strongly influenced – clearly acknowledged by her – by his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. The name of Langer appears also in the second paper, devoted to the “turbulent child” of art history, i.e. Edgar Wind, whose intuitions regarding the cognitive status of art and art history and the possible contamination between mathematics and art are sketched. Van Vliet’s conclusion is fruitful: «Who is the master, who is the pupil? Who is the son, who is the father? Cassirer, Panofsky and Warburg find with Wind a son who inspires them as much as he was inspired by them. Wind presented himself at the same time as a classic, as wise child and as an innovator, a turbulent child».

Following the discipline-based criterion it is possible to remark that anthropology attracted the attention of two other speakers. The anthropology of the American scholar and University Professor Clifford Geertz, who was influenced by Susanne Langer and Talcott Parsons, is in the center of Sebastian Luft’s talk. The paper was organized in a symmetrical way: if the first part elucidates Geertz’ understanding of anthropology in its proximity to philosophy, the second part, devoted to Cassirer’s position on anthropology, describes in detail the relationship between culture and nature but also the dangers and limits regarding the connection between experience and thought, culture and philosophy of culture. The conclusion at which the paper arrives is that the link between Cassirer’s philosophy and anthropology is to be depicted in the terms of a sibling relationship. A critical assessment about the philosophical anthropology of Hans Blumenberg in his “Auseinandersetzung” with Cassirer is delivered by Andrea Staiti. If, on the one hand, Enno Rudolph practices the reconstruction of intellectual relationships to Cassirer as an opportunity to provide an ambitious outline of the 20. Century philosophy – his reference names in his frame are Nelson Goodman, Pierre Bourdieu and Jürgen Habermas –, then Massimo Ferrari, on the other hand, detected the traces of Cassirer within the history of science and the development of scientific thought. On the basis of Cassirer’s monumental work on the Problem of Knowledge in modern science and philosophy and of Individuum and Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance, the contributes and remarks of Émile Meyerson, Léon Brunschvicg, Edwin Arthur Burtt, Alexander Koyré, Raymond Klibansky and Paul Oskar Kristeller are taken into consideration and critically connected with each other. The history of science is at the core of two other papers as well, although they focus on the philosophy of one single thinker, Arthur Pap. David Stump identifies the “Neo-Kantian elements in Pap’s Philosophy”, while Thomas Mormann puts in connection Pap’ necessity and his functional A Priori with Cassirer’s critical determinism. In his view the intellectual link between Pap and Cassirer, both German and both emigrated to the USA, allows one to contrast the pessimistic assessment affirming that the clash between “the analytic” and “the continental tradition” has become irreconcilable.

From Germany to the USA – and beyond. The geographical extension of Cassirer’s influence is enriched by two other contributions. Saverio Ricci emphasized the implications of Cassirer’s understanding of culture and cultures for the Italian tradition of historiography and historical thought applied in philosophy. Reference point of his presentation is Eugenio Garin. Away from Europe, Steve Lofts presents Cassirer’s family in Japan. His detailed and well informed paper about “the influence of the Marburg’ School and Cassirer on the foundations of Japanese philosophy” gave the opportunity to make the acquaintance with a series of Japanese intellectuals and thinkers belonging to the Kyoto School and normally unknown or neglected by our West oriented studies.

In the end, the conference offered the chance to Cassirer’s scholars spread all over the world to meet each other, just at the moment when Cassirer’s philosophy and scholarship experience a rediscovery and a veritable renaissance.

Report by Elena Paola Carola Alessiato (Università degli Studi di Torino/University of Turin – Italy)

Hans Blumenberg: Théorie de l’inconceptualité

Théorie de l'inconceptualité Book Cover Théorie de l'inconceptualité
Philosophie imaginaire
Hans Blumenberg. Traduit de l’allemand par Marc de Launay
Éditions de l’éclat
Paperback 15,00 €

Reviewed by: Sonja Feger (Universität Koblenz · Landau)

Recent years have seen several new translations of books and shorter works by Hans Blumenberg into English and French, and an English edition with Blumenberg’s most important shorter writings is forthcoming[1]. The French translation under review here, published in 2017, is further evidence of this growing interest in Blumenberg’s work.

Blumenberg’s previously unpublished text Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit was first edited in its German original by Anselm Haverkamp in 2007. Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit (Theory of Nonconceptuality) borrows its title—and so does the French translation by Marc de Launay—from a 1975 summer term lecture Blumenberg gave in Münster. This short text is of particular interest, as it relates several themes within Blumenberg’s thinking in a rather condensed way.

The main text (7–108) consists in the edition of those typescripts Blumenberg based his lecture upon (see 128) and is followed by an appendix entitled “Bruchstücke des ‘Ausblicks auf eine Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit’” (Perspective sur une théorie de l’inconceptualité; 109–125)[2]. A translation of the editor’s postface completes the volume (127–131). Théorie de l’inconceptualité most of the time does without headings or subheadings; only an excursion on ‘economy and luxury’ (19–26) and a revised passage on ‘negation’ serving as a transition (89–91) fall under headings. Instead, larger sections are simply divided by page breaks. As the editor remarks, Blumenberg presents his observations giving examples with varying levels of complexity, and often does so without guiding his listeners or readers to a conclusion (des exemples de complexions diverses—souvent sans déboucher sur une conclusion; 131). By refusing to add any new headings or divide Blumenberg’s work into sections, the editor succeeds in carefully preserving and communicating the original character of the typescript, which is between the tone of a lecture and a written text. Because all Blumenberg’s texts stylistically dense they present a challenge to the reader, and this text is no different. If one expects an easy-to-read introduction to his works, one will not find it in this booklet. Nonetheless, the themes discussed are at the heart of Blumenberg’s phenomenological project and are well worth the effort.

To begin with, it is difficult to judge what exactly the book is about. Here is my proposal: one might say that the text as a whole bundles varieties of human ways to deal with reality. More specifically, in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, Blumenberg primary focus is upon the epistemic operations humans are capable of. Specifically, he is interested in one particular way for humans to engage with reality, namely in the act of theorizing—or, to put it in phenomenological terms, the act of distancing oneself from one’s object of consideration by adopting a theoretical attitude.

Théorie de l’inconceptualité may be regarded as a text about ‘theory’ in a twofold or two-layered way. First, Blumenberg addresses various epistemic operations humans are capable of, focusing on the role of conceptual thinking (or its lack) in cognition. In his attempt to describe the structure of conceptual thinking and to ascribe to it the role it plays in cognition, Blumenberg scrutinizes the various forms the act of theorizing can take.. Secondly, Théorie de l’inconceptualité is itself a theoretical work. This does not so much amount to opposing theoretical and practical philosophy to one another, for Blumenberg himself does use practical examples (though in a broad sense) as much as he draws from epistemological observations and concepts. Rather, Blumenberg considers the ability to take on a theoretical attitude as something we do and perform; for him, it is a distinguished, an essentially human one. In short, Blumenberg addresses theory as one of the human ways to engage with reality from a precisely theoretical point of view. In other words, theory is taken both as a method and as the object in question; that is, theory itself becomes the very object of Blumenberg’s theoretical interest. In this sense, the above-mentioned two-layered approach to be found in the text emerges with Blumenberg playing on the reduplication of theory.

As a first step in this review, I want to discuss Blumenberg’s proposal for a notion of conceptual thinking. Secondly, I will link conceptual thinking to the theoretical attitude humans can assume. Then, I will turn to consider Blumenberg’s attempts to delimit conceptual thinking and nonconceptuality and his anthropological observations. By way of conclusion, I will touch upon the connection between the anthropological and the epistemological dimension found in Théorie de l’inconceptualité. It goes without saying that I cannot consider every aspect the text touches upon. Other topics within the wide range of Blumenberg’s observations such as aesthetics, the concept of the lifeworld, happiness, metaphors, the epistemic operation of negation or the anthropological function of prevention must remain largely uncommented upon here.

Conceptual thinking

Contrary to what the title of the book suggests, the text does not start out by shedding light on what is to be understood by the term of ‘nonconceptuality’. Rather, Blumenberg’s text first lays its focus on conceptual thinking. However, rather than aiming at a (precise) definition of either of the two, Théorie de l’inconceptualité raises the question of how those two different ways of dealing with reality might refer to each other and, moreover, refer to theory in general. The reader expecting to be given a precise definition of at least one of the two terms will be deceived.

The fact that the text lacks a precise definition of conceptual thinking does not mean that Blumenberg does without spelling out crucial aspects he ascribes to conceptual thinking. For him, two features are to be found at the core of conceptual thinking: first, conceptual thinking has something to do with the phenomenon of absence (Le concept a un certain rapport avec l’absence de son objet; 7). For example, imagine the groceries you have run out of, which are therefore absent, and which you (mentally) represent when writing a shopping list. For Blumenberg, what one does in this case is use conceptual thinking in order to re‑present that which is not tangibly accessible (le concept seul demeure, qui, de son côté, représente toute l’échelle de ce qui est sensoriellement accessible; 7).

Blumenberg’s own example of the representation of an absent object in conceptual thinking, however, is more specific than my example of a shopping list. It consists in referring to a primal scene of anthropogenesis, namely the construction of a trap. A trap layer has to adjust his construction in shape and size to the animal he hopes to catch eventually. For example, setting a trap adequate for catching a mammoth requires nothing more than calling into presence that very mammoth which is absent the moment the trap is being set. Having a concept of a mammoth thus means to determine it as the expected prey, that is, to determine the trap in shape and size. In Blumenberg’s view, what the trap layer accomplishes is a conceptualization of an absent object. Or, to put it in phenomenological terms: laying a trap involves knowing an eidos and acting upon that knowledge. What Blumenberg’s example emphasizes, however, is that being able to use concepts is an achievement in (human) evolutionary history, implicitly assuming a historical constitution of transcendental (inter‑) subjectivity.

The second aspect Blumenberg locates within the realm of conceptual thinking is closely linked to the above-mentioned phenomenon of absence and concerns the phenomenon of distance (see 7; 10). Laying a trap directs one’s actions towards objects or events not immediately given but distanced in space and time: a mammoth shall not be caught right now and here but perhaps tomorrow and over there. In this regard, concepts are like tools humans use to act over a distance, they are the means of an actio per distans (12). For Blumenberg, the trap is the first triumph of conceptual thinking (Dans cette mesure, le piège est le premier triomphe du concept; 12).


According to Blumenberg, conceptual thinking such as the representation of a prey when setting a trap can count among reason’s products or performances (un produit de la raison; 7). As reason encompasses conceptual thinking and, therefore, also the above-mentioned actio per distans, it follows for Blumenberg that reason is the epitome of those epistemic operations that put in a performance over a distance, both spatial and temporal (On pourrait dire que la raison serait le condensé de pareilles réalisations à distance; 8). Yet the reverse, that reason only exists when something is conceptualized, does not hold (Mais cela n’autorise pas le renversement qui voudrait que la raison n’existe que lorsqu’elle parvient […] au concept; 7). Thus, it can be emphasized that, for Blumenberg, acting over a distance by means of conceptual thinking is only a first step within humans’ process of becoming a creature capable of theorizing. For what exceeds conceptual thinking insofar as it encompasses it, in Blumenberg’s view, is a theoretical attitude as such.

Blumenberg makes this idea more accessible drawing from an anthropogenic assumption: man, for Blumenberg, is the being that straightens up, transcends the short range of perception, and transgresses the horizon of its senses (L’homme, l’être qui se met debout et quitte le domaine de la proche perception, franchit l’horizon de ses sens; 8). Man raises his gaze and directs it to the horizon, that is, he is no longer only concerned with objects given to him within the realm of immediate and actual tactility, but also with potentially tangible objects (again, such as mammoths caught in a trap).

In Blumenberg’s view, this movement of transgression finds itself repeated. Man not only transgresses the horizon of his senses in order to master objects given to him in a (both temporally and spatially) mediated way. The above-mentioned anthropogenic moment lies in a two-step rotation of the head man accomplishes. First, he directs his gaze from the ground towards the horizon, which amounts to mastering mediately given objects over a certain distance. In this way, both building a trap and focusing on the horizon amount to an actio per distans. Second, man turns his head another ninety degrees to look at the sky (Ce qui veut dire que le regard n’est pas fixé sur l’horizon, spatial et temporal, pour attendre ce qui va arriver et pour agir sur ce qui surgit, mais que le regard, ayant accompli un mouvement à quatre-vingt-dix degrés pour quitter la direction du sol et parvenir à l’horizontal, va encore une fois accomplir une rotation à quatre-vingt-dix degrés et viser la voûte étoilée; 14). As laid out in The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, Blumenberg considers Thales of Miletus to be the “putative first philosopher” (see Laughter, Preface). It is exactly his gaze at the sky that turns him into the first contemplator caeli in a philosophical sense. Instead of anticipating prey and, therefore, being directed toward a potentially tangible object, the stars in the sky are perceptible and yet (at least for the run of several centuries) intangible. The skies represent that which encompasses the totality of all possible objects of perception, and thus represent the idea of totality. In this sense, the sky Thales of Miletus turns his gaze to represents the ultimate object of a theoretical attitude; this is why Thales is described as the proto-philosopher (le proto-philosophe et astronome Thalès de Milet; 16). For Blumenberg, it is a theoretical attitude that ultimately envisages the totality of the world (la théorie pure, son aspiration à la totalité du monde; 16). This is what Blumenberg must have had in mind when he suggests that reason’s intentions exceed the performances of conceptual thinking and relate to the idea of totality (Il se pourrait que la performance d’un concept soit simplement partielle par rapport aux intentions de la raison qui semble toujours avoir en quelque manière affaire à la totalité; 7).

Starting from the concepts that correspond to empirical objects, Blumenberg proceeds by broadening the scope of his scrutiny insofar as he takes into account something by which conceptual thinking in the narrower sense is exceeded. That is, the subject not only perceives singular objects entirely detached from one another and is amazed by the sky as a cosmic whole, but also takes into account the—potential—relations between objects. To put it in phenomenological terms, one could say that it is the horizontality of noemata according to which the perceiving and reflecting subject progresses in her intentional process of intuition. The less an empirical object plays a role in the act of conceptualization (or theorizing), the more intellectual performances—such as the act of idealization—gain importance in the process of thinking. The attempt to establish a meaningful relation among particular noemata leads to a reflection on the totality encompassing them—or again in phenomenological terms: to a reflection on the horizon of all horizons. That being said, it is clear that Blumenberg shares the fundamental insight with phenomenology that there is, apart from a naïve attitude, an observing, theorizing mode of consciousness.


Yet, the question as to which role is to be ascribed to nonconceptuality within the realm of theoretical performances is still unanswered. Once it has been shown that the use of concepts does not remain limited to representations of empirical objects (such as foods or a prey) but is also in some way involved in intellectual acts of greater abstraction, Blumenberg shifts the focus to the very boundary between conceptual and nonconceptual thinking, both of which for him are encompassed by a theoretical attitude. In conceiving of conceptual thinking as an epistemic operation that above all establishes a correspondence between intuition and understanding, Blumenberg clearly draws from a Kantian point of view. In that sense, it is not at all surprising that Blumenberg addresses nonconceptual thinking, too, in Kantian terms.

What Blumenberg does is to relate limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (see 41–42) to his conception of nonconceptuality. This refers to his conviction that the mode of conceptual concretization achieved in the representation of empirical objects is unlike the way abstract ideas are represented. Of course, this does not mean abstract ideas (such as the concept of world or the idea of freedom) cannot be addressed or dealt with by human reason at all. Instead, for Blumenberg, human reason has to approach abstract ideas in a different way, namely by drawing from nonconceptuality. As it follows for him, nonconceptuality must not be taken or undertaken as a mere auxiliary discipline to philosophy (une simple discipline auxiliaire de la philosophie; 56). Instead, it must be acknowledged that the preliminary endeavors to a notion of conceptual thinking do not achieve their aims (le travail dans le champ préalable du concept ne parvient pas à son but; 56) and that conceptual thinking is subject to the condition of—at least possibly—eventually being rendered concrete by the intuition of empirical objects. As Blumenberg sees it, nonconceptuality comes into play the very moment it turns out that this condition cannot be fulfilled, i.e. in the attempt to represent ideas. (Here, it seems to me to be helpful to quote both the German original text and its French translation. For what in German reads “im Zusammenhang mit der Angewiesenheit des Begriffs auf Anschauung und der Verfehlung dieser Bedingung bei der Idee” is rendered into French as follows: dans le contexte de l’articulation du concept sur l’intuition et […] de l’échec de cette articulation quand il s’agit de l’idee; 56). In other words, nonconceptual thought for Blumenberg is the means to operate in the concretization of abstract ideas. In my reading of Théorie de l’inconceptualité, limit concepts (Grenzbegriffe) and ideas (just as metaphors, incidentally) for Blumenberg represent the threshold of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking. The wide range of theoretical performances must exceed the purely conceptual.

However, Blumenberg merely indicates what a theory of nonconceptuality would have to undertake and leaves it open to his readers (or listeners) to follow down the indicated path. According to him, a theory of nonconceptuality is about reconstructing in a broad sense those horizons from which the theoretical attitude and conceptual thinking are derived (Une théorie de l’inconceptualité aurait à reconstruire les horizons, en un sens très large, dont ont procédé la prise de position et la formation conceptuelle théoriques; 112).


It is important to bear in mind that Blumenberg does not seek a definite notion of each of the epistemic operations in question for their own sake. As the use of both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking can be counted among the whole of epistemic performances human beings are capable of, they are part of the description of essentially human traits. That is, as Blumenberg aims at locating his observations within a larger, anthropological framework.. As he says, an anthropological theory of conceptual thinking is an urgent desideratum (Une théorie anthropologique du concept est un réquisit urgent; 9).

In order to frame Blumenberg’s endeavor in Théorie de l’inconceptualité, it is helpful to come back once more to the aforementioned primal hunting scene. Blumenberg does not give a clear answer to the question of why he is using a primal scene to illustrate the performances of conceptual thinking, or to that of which epistemic status this example is supposed to hold. All he does is to underline his assumption that the image of the construction of a trap may be nothing but the best way to depict the capacities of conceptual thinking (Sans doute peut-on montrer le plus clairement ce dont un concept est capable lorsque l’on songe à la fabrication d’un piège; 8). That is, the author himself leaves it an open question as to which epistemic status must eventually be ascribed to the example he is using. However, Blumenberg makes clear that he aims to explain how the capacities of conceptual and nonconceptual thinking have become possible by taking a view that is both anthropological and genetic at the same time (J’essaie de comprendre cela du point de vue anthropologique, générique; 8). The construction of a trap may, therefore, be taken as an attempt to locate reason’s performances or capacities within an anthropological, and more specifically, within an anthropogenic framework. It is thus no coincidence that Blumenberg’s example is the laying of a trap some ten thousand years ago and not a shopping list.

What Blumenberg does is draw a line connecting the anthropogenic observations of man having straightened up and having accomplished twice a ninety-degree-rotation of the head to the transcendental question as to how theory—and with it philosophy— became possible. Théorie de l’inconceptualité offers a contribution to the discussion of the status of conceptual thinking from an epistemological point of view—and, beyond that, points to the discussion of reason’s capacities in a whole. It is thus part of transcendental philosophy since it is an approach to the conditions of the possibility of theory. Blumenberg’s view on the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental in Théorie de l’inconceptualité is quite complex: he raises a question of transcendental philosophy in aiming to lay bare the conditions of the possibility of theory; these conditions can only be explained by reference to empirical assumptions about human prehistory.

In other words, Blumenberg considers both conceptual and nonconceptual thinking to offer a crucial contribution to the project of describing man (like the title of another posthumously edited work lays out, namely Beschreibung des Menschen/Description de l’homme). As he says, one has to consider the anthropological preconditions as the source of the performances of conceptual thinking, which in turn are part of reason’s intending totality (des présupposés anthropologiques […] la source d’où procède également l’efficace du concept qui n’est, en effet, que partiellement liée à l’intention de la raison visant la totalité; 122). Pointing to the intention of describing (and, in parts, explaining) characteristic performances of reason such as conceptual and nonconceptual thinking amounts to counting Théorie de l’inconceptualité among Blumenberg’s numerous approaches to an anthropological philosophy. It is here that Blumenberg’s endeavor exceeds the demands of a phenomenological discipline as Blumenberg gives phenomenology an anthropological orientation. What he undertakes is not a phenomenology of pure consciousness but rather a phenomenologically motivated description of an anthropogenic dimension that presumably has brought about man’s ability to theorize and to philosophize at all.


Blumenberg’s text offers a complex interplay between the fields of anthropological description and of transcendental philosophy. As Blumenberg draws attention to the question of how conceptual thinking as a part of the whole of reason’s capacities might have become possible, it is especially the anthropogenic dimension that links the two. In conclusion, one could say that Théorie de l’inconceptualité can be read in a threefold way. It is, first, an anthropological text, for it focuses on performances of human reason. Since the main interest of the text lies in reasoning and in all the various forms reason may take, the text may, secondly, be regarded as pursuing a project in epistemology. What then provides a link between the anthropological and the epistemological dimensions is, thirdly, the extension of genetic phenomenology into the anthropogenic view Blumenberg puts forward.

At this point, one might return to the style in which the text is presented. Although the title may seem to promise a fully developed theory of nonconceptuality, the text itself maintains a tentative and exploratory character. The reader is offered examples and illustrations taken from diverse texts of philosophy and literature and thus is offered nothing more—and, one has to add, nothing less—than enriching descriptions of the performances of human reason. All of these descriptions are strongly influenced by the phenomenological tradition. Théorie de l’inconceptualité should be counted among Blumenberg’s attempts to contribute to a phenomenologically influenced anthropology.[3]

Selected Bibliography

Blumenberg, Hans. 2011. Description de l’homme. Translated by Denis Trierweiler. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2015. The laughter of the Thracian woman: A protohistory of theory. Translated by Steven Rendall. New York: Bloomsbury (quoted as: Laughter).

Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books.

Blumenberg, Hans. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Bajohr, Hannes, Fuchs, Florian, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[1] Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (eds.). 2018 (in press). The Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Other recent translations of Blumenberg’s work include among others: Blumenberg, Hans. 2017. Concepts en histoires. Translated by Marc de Launay. Paris: Édition de l’Éclat; ibid. 2018. Lions. Translated by Kári Driscoll. Calcutta, London, New York: Seagull Books; ibid. 2018. Rigorism of Truth: Moses the Egyptian and other Writings on Freud and Arendt. Edited by Ahlrich Meyer. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[2] Unless stated otherwise, all page references refer to Théorie de l’inconceptualité.

[3] I want to thank Tobias Keiling for numerous helpful comments.

Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, Mette Lebech (Hrsg.): Edith Steins Herausforderung heutiger Anthropologie, Be&Be-Verlag, 2017

Edith Steins Herausforderung heutiger Anthropologie Book Cover Edith Steins Herausforderung heutiger Anthropologie
Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, Mette Lebech (Hrsg.)
Paperback € 24,90

Jeanine Chamond (éd.): La précarité comme Être sans. Sens anthropologique et phénoménologie clinique de la situation précaire, Le Cercle Herméneutique, 2018

La précarité comme Être sans. Sens anthropologique et phénoménologie clinique de la situation précaire Book Cover La précarité comme Être sans. Sens anthropologique et phénoménologie clinique de la situation précaire
Collection Phéno
Jeanine Chamond (éd.). Préface de Françoise Dastur
Le Cercle Herméneutique
Broché 15.00 €

Jeff Love (Ed.): Heidegger in Russia and Eastern Europe, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017

Heidegger in Russia and Eastern Europe Book Cover Heidegger in Russia and Eastern Europe
New Heidegger Research
Jeff Love (Ed.)
Rowman & Littlefield International
Paperback £24.95

Rafael Winkler (Ed.): Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self

Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self Book Cover Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self
Rafael Winkler (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover 96,29 €
XVI, 286

Reviewed by: Meghant Sudan (Colby College)

This collection of essays aims to show how questions about one’s identity (as a metaphysical entity, as a reflective knower, as a social-moral-political being) appear when difference is upheld as primary or fundamental. This approach is broadly characteristic of recent works in continental philosophy and through it the collection maintains a steady affiliation with phenomenological thought, although this is not its explicit focus. The reader is led through thoughtful explorations of topics such as how one’s self-conception is marked by a fundamental deception, or how a satisfying account of agency demands a thoroughgoing unity across my animal and my rational capacities, or how my being human and embodied entails my constitution through a dynamic of fragility. The collection contains eleven essays presented at a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, including many by local and younger scholars, and so represents philosophical work itself in a somewhat different setting.

In that very setting, the collection is timely too, since the issue of identity has recently inspired lively public debate and much soul-searching at prominent sites of the South African philosophical scene, some involving the editor and a few authors of our collection. The controversy originally arose over systemic racism many felt exists in the Philosophical Society of South Africa, and in part concerned an all-white panel on the topic of South African identity at its annual conference last year (the panellists include some authors in the present collection). The editor then broached the topic and responded to critics in opinion pieces in newspapers this year. The collection encourages several ways to think about one’s identity and deepens the debate that already took place in the newspaper columns but which naturally could go only as far as these allow. At the same time, the collection courts a like charge as that which embroiled the panel, since no anxiety about manifest tokens of racial representation seems to drive the contents of the volume, while the sole article attending to the question of South African identity argues expressly from the position of whiteness (a pressing conundrum regarding how white South Africans are to be white South Africans in a post-apartheid state). These issues of the personal and the political are truly large and urgent, and easily dwarf the fact, which I would also like to make transparent in the context of this review, that I am personally acquainted with the editor and we share philosophical interests.

It is fashionable to fret about the lack of unity in collections, especially one that is conference-based, where it is even more susceptible to such worries. I do not share these worries, and judging from the fact that Winkler’s brisk introduction does not invest great effort in imposing order on the proceedings, I do not think there was any worry about settling them either. The essays are organized along four themes: “Narrative Theory and Phenomenology,” “Politics, Authenticity, and Agency,” “Feminism,” and “Race and the Postcolonial,” but they often speak to each other beyond these divisions. For example, narrative theories of identity appear in the first section (as they must) but also substantively in the Feminism section; the formidable thought of Spivak reflecting on Irigaray reflecting on Levinas comes up in both the Feminism and the Race and The Postcolonial sections; an interest in philosophical skepticism emerges in the course of discussing Sartrean views of consciousness in the first section and leads into a historical discussion of skepticism in the next. Such conversations among the pieces are helpful and are highlighted below. An unevenness does dog the collection, however, and I will comment on this aspect in the end after briefly reviewing the individual contributions.

Dermot Moran surveys concepts of self, ego, personhood, and personality, as they travel through the history of western philosophy until their phenomenological treatments by Husserl, Heidegger, Max Scheler, and Edith Stein. After Locke, who gave the concept of personhood a strongly moral orientation, and Kant, who pressed the ego’s sensible-cum-rational entanglements as a problem, these founders of phenomenology strive in mutually responsive ways to articulate its complex and dynamic unity, and stress the following: its systematic and historical dimensions (Husserl and Heidegger), its moral and concrete individuality (Scheler), and its psychic and spiritual depth (Stein). While the essay succeeds several previous versions, it is clear that Moran’s practiced hand (the essay succeeds several previous versions) brings the various moments of this otherwise expansive sweep before us effortlessly and situates the chapters that follow.

Alfonso Muñoz-Corcuera enters debates about narrative theories of personal identity, which Moran touches on when closing his essay. Muñoz-Corcuera defends these theories against objections which disable easy transitions between literary characters and living persons, which hold that we neither understand ourselves through narratives nor is our identity in fact constituted through narrativization, and which raise concerns about diluting our practical exigencies by relying on strategies relevant elsewhere, such as writing fiction. These objections are shown to rest on a misunderstanding easily avoided by distinguishing diligently between literary and cognitive senses of “narrative,” where the latter indicates a mental framework for thinking of agency rather than formal features of sentences that count as literary narratives. The different positions in this debate are laid out in detail, but key points of Muñoz-Corcuera’s rejoinder are stated without explicit support even if they sound plausible enough, e.g., the claim that the cognitive sense somehow conditions how we construe the literary sense, or the claim that our own identity is constituted through the interaction between stories we tell about ourselves and stories others tell about us. Similarly, the formal-literary notion is a tad flat without an account of the material-historical conditions of that form itself, which would arrest misuse of that notion in thinking about ourselves.

David Mitchell makes a strong case for continuing the dialogue between phenomenological and narrative views of personal identity by examining Sartrean insights into how a dialectic of fiction and belief underwrites selfhood. It is hard to account for self-deception as a state of mind resistant to a Cartesian type of transparent self-consciousness. Freudian theories incur the paradox that the subject must be conscious of what it is to remain unconscious of in order to repress it and epistemological theories equating self-deception with ordinary adhesion to false beliefs in the face of countervailing evidence do not do justice to the distinctive features and deep conviction marking the former. Mitchell therefore appeals to Sartre’s quaintly charming psychological case-analyses, which show them as grounded in the structure of consciousness as elusive and in flight, and he offers an account of belief as essentially overcoming itself at a pre-reflective yet spontaneous level of awareness. I only wish that he set aside some of the time spent on the case-analyses to help readers learn more about the intriguing processes at work in the theory of mind according to this view.

Vincent Caudron reminds us that the desire for a seamless self, without gaps or distortions, overlooks discourses of authenticity, which dominated the early modern epoch and its tenor of religious and epistemological uncertainty, and which probed a radical incompleteness of the self. Caudron documents such views in Montaigne and Charron to show not only skepticism about a true self but also a constant pursuit of hypocrisy in oneself that drove a wedge within the self in the service of moral authenticity. Fortunately, we have a wealth of historical-philosophical literature available (elsewhere, in the area of early modern skepticism) that offers greater heft and nuance to the indications Caudron flags as important to consider.

Irene Bucelli, in the one chapter that engages analytic philosophy, proceeds in the other direction and wonders if the constitutivist views of agency championed by Korsgaard and Velleman create an untenable rift between animal-active and human-rational levels of selfhood and if an approach that synthesizes the two orders is not preferable instead. Bucelli believes that minimal self-awareness without higher reflective endorsement is not only necessary for being responsive to reasons for acting as her opponents grant, but also sometimes sufficient, which is evident in coping actions in which I am immersed. The evidence, so far as I see it developed here, draws from the more cohesive and permissive account of action that will eventually ensue from the proposed approach: cohesive inasmuch as various capacities can be integrated towards human action instead of attributing the latter exclusively to an autonomous rationality, which attribution is nonetheless supposed to depend on lower layers of mental awareness and ownership; permissive inasmuch as a continuum or spectrum of actions and mental states can fund an account of agency under more flexible circumstances than the sort that Kantian formalism permits.

Rockwell Clancy wants to deliver us from a more pernicious formalism he perceives in contemporary liberalism, which, in having freed itself from allegiance to natural law and human nature, has led, he feels, to conservative and fundamentalist reaction. He observes that disavowing political anthropology is neither possible, because the barest description of human agency is still one, nor is it desirable, because, as Clancy warns, this opens us up to vast dangers ranging from ISIS and David Cameron to Dawkins and Derrida (the warning is issued in the now recognizable style of holding postmodern playfulness responsible for the severe indifference to truth affecting public discourse today and thereby enabling whatever-you-fear-worst). In lieu of an abstract and exclusive universalism Cancy imagines an inclusive particularism that would approach human nature through a more fluid understanding of nature, which lets us collect everything needed to avoid said dangers from everyone from Mencius to Latour to build a better world (and a daunting bibliography).

Kathy Butterworth’s chapter outlines a program for conceiving a relative (she prefers “relational”) autonomy by using Ricouer’s narrative theory of personal identity, which allows for thinking of a subject, and its autonomy, as a process for permitting degrees of achievement and contextualization. We need such a concept because the post-structuralist critique of the subject, while it compellingly dismantles traditional notions of an invulnerable, all-or-nothing autonomy, thereby also imperils the resources it could provide for a post-identity subjectivity consonant with a broadly feminist perspective.

Louise du Toit eloquently argues for rethinking subjectivity through bodily vulnerability with the help of feminist legal philosophy and phenomenology. Rape, she says, is inadequately understood when we only consider its physical violence, or only its sexual side and exclusively under the concept of consent as a corollary thereof. Relying heavily on Debra Bergoffen’s work on international tribunals on war rapes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, du Toit explains, rather, that rape concerns a physically coded violation of dignity that places it on the same plane as other crimes against humanity such as torture and slavery. Comparative analysis of these enables a phenomenological interpretation inspired by Merleau-Ponty, which evokes the fundamental ambivalence of the embodied human as both object and subject and calls for a thinking in terms of our living sensuality and enmeshed erotics. The essay is laden with insights that await unpacking via critical confrontations with other feminist and phenomenological work touched on in passing or raised by suggestion.

Laura Roberts takes forward the question of erotics signalled by du Toit and frames a dialogue between Irigaray and Spivak (which is surprisingly helpful in clarifying their otherwise abstruse texts), in order to conceive a feminist ethics of solidarity that is synaptically global rather than universal in a way that subsumes the other under itself. Spivak finds in Irigaray’s concept of sexuate difference as an irreducible difference a point of departure for thinking of an ethical relation to another, and in the question of women’s pleasure an excess-within-difference that can develop it as a radically indeterminate moment moving bodies together (in love) and playing between discourses (in translation or teaching). This style of thought naturally resists straightforward exegesis, proceeds performatively, and baffles any mere spectator or reviewer, but may at the very least be taken as articulating the “sensible transcendental” conditions of possibility of a solidarity to come, if one were to press mundanely about the solidarity hereby made possible.

Sharli Paphitis and Lindsay-Ann Kelland broach the question of South African identity from the standpoint of white individuals and record their personal struggles with it. As it is avowedly a personal question, albeit posed in a collective and impersonal register, it could have occasioned reflection on the very decision to write together (along with others like the focus on their race and citizenship, rather than, for instance, their being women), even if one did not want (but why not?) to go to Spivakian lengths of autoanalysis. Paphitis and Kelland do reflect on their guilt and shame, taking these as two kinds of relationships determining identity, one with their forefathers (their word) and another with their black compatriots, and they find that, denials of history and denials of recognition respectively riddle their reflection. Yet, they refrain from using the analysis of this emotional experience to disclose any larger truths, say, about being and intersubjectivity, and accept that they have merely begun their journey of self-discovery.

Louis Blond closes the volume with a reluctant defense of Levinas against postcolonial criticism of the topic of alterity. The essay includes a useful genealogical sketch of this topic, thus bookending Moran’s own on identity, to lead us up to the basic framework of Levinasian thought and interventions by critics as well as sympathetic commentators. Although Levinas is celebrated for stressing the singularity of the other and ethical confrontations ensuing from it, critics object that this denies representational politics or repeats exclusionary gestures of a colonial extraction or they point to plain instances of bigotry. However, postcolonial thought is not always beyond reproach, especially in overstating the body’s passivity against the transcendent-spiritual orientation of Levinasian thought, while, Blond hopes, repairing blind spots in the latter can preserve its intrinsically valuable prioritization of the ethical and social relation.

As I hope to have shown, the collection is uneven: some chapters are stronger, some weaker, some are interpretive or analytical, while some are programmatically promissory or resolutely exegetical, some are dense and some lucid. Given the editorial decision to represent a variety of voices, this may even be welcome. An unevenness harder to specify, however, concerns their intended audience. For, a few chapters will appeal to philosophers searching for argumentative developments in their fields, while others speak to generalists looking for the big picture, and some to non-philosophers interested in introducing themselves to specific ideas and movements. The publisher’s blurb recognizes this and addresses itself to the humanities at large. Inasmuch as philosophers are accused of not doing so, the book corrects a fault and ably informs a diverse readership about the variety of debates prevalent today about identity, difference, and the self.

Charles Taylor: The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity

The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity Book Cover The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity
Charles Taylor
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Hardcover, $35

Reviewed by: W. Clark Wolf (Department of Philosophy, Marquette University)

Charles Taylor’s new book places the meaning-making capacity of language in service of a philosophical anthropology that has been at the heart of his influential work for decades. In general, Taylor’s hermeneutical approach to philosophy emphasizes the essential character of “human meanings” for any explanation of our world. Taylor has long been concerned that the naturalistic approach dominate in mainstream analytic philosophy has no room to accommodate these uniquely human – “metabiological” – meanings. His new book suggests that a central aspect of the naturalistic failure to understand the human world is due to a faulty conception of language that has been dominant since Frege, and indeed for a lot longer.  Taylor places blame on the empiricist view of language common to Hobbes, Locke, and Condillac (HLC).  Since, as Taylor argues, language plays an indispensable role in the constitution of the human world (especially in its ubiquitous normativity), an impoverished view of language has resulted in an impoverished conception of ourselves.  Taylor proposes that an alternative historical tradition of reflection on language—for which he credits especially Hamann, Herder, and Humbolt (HHH), but which includes the Romantics and phenomenological thinkers like Heidegger as well—provides an understanding of language that simultaneously underlies an adequate philosophical anthropology.  Using insights from this tradition as well as his own gift for apt description, Taylor attempts to demonstrate what mainstream philosophical reflection on language has missed and what an appreciation of “the full shape of the linguistic capacity” has to say about the kind of “animal” we are.

The Basic Argument

The core argument of the book concerns the distinction between the “designative” and “constitutive” function of language.  Taylor argues that both the HLC tradition of linguistic thinking as well as post-Fregean philosophy of language rely on a model of language wherein its primary (even exclusive) function is to provide signs for designating objects.  Accordingly, the existence and characteristics of which can be noticed and known quite independently of those signs.  Taylor calls this an “enframing” theory of language, since here language merely puts a framework of human life in place that exists without its help (p. 3).  The central doctrine of the enframing theory is that words are signs for prior thoughts.  Thus, according to HLC, words are at best obtrusive windows into thought, necessary expedients.  This view works hand in hand with a firm rejection of any “Cratylean” dimension to language, a sense that words can “fit” the things they express.  Though Taylor acknowledges the modifications to the early modern conception of language within analytic philosophy, he thinks that the mainstream tradition has preserved the central elements of that doctrine.  Despite Frege’s appreciation of the fact that words themselves cannot function as signs or meanings of anything apart from the context of a sentence or proposition, analytic philosophy maintained a primarily epistemological interest in language (p. 117), and for this reason seemed only or primarily to notice its assertive dimension.  As Robert Brandom puts it, the “assertion game” of language is the one that could be played “though one played no other” (p. 127).  Thus, even if other aspects of language are acknowledged, they turn out to be subordinate to its role of enabling the communication of veridical thoughts.  According to Taylor, this perpetuates the notion that the function of language is merely to designate what is otherwise available.

Happily, Taylor contends that this impoverished view of language is not the only one on offer. Developed partially in response to the designative view as developed by Locke and Condillac, thinkers like Hamann and Herder inaugurated a conception of language which recognizes its constitutive dimension. Taylor explains this idea using the concept of “articulation,” which was especially significant for a later figure in this tradition, Wilhelm von Humboldt.  To articulate, for Taylor, is not simply to express some feature of the world already in the open, but to make it possible to notice this feature in the first place.  As Humboldt took pains to demonstrate, human speech uniquely allows for the inscription of differences that allows for the production of diverse thoughts[1] (an insight further developed by Saussure).  For this reason, a determinate thought cannot precede a word as its mere sign, but the thought can only emerge coevally with the articulation of the word.  If thought does not precede a merely instrumental language, language itself must play a productive role.  Taylor argues that it is “human meanings” that are constituted by language.

Human meanings are the modes of significance possible for us on a “metabiological” level, integral features of our ordinary lives such as music, morality, and political community.  In each of these cases, language (understood in a broad sense) plays a role in “enacting” a meaning that becomes bound to a certain feature of life, but goes beyond anything merely given.  Language for Taylor is thus the clue for the discontinuity between ourselves and the “extralinguistic” or natural world.  As he writes,

“We can’t explain language by the function it plays within a pre- or extralinguistically conceived framework of human life, because language through constituting the semantic dimension transforms any such framework, giving us new feelings, new desires, new goals, new relationships, and introduces a dimension of strong value.  Language can only be explained through a radical discontinuity with the extralinguistic” (p. 33).

In a strong sense, for Taylor, language provides the basis for all human meanings that transcend our mere naturalness.  This is why I suggest that Taylor here proposes something like the foundation of a “philosophical anthropology.”[2]

Taylor’s critical task is to demonstrate the weaknesses of the “enframing” theory as an account of language as it actually features in human life.  His positive task is to convince us of how the productive and constitutive function of language is an ever-present (but easily ignored) dimension of ordinary life.  To address these tasks, the book is divided into three parts.[3]

Part I, “Language as Constitutive,” argues for the existence of a constitutive dimension of language in contrast to a merely designative function.  Taylor informs his perspective here both with classic and contemporary linguistic theory, as well as onto-genetic accounts of language development in children.  This research shows that the HLC account of language has underestimated the way in which language is embedded and embodied in broader contexts of human life.  Taylor emphasizes, for example, the way language figures in human life as essentially accompanied by bodily gesture and social ritual.  The empiricist conception of language as designative simply has no room for such considerations, but this deprives it of explanatory and even descriptive power.  The HLC conception of language is fed by a “narrow diet of examples.”

Part II, “From Descriptive to Constitutive,” begins by addressing more specifically the historical roots of the “enframing” theory of language as it originates in empiricism.  For Taylor, the key element of this theory lies in its commitment to the notion that thought is prior to language, so that language should be at best an “unobtrusive” window into individual minds.  Taylor then considers the merits of Frege’s revolutionary work in the philosophy of language but suggests that, despite crucial innovations, he (and the tradition following him) preserved two mistakes of the empiricists.  First, the post-Fregean tradition continues to suppose that words denote features of the world that have already come to our attention (p. 133).  In this sense, language does not constitute genuinely new meanings.  Second, the analytic tradition ignores what Taylor calls the “Cratylean” dimension of language.  By this, Taylor means the ability of language to seem somehow “fitting” to the world.  We can experience a metaphor, for example, as getting it right, as articulating a new aspect of things that we couldn’t have noticed without its help (p. 137).  Taylor continues Part II by giving a positive account of the constitutive dimension of language that is missed by the HLC tradition.  His focus is on what he calls “human meanings,” which always belonging within a network of significance for us.  Human meanings are thus intimately interconnected with our practices, values, and emotions.  Since language does not describe human meanings that exist prior to their linguistic articulation, Taylor shows that this dimension simply cannot be captured by a designative view of language.

The final part, “Further Applications,” takes a look at how appreciating the constitutive dimension of language helps to understand two more specific issues.  Taylor first discusses a thesis central to Paul Ricoeur’s work, that narrative is hermeneutically irreplaceable.  That is, narrative understanding cannot be reproduced in the temporally neutral language of facts.  This shows how the insights gained from a literary work, for example, cannot be stated without reference to narrative context that gave them rise.  The final chapter addresses the “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis that each language creates an incommensurable conceptual world, or “linguistic relativism.”  Taylor’s distinction between the designative and constitutive dimensions of language enables him to take a nuanced view of this thesis.  He suggests that the application of linguistic relativism to designative contexts is unconvincing, that where language serves as a vehicle for signifying objects, different practices do not support the idea of radically different linguistic worlds.  On the other hand, in language’s constitutive dimension, where elements of our “ontology” are brought to light by our linguistic practices, we should expect a measure of incommensurability (325).  This serves as a warning to the “imperialistic” temptations of enframing theories of language (like Davidson’s, for example), which suppose that we can understand someone’s language without a thick mutual understanding.

The Humanization of “Meaning”

Taylor’s book serves less to introduce a totally new approach to the philosophy of language or “philosophical anthropology” as to remind of the founding insights of the hermeneutical tradition and to provide them with further support, especially from recent empirical studies.  I hesitate to say that those familiar with the work of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer on language, not to mention the prior work of Taylor himself, will find little of groundbreaking significance here.[4]  Moreover, despite Taylor’s passing mentions of Ernst Cassirer’s theory of “symbolic forms,” Cassirer himself develops a more systematic and arguably more persuasive account of the unique function of “human meaning” in the constitution of culture and knowledge.  This is only to say that the function of Taylor’s book is pedagogical and perhaps therapeutic, rather than didactic.  The virtue of Taylor’s writing is the way he “assembles reminders” for the sake of his purpose (as Wittgenstein describes the work of a philosopher).  That is, Taylor tells us what we already know but easily forget, especially amidst the tendency to over-intellectualize so tempting to philosophy.  Taylor’s work is therapeutic in the way he attempts to reconcile us to our way of life in the “immanent frame.”  Taylor wants us to notice how we already live, rather than to change our lives.  His anti-naturalist stance relies simply on the sense that a de-humanizing theory requires forgetting the way in which we “always already” depend on a structure of human meanings that cannot be explained from the outside.  While Taylor’s book may not be obligatory for the specialist, it is rewarding for the sympathetic enthusiast as well as the hermeneutical neophyte.

            Nevertheless, I think there are significant causes for concern with Taylor’s project.  I will discuss a few briefly.  First, Taylor’s work exemplifies a commitment to a hermeneutical style of philosophy that may strike phenomenologically (not to mention analytically) oriented readers as lacking method.  While Husserl’s phenomenology employs a descriptive method in service of the elucidation of “essences” or eidetic invariances, Taylor’s hermeneutics seems to license the use of anecdotal description for any generic project of sense-making or understanding.  As Taylor describes hermeneutical reason, it is characterized by drawing together a “constellation” of meanings within some larger whole, against which the parts find greater significance (pp. 317-18).  This implies, to a certain extent, that nothing is off-limits for Taylor.  Anything, so long as it can claim to be a part of the whole under consideration, can make a demand to be explained.  In particular, Taylor’s approach allows him to include a number of surprising features under the banner of language—feelings, gestures, rituals, music, etc.—that are obviously connected with the phenomenon of language in ordinary life, but don’t seem to be essential to a conceptual articulation of language.  Taylor can then condemn rival accounts of language for failing to include such elements in their consideration, but their inclusion seems dependent on a holism so broad it starts to spread thin.  Taylor seems to forget that that hermeneutical holism can be maintained even while it is bracketed in favor of topical specificity.  On occasion, Taylor’s criticisms of rival philosophers amount to a complaint that they are not doing everything all at once.

            A second concern relates to Taylor’s concept of “human meanings,” the central target of his book.  Taylor’s concept of human meanings seems vague and this almost as a matter of principle.  Namely, Taylor resists any distinction between the conceptual articulation of human meanings from their embodiment in human practice.  To speak of “human meaning” is to speak of “the significance things have for us” (p. 179), and this in a way that seems viciously subjectivist.  While one can agree with Taylor concerning way the genesis of human meanings is coeval with their embodied “enactment,” this does not imply that these human meanings cannot be discussed on a level of abstraction (our rightful caution of this word should not deny it a legitimate place in thought).  Failure to distinguish the conceptual level from the mode of its embodiment leads Taylor to bind human meanings to a thorough vagueness or indeterminacy.  It is because he does not allow for an (at least notional) abstraction of conceptual meaning that he can say of human meanings, “These meanings cannot escape the circles which help determine their significance; and these circles are always changing.  Hence they defy final and decisive definition” (p. 257).  Taylor means that our inevitably human concepts concerning morality, mind, custom, and language itself always resist genuine determinacy, since they are bound to personal significance.  This seems to reinstate a stereotypical contrast between rationalistic science and fuzzy humanism.  Taylor fails to recognize the legitimate rational stratum in human meanings, which is precisely necessary for the critical evaluation of such meanings.

It is here that Husserlian phenomenology holds out a promise.  For Husserl, the eidetic clarification of fundamental concepts is not restricted to those that figure in “hard” natural sciences, but includes those that figure in the “life-world” just as well.  Husserl writes,

“As regards this, nothing prevents starting at first quite concretely with the human life-world around us, and with man himself as essentially related to this our surrounding world, and exploring, indeed purely intuitively, the extremely copius and never-discovered Apriori of any such surrounding world whatever, taking this Apriori as the point of departure for a systematic explication of human existence and of world strata that disclose themselves correlatively with the latter.”[5]

For Husserl, the natural human starting point provides the basic material for inquiry, but phenomenological inquiry employs it for the constitution of clarified concepts (though they are founded intuitively).  My concern with Taylor’s understanding of human meanings is that he takes their naïve and unclarified role in human life as their ultimate truth.  His account leads us to resist ultimate clarification of these meanings, since such a clarification could only abstract from the particular contexts in which these meanings have their genetic origin for us.  Taylor’s humanization of meaning is a shelter for the vagueness of meaning, while Husserl suggests that the normatively structured concepts of the human world are those that ought to be most clear.[6]

            In short, the fact that language (even taken in Taylor’s broad sense) helps constitute a world for us that goes beyond the reach of natural science does not have to have the consequence that Taylor suggests, that this world is one that can be felt but not conceptually grasped.  This is of course a Hegelian point, and, from that point of view, it seems telling that Taylor’s Romantic turn has led him to undervalue conceptuality.  We have seen that this puts Taylor at odds with a Husserlian conception of phenomenology as well.  Still, while Taylor’s work will do little to sway those with rationalist leanings, he provides a thorough and engaging account of an embodied approach to language, meaning, and human life.  His book is especially recommended as an insightful reminder of the ways in which we inhabit a world which larger depends on our own making.

[1] See Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, trans. Peter Heath, ed. Michael Losonsky (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), §§ 8-10.

[2] This tendency of Taylor’s makes a close analogy with Ernst Cassirer’s use of his philosophy of “symbolic forms” as the basis for a philosophical anthropology in his An Essay on Man: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944).  Taylor often alludes to Cassirer’s notion of symbolic forms, but the influence is clear throughout.  Cassirer, too, uses the inspiration of the linguistic theories of Herder and Humboldt his The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 1: Language, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).

[3] I will forgo the typical chapter-by-chapter summary, a version of which is easily accessible in Michael Forster’s review of the same book:

[4] See especially, Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977); Charles Taylor, “Language and Human Nature” and “Theories of Meaning,” in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1: Human Agency and Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

[5] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorian Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 138; Hua. I, 165.

[6] Notice that just later in Husserl’s text we find the conceptual aim of his investigations clarified: “Thus the investigations concerning the transcendental constitution of the world, which we have roughly indicated in these meditations, are precisely the beginning of a radical clarification of the sense and origin (or of the sense in consequence of the origin) of the concepts: world, Nature, space, time, psychophysical being, man, psyche, animate organism, social community, culture, and so forth.” Ibid., 154; Hua. I, 180.

Alix Cohen (Ed.): Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide

Kant's Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide Book Cover Kant's Lectures on Anthropology: A Critical Guide
Cambridge Critical Guides
Alix Cohen (Ed.)
Cambridge University Press
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