John J. Drummond and Otfried Höffe (Eds.): Husserl: German Perspectives

Husserl: German Perspectives Book Cover Husserl: German Perspectives
John J. Drummond and Otfried Höffe (Eds.)
Fordham University Press
2019
Hardback $75.00
361

Reviewed by: Meghant Sudan (Boise State University)

Twelve strong essays in this excellent and impressively well-knit collection present different but convergent examinations of master-themes in Husserl’s philosophy like intentionality and the reduction/s, while also discussing specific doctrines relating to psychologism, the eidetic method, objectifying acts, time-consciousness, truth and error, monadological construction, and the intersection of phenomenology and cultural critique.  The authors use a variety of approaches, historical or developmental readings and analytic commentary, comparative analysis and speculative interpretation, and, while several authors, along with the editors, are well-known to anglophone phenomenologists and Kantians, even the less familiar ones are easily recognized names in the field (the collection features four deceased philosophers, five emeritus professors, four senior figures, and one younger researcher).  The essays were originally written in German, dating mostly from the 1980s-1990s with a few from the first decade of our century, and the translators Hayden Kee, Patrick Eldridge, and Robin Litscher Wilkins have conveyed their different philosophical and rhetorical styles with facility.  Overall, the collection promises to present (to a non-initiate, it should be noted) Husserl’s thought through “German perspectives.”

It is worth pausing to consider what this last could mean.  For it promises to show a whole force-field of thought determined by linguistic, geographical, and historical connections, and even how these determinations are themselves determined by what is left out, that is, the kind of work occurring in other, principally anglophone traditions.  For instance, the collection emphasizes the dense overlap of Husserlian and Heideggerean views as opposed to cleanly separating the two, while it underplays treatments of Gadamer and Merleau-Ponty and with them certain types of questions of aesthetics, materiality, and intersubjectivity, which form a dominant thrust in the anglophone reception of phenomenology in Continental-philosophical quarters.  Similar determining occlusions can be mentioned with respect to Analytic-philosophical quarters, for example, the absence of applications of phenomenology to cognitive science (and vice-versa) or the interpretation of Buddhist doctrines, or, given the unifying thread throughout the volume, which understands intentionality in highly active and teleological terms, the absence of treatments of kinaesthesia and action-in-perception views.  Finally, aside from the last essay on Husserl’s thought through the Crisis, the collection passes up the chance to examine the very notion of a perspective as cultural, such as one that might be German but also European (itself universalized and universalizing) by way of recovering ancient Greek thought according to a German self-understanding prepared over the 18th and 19th centuries.

Or one could bring under “German perspectives” a number of major, agenda-setting articles unavailable in translation; or those from a devoted journal or issue or proceedings from a signal conference, whose historical significance has been recognized; or the workings of a particularly productive group or research from a particular archive; or translations of introductions to standardized editions of Husserl’s works; or simply the task of introducing some well-known figures and works to anglophone readership as R.O. Elveton’s classic little collection did several years ago, although several authors in the present volume require no introduction; or the relation of Husserl’s thought to other points taken as definitive of German philosophy (Leibniz-Wolff, German Idealism).  In their short, elegant introduction, the editors state that the volume simply aims to bring before an English-language reader some previously untranslated articles by important German-language commentators, showcasing conversations they have with other important German-language philosophers.  Of course, neither this deflationary description nor the curious designation “German Perspectives” in any way detracts from the high quality of the collection, and, in fact, the conversations linking the pieces in multiple ways, I find, constitute its greatest strength. I take the designation, however, as recording the need for further attempts along lines noted in the list above, some of whose elements can be glimpsed occasionally through the collection, which this review will highlight in the course of addressing each article in order.

Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl (1997)[1] revisits Hussserl’s critique of psychologism in the Prolegomena to show that it was only partially successful, which helps understand in a subtler way the major philosophical re-orientation that followed. Thus, no rectilinear path takes us from the psychologism-critique to the transcendental-philosophical stages of Husserl’s work and questions broached in earlier stages persistently re-appear later.  This is because Husserl’s critique did not attend as much to the presuppositions of a psychologistic view as it did to the debilitating consequences of that view, which were taken as endorsing subjectivism and skepticism.  This conflated different skeptical charges (logical, epistemological, metaphysical) and missed, quite directly, the issue of a dispute of principles, or the problem of the criterion, between psychologistic and anti-psychologistic standpoints, and, indirectly, the need to interrogate the latent issues of psychologism and Platonism in Husserl’s use of descriptive psychology and the foundations of normativity asserted in both psychologistic and anti-psychologistic models, albeit differently.

Husserl’s development of the phenomenological reduction enabled such interrogations spanning across static and genetic phenomenological inquiries.  They did not arise with sole regard to developing a practical-philosophical framing against an overly theoretical one (a view tempted by the later talk of the life-world) but by reframing of the operative conception of science in order to handle the previously overlooked skeptical problems.  Pure logic’s “objectivistic” model of science is replaced by a more subjectivistic model supplied by philosophy itself, as the debate shifts from being between logic and psychology to one between philosophy and psychology and the rejection of epistemological skepticism as a condition of philosophy replaces a narrower overcoming of logical skepticism for the sake of pure logic as a science of science (36-38).  Rinofner-Kreidl proceeds carefully and meticulously, but perhaps due to this it is hard to find many references to German perspectives beyond the odd citation of a counter-critique from a psychologistic point of view, and one gets the impression that an obvious and influential German elephant in the room has been neglected, namely, the German Idealist shape of this transcendental-philosophical battle with skepticism at the level of principles and over the possibility of philosophy itself as a science of science.  Rinofner-Kreidl’s detailed analysis thus sheds light on the dark corners of Husserl’s articulation of the problem of psychologism, but has the unfortunate effect of making the Logical Investigations appear insufficiently philosophical, philosophy itself being discovered by Husserl only afterwards.

Ludwig Landgrebe (d.1991; undated essay), by contrast, stresses the inner philosophical unity running through Husserl’s oeuvre, thus, a unity animating, even if in embryonic form, the early works as well as the psychologism-critique of the Investigations (51-59), by focusing on the concept of intentionality and underlining its achieving, striving character.  Further, he provides the German context for a divided reception of this concept: on the one hand, phenomenology took up the descriptive-psychological investigations as de-linked from this inner thematic, widened a growing rift between eidetics- and ontology-centric approaches, and overall divorced from phenomenological studies a deeper ontology-critique that was always a part of Husserl’s efforts; on the other hand, phenomenology retained this deeper critical edge and fundamentally re-thought the inner thematic itself, which Heidegger did in re-situating the analysis of intentionality on the grounds of the facticity of Dasein.

According to Landgrebe, it is not simply the case that Heidegger rejects the reduction as a method (for it was always more than a way to initiate constitution-analyses of consciousness and already engaged the possibility of ontology in Husserl), nor merely that Heidegger begins his intentional analysis from being-in-the-world rather than the other way around (for the Husserlian apprehension of intentionality as active, self-producing and self-temporalizing form already broke through mundane comportments towards their inner structure).  Rather, Heidegger contests the model of subjectivity assumed in these conceptions of intentionality and reduction, which comprises reflection and an “attitude of impartial observing” (75) achieved by bracketing one’s determinate Dasein in order to universalize the partial acts of reflection.  This, however, conceives oneself as only an indifferent other and fails to apprehend the self-knowing of Dasein in its performance of existence, which takes us to the limits of intentional analysis, since the synthetic constitution of an object can no longer be found here.  How an a priori is to be still articulated here, how a metaphysic of facticity is possible – these questions remained on Husserl’s mind in the last years and remain open for future phenomenology, for Landgrebe.

Jan Patočka (1982) too takes intentionality in its active, dynamic form to be a guiding principle for phenomenology at large and uses it to examine the Husserl-Heidegger relation, although not to see in  it a parting of ways but an interweaving of interests and a critical continuity of the phenomenological project.  At the heart of such a reconciliation is Patočka’s reading of the reduction as marked by a fundamental circumscription (the suspension of the epoché distinguished from an alleged march to reduce all being to the absolute sphere of consciousness), which both bridges the rift Landgrebe outlined between eidetic and ontological strains of phenomenological research and qualifies Heidegger’s seeming rejection of the reduction.  Patočka bases his reading on Husserl’s 1907 lectures on The Idea of Phenomenology to find that the reduction maintains a positivity of being and envisions research into phenomena as resisting a total absorption into immanence by inexhaustible progress through experience, balancing eidetic reflection against the constructions of positivity in science or modernity itself.

Although Husserl couched the reduction in a subjectivist vocabulary stemming from Kant and Fichte,[2] the tension present in it between reifying and non-objectifying aspects, and of questions of being and nothing, allows us to discern Heideggerean motives that are otherwise expressed in the language of moods and errances of being.  Thus, “the possibility of an epoché and its limbo is inherent in the experience of annihilation… [I]t is not the epoché that establishes the limbo upon which the phenomenological reduction is built up, but rather the epoché presupposes the experience of the limbo….” (99-100).  While Heidegger’s critique takes this nihilating moment to the greatest distances from Husserl in using it to launch a metaphysical critique of the presupposition of acts of negation in formal logic, Patočka believes it possible (and believes Heidegger believed a reconciliation was possible) to see both thinkers grounding their overall visions for philosophy upon a reflection on crisis as such, which remains the task of future shapes of phenomenology.

Dieter Lohmar’s (2005) defense of eidetic intuition and variation as a self-standing phenomenological method continues within the outline of the German reception of Husserl’s thought as given by Landgrebe and continues with Patočka to question the reduction’s claims to be a univocal, unitary phenomenological method.  Lohmar argues that eidetic intuition should be seen as a variety of categorial intuition insofar as both preserve a basic orientation to the possibility of knowing an object through a pathway of syntheses of coincidence.  This clarifies how eidetic variation is the key element of a method centered on eidetic intuition, which overcomes nagging questions in that method about non-givenness in intuition for certain classes of objects (image consciousness, universal objects) by asserting the functional primacy of free variation in phantasy over perception. One might hold that free variation needs the reduction to get off the ground, but Lohmar explains that both eidetic variation and the phenomenological reduction suspend the factual to reveal universals, but their purposes are different, as reduction targets validity justifications but variation lets us uncover structures of clarity answering to initially vague concepts, thus undertaking the philosophical clarification of knowledge itself.

This is a clear account of the method, and Lohmar does address worries about its limits (how far must we go?  when do we stop? do we presuppose a concept in clarifying a concept? is cultural parochialism inherent in the limits of the operation and the concept clarified?), but Lohmar hastily brushes aside other questions in its wake or gestures towards the genetic theory of types for further development of the method, undermining its claims to theoretical independence.  If the process sounds like an empiricist account of the generation of concepts or even what Kant calls their logical origin in acts of comparison and abstraction, we are told that Husserl is not indulging in a genetic psychology of concepts, but is in pursuit of universal objects, and in any case, Kant too buried many secrets about the imagination’s powers in the depths of the human soul; if the Platonism charge is recalled at this point, we are told that Husserl really treats Platonism as little more than mysticism and does not assert a separate realm of irreal being; if we ask after the apriority these objects may still claim, even without reminders about their location in the realm of absolute being of consciousness, we are told that Husserlian apriority is not severed from experience like Kant’s but more like Humean induction; if we ask about the Humean legacy, we are referred to Husserl’s un-Humean, mitigated Platonism; etc.  What one misses is an actual confrontation with these issues, which are either invoked by Lohmar himself (not only when he brings up Kant as a foil, but also when he describes seeing the a priori in the very ways that trouble Kant’s problematic theory of constructing concepts [137-138n.57]) or which are present in Husserl and call for greater scrutiny (the relation of the doctrines of eidetic intuition and variation in the 6th Investigation to the critique of Modern nominalism and of Humean doctrines like ‘circles of resemblance’ in the 2nd Investigation). Overall, however, that eidetic investigation seems to have kept the Husserl-Archiv in Köln busy relatively recently (133n.1) indicates that this German perspective of inquiry is alive and well, Landgrebe’s diagnoses notwithstanding.

Karl Schuhmann (1991) presents an historical German perspective as he takes us back to Husserl’s manuscripts prior to the Logical Investigations and complicates the story of origins, somewhat as Rinofner-Kreidl did, by arguing that the discovery of intentionality did not occur entirely within the scope of Brentano’s doctrine, as the 5th Investigation may lead us to believe, but emerged from efforts to resolve Twardowski’s proposals in its vicinity.  This also yields the corollary that Husserl’s progress towards a theory of noema does not follow directly from the initial conception of intentionality.  The problem posed by Twardowski asks about the way representations can both relate to an object (for a representation represents something) and yet not relate to an object (when nothing in actuality answers to it).[3] Twardowski’s solution proposed two kinds of objects to reconcile the universal relation to objects as well (as psychic contents) cases of actual objects. Husserl rejected this solution for its psychological implausibility (unlimited variety and complexity of psychic contents) and epistemological redundancy (the object known is always one and the object of a contradiction does not exist in any guise).

This, however, moved him into treating all propositions as falling under a guiding assumption for the relevant discourse, which modifies not objectivity but the position of the subject and its representations.  Husserl’s solution thus turns to the subject, its doxic investments and the discursive form of knowledge, which suggest the new concept of intentionality; but he is still far from clarifying the systematic place of the subject in which these acts and contents take place, the consistency and priorities among different discursive forms of objectivity, and the coherence of judgment forms with perceptual knowing. But the future concept that dealt with the latter issues cannot be said to simply arise from the early concept, because the question of being was not posed in any critical way at all earlier and because the later concept of noema recalls elements of Twardowski’s interpretation, which had supposedly been overcome.  Schuhmann leaves us with tantalizingly brief indications (which may be the case when working from fragmentary manuscripts, although Brentano’s and Twardowski’s theses could have been developed more broadly to give a fuller sense of the territory within which Husserl worked), without paving with further clues from developmental history the actual path from here to the theories of intentionality in the Logical Investigations and Ideas I.

Verena Mayer and Christopher Erhard (2008) take up the concept of intentionality as developed in the 5th Logical Investigation, and, although this essay is a solid and detailed exposition of the main sections of this Investigation (thus filling an oppressive gap in the literature while also conversing with the few who do attend to this topic), it also helps understand more broadly some key areas of concern for the early Husserl signaled by Schuhmann, such as the question of fitting judgment with perception, details from the general background and the internal critique of Brentano that contextualized Husserl’s own forays, the holism about mental contents that enables an analysis at the level of acts rather than isolated attention to representations or images or names or judgments, etc.

Importantly, Mayer walks us through the 5th Investigation as it integrates different mental components into the concept of an act with its intentional essence, which is crucial for understanding the active nature of intentionality as a horizonally shaped process of a cognitive fulfillment. Erhard provides a detailed reconstruction of the concept of objectifying acts, which is important to understand how the intentionality of an experience is variously articulated and modified, sometimes at the level of content, sometimes at the level of quality, in regard either to imaginative variation or to identifying syntheses in actual cognition. Owing to the expository nature of this commentary, one sometimes feels the need for critical argumentation over merely presenting Husserl’s view, which is admittedly hard to discern in these thickets.  The authors are aware that the 5th Investigation is tortuous terrain, but precisely its complexity offers a rich field of interaction with Analytic Philosophy and their own effort to craft a workable platform across this terrain is already a necessary step towards such dialogue.

Ulrich Melle (1990) deepens the investigation into objectifying acts by clarifying it against non-objectifying acts, which Mayer and Erhard had noted as a topic developed more fully by Husserl only after the Logical Investigations, and by drawing out the larger context of these acts, which tug at the models of perception and judgment in different ways and inform Husserl’s “pluralistic theory of reason…[as] logical-cognitive, axiological, and practical.” (193)  Melle relies on manuscripts of Husserl’s ethics lectures (1908/9, 1911, 1914, 1920) to bring out Husserl’s vexations over adjusting objectifying and non-objectifying acts at different levels, trying at times to understand the latter acts of valuing, feeling, desiring, and willing in terms of the former acts of perception and intellection, recognizing at others a self-sufficiency of non-objectifying acts in terms of objective content or existence-positing modifications.

Even if these attempts are not settled conclusively, Melle persuasively shows both the blurring of the distinction between the two types of acts and the concomitant unification of theory of reason as obtaining over different types of objectivities.  This lucid essay is too short, however, to learn more about the way the theory of reason develops along the traditional axes of the true, the beautiful, and the good, while responding to the new objectivities on offer through non-objectifying acts, or about ways to strengthen suggestions that these reflections on value-theory bend Husserl’s overall project or put pressures on particular tendencies in it, such as the content-apprehension scheme.  One is left wanting especially in regard to other German perspectives on these questions, whether other phenomenological work on ethics like Scheler’s, or, what is better known in the anglophone world, Heidegger’s attention to the question of being and to art and Gadamer’s investigations of aesthetics.

Klaus Held (1981, with references updated to include recent publications) provides a dense meditation on the phenomenology of time to explicate the Husserlian notion and to outline possibilities beyond it by overcoming its residual Cartesianism.  The latter is indicated in the very terminology of time-consciousness that lures the underlying idea into the trap of subjectivism, from which Held seeks to liberate that idea to see time as that which “measures the phenomenal field in its fluctuation” (210; the Aristotelian-Heideggerean punning intended by Held).  Like others in this volume, Held views intentionality as a fundamentally dynamical condition and one vividly sees the interaction with other German perspectives here as he thinks collaboratively with other authors in this volume like Landgrebe and Patočka.  But he stresses, with distinctively dialectical imagery (placing yet other German perspectives in view), the primacy of various tensions and oscillations, flow and passivity, withdrawals and emergences, which constitute the field of appearance stretching between or before subject and object.

This field of appearance in its essential fluidity should explain subjectivity, rather than the other way around, and instead of getting by with surrogates like “pre-objective” or “primal impression,” one must genuinely get hold of the ways in which unity of presentation is determined by the pulsating functions of the field itself.  Further, Held seeks to explain how the latter becomes fixed in form-content distinctions that, as revealed by his dissection of it, cloud Husserl’s account of time-consciousness.  Thus, by undoing presuppositions and untying knots in apprehending features of the phenomenal field such as its past and futural directionality, the subjective phenomena of remembering and forgetting, Held intends for his own proposal to remain phenomenological just when it is in danger of becoming an external dialectical construction.  Where this danger seems to be greatest is in Held’s attempt to reconcile the appropriatedly revised Husserlian theory with Heidegger’s discussion of moods and the disclosedness of the basic rhythm of life between poles of natality and mortality, which lends the “living present” its material vitality and actional character.  The undeniable appeal of the resulting view, however, encourages the interpretive risks.

Rudolf Bernet (2012) continues the attempt to think Husserl along with Heidegger by seeing the latter’s concepts of truth and untruth as grounded in Husserlian viewpoints, which also helps see a continuity between early and late Heidegger himself.  Untruth, for Husserl, is thought in terms of empty intending, which is shown to be consistent with accounts of idle chatter in Heidegger, and the way that idle chatter still bears a relation to truth, as do all human comportments, allows consistency with the essential cognitive drive of intentionality for Husserl.  Husserl’s conception of falsehood as a disappointment or conflict lies in a stronger dimension of truth than a merely unfulfilled intention. This too agrees with Heidegger’s conception in Being and Time of Dasein’s covering-over comportment, which still manifests a self-showing in cases of semblant appearing.

In one respect, Heidegger’s later conception through alethic disclosing draws closer to Husserl’s conception as he now “think[s] disclosedness and hiddenness through one another” (148) essentially and not only in terms of Dasein’s modes of fallenness.  But the increasing role of mystery in the later Heidegger escapes Husserlian synthetic projections entirely, and Bernet tries to show with reference to the Parmenides lectures that this leads to internal problems of its own, as Heidegger tries to derive the concept of mere falsehood and the concept of untruth proper or mystery as both types of a fundamental hiddenness.  Bernet’s exploration of the latter point could have been bolstered by an examination of Heidegger’s own critique of logic, which was touched on in Held’s essay.  But that would be a different essay, while the present one provides a very economical discussion of the central concepts at play and includes a very helpful list of references to all relevant texts on the doctrine of truth in Heidegger, and also broadens its own German perspectives to works written in French.

Karl Mertens (2000) examines the arguably directly German perspective invoked by Husserl himself in his invocations of Leibnizian monadology to articulate problems of intersubjectivity.  Since this dialogue, Mertens finds, is ultimately nugatory, it serves to caution against merging traditional metaphysics with Husserlian phenomenology. Yet, it may also be seen as spurring reformulations of phenomenology itself: in this regard Mertens’s essay is well positioned as leading into the last two essays considering Husserl’s thought in the Crisis, and, even if his essay is too short to dig deeper, Mertens rightly recognizes this juncture as a broadening of German perspectives by those opened up by Merleau-Ponty.  The endnotes include particularly useful pointers for further (German-language) discussions of various issues, both classic and contemporary.

Husserl turns to Leibniz as to a compatriot seeking to replace the bare Cartesian ego with an appropriately complex account of the concrete structures of subjectivity in the concept of the monad.  Leibniz was responding to classical problems about the individuality of substance and so his solutions simply do not work for a phenomenology operating on a very different plane.  Indeed, it is a mystery why Husserl looks to Leibniz at all, for the windowless monad allows no genuine intersubjectivity and the perspectivalist approach they seem to share goes no further than superficial similarity.  Unfortunately, Mertens does not help understand this mystery, nor the compounding mystery that Husserl foists atop this failed conversation his own problematic account of intersubjectivity, which Mertens, and not him alone, deems irredeemably solipsistic.  This creates suggestions for renewed efforts, however, and perhaps Husserl was ultimately driven by the Leibnizian encounter to yet greater interest in the constitution of horizons, as much as he was perhaps held back by his allegiance to notions of consciousness and predicative experience at just the point that phenomenology could have turned to questions of pre-predicative embodiment to articulate the truly social self in a truly worldly perspective.

Elisabeth Ströker (1988) reminds us that Husserl’s interest was directed towards the validity and meaning of science across his oeuvre and the theory of intentionality was prepared for the sake of connecting mind and world in a way that ultimately restores that lost validity and meaning.  The meaning of science is related to forms and contexts of practice and the transcendental theory of intentionality is related to the particular cultural-historical actuality of reason.  While talk of crisis was very much in the air when Husserl wrote his Crisis, his view is distinctive in taking philosophy as a critique of itself that is a critique of science that is a critique of culture.  This rests on a vision of unity of philosophy, science, and humanity, and of history as a long decay of a telic golden past, a “binding inheritance of Greek philosophy” (298).  Ströker strives to show how various technical concepts like life-world, constitution-analysis, subjectivity, etc. figure into this easy wisdom, and perhaps all this is forgivable given that this essay was in fact at first a public memorial address rather than a scholarly publication, but, also, perhaps unwittingly, it is a testimony to the kind of tritely tragic and grand-historical self-narrative that too can count itself as a German perspective.

Ernst Wolfgang Orth (1987) complements Ströker’s essay both by turning to the issue of culture primarily (over science) and by lending gravity to the issues at play therein, such as problems about universalizing particular forms of practice or concepts such as “humanity,” which stretches across space and time (Greeks and us) all too easily in Ströker’s essay.  Instead, he makes a compelling case for seeing cultural anthropology as uneasily integrated with transcendental phenomenology, which became evident to Husserl himself over the period from the Ideas to the Crisis.  The human being is neither that from which the transcendental ego is abstracted nor is the latter a real part of the former, but the human being is constituted from transcendental subjectivity and Husserl increasingly locates in this connection the coevality of a universal human science and a first philosophy.

The resulting approach differs sharply, to Orth’s mind, from a narrowly natural scientific orientation, and progressively complicates phenomenology’s inner premises (many reductions, not a single overarching one; the dialectic of emergence and withdrawal at the heart of intentionality as Held argued). This, in turn, proceeds towards a conception of the cultural sphere, which is neither a mere occasion for transcendental reflection, nor subsumed under transcendental constitution, but, rather, under the title “lifeworld,” names the broader viewpoint in which culture with its own irreducible thickness (which includes naturalized forms within itself) is integrated with phenomenological reflection on humanity, which is a variegated presupposition and a limit idea that constantly shapes the phenomenological project.  This is a wide-ranging and powerful proposal that simultaneously sheds light on many methodological questions about the Crisis as well as interfaces with other German perspectives, in this volume but also beyond.  But one wonders if, at the end, it is not just the problem of horizons that has been re-discovered under the name of culture, and, moreover, one remains as curious as before if any advance is made on questions of cultural difference, parochialism, and universalism, that is “culture” in the usual senses of the contingent and disparate determinations of human life.


[1] This is the date of the original German version of the essay. I will provide this information for each essay.

[2] Resonances with Fichtean exertions over the identity of the transcendental and the empirical subject, the assumed possibility of a science of science, the grounding of questions of method in questions of freedom, are present in several essays implicitly (we can already look back at Rinofner-Kreidl’s and Landgrebe’s essays in the light of these exertions) or explicitly in Patočka’s essay (97; and Hegel’s pistol-shot reference to Schelling is quoted on p. 99) or later in Held’s essay (236).  A mention of Fichte (or, for that matter, Hegel) is missing, however, in the helpful Index provided in the book, and perhaps this only indicates the need for including German Idealist background in a consideration of German Perspectives. Another wholly missing index entry is Gadamer, while Merleau-Ponty receives two indexical references to the same page, missing brief appearances on two other pages.

[3] Brentano’s concept of intentionality asserted a universal relation to an object, while Bolzano upheld objectless representations, so Schuhmann names this “the Brentano-Bolzano” problem.  Brentano’s auxiliary theses about converting any existential proposition into a judgment form and distinguishing determining predicates (which enrich a subject, e.g. “educated person”) and modifying predicates (which change the subject itself, e.g. “dead person”) were used by Twardowski to solve the problem.

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Ricoeur Between Moral and Anthropology

For researchers and readers accustomed to Ricœur’s thought, the book of Dierckxsens is full of remarkable surprises. Both for those who are habituated to the philosopher of the “word” and of the “poetry”, concerned with reflections about narrative and its multiple dimensions, and for those who are involved with his discussions about hermeneutic, historically and genetically conducted. In this sense, the investigations brought by the author reveal a new and largely unexplored field of Ricoeur’s philosophy.

The book by Geoffrey Dierckxsens, Paul Ricoeur’s moral anthropology: singularity, responsability and justice, undoubtedly brings a considerable contribution to studies in the area. Choosing Ricoeur’s reflection about what is here called his “moral anthropology” as the main theme of his investigation, Dierckxsens’ text is articulated around three main axes, that could be gathered, under the risk of a little extrapolation, as an “ethical” discussion, taken in its largest sense: the concepts of moral, anthropology and hermeneutic.

These three axes, as we will see, offer the author an original perspective to consider the philosopher’s thought, and, at the same time, allow him to propose an extension in the way we understand the recent conflicts faced by current moral discussions, in which they reveal their limits and their contradictions. This possibility is strongly affirmed by Dierckxsens, seeking to establish a cohesive triad where these three elements become inseparable.  The core of his thesis is the defense of this articulation, simultaneously complex and full of deep implications.

Through this preliminary delimitation, beginning with his first descriptions, Dieckxsens sets the context from which he builds his investigation. And here is the first remark to be made to his work: the clarity of the text, a characteristic that immediately appears to the reader. The author, in a careful and accurate construction, structures his text not only with extreme acuity, but also communicating this “architecture” to his readers, outlining its stages and its internal logic. The text systematically presents clear parts and objectives, progressing safely step by step in its main strategies. That accurate construction reveals the author’s full mastery over the direction of his investigation.

This is what can be noticed if we accompany the main center of his work, concentrating on the three main axes mentioned above. The first important observation to comprehend is exactly the idea of a “moral anthropology” itself.  About this, we would like to highlight two points.

The first, and most evident, is the choice of the philosopher who guides the discussion. This issue will be worked in the second part of this review, but it’s important to correctly introduce the theme to enhance some aspects of this option and the peculiar appropriation that it implies.  In a perspective that is now gaining strength, but which is still with a wide horizon remaining to be explored, the Ricoeur we see here is quite different from the one we are most accustomed with, especially considering his inescapable phenomenological accent. It is not that this “tradition” is absent from Dierckxsens’ debate, but his proposal seems to accomplish a certain dislocation, moving Ricoeur’s major themes — like narrative, singularity and alterity – to a new scenery, not one opposite to, but without a doubt different from the traditional comprehension of phenomenological and hermeneutical perspectives.

But where could we situate this new “place” where the philosopher can now be found? The Ricoeur presented by Dierckxsens study is, in many aspects, very close to the analytical philosophy. Yet this “proximity” involves a large spectrum of dimensions. It concerns not only the themes or the general issues here considered, but much more significantly, it refers to a kind of structural affinity that the book intends to reveal. It doesn’t mean, and this is an important strategy implicitly assumed by the author, to seek direct relations of affiliation or influence, but rather to develop a kind of confluence or an intersection zone in which Ricoeur’s thought and the main themes of analytical analysis would find their community.

The proposal is captivating, bringing new horizons to research and debate around Ricoeur’s philosophy. His approach to this strand of thought, despite an increasingly growing number of studies, remains a new zone of investigation, yet to be consolidated. Thus, two important points seem to guide the ongoing research, indeed offering significant prisms under which the philosopher is read in Dierckxsens’ text. On the one hand, we have Ricoeur as proponent of a «moral anthropology», which, as we shall see, brings a new dimension not only to the notions of singularity, justice, and responsibility, but through them also retraces the understanding of the human condition and its limits of action. On the other hand, exactly because of this reconfiguration, the philosopher appears as someone capable of shedding new light on the current debates of analytical thinking, especially those related to morality and the implications of human performance. In other words, from the recognition of the proximity between Ricoeur and analytical thought, Dierckxsens defends the possibility of a reciprocal re-interpretation.

On the one hand, proximity, and on the other, reciprocal reading, the two prisms which in our view support the perspective assumed by Dierckxsens. Let us address each of them, always remembering the complexity of such a proposal that in principle requires strong mediations and a very careful construction, recognizing the impossibility of reconstructing them entirely here, given the limited space of a review.

An Anthropological Morality

As mentioned above, Dierckxsens clarifies, in an accurate and consistent way, the perspective under which he will develop his reading of Ricoeur. The main proposal is the description and the comprehension of the idea of “moral anthropology.” The subject — and the reunion of these two terms into “one-word”, into one unique concept — is, by itself, neither immediate nor free of difficulties. This observation seems to be shared by the author, as he is, from the start, concerned in carefully delimiting the sense in which this concept is to be understood. This circumscription is necessary since the articulation between morality and anthropology, as well as the possibilities of its effective achievement, remain the subject of intense debate, not only for analytical thought, but, in a larger sense, for contemporary reflection in general.

Full of implications by itself, this proposal gets even more complex, since another step is taken by the author and another term introduced to this “pair”. To the idea of an anthropological morality is added an element that is also intrinsic to Ricoeur’s thought, and also not peacefully comprehended by his researchers: the hermeneutic. According to Dierckxsens’ thesis, the moral anthropology proposed by Ricoeur only achieves its valid meaning when comprehended by a hermeneutical perspective. The question then gains in density and sophistication.

Let the author, then, speak in his own words: “By moral anthropology I understand the philosophical and hermeneutical approach to the ontological conditions of the moral existence of human beings” (VII). And, in the sequence, he complements: “By hermeneutics I mean the theory of the interpretation of concrete lived existence in relation to narratives.” (VII)

Once these axes are set, Dierckxsens is able to place his proposal and its originality in relation to other studies about Ricoeur that could be considered closer to his perspective. Following his delimitation, it’s possible to recognize two main lines of reading, in relation to which his work might be approached, even though without strictly converging with any of them. On the one hand, there is a tradition of studies on the philosopher — notably the most recent ones — that recognize and discuss the centrality of anthropology in his thought[i], dealing mainly with the problem of action and its implications. On the other hand, there is a number of researchers that work with the moral aspects of his philosophy and, simultaneously, propose a comparison between them and the current developments in morality studies, particularly those related to the ethics of care and to feminist theories.[ii]

There would be, therefore, a line of research specially occupied with the anthropology dimension of his reflections and, another, focused particularly on his arguments about morality. In fact, the articulation between these two aspects of his thought is not feasible without solid mediations. This is where an original mark of Dierckxsens’ work is inserted: the meeting of these two elements, not only recognizing them as closely related, but actually treating them as a single concept, in which the sense of morality is established by an anthropological view.

Following the author himself, however, the originality of his perspective only appears completely with the inclusion of the third axis mentioned above, the hermeneutic. According to him, “[…] few works so far examined the significance of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical approach to anthropology in light of contemporary moral theories in analytical philosophy” (VII). In other words, the originality of his proposal would be related to an effort to comprehend how a certain conception of contemporary morality could illuminate the way in which Ricoeur understands the approximation between hermeneutic and anthropology. It allows him to reveal a kind of “organic connection” — to use a term typical from another philosopher, to which Ricoeur also owes a large influence, Merleau-Ponty —, between these two axes, marking not only the originality of the philosopher’s reflection, but also of Dierckxsens’ own investigation. The discussion, then, gets even more focused: the project is to understand how an analytical moral view can shed new light on the philosopher’s thinking.

This makes more explicit the movement we are trying to highlight, accentuating the originality of his investigation. The point, defended by his thesis, is that it is not any moral that can fulfill this function. It is not any general discussion about the strong themes of the political and philosophy that is able to establish such connection to the philosopher’s reflections. The philosophical current most able to serve as a “clarifying” instrument of Ricoeur’s thought, especially in the way it’s presented here, is the analytical one. According to this, understanding the moral anthropology constructed by him demands this passage to a field nowadays mostly occupied by analytical studies.

But then a caveat is required. There would be a kind of one-side view if the author’s analysis were to dwell only on this perspective. There is a counterpart, and that brings some of the most interesting elements to the discussion. On the one hand, the analytical proposal about morality is able to illuminate the philosopher’s reflection, on the other hand, his reflection is capable of shedding new light and new horizons on this analytical thinking itself. In this sense, the importance of Ricoeur, rather than being re-read by this school of thought, is allowed a new understanding of the issues with which it operates, giving it the means to extend its spectrum. In the words of the author:

“This orientation toward reduction in moral invites to reflect on Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, which aims for a more cohesive, metaphysical-ontological account of human actions and responsibility. Whereas theories in analytical philosophy tend to naturalize our understanding of morals, Ricoeur, on the contrary, defends a hermeneutical approach to understanding what it means to be human and to be capable of responsibility and justice by living a concrete existence.” (VIII)

Against a reductionist appeal to the “data” and against a biological or neuro-scientific tendency that has crossed the current discussions on the moral, the philosopher’s thought brings a hermeneutical approach, in charge of understanding what is human and what is its capacity of responsibility and judgment, considering them in a concrete existence. Just as a parenthetical note, we can not fail to mention a similarity of this project assumed by Ricoeur, to a certain direction of contemporaneous thinking, expounded, among others, by Hannah Arendt. Even though in a completely different context, once she deals with a strong conception of politics and does not operate with this articulation between moral and anthropology, here enhanced by Dierckxsens, the problem concerning the human condition, its capacities and its ways to act and judge, is an extremely important issue for her. In fact, we believe the possible convergences between the two authors offer a subject to be thought trough and to be worked on.

Back to our main subject, one of the axes that is widely worked in the book — and that we, also, would like to emphasize as one of its most important contributions — is this idea that Ricoeur’s thought can bring an expansion to the conception of morality, in particular to that developed by analytical thinking, currently the subject of intense debates. The proposal brings these two main movements together, not independent but correlated. On the one hand, to argue that certain conceptions and perspectives present in analytical philosophy can contribute to thinking about the way Ricoeur approaches anthropology and hermeneutics, re-reading his reflection on moral action. And, on the other hand, to understand how Ricoeur allows the amplification of the current debates on morality, bringing new layers to the understanding of human existence. It is to satisfy the “gap” of this perspective in studies about the philosopher — that, even in their closer versions to the Dierckxsens’, oscillate between an approach from analytical theories or from morality, incapable to internally articulate them — that his work presents itself, emphasizing Ricoeur’s moral anthropology as a central and original contribution to the current discussions.

Notably, this becomes clear when we consider the debates in analytical philosophy about moral responsibility and justice. Faced with a kind of reductive tendency present in the most recent discussions, polarized between anthropology and psychology — taken in their more conventional sense —, moral anthropology emerges as an appeal to a more cohesive and inclusive view, inaugurating a new comprehension about justice and responsibility. It is as a refusal of the current “naturalism” that this moral perspective gains greater weight. Instead of explaining morality in terms of mechanical processes or through natural conceptions, the philosopher calls for a unified understanding of human capacities that constitute the ethical and moral life, remembering us that they must be comprehended, first of all, by a hermeneutical interpretation of the narratives and the concrete existence in which human lives take place. In other words, in contrast to mechanistic and naturalistic perspectives, Ricoeur appeals for a hermeneutical approach.

The Structure of the Text

In this movement, in this project of a hermeneutical “re-reading” of moral and anthropology, one notion will be especially mobilized by Dierckxsens to guide his analysis, the idea of singularity. It is based on this concept that he structures the book in three parts. Singularity, he argues, is one of the most adequate concepts to recognize the originality of the philosopher’s thought and its capacity to bring new elements to current moral discussions. The problematization of this notion is the way Dierckxsens finds to achieve a new understanding of the questions concerning responsibility and justice, establishing the three main topics on which the book is organized. Working on these ideas — singularity, justice and responsibility —, the text proposes increasingly closer links between the philosopher and analytical thinking. The internal connection between these elements is, in his view, almost organic:

“The case I will aim to make in the following pages is that the concept of singularity, which lies at the heart of Ricoeur’s moral anthropology, highlights the importance of hermeneutical phenomenology for understanding responsibility and justice in light of analytical moral theories. Singularity is without doubt an important concept in contemporary European philosophy in general, and in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics in particular.” (IX)

According to this perspective, the structure of the book, organized in three parts — ipseity, alterity and “evil and narrative” — establishes a way of discussing the notion of singularity, exploring in each part one of its different meanings. Dierckxsens argues that each step is an explanation of the “place” taken by this concept in Ricoeur’s moral anthropology. At the same time, through this path, it becomes possible for him to describe the meaning of hermeneutics for the notions of responsibility and justice, reconfiguring the general constellation in which they are inserted. This discussion allows the internal articulations between anthropology and the moral to become more evident, supporting his main thesis. Once again, it is important to emphasize the remarkable clarity and the careful organization in which all this argumentation is constructed. The reader can follow, step by step, the progress of the investigation, in an accurate and logical system that leaves little spaces for doubt. Ricoeur’s thought appears, progressively, each time closer to an analytical field.

But it is worth remembering yet another aspect of this proposal, that was mentioned before and that can now be adequately explained: the recognition that it is not only in its objectives that this intersection appears in the text, but, much more organically, in the very way Ricoeur is here read and presented. Unlike several other studies about the philosopher, here he appears as if he were, almost, an analytical thinker, or, if this affirmation sounds too strong, as if his thought could be structured on an analytical basis. The idea the author suggests is that they are not just close, but in some way and more importantly, that they are communing the same main lines, especially the ones here enhanced. Curiously, it seems to us that it is this element that provides more solidity to Dierckxsens’ thesis. The reader has no problem following his path because it seems, throughout all his exposure, that Ricoeur’s approach to this school of thought was drawn from the beginning, somehow inscribed in the philosopher’s writings and works. It is almost as if the philosopher were a precursor of the style of thought with which he would after be confronted.

Corroborate to this, as Dierckxsens reminds us, the philosopher’s own references to this school, variously recalled throughout the book. Yet, though frequent, they do not seem to us the central axis on which this approach can be sustained, nor its most solid point. The reference or the interest — and sometimes even the admiration — of a thinker by an author or by a current of thought, is not in itself capable of sustaining an affiliation or even an approximation in more strict terms. Moreover, such relations are being largely debated nowadays, and the approaches and distances among them are neither wholly clear nor entirely peaceful.

In our view, the strength of Dierckxsens’ work comes precisely from the way Ricoeur is, from the beginning and throughout all the argumentation, presented in terms of analytical thinking. We know that this interpretation is by no means consensual — and we know, at the same time, how this word loses force in philosophy, meditation and endless dialogue born from dissent and exchange. What seems more relevant to us is the recognition, implicit in Dierckxsens’ proposal, of the greatness of Ricoeur’s thought, capable of opening horizons such as the one defended here. As Merleau-Ponty argues in a commentary dedicated to Husserl, in his text The philosopher and his shadow, the greatness of a philosophy lies precisely in the Tradition he is capable of founding. Dierckxsens’ reading testifies, without any doubt, to this power of Ricoeur’s thought. Philosopher’s appropriation by the analytical thought, rather than instituting a divergence of interpretations, should be read as the establishment of one of the multiple dimensions his thought is capable of illuminating and, at the same time, under which it can be illuminated.

Following the author in his central proposal, the philosopher’s reflection allows us to bring new light to current ethical discussions, opening unsuspected horizons to analytical thinking, strained between explanations that place all its bets on the causes, or place them in cognitive processes, leaving aside the dimensions of “affection”, “empathy” and, in more general terms, all the knowledge and all the relations that involve the “other”. Ricoeur, on the contrary, would have been able to construct an ethic of responsibility structured precisely on notions such as affectivity, care, and solitude: “According to Ricoeur, ethical and moral interactions with others are motivated  by affection for others: compassion, conscience, neighbor love, or love for humanity and respect for other persons”.(167)

As we know, these sort of questions, concerning relational fields, alterity and affectivity, have always been essential to Ricoeur. These concepts — and this shouldn’t be forgotten — necessarily brings a phenomenological and existential support to the discussion. And that’s why we mentioned before that the work of Dierckxsens doesn’t properly present an “other” philosopher, but, more specifically, a “different” perspective of him, “dislocated” from his habitual context. Enhancing his greatness, a “unique” Ricoeur is able to bring together different directions of thought, different layers of understanding.

That’s why notions like singularity — without doubt, related to a phenomenological approach — can be here appropriated in moral debates without conflicts or contradictions. If the author operates a peculiar shift toward analytical thinking, inviting us to extend our ethical conception, an idea of singularity that does not exclude otherness will be particularly important for him. If the current discussions of analytical thinking seem to entrench ethic in the regime of a solipsism difficult to escape, Ricoeur’s thought appears as a crevice from which the relation — and all the dimensions brought by it, like affection, care and solitude — are able to figure, allowing us to rethink its limits and its deepest sense.

This is one of the main stakes of this book. And it is here that we rediscover the philosopher whose phenomenological and hermeneutic accents are clearly present, in charge of a reflection on responsibility articulated to the issues of care and relational affectivity inscribed in an existential field. That’s how, beyond approximations, Ricoeur is constructed, simultaneously, as a kind of precursor of analytical thought, and, curiously, as its antithesis or, even deeper, as its antidote, re-discussing and re-opening its frontiers. In this way, the question established by Dierckxsens is more complex than it may appear at first. Is it possible to think of the philosopher in these terms? The book, we saw, defends an affirmative answer, not only supporting the approach itself, but making it internal and organic.

However, sagaciously, at no time does the author refuse any of the other possible currents, or defend one against the others; there is no suggestion of a direct confrontation, which strengthens, once again, his description. That is one of the reasons that makes his work a significant contribution in a debate that concerns not only Ricoeur’s thought, but also his dialogues, exchanges and affiliations. As he implicitly assumes, there isn’t a unique answer to this problem; on the contrary, like we argued above, the strongest point of his work would be precisely the testimony of the openness and the inexhaustibility of Ricoeur’s thought. As the philosopher himself has taught us, the space to comprehend this kind of question should be searched for in some place that does not build walls or divided elements, instituting conflicts and separations, but, on the contrary, one that recognizes a more plastic, open and dialogical field, made of transitions and reversibilities, capable of sustaining the difference, without transforming it into conflict or separation. What is clear, in Dierckxsens’ work, is this recognition of Ricoeur’s strength and appeal towards a stronger, larger and more inclusive ethic[iii]; one solid enough to face the problems brought by contemporary issues. This extended ethical sense is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest teachings of Ricoeur’s philosophy.


[i] Dierckxsens himself enhances some examples: Richard Kearney (Ed.), Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action (London, SAGE, 1996); Jonathan Michel, Paul Ricoeur: une philosophie de l’agir humain (Paris: Cerf, 2006); Todd S. Mei and David Lewin (Eds.), From Ricoeur to Action. The Socio-Political significance of Ricoeur’s Thinking (London and New York: Bloomsburry, 2012).

[ii] The author enhances, particularly, two works: Nathalie Mailard, La vulnérabilité. Une nouvelle catégorie morale ? (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2011); Cyndie Sautereau, “Répondre à la vulnérabilité. Paul Ricoeur et les éthiques du care en dialogue”. Journal for French and Francophone Philosophie/Revue de la philosophie française et de la langue française, 23, n. 1, 2015, 1-20.

[iii] “In that respect, the task of hermeneutics is not so much to search for one universal objective truth about morality, like a blueprint of our ethico-moral constitution, but rather to understand what humans have in common along their differences, through dialogue and interpretation and across their singular lived experiences, in order to understand what motivates their ethical and moral actions.” (73)

Elodie Boublil: Vulnérabilité et empathie, Hermann, 2018

Vulnérabilité et empathie Book Cover Vulnérabilité et empathie
Hermann Philosophie
Elodie Boublil
Hermann
2018
Paperback 35,00 €