Steven Cassedy: What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning

What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning Book Cover What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning
Steven Cassedy
Oxford University Press
Hardback $32.99

Reviewed by: Jacob Rump (Creighton University)

As Steven Cassedy notes in the introduction to this fascinating, wide-ranging, and unique book, meaning is everywhere, and yet it seems no one ever stops to define it (1)[1]. Through a series of chapters tracing the history of “meaning” from ancient Greek and Hebrew sources to contemporary English usage, Cassedy tells a story in which notions of meaning were originally limited to words, signs, and interpretation, but usage gradually expanded to a present-day context in which meaning means… well… almost everything. The book succeeds in something that, in my view, is not often enough done in contemporary philosophy or intellectual history: connecting past philosophical ideas—in broad, easy-to-understand brushstrokes—to popular culture and the popular uptake of those ideas in the present and recent past.

The book is, indeed, more appropriately considered a work in intellectual history than in philosophy in a narrow academic sense. Cassedy works in comparative literature, and the primary method of the work is close reading rather than philosophical argument. His overarching claims are developed via helpful etymological discussions and readings of texts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and Danish, as well as selective attention to secondary literature on these figures and associated key texts. These treatments, taken as a whole, offer an extremely helpful overview of the evolution of the notion of meaning over the longue durée of Western intellectual history, with some fascinating (if necessarily selective) detailed accounts of key ideas and authors.

I begin with a chapter-by-chapter overview of the more broadly historical Chapters One through Five, then turn to more detailed critical treatment of some major themes, where I also survey Chapters Six through Nine, which are devoted to more recent and popular treatments of meaning.


The concept of meaning as we have come to know it in contemporary English is more recent than we might expect, and does not, on Cassedy’s reading, have an exact equivalent in ancient writings. Chapter One, as its title suggests, argues that the ancient world “got along without” meaning “until the rise of Christianity.” Cassedy surveys Hebrew and Aramaic terms appearing in the Hebrew Bible and concludes that there is simply no word corresponding to our “meaning” to be found there, though there is some interesting discussion of translations of Ecclesiastes using “meaning” in an attempt to get at the sense of value or “meaning in life” that Cassedy is interested in (14-15).

Cassedy then turns to ancient Greece, where he finds significant semantic commonality with regard to the English verb to mean, and ample evidence of diverse theories of signification, signs, interpretation, and the function of language in authors like Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and as far back as Heraclitan fragments about the Delphic Oracle. But the focus remains on the verb, and on the notion of signification: Cassedy finds little evidence of a noun form of “meaning,” and little attention paid to the “something that gets signified” corresponding to a sign (19). Cassedy also insists, with regard to Platonic forms (ideai) that “nowhere are they likened to a meaning that we retrieve as we do from words in a written text” (23).

It is only in Chapter Two, with Latin-language authors of early Christianity, that we “first find meaning used as the object of a metaphysical interpretive quest into a mysterious, invisible realm separate from the realm of direct experience” and where the meaning of “meaning” begins to expand beyond the literal. The key notion here is “the readability the world,” and Cassedy largely follows the work of Hans Blumenberg and New Testament scholar Harry Gamble in his extended analysis of meaning in Augustine. Here, helpfully, we find an early touchstone for the distinction between natural and conventional (“given”) signs (30)—a distinction that would be important in twentieth-century accounts from Husserl (2001, I.§2) to Grice (1957, 378-79). Divine scripture for Augustine consists of given signs with authorial intent, but the interpretation of those signs involves usage of “ideas/thoughts/meanings (sensa) by means of signs, and those signs relate to our various senses (sensūs)” (31). This anticipates the idea—central to Cassedy’s interpretation of the German Sinn as discussed below—of a close relationship and intermingling between meaning and sensation. It also introduces the important distinction, central to Augustine, on Cassedy’s interpretation, between the actual reading of books, such as the scriptures, and the figurative “reading” of the world or nature, and ultimately of heaven, whose signs are—at least for human beings— “shrouded in mystery and subject to interpretive acts that can never be guaranteed to reveal an absolute truth” (33). This for Cassedy is the central step that clears the way for the contemporary usage of meaning in phrases like “meaning in life.”

Cassedy then notes a shift from the medieval idea of reading the “text of the world” as well as written passages to the later idea—which Cassedy argues, following the historian of science Peter Harrison, arises as a result of the Protestant Reformation—of reading as applying to passages only: “under the older conception, both words (in Scripture) and things (in the world of nature) had meanings. Under the new, Protestant conception, only words had meaning; objects didn’t” (37). The result, according to Harrison, was that “The natural world, once the indispensable medium between words and eternal truths, lost its meanings, and became opaque to those hermeneutical procedures which had once elucidated it. It was left to an emerging natural science to reinvest the created order with intelligibility” (Harrison, qtd. in Cassedy, 37).

The notion that the world itself contains meaning is reasserted, Cassedy argues, in Berkeley’s work on perception. Following Kenneth Winkler, Cassedy finds in Berkley a “semiotic theory of vision,” “founded on the notion that seeing is a matter of recovering meanings from signs whose connections with those meanings are purely conventional and arbitrary” (39). This notion is reminiscent of medieval “book of nature” ideas, but with the crucial difference provided by Berkley’s (in)famous immaterialism, which, Cassedy argues, sets the stage for idealism and romanticism.

Chapter Three, “Idealism and Romanticism,” was for me the most intriguing and the most helpful of the book. It begins from an extended discussion of Johan Georg Hamann, who “embedded language in the very fabric of the world itself, which he viewed as God’s text” (44). This leads a naturally to the idea of a close connection between the perceptual senses (die Sinne) and sense (Sinn), an idea which Cassedy takes up in the next subsection of the chapter. His short history of the German Sinn invokes its early connotations of movement, change of place, and direction, and traces its development through to a more modern conception that builds in a certain “fuzziness” or indeterminacy.

Chapter Three focuses especially on one of the twenty four definitions of Sinn provided in the Grimm Brothers’ mid-nineteenth-century Deutsches Wörterbuch, which notes that “[i]n modern times, Sinn is customarily and commonly [used] for the meaning [Bedeutung], the opinion [Meinung], the spiritual content, the intention [Tendenz] of an expression, a work, or (more rarely) an action, as distinguished from its wording [Wortlaut] or its outward appearance” (qtd. in Cassedy, 49). In this later usage, Cassedy notes, Sinn is most often connotative, whereas the German bedeuten and Bedeutung—like the English meaning—is more likely to be denotative. This of course tracks both the well-known distinction between Sinn and Bedeutung as marked by Frege in the essay of that name (Frege 1892), and also discussions of denotation and connotation in English from, e.g., Mill (1843, I.2.§5). Puzzlingly, there is no treatment of these obvious touchstones in this chapter or elsewhere in the text, despite the fact that Frege’s is concerned with precisely the same German terms, and Mill falls into precisely the same historical period as the German authors discussed in Chapter Three.

Chapter Three then further traces the notion of Sinn in Kant, through pre-Critical writings such as Dreams of a Spirit-seer and into the first Critique, where “Like the Latin sensum/sensus/ sentientia, Sinn conveys both the receiving, sentient mind and the properties of objects that the mind cognizes and interprets” (56-7). Kant’s use of the term stands in stark contrast, Cassedy reports, to that of later romantic-era figures such as Novalis (whose “grand, mysterious statements” about meaning are treated by Cassedy at great and somewhat puzzling length), Goethe, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and Herder. It is in these romantic-era figures that we first encounter sustained engagement with the German phrase “Sinn des Lebens,” the philosophical and intellectual precursor to contemporary English’s “meaning of life,” and with the call to rediscover the original sense or meaning of the world by re-enchanting or romanticizing it (64). Herder’s 1772 Treatise on the Origin of Language is given strikingly brief treatment—especially in contrast to the expansive discussion of Novalis—and is discussed only in the context of its influence on Schleiermacher.

Chapter Four begins with a brief treatment of Kierkegaard, due to his explicit invocations of the “meaning of,” and sometimes “in” “life” (74-75), but his usage of these phrases is dismissed as relatively “uneventful.” (The influence of broader themes in Kierkegaard’s work on twentieth-century writers, due to the appearance of English translations of his work, is returned to in more detail in Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight). The bulk of Chapter Four consists of extensive discussions of Thomas Carlyle, including Carlyle’s engagement with Novalis, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Carlyle’s work represents for Cassedy the movement of German culture into British culture over the course of the nineteenth century (77), and in his partly satirical novel Sartor Resartus we find what Cassedy suspects to be the first use of the phrase “the meaning of life” in English, “where the phrase refers not to the meaning, or definition, of the word life but to the meaning of life itself” (82).

Emerson brought Carlyle’s novel to the United States, where it was influential for the American Transendentalists. Emerson was also influenced directly by earlier German mystics such as Novalis, as well as by the uptake of German romanticism in Coleridge, from whom he took the notion of the “book of nature” that would be influential in Emerson’s extended engagements with the theme of nature and humankind’s place in it. Emerson, Cassedy plausibly argues, “envisages a world in which we ‘read’ (metaphorically speaking) and interpret not just actual books but, well, that world itself, which he implicitly represents as yielding up meaning, significance, sense to our acts of interpretation” (90). This amounts to a form of idealism reminiscent of Berkeley and Kant, but in which “the mind or consciousness always bleeds over into a mysterious spiritual realm that appears to be simultaneously coextensive with and hidden from it” (92). For Cassedy, such a mystical, book-of-nature connotation of “meaning” in English is a major component of our contemporary usage and understanding of the term.

Chapter Five turns to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, including some intriguing comparison of the Russian smysl and the German Sinn (95). From Tolstoy’s increasingly religious writings—especially due to their popularity with readers of English-language translations appearing in the early twentieth century—and in references to Tolstoy in well-known works such as James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, we first get the close connection between meaning and purpose that is also part of our contemporary understanding of the word. Due to Dostoevsky’s existentialism and the centrality of mortality for so many of his characters, Cassedy suggests, readers find in his works a more secular treatment of meaning in life than in Tolstoy, despite Dostoevsky’s frequent association of the phrase “meaning of life” with the immortality of the soul. “‘The meaning of life,’ with its enormous potential for ambiguity, is a phrase that allows the secularist to form at least a partial understanding of what a person of putatively pure religious faith actually believes” (118).


As the above overview suggests, the real focus of Cassedy’s book is not the notion of meaning as such, but the way in which the word has come to be associated with concepts like value and purpose, as in the phrase “the meaning of life,” which would seem to be quite far from the ancient Greek usage of the verb “to mean” and from its later European-language verbal and nominal relatives. In all these earlier cases, “meaning” is primarily a matter of signification, of what signs, words, and language do (15). Cassedy thus seeks to understand the relationship between what we might call the semiotic or semantic connotation of “meaning” and its more recent purposive or axiological connotation. In this regard, the book is both original and important: he is one of very few recent authors who appears to have thought carefully and extensively about the relationship between meaning in these two senses. As Cassedy puts it, in a glib criticism of a passage from Charles Taylor, “telling us first that meaning means ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ and next that it means the same thing that it means in the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ doesn’t really narrow things down very much” (2).

Even in contemporary academic philosophy, discussions of these semantic and axiological conceptions of meaning continue to be worlds apart, with discussion of the former located in particular sub-domains of the analytic philosophy of language or (post-?) post-structuralist pontifications about signs and signifiers, whereas discussion of the latter is located primarily among philosophers writing in the domains of ethics, social-political philosophy, and related areas of value theory. The fact that philosophical treatments of meaning have become so divergent is intriguing and alarming, at least if Cassedy is right that these notions are related in more than merely homophonic ways. In this sense, I think the book can be read as a kind of call to action for the reintegration of philosophical (and not merely pop-cultural) investigations of meaning. This call to action is to be applauded, in my view, and indeed is one I have tried to take some small steps toward in my own work. I return to this theme toward the end of this review.

Unfortunately, Cassedy’s treatment of this issue is limited to a more-or-less genealogical account of how the change came about: the book answers the question, “How does a word that fundamentally has to do with signs, words, stories, and other things that, well, mean or signify something come to mean ‘purpose’ and ‘value’? How does it come to mean all the other things it appears to mean, apart from ‘signify’?” (4). While Cassedy offers us a detailed (if not always balanced, as I note below) historical account of the emergence of these additional connotations of the word, he doesn’t offer much beyond that genealogical account as to why this divergence occurred.

But perhaps this is part of his point: that there is really nothing ultimately beyond the genealogical account—there is no deep reason, at least none available to human beings—for why meaning came to have the meaning that it now, in Western popular culture, has. There is, perhaps, only something like the Nietzschean revaluation of values that it signifies (I’m putting words in Cassedy’s mouth here; there is actually strikingly little engagement with Nietzsche in the book, given its theme, and that minor engagement is only indirect, appearing in the context of discussions of Paul Tillich). This claim would seem to fit with Cassedy’s explicit thesis about the ambiguity of the contemporary usage of “meaning”: “what we mean when we talk about meaning” is ultimately, necessarily, “polyvalent” (8, 33, 182). “It’s the very fluidity that gives meaning its peculiar resonance and mystique and that allows it to live with equal comfort in the writings of secular scientists and the official decrees of Catholic popes. That’s the ambiguity that lends this word its peculiar and characteristic power—what makes it the quintessentially modern word” (10). The power of this polyvalence is that it allows meaning to refer to whatever it is that fills a void in the existential dimension of our contemporary lives, just as philosophical-religious figures like Tillich and Ulrich Barth suggested it should.

Hence the book’s extensive focus, in the twentieth-century portion of its historical genealogy, on such popularizing philosophical-religious figures—a treatment that turns increasing toward the popularizing, and increasingly away from the philosophical, with its coverage of each subsequent decade. For Cassedy, the meaning of “meaning” began to fracture in the twentieth century alongside (and perhaps because of) its more popular uptake. The fracturing begins, as discussed in Chapters Six and Seven, with the extensive employment of the term in the English-language writings of Tillich, Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr, and increases in the oft-announced “age of anxiety” in American culture—a term that Cassedy traces to W.H. Auden’s poem with that name published in the U.S. in 1947, and a term which was firmly entrenched in popular discourse by the early 1960s. “Meaning” has by this time come to serve an increasingly therapeutic purpose, a panacea for a variety of existential woes characteristic of modern American life in the post-war period. With regard to the source of these woes, Cassedy has much to say about contemporaneous changes in mainstream religious belief, but relatively little to say about the effects of the second World War, the Holocaust, or an increasingly capitalist, consumerist American society. In any case, in the post-war period, the term “anxiety,” like the “meaning” that is popularly believed to contain its cure, has come “to denote a remarkably wide range of things” (131).

In Chapter Eight, Cassedy documents a shift from religious to more popular, scientistic, and therapeutic conceptions of meaning, and a corresponding expansion of its usage as both cure-all and catch-all term. This change is tracked via an account of the development of existential psychotherapy in figures such as Victor Frankl and Rollo May (Frankl is singled out for particularly extensive and trenchant criticism, about which I am not qualified to comment), through treatments of recent biochemical approaches to meaning such as the work of Barbara Fredrickson (approaches about which I am skeptical, but again not qualified to comment), and in the contemporary proliferation of works that give center-stage to the notion of meaning, while hardly ever defining it, in the contemporary self-help movement (about which I think no additional comment necessary). Thus, Cassedy argues, from the late 1960s to the present, at least in mainstrem American society, meaning increasingly becomes “a suggestive term, undefined, unspecific, and preponderantly secular, designed to conjure in our minds the idea of something grand, mysterious, and unnamed that, owing to our particular life circumstances, we must strive for” (140).

In this light, Cassedy’s polyvalence thesis is both unique and refreshing, and certainly speaks to the era of human social and intellectual history that we find ourselves in today—an era which, Cassedy convincingly argues, has been presaged by the enormous uptick of concern with anxiety and meaninglessness beginning in the early twentieth century. However, there are points in the book where Cassedy’s polyvalence thesis comes off like the hasty conclusion of a student who has closely read the relevant texts, but not moved much beyond a survey of positions (with requisite fascination and awe) to the analytical work of crafting an original and nuanced thesis about them: the thesis is simply that they differ. The overarching claim that the meaning of meaning is ambiguous because it has to be thus comes off—at least to this reader—sometimes as thoughtful and sometimes as glib.

At some points, the book reads like a collection of essays held together loosely by their relation to meaning and more generally by the fact that the author happened to want to write and reflect on the texts they interpret. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, of course—all academics do this to some degree—but in this case it results in a book whose treatment appears uneven. While the entire period of Western thought from Augustine to Bishop Berkeley is surveyed in a single chapter, the period from the end of the second World War to the present takes up approximately one third of the book. This is natural, of course, given that things are often more interesting to us as we get closer to the present, but what is less natural is the change in focus as the book moves chronologically. Up through its treatment of the “Russian Titans” Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, in Chapter Five, the book deals entirely with what we might call “high intellectual culture” figures, from the worlds of theology, literature, and philosophy. But beginning in Chapter Seven, and even to some degree in the first treatment of Tillich in Chapter Six, Cassedy’s chronological narrative turns almost exclusively to a more “popular culture” orientation, discussing sources like self-help books, popular psychology, references to “meaning” in Time magazine, etc. This, in part, reflects Cassedy’s thesis: that in the later twentieth century, the obsession with meaning became a mainstream phenomenon, making its way, in light of growing existential concern in the “age of anxiety,” into popular culture and even into the marketplace via the contemporary self-help industry.

But the book almost entirely neglects the fact that meaning never diminished as a topic of conversation in more “high culture” domains in the twentieth century. There is no mention of, e.g., the linguistic turn in philosophy or the resultant projects of linguistic or conceptual analysis in the analytic tradition,[2] and no substantial account of the consideration of meaning in late nineteenth and twentieth-century continental figures such as Dilthey, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, except as minor precursors to the thought of Tillich and Barth. There is, by contrast, extensive treatment of Tillich, and especially of his more popular writings, including his article in the 1966 issue of Time magazine with the iconic “Is God Dead?” cover, despite its status as, in Cassedy’s words, “quite possibly, in the history of American popular periodical literature, the most famous article that no one actually read—or remembers having read” (119). We are told that, by the time of the appearance of Tillich’s article in 1966, the word “meaning” “has traveled a winding path, in its guise as the German Sinn, from the nineteenth-century German philosophy and theology that we’ve examined so far, through such twentieth- century German and French thinkers as Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Camus, and Sartre” (128-9). But little further treatment of these figures is offered, except, occasionally, in the footnotes.

Indeed, there is only the briefest mention and quick dismissal of Sinn-analysis among phenomenologists and neo-Kantians: in a discussion of German philosophical accounts of Sinn as influences on Tillich, Cassedy assures us that “[w]e can safely set aside the philosophical genealogy of the concept (it stems from Edmund Husserl and an obscure philosopher named Emil Lask), whose details need not concern us” (122). It’s not clear why this dismissal is “safe.” Why needn’t these details concern us, and in what sense are figures such as Lask too obscure to merit discussion? Given that earlier chapters of the book discuss historical philosophical figures—even less well-known ones such as Hugh of St. Victor (34)—in some depth, the decision to gloss over large swaths of late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth-century philosophical work that would seem relevant for Cassedy’s overall thesis and aims in the book seems to stem more from the whims of the author’s own reading than from any serious scholarly research strategy. It’s as if the robust and highly influential discussions of meaning in the twentieth-century analytic and phenomenological traditions never happened. This omission would be understandable in a book devoted to popular, rather than academic-philosophical conceptions of meaning throughout Western intellectual history, but given its extensive discussions of figures such as Augustine, Berkley, and Kant in earlier chapters, the sudden shift to exclusively popular conceptions of meaning in the twentieth century is quite jarring. Even if Cassedy’s point is to show how meaning in the twentieth century went mainstream, it seems odd for an academic monograph to downplay the persisting deeper academic undercurrents.

I do not doubt that there is much to learn from the way that the term meaning has functioning in the popular American imagination in recent decades. Indeed, I found the treatment of this theme in the last four chapters of the book to be both enjoyable and edifying. But earlier chapters are not limited to the American context, and do not offer extensive accounts of the usage of meaning in the popular imagination of, e.g., the farmer of the Middle Ages or the industrial worker of the nineteenth century. If the “we” in What Do We Mean When We Talk About Meaning? refers to popular rather than academic culture in the later decades of the twentieth century, it’s not clear why Cassedy addresses it with regard to the latter rather than the former in his treatment of previous centuries.

Cassedy returns to academic (as opposed to popular) work on meaning, to some degree, in Chapter Nine, “Meaning Bridges the Secular and the Sacred.” The chapter focuses primarily on appeals to meaning in the contemporary faith traditions of Catholics, Evangelicals, and Hasidic Jews (171-180), focusing on texts from Popes John Paul II and Francis, evangelical Pastor and popular author Rick Warren, and Rabbi Simon Jacobson, director of the Meaningful Life Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As a philosopher and not a theologian or scholar of religions, I will not comment on these discussions, except to note that this chapter provides a nice bookend to the treatment of meaning in medieval theology in Chapter Two, and seems largely interested in exploring the relation between the secular and the sacred for its own sake, rather than primarily as a point of confluence in recent popular discussions of meaning.

Chapter Nine also includes some discussion of Charles Taylor (163-171), including a helpful tracing of Taylor’s diagnosis of contemporary “disenchantment” to the usage of that term in Max Weber’s 1919 “Science as Vocation” (166-168), and brief discussion of Phillip Kitcher’s recent work on secular humanism (169-171). At this point in the book, the reader might expect a return to the focus on philosophical and theological treatments present in the first few historical chapters, but this time from a contemporary academic perspective, and perhaps a more detailed treatment of the relation between the semantic and axiological senses of “meaning” noted above. Surprisingly, however, there is very little detailed treatment of the upswing in recent decades in philosophical literature on the meaning of/in life (e.g., Richard Taylor, Thomas Nagel, John Kekes, Susan Wolf, Terry Eagleton, Thaddeus Metz, John Cottingham, etc.). Metz, Cottingham, and Eagleton are discussed briefly in the introduction, where Cassedy admits that they have written whole books on the concept of meaning and living a meaningful life, but they are quickly dismissed for not offering summary definitions of the word “meaning,” whereas recent popular treatments are discussed at great length, even though the definitions on offer from these sources are often found to be “not helpful” (144, 179) or completely lacking (154, 158, 161, 169).

Throughout the book, Cassedy is laser-focused on definitions of the word “meaning,” and on which words (e.g., “purpose,” “goal,” “value,” “significance”) various authors appear consider synonyms.[3] This is the primary form of evidence given in support of his polyvalence thesis, and perhaps this focus stems naturally from his training and orientation as a scholar of comparative literature. But Cassedy seems to neglect the possibility that—excluding the more popular treatments featured in the final few chapters, in which cases ambiguous usage is perhaps more permissible— “meaning” is not given a simple, easily quotable definition in the works modern philosophical or theological figures not because it is ambiguous but because it is complicated or beyond words.


This is, indeed, a central lesson of twentieth-century phenomenological treatments of meaning. Allow me to dwell on this point in concluding, given the venue of this review. Unlike their analytic counterparts, phenomenologists (especially, e.g., Husserl and Merleau-Ponty),

refused to limit their conceptions of meaning to simple definitions or even to accounts of linguistic meaning. This broader, phenomenological approach to meaning is a central component of the philosophical genealogy of Sinn that Cassedy assures us—as noted above— “we can safely set aside,” and “whose details need not concern us” (122). By refusing to treat meaning exclusively within the confines of a philosophy of language, phenomenologists such as Husserl indeed presage, in an intellectually more rigorous, if necessarily more complicated way, the very move to consider meaning as the antidote to existential crises in the later part of the twentieth century that Cassedy presents in painstaking detail in the second half of the book. What is Husserl’s Crisis, if not a call to recover the level of meaning that belongs originally not to our language or our systems of scientific abstraction but most fundamentally to the lifeworld of everyday experience, the “general ‘ground’ of human world-life” (1970, 155).

For Husserl, it is through the ongoing synthesis of sensory givens arising from individual perspectives that we uncover—and make—law-governed determinations of meaning:

[A]s bearers of ‘sense [Sinn]’ in each phase, as meaning something [Etwas meinende], the perspectives combine in an advancing enrichment of meaning [Sinnbereicherung] and a continuing development of meaning [Sinnfortbildung], such that what no longer appears is still valid as retained and such that the prior meaning which anticipates a continuous flow, the expectation of ‘what is to come,’ is straightaway fulfilled and more closely determined. (1970, 158)

In its focus on the concrete details of lived experience, phenomenology interrogates precisely the point of intersection Cassedy emphasizes in Augustine and later idealism and romanticism between sense (Sinn, sens) as the modality or content of perception (sensation), and sense as the basic unit of meaning or meaningfulness. Without simply equating meaning with sensory givenness, and thus avoiding the dreaded “myth of the given,”[4] phenomenology insists on interrogating their complex and difficult connection. Seen in this light, phenomenology appears to be the ultimate return to the readability of the world, rather than just of the text, if ever there was one!

Indeed, in this light, classical phenomenology can also be interpreted as offering the last great attempt—prior to the hyper-specialization of philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century that made such attempts almost impossible—to theorize the relation between the axiological and semantic or semiotic dimensions of meaning. Meaning pertains both to language and to the value in living a life not simply because our experience is often mediated by language and concepts (though of course it is), but because lived experiences are themselves enactions of meaningfulness and value or “axiological nuance” (Scheler 1973, 18). Human beings are not just language-animals (Taylor 2016), concept-mongerers (Brandom 1994, 8, 620) or meaning-users, but meaning-makers. Our making sense of the world is a necessary component of our life projects. If sense (meaning) were not made, but simply found, our lives could not be meaningful—could not even, ultimately, make sense—for we could have no life projects. This point of connection between the axiological and semantic or semiotic is obscured when we think of meaning-making exclusively via models such as defining, naming, reading, writing or conceptualizing. It becomes much clearer when we include models of meaning-making that more fully reflect our ways of being in the world, such as ritual, dance, or everyday embodied movements like the blind man navigating the world via his cane, which is for him not merely a “sensitive zone” but also the “primary sphere” in which “the sense of all significations [le sens de tout les significations]” is given (Merleau-Ponty 2013, 143-44).

I do not mean to suggest that the phenomenological tradition has definitively explained this connection—I don’t think it has—but it may well be the last major movement in Western philosophy that seriously tried, without defaulting to the comfort of more isolated problems limited to examination in the domain of value theory or the philosophy of language. Cassedy’s neglect of this thread of the history of what we mean when we talk about meaning thus seems to me most regrettable, if perhaps understandable given the enormous ambition and historical scope of the book.


These criticisms aside, What Do We Mean when We Talk About Meaning? is an original, thoughtful, well-written, and wide-ranging examination a theme of major importance both for academic philosophy and for understanding our wider contemporary lifeworld. It should have broad appeal to philosophers, intellectual historians, students of comparative literature, and even theologians and sociologists. It helpfully synthesizes a wide breadth of historical and contemporary sources and is a welcome contribution for all of us interested in the perennial question of the meaning of meaning.



Brandom, Robert. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment Harvard University Press.

De Santis, Daniele and Danilo Manca, eds. forthcoming. Wilfrid Sellars and Phenomenology: Intersections, Encounters, Oppositions. Series in Continental Thought. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Frege, Gottlob. 1892. „Uber Sinn Und Bedeutung.“ Zeitschrift für Philosophie Und Philosophische Kritik 100 (1): 25-50.

Grice, Herbert Paul. 1957. „Meaning.“ Philosophical Review 66 (3): 377-388.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr Northwestern University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 2001. Logical Investigations. Translated by J. N. Findlay, edited by Dermot Moran. Paperback ed. Vol. I. New York: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald A. Landes. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Mill, John Stuart. 1843. A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive. University of Toronto Press.

Ogden, C. K., and I. A. Richards. 1923. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and the Science of Symbolism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Taylor, Charles. 2016. The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. Harvard University Press.

[1] All parenthetical citations are to the reviewed text unless otherwise noted.

[2] Especially pertinent, given the Cassedy’s titular focus, is Ogden and Richards (1923).

[3] Along related lines, another issue that merits mention—this is not a shortcoming of the book by any means, but a necessary limitation—is that Cassedy’s treatment, while it focuses on historical precursors in a variety of Western languages, is ultimately focused on the English-language word “meaning.” The book is clearly intended primarily for an Anglophone readership, and while there are some helpful treatments of various senses of, for instance, the French sens and the German Bedeutung and Sinn (though, as already noted, no discussion of Frege’s important account, and only passing treatment of Husserl’s), these are offered as part of the historical-genealogical story rather than as standalone treatments of contemporary French and German authors and usages. And there is no comparative treatment of terms similar to meaning (historical or contemporary) in non-Western languages. In this sense, Cassedy’s treatment is necessarily (and, again, excusably) incomplete.

[4] On this important challenge to phenomenological approaches meaning, perception, and knowledge, see especially the essays collected in De Santis and Manca, forthcoming.

Wouter Kusters: A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking

A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking Book Cover A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking
Wouter Kusters. Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
The MIT Press
Hardback $39.95

Reviewed by: Thomas Froy

Wouter Kusters’ ‘Philosophy of Madness’ is difficult to classify. This is probably the point. This enormous work – the full text reaches 738 pages – draws from sources diverse as Plotinus, Sartre, Eastern mysticism, personal testimonies, free associative prose and more; some canonical, some obscure, some empirical, some fictional. It’s difficult, too, among this mass of material, to discern the author’s intentions. Kusters states his explicit intentions quite often, but these statements often contradict each other, remain unfulfilled and unexplained. Gradually, what becomes clear, however – and this is perhaps the overarching theme of the book – is that Kusters’ doesn’t want to be classified.

Insofar as the author and his work reject classification, this book positions itself in a certain post-Foucauldian, anti-psychiatric tradition, which includes figures such as R.D Laing and Thoms Szaz. Psychiatry, writes Kusters, is largely “unable or unwilling to understand madness … [psychiatrists] hold it in contempt or even fear it while at the same time boasting about their “expertise” because they are thought to be able to explain or effectively subdue it” (Kusters 2020: 64). The inability or unwillingness to understand madness which Kusters identifies in psychiatrists and the psychiatric tradition as a whole is thus counterposed to the author’s own comprehensive and emancipatory ambitions: at one point, Kusters writes that the book aims to “alleviate psychosis and emancipate the psychotic person from medical classifications” (Ibid., xv). This work thus shares with many others in the anti-psychiatric genre an allegiance to what might be considered the more Romantic aspects of Foucault’s early work on madness: philosophy and madness are uniquely positioned to emancipate each other from their institutional imprisonments.

Kusters subject, then, is madness, and his aim is emancipation. ‘Madness’ is a rough translation of the Dutch ‘waanzin’; Kusters’ previous works include (as yet untranslated) Pure waanzin (2013) which recounts his personal experiences of psychosis, episodes to which he returns frequently, both as source for philosophical reflection and direct citation (Kusters is no stranger to self-citation, including sizeable passages from previous work, semi-fictional prose and passages which appear to be expressions of his own paranoid fears). Philosophy, for Kusters, is uniquely positioned to gain insights into the experience of madness, and madness into philosophy. The book can thus be understood as a dialogue between madness and reason, in which both slowly unwind and unhinge the other. The process of unwinding and unhinging will gradually lead each toward emancipation from their origins toward freedom.

The opposition between madness and reason – as well as his emancipatory aspirations – does not, however, lead Kusters to a confrontation with the concerns raised, about Foucault’s work, by Jacques Derrida. ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’ (Derrida: 1978), an essay originally delivered as a lecture, warns that any author, including Foucault, who aspires to emancipation from their chains risks reinterning the mad in the institution of philosophy. Already 60 years ago, then, the difficulties associated with semi-Romantic aspirations toward emancipation from the institution of psychiatry have been available to the reader, and presumably to Kusters himself. The consequence of Derrida’s confrontation with Foucault, consequently, are that if Kusters sets his sights on liberation from the prison of psychiatry – with its associated “medical jargon … supposedly objective labels and descriptions, and behind risk management, fear, and attitudes” (xvi) – he will have to be cautious not to reproduce that other trick of reconfinement. Emancipation demands, on the one hand, a rigorous distinction between, on the one hand, the domain from which the emancipated will escape (psychiatry) and on the other hand, the domain into which the mad will arrive. If no rigorous distinction is established, it may remain unclear whether liberation has occurred, and where the liberated find themselves as a result. Consequently, the risk is that madness may be liberated from psychiatry, but reinterned with philosophy.

Indeed, Kusters constructs a yawning chasm between the domains of madness and philosophy. “Madness is kept out of bounds as a nadir of meaninglessness, a breeding ground for unreal apparitions, chimeras, and sham” (2). However, this chasm does not present any obstacles to repeated definitions, in highly philosophical terms, of the essence of madness. On the contrary, despite Kusters’ repeated and clearly stated opposition to psychiatric definitions of madness, he displays no aversion to a philosophical classification of madness: psychosis is defined as “the desire for “the desire for infinity and absolute freedom” (xvii); madness is the experience of “trying to resolve the most fundamental questions of existence but in an uncontrolled, wildly associative way. You want to know what it’s all about, what good and evil are, what is at the very heart of existence: you want to know the meaning of life and the cosmos” (xxiii), and so on.

Not only does this appear to be in contradiction with the author’s stated opposition to classificatory jargon, but also with his declaration that he does not intend to contribute to classifications of madness (4). Since Kusters does not engage – at least, not explicitly – with the concerns Derrida raises about emancipatory critiques of institutions, it’s difficult to know where Kusters stands. It appears that he takes no issue with liberating madness from psychiatric definitions by means of firmly subjecting madness to philosophical definitions. As such, it remains, from start to finish, difficult – mystifying, perhaps maddeningly so – to divine precisely what Kusters’ aim – in terms of method or subject matter – might be.

This mad road is trod by a series of associations or identifications between philosophical notions and Kusters ideas about madness. For the most part, these associations are drawn from canonical works of Western philosophy – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre – and form the comparative structure of the book. Oppositions and comparisons are drawn from a huge number of texts in order to define, describe, and refine Kusters idea of the relation between madness and philosophy. The discourse is highly conceptual, dealing primarily with time and space. Aristotelian time, for example, is considered exemplary of the ‘normal’ attitude and can be juxtaposed with “mad crystal time”: normal time is chronological, while mad time might be circular, or perhaps everything happens at once (89-105). Although he states, early on, that madness and philosophy have appeared as each other’s enemies (p2), this does not mean that they cannot speak to each other, and inform our understanding of both; Aristotle may represent a spokesperson of normal experience at one point, and then an exemplar of insanity at another. As the book progresses, Kusters writes, oppositions will collapse and contradictions will multiply meaning that the reader will be “seduced seduced into identifying even more with the madman and letting himself be transported down a ‘stream’ of madness” (18).

In Part One, Kusters’ comparisons are most commonly within in the phenomenological tradition. Chapters One and Two give describe normal and mad experiences of perception, with citations drawn primarily from Edmund Husserl’s The Phenomenology of Internal-Time Consciousness. Beginning with what Kusters takes to be a Husserlian phenomenological description of experience, the normal perception of time can be characterized as Aristotelian – continuous – while the mad experience of time is circular (45-52). Chapters Three and Four subsequently develop phenomenologies of space and time, citing Husserl, Paul Ricoeur’s notion of ‘static time’ (94-6), as well as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of schizophrenia (98). Rather than subject each citation to analysis, Kusters’ approach is closer to compilation: long passages are introduced with a brief remark indicating that the text is ‘another example of’ of Kusters’ theory of madness, and rarely followed with any interpretation. Husserl, Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty are not subjected to interpretation or criticism, but rather contribute insights to the growing understanding of madness. Given this lack critical engagement, it’s difficult to discern Kusters’ own understanding of these texts. The specific texts are not selected for any stated reason, other than the evocation of a certain phenomenological experience: Kusters frequently introduces texts by describing them as “examples” of the conceptual terms or neologisms which characterize madness.

Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological work is given slightly less attention, and this represents something of a missed opportunity. Insofar as the assumption that phenomenological analysis of a subject’s experience can give us insight into their world is one of the key – if unstated – presuppositions of Kusters’ interest in phenomenology, the lack of engagement with Heidegger’s thinking is a shortcoming. Contemporary thinkers, such as Havi Carel, draw extensively from Heidegger’s rethinking of the spatio-temporal essence of being in order to give a clear picture of the situation and experience of an ill person (Carel 2016). Kusters’ constructions of a series of oppositions and comparisons between normal and abnormal experiences precisely mirrors the work done by post-Heideggerian phenomenologists, especially those working on the experience of mental and physical illnesses.

Part II – Chapters Five to Eight – shifts away from, without leaving, the explicitly phenomenological discourse toward Kusters’ interest in mysticism. Mystical experiences, he argues, are highly comparable with experiences of insanity, insofar as both provide an escape from the normal experience of the world. To some extent, Part II is continuous with Part I: those abnormal perceptions evoked by phenomenology are described more richly in Kusters’ selections from the mystical tradition; the experience of time, for example, may not only become non-continuous but also more intense. Kusters names four processes – ‘Detachment’, ‘Demagination’, ‘Dethinking’, ‘Delanguization’ – in which mysticism can lead the reader further along the path of madness. Here, Kusters draws most consistently from Plotinus: various long passages are drawn from his corpus and cited as instances of each process. Again, Kusters leaves Plotinus’ words largely unexamined, preferring to compile texts rather than subject them to analysis.

In Part III, Kusters describes a series of delusions: ‘The Uni-Delusion’, ‘The Esse-Delusion’, ‘The Ω-Delusion’ and ‘The Ø-Delusion’. Like the mystic processes, the removal of delusions will open the door and lead the reader down the path of madness. The ‘opening door’ motif, an explicit reference to Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelia, chimes with the earlier engagement with phenomenology: the experience of madness expands and reformulates our understanding in the world by breaking through the normal limits and parameters of thought. In this part of the book, the content shifts from canonical philosophy toward logical paradoxes, reflections on LSD, and extracts from fictional works. Kusters describes his process as being increasingly illogical, both in terms of content and form; the gradual destructuration and unravelling should mirror the experience of going mad.

Part IV extends Part III’s interest in paradoxes, aiming to cement Kusters’ idea that the process of philosophizing – be it about space and time, or the prisoner’s dilemma, or nothing at all – may lead the philosopher into madness. In this regard, Part IV is continuous with the previous parts of the book, insofar as the style is consistently compilatory. A number of the same ideas reappear in each part – madness, perception, space, time – but Kusters does not construct a theory of any of these; he merely cites, compares and collects interesting insights into various aspects of what he considers to be madness. On the one hand, this is clearly deliberate and fulfils his refusal to produce a systematic classification of psychosis; on the other hand, compilatory theory does not clearly present the author’s own position. The enormous range of sources are merely included within the ever expanding portrait of madness: the pieces collect without anything resembling structural relation or connection. The consequence of this is that the reader rarely gets Kusters’ own perspective: canonical texts – Plato, Descartes, Sartre, Husserl – are cited at length and pass without comment. Many readers will already be familiar with this works, and less familiar with Kusters’ own thinking: ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ is generous in material, less so when it comes to the author’s actual perspective, ideas, or interpretations of these widely-read traditional texts.

With this in mind, Part IV represents a substantial step within the work’s development: as noted above, Kusters remains highly elusive – perhaps difficult – in submitting to a simple characterization of his intentions. In addition, although the Chapters interweave and interconnect in both style and content, Kusters rarely gives any sense that his theory is building toward any conclusion or system. Chapter 14’s reading of Charles Taylor’s work – specifically the opposition between the bordered and the porous self – substantially revises this non-systematic approach. The compilatory method remains – Taylor’s thinking is merely another example – but Taylor’s thinking on reenchantment radically reorients the purpose of the book. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ clearly signals its disinterest in contributing to a classificatory theory of madness, and Chapter 14 is consistent with this insofar as, at this late stage, it suddenly becomes clear that Kusters is writing a book about enchantment.

The portrait of madness Kusters presents is so unsystematic and incoherent – I believe, deliberately so – it’s difficult to think that his intention is to present anything like a new understanding of madness. Instead, ‘madness’ – and all the processes and experiences which come along with it – is a placename for reenchantment. Kusters collects and compares a huge range of oppositions between normal and abnormal experiences: madness represents an opportunity to be led out of our compartmentalized, limited, singular selves into a new understanding of the world and our place in it. Becoming mad opens the self to a massively enriched and enhanced relationship with worldly phenomena, as well as new possibilities for different and rewarding interactions with everything around about.

Kusters introduces Taylor’s porous self – open and in dialogue with the world outside – as a comparative example with madness, and in this regard, makes explicit the analogy between going mad and reenchantment. However, Kusters does not suggest that this is the comparison which should frame the work. Like Taylor, Kusters sees the contemporary world as a difficult and unwelcoming world, unwilling to accept the insights (even the existence) of the mad enchanters.  Yet the advantages of living as a Taylorian porous self are numerous and many are shared with the madman: the world becomes infused with numerous and diverse meanings (531); greater intimacy with one’s feelings (534-5); greater receptivity (547), and so on.

Despite the apparent proximity of identity between the mad and the enchanted, Kusters does not dwell on this, nor does he explicitly outline what I understand to be the essential affinity described between the processes of madness and of reenchantment. ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ frequently returns to its disinterest in classification, systematicity and structure; it is possible, however, that this lack of focus may prevent the reader from recognizing some of the greater themes and purposes of the book. I suggest, in light of this, that interpreting Kusters’ thinking on madness as a longer meditation on the possibilities of what might be ‘mad enchantment’ may grant some thematic coherence to the work without sacrificing the stated desire for chaos, contradiction and confusion.

‘A Philosophy of Madness’ presents the reader with some difficulties. Although Kusters’ work is at home in the anti-psychiatric tradition – and Kusters asserts his devotion to the anti-psychiatric field vocally and repeatedly – this opposition is never substantiated. Kusters does not engage, at any length, with psychiatric literature or the history of psychiatry; he writes that his previous work – the as yet untranslated ‘Pure Madness’ – produced a comparison between his own experience of psychosis and the psychiatric reports written on him. There is no confrontation with the medical tradition, with medical professionals, the history of medicine and its relation with psychiatry, or with psychiatric institutions. Such a confrontation would give greater clarity to Kusters’ understanding of psychiatry, what it is, what its aims are, its limitations, and so on; the reader might also get a clearer picture of Kusters’ consideration of the possibilities and dangers associated with liberating the mad from the domain of psychiatry in order to reintern them within philosophy. Perhaps the matter – namely, of psychiatry as an institution, historical phenomenon, contemporary political entity and all those who work within it – is considered settled. Perhaps the translation of ‘Pure Madness’ will grant the English reader greater access to Kusters’ engagement with psychiatry, but until then, the detail is lacking.

In addition, Kusters does not make any engagement with the contemporary young but fast growing field of critical disability studies. Like the anti-psychiatry movement, scholars and thinkers in this field owe a substantial debt to Foucault’s work on institutions as well as a deep suspicion of those who want the ‘cure’ the sick and mad; furthermore, analyses of chronic pain , psychopathy, long-term illnesses and so on share a great many of the concerns and ideas raised in Kusters thinking; finally, many scholars – like Kusters – turn to the phenomenological tradition in order to understand the spatio-temporal qualities of being disabled. Kusters decision not to find points of dialogue with this field represents a missed opportunity.

Finally, Kusters’ decisions with regard to the structure are problematic. The overview presented above is accurate with regard to the theoretical content of the book; however, through a series of ‘Overtures’, ‘Intermezzos’ and interstitial passages apparently reflecting Kusters’ own mental state. The Overture and Intermezzos largely function as introductory and concluding remarks, describing the plan for the work and the relation between different sections. Kusters prose is highly expressive, ironic and rhetorical; for different readers, this may be amusing, witty, or a little bit irritating. But it is the interstitial passages, found especially in the early parts of the book, which are difficult to read. It appears that they function as literal representations of the paranoid fears of a person experiencing psychopathy.

Besides questions of structure, the Intermezzos also contribute an extremely strange first personal account, in which the writer – perhaps Kusters himself, perhaps not – describes, in direct prose, his everyday life in Amsterdam, meeting up with friends, driving around, spending time alone. The writing is frenzied, sometimes fearful, sometimes ecstatic, often difficult to understand or make sense of. It’s difficult to say what the fragments are – Kusters doesn’t introduce or reflect upon them. Most significant, and troubling, however, is that they are occasionally shockingly racist. While reflecting on languages, the author muses “Yiddish is a kind of basic Esperanto, just like Jews are the people without a country and without an identity” (119). This thought isn’t introduced – there’s no context – nor interpreted or analysed – there’s no explanation. It’s not clear what its purpose, meaning or significance is. Why are the Jews a people without a country? What does it mean to be a people? What is it to have a country? Does lacking a country mean lacking an identity? No context, no analysis. A few lines later, writing from the perspective of ‘the Jews’, Kusters writes “We watch over the system behind the system. We’re the backup, the fourth empire” (Ibid.,). Again, no context or explanation; merely, the introduction of classical anti-Semitism as a passing phrase.

A few pages on, Kusters writes “The ones who always do it right are the Holocaust deniers. And they’re still at it. As soon as you start tampering with Auschwitz, they throw you in the madhouse. But that’s where the Enlightened Ones live, those who haven’t been able to keep their big mouths shut. Of course there was no Holocaust!”. Kusters doesn’t direct these racist remarks toward any other ethnic minorities, nor does he return to them at any other point. Does Kusters mean to be ironic, or funny? Should these remarks frame Kusters’ opposition to institutions, or even the book a as a whole? Should they be ignored? It’s not at all clear what purpose these passages serve, if any.

Kusters’ compilatory method is perhaps the defining feature of ‘A Philosophy of Madness’. It’s possible – perhaps preferable – to understand the decision not to subject any of the his interlocutors to sustained or detailed analysis as being consistent with his stated opposition to systematicity and classification. Perhaps this is the right decision: for readers less familiar with the canonical works of European philosophy, this book functions as a useful introduction to texts from Plato, Descartes, Husserl, Sartre and more. Kusters sets his course firmly in the direction of madness, and this colossal book – just short of 800 pages, in all – is by no means a strict, disciplined work of theory. Instead, it’s pure, philosophical chaos.

The reader should not approach ‘A Philosophy of Madness’ with the expectation of finding a contribution to our understanding of what it feels like to experience psychosis, or periods of mental ill health; nor, a close reading or interpretation of a number of texts from the phenomenological tradition, mysticism or the fictional and real writings of ‘the mad’. Instead, Kusters’ presents the reader with a mass of text which, without ever coming together in any moment, points the reader toward possibilities: possibilities for reflection and reconsideration on one’s place in the world. Madness might be ecstatic, joyous, terrifying, upsetting and scary; it might be a normal way to live in a strange world. It might also be an opportunity to approach one’s life and the people in it with a new sense of enchantment. An off-kilter perspective, to be sure, but one filled with madness and magic.

Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. University of Chicago Press.

Kusters, Wouter. 2020. A Philosophy of Madness: The Experience of Psychotic Thinking. MIT Press.

Steven Cassedy: What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning?, Oxford University Press, 2022

What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning? Book Cover What Do We Mean When We Talk about Meaning?
Steven Cassedy
Oxford University Press
Hardback $29.95

Domonkos Sik: Empty Suffering: A Social Phenomenology of Depression, Anxiety and Addiction, Routledge, 2021

Empty Suffering: A Social Phenomenology of Depression, Anxiety and Addiction Book Cover Empty Suffering: A Social Phenomenology of Depression, Anxiety and Addiction
The Social Pathologies of Contemporary Civilization
Domonkos Sik
Hardback £ 96.00

Richard Rojcewicz: Heidegger, Plato, Philosophy, Death, Lexington Books, 2021

Heidegger, Plato, Philosophy, Death: An Atmosphere of Mortality Book Cover Heidegger, Plato, Philosophy, Death: An Atmosphere of Mortality
Richard Rojcewicz
Lexington Books
Hardback $95.00 • £73.00

Susi Ferrarello: The Role of Bioethics in Emotional Problems, Routledge, 2021

The Role of Bioethics in Emotional Problems: A Phenomenological Analysis of Intentions Book Cover The Role of Bioethics in Emotional Problems: A Phenomenological Analysis of Intentions
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Christos Hadjioannou (Ed.): Heidegger on Affect

Heidegger on Affect Book Cover Heidegger on Affect
Philosophers in Depth
Christos Hadjioannou (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 106,99 €

Reviewed by:  Tijmen Lansdaal (Mary Immaculate College)

In this day and age the majority of Heidegger’s works have been published. As a result, there is plenty of opportunity for philosophical exegesis: his works evidence various phases of philosophical styles and interests, a diversity of recurring topics undergoing changes in their analyses over time, and a hard-to-oversee body of creative vocabulary. It might be considered striking that one of Heidegger’s most consistent concerns throughout his catalogue was how various affective phenomena influence the practice of philosophy. Although a reasonable number of papers and book chapters have been written on the topic (with a strong preference to the topic as it appears in Being and Time)[1], there has been, like Christos Hadjioannou says, ‘no single collection of essays exclusively dedicated to this theme’. For that reason, Hadjioannou dedicates this volume, Heidegger on Affect, to in-depth analysis of Heidegger’s many attempts at making ‘mood [Stimmung]’ and ‘disposition [Befindlichkeit]’ philosophically relevant, and conversely, at finding resources for understanding within the history of philosophy. With the objective of offering a comprehensive and relevant survey of Heidegger’s work on such matters, Hadjioannou has compiled essays by a variety of prominent contemporary Heidegger-scholars.

Overall the result is an unbiased, critical, and stimulating review of the resources Heidegger provides for thinking through affects. Thankfully, the chapters do not conform to a stereotype of Heideggerian scholarship: they do not present Heidegger’s considerations as an unfairly neglected and immeasurably valuable wellspring for endlessly fruitful contemplation. Instead, they take the more modest route of raising questions that are both inspired by and evaluative of said considerations. In this regard, Daniel O. Dahlstrom’s essay is exemplary of the collection’s often critical approach. His essay describes an issue with Heidegger’s writings that is indicative of what one may expect from this showcase of studies on affect: Heidegger’s considerations ultimately seem relatively limited. Aside from his surprising but altogether somewhat casual interest in the topic of love, as evidenced by atypical sources highlighted in a rich and enjoyable chapter from Tatjana Noemi Tömmel, Heidegger seems to have only a myopic interest in a small number of fairly dour moods, like angst and boredom. When Heidegger has the opportunity to talk about other kinds of affects, he mostly seems to divest for unclear reasons. It might disqualify Heidegger as a champion of phenomenological analysis of affects, and Dahlstrom is entirely right to challenge him (and his readers) on this point.

On the other hand, this lack of breadth does have a clear cause. Heidegger prefers analysing some moods over others, because he believes they are the ‘fundamental moods [Grundstimmunge]’. These in particular are intended to play an eminent role in his philosophy. Hadjioannou’s own chapter convincingly shows that the analysis of angst allows Heidegger to disavow Husserlian mentalism while retaining an epistemic norm for his own version of phenomenology. Hadjioannou argues that angst on Heidegger’s account is the quasi-evidentialist insight into ‘Being-in-the-world’ that serves as a methodological counterpoint to Husserl’s ‘original intuition’. In that way, angst is focal to Heidegger’s conception of phenomenology, and gets the elaborate treatment it deserves. In this way, the few moods that Heidegger does believe are deserving of his attention do compel him to write the kind of rich, unique, and interesting descriptions that serve as the inspiration for this collection of essays. A recurring theme in these descriptions, a theme subjected to much scrutiny in this volume, is the allegedly inherent opacity of moods and dispositions. From Heidegger’s perspective, enigmatic moods like angst and ‘profound boredom’ deserve the principal part in virtue of how telling they are with regard to this supposedly essential feature. Depending on how sympathetic a reader is towards this particular interest in moods, Heidegger’s limited focus will appear more or less justified.

Some of the essays in this collection are, unfortunately, suffering from minor issues that are a detriment to the presentation of their core content. Although most of the essays successfully mine ideas from the source material that would be interesting for a broader audience, not all of them put enough effort in to make the ideas accessible, or ensure clarity over how they relate to existing philosophical ideas. It results in interpretative work being done in a vacuum. Essays by Mahon O’Brien, Thomas Sheehan, Niall Keane, and François Raffoul all could have benefited from engaging with more critical literature on Heidegger and this topic. O’Brien sees his essay as part of an endeavour to criticize certain ‘readings of Heidegger in the literature’ (1-2), but a reference to only one author is made: Richard Capobianco. Capobianco also happens to be the sole Heidegger scholar Sheehan engages with, offering largely the same critique of Capobianco as he has offered in previous writings. In both essays, the reference to Capobianco is perfunctory, because Capobianco’s views either are not elaborated, or it is not explained how those views are relevant to specifically the matters discussed in these essays. In his essay, Keane wants to provide a helpful hermeneutic framework for Heidegger’s often complicated writings: his approach reads Heidegger as turning his readers’ attention to possibilities ‘blocked’ by the metaphysical tradition of philosophy. The framework is taken from Heidegger’s analysis of Aristotle’s work on rhetoric. After an interesting and elegant reconstruction of Heidegger’s appreciation of the intersubjective, affective basis of rhetoric in that account, Keane is incidentally in a great place to address a volume on the topic of Heidegger’s thoughts on rhetoric, but he references it without discussion of the claims made by the authors in it, which leads him (among other things) to ignore the sensitive, political overtones of Heidegger’s discussion[2]. Daniela Vallega-Neu’s contribution evinces a different issue. For the most part, the volume avoids Heideggerian jargon, but her essay is an unfortunate exception to this. Her essay is complicated by unnecessarily difficult sentences, abstruse claims, and unexplained jargon. She makes a commendable case against Heidegger’s prioritizing of fundamental moods over regular moods, and for appreciation of the body’s role in the latter, arguing that a person has no control over the ways in which moods become revelatory for us, and is not to a greater or lesser degree ‘erring’ by getting ‘caught up’ by the body. However, in the process, she surprisingly ends up acknowledging Heidegger’s ‘great concentric power’ and calling on extra argumentative support from the authority of independent meditation (223).

Other essays are excellent. Katherine Withy’s essay offers a nuanced and thorough exploration of Heidegger’s notion of ‘disposition’, here translated in a more active voice as ‘finding’, in the sense of ‘how one finds oneself’. Particularly helpful is the clear distinction of ‘finding’ from ‘mood’. Heidegger makes one passing remark on the matter in Sein und Zeit, stating that disposition is the ontological dimension of what ontically is familiar to anyone as moods[3]. With Withy’s commentary in mind one can conclude that Heidegger most certainly does not mean to use the two notions interchangeably (in contrast to Vallega-Neu: 207), and that his analyses of moods must be read from the perspective of his interest in finding. On Withy’s account, finding involves taking a practical identity to be vocational; it is the necessity of hearkening to one project rather than another, i.e. to be called to self-disclose in one particular way (155-157). Noticing a tension with the ecological psychology literature of James J. Gibson, she argues that affordances (the possibilities offered up by entities) become solicitings (possibilities that call for engagement) through finding, which is to say: through coordination with the projects that resonate with the person (165-166). Withy here finds the conceptual resources to argue against two authors: Matthew Ratcliffe and Lauren Freeman. Both are well-known for their work on Heideggerian interpretations of emotions and affects, and the latter is featured with an essay unrelated to this discussion, i.e. a comprehensive study contrasting various conceptions of boredom, written in collaboration with Andreas Elpidorou. These two authors have argued on the one hand that Heidegger seems unaware of distinctive features that would make certain moods into emotions and not moods, and on the other hand that Heidegger unfairly neglects the role of the body in affective phenomena. She replies to the first contention by noting the lack of relevance of any distinction between mood and emotion to Heidegger’s analysis of moods in terms of finding, and by stressing how moods are relative to our projects (citing Aristotle: “what is frightening is not the same for everyone”). To the second, she replies by arguing that it is not obvious that the body plays a necessary or essential role in finding, despite acknowledging the importance of embodiment as a project (170-171). These arguments result in a rich, intriguing analysis that leaves plenty of possibilities for further discussion.

Equally fecund is Denis McManus’ chapter, which brilliantly showcases the virtue of deftly setting limits to one’s exegetical goals and sustaining a focus on the matter under consideration, resulting in a modest and elegant argument for a new, recognizably Heideggerian understanding of practical deliberation. McManus considers two different models for the interpretation of Heidegger’s notoriously difficult notion of authenticity, and proposes a third of his own, in which authenticity is explained in more close conjunction to disposition. The first ‘decisionist’ model, held by Michael Friedman, claims that a person has the freedom to make a resolute decision, which takes action of its own accord and makes that person answerable with regard to it. McManus shows this model to be at odds with Heidegger’s ideas, in so far as a person always submits to a world by ‘constantly being summoned by the world’ (132), limiting the volitional mastery of such decision-making. McManus then underlines the problematic nature of the decisionist model by recounting criticisms of Heidegger by Iris Murdoch and Ernst Tugendhat. Both authors McManus takes to make the important point that such freedom removes the person from ‘the medium within which our thinking, doing and acting happen’ (134). The second model, the ‘standpoint’ model, points out the commonality between a variety of existing Heidegger interpretations. Authenticity is, according to this model, taken to be the owning of a standpoint, meaning something like a commitment to a project that involves a particular set of norms. Contra the decisionist model, this model accommodates the predisposed and embedded nature of resolutions by allowing for consistency in one’s subjection to characteristic affects. A person can, for instance, be committed to readiness for righteous indignation, outlining in advance how the principle of social injustice matters to that person (example drawn from Somogy Varga, 135-136). In order to substantiate the pluralist intuition that one may have to answer to all kinds of competing normative demands, McManus proposes an ‘All-Things-Considered Judgment’ model. He invokes Heidegger’s account of guilt to make the point that a person always already waives possibilities for the sake of others. This point shows that a person incorporates a multi-dimensional, guilt-laden treatment of possibilities in moments of action (140-141). Authenticity, therefore, must consist in meeting the challenge to “be open to my situation in its concretion in allowing my many emotions a voice in my deliberations, acknowledging rather than evading the full range of ways in which I am already attuned to my situation” (144). In this way, McManus makes a strong case for the way in which affects must condition the success of deliberation, even where one is confronted with ‘mixed feelings’.

On a whole, then, Heidegger on Affect is a worthwhile collection of essays on affectivity that is accessible to readers with broader interests than just ‘Heidegger’. Hadjioannou has included work that is representative of some of the weaknesses, but most of all of the imaginative strengths of the field. Heidegger’s work, although descriptively limited to a small number of moods, provides resources for philosophical discussion on a large variety of topics, and the authors in this volume put forward a number of interesting considerations in relation to them. Given that, as Hadjioannou has said, “affective phenomena are central to all of Heidegger’s work” and “no single collection of essays has been exclusively dedicated to this theme” (ix), this collection can be considered a major contribution to its own field, one that simultaneously invites further productive engagement with the theme from anyone interested in what Heidegger brings to bear on affects (be it from within the field or from without). The volume’s efficacy lies in seriously considering how affects are existentially pertinent to human beings, deepening the widely-held intuition that they are. For that reason, it is of considerable merit and should be of interest to many.


Golob, Sacha. 2017. ‘Methodological Anxiety: Heidegger on Moods and Emotions’. Chapter 12 in Thinking about the Emotions, A Philosophical History: 253-271. Edited by Alix Cohen & Robert Stern. Oxford University Press.

Gross, Daniel M. & Kemman, Ansgar. 2005. Heidegger and Rhetoric. State University of New York Press, Albany. Part of the SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, edited by Dennis J. Schmidt.

Hatzimoysis, Anthony. 2009. ‘Emotions in Heidegger and Sartre’. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion. Edited by Peter Goldie. Oxford University Press.

Martin Heidegger. 2005. Sein und Zeit. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen.

Ratcliffe, Matthew. 2009. ‘Why Mood Matters’. Chapter 7 in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Edited by Mark Wrathall. Cambridge University Press.

Shockey, R. Matthew. 2016. ‘Heidegger’s Anxiety: On the Role of Mood in Phenomenological Method’. Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique 12.1.

Staehler, Tanja. 2007. ‘How is a Phenomenology of Fundamental Moods Possible?’. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 15 (3): 415-433.

[1] My personal favourites include Golob 2017, Hatzimoysis 2009, Shockey 2016, Staehler 2007, and works from Ratcliffe – 2009 for instance – and from the various authors in this book.

[2] Gross & Kemman 2005.

[3] Heidegger 2005: 134.

Kate Kirkpatrick: Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness, Oxford University Press, 2017

Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness Book Cover Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
Kate Kirkpatrick
Oxford University Press
Hardback £65.00

Dylan Trigg: Topophobia: A Phenomenology of Anxiety

Topophobia: A Phenomenology of Anxiety Book Cover Topophobia: A Phenomenology of Anxiety
Dylan Trigg
Paperback $26.96

Reviewed by: Francis Russell (Curtin University)

Topophobia: A Phenomenology of Anxiety by Dylan Trigg is a timely publication that provides a clear contribution to the ever-expanding philosophical challenge issued to the dominant bio-chemical and physicalist understanding of mental illness. More specifically, Trigg’s text engages with spatial anxiety, or a certain disquiet in the midst of things, that can be discussed by way of more familiar terms such as agoraphobia, claustrophobia, and disassociation. Through his discussion, Trigg raises important questions about the way in which anxiety can be approached as a means of with rethinking the body’s relation to space. Given the purchase that anxiety has within contemporary culture—from the pervasiveness of social anxiety to the ever increasing number of people diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorders (or GAD)—it is vital that contemporary philosophers and theorists respond to the dominance of the scientific model so as to prevent such a painful and meaningful mood slipping into the ubiquity of a common and unremarkable illness. This is to say that, while the encounter with anxiety is certainly remarkable for the one who endures it—and for those that support and nurture the one whom endures—there is nevertheless a sense in which contemporary psychology presents the risk of rendering anxiety as a ubiquitous phenomena that is best explained through a bio-chemical casual system. Accordingly, the meaning of anxiety is left obscure if not utterly effaced—indeed, in much contemporary clinical practice the broader question of what anxiety means might be construed as a defence mechanism used by the patient to resist a particular manualised treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT). In this context, we can see that Trigg’s work is deeply connected to, and often draws directly from a tradition of twentieth-century theorists and philosophers whose work presents a challenge to the notion that a phenomenon like anxiety is simply a result of faulty cognition—an inability to think rationally in a given situation—or of neurological defects, and which, accordingly, has no significance at the level of human meaning.

Alternatives to such bio-chemical and psychological accounts of anxiety are common in the continental tradition. Indeed, for figures like Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, or Jacques Lacan anxiety features as a phenomenon of fundamental importance. Where Trigg professes to differ from these aforementioned figures is with regards to the possibility of recuperating the radical negativity of anxiety. As Trigg states in reference to the legacy of Heideggerian phenomenology,

our phenomenology disembarks from a Heideggerian approach in identifying anxiety, not as a mood of existence reducible to humans subjectivity in its appeal to self-realisation, but as the site of an irreducible anonymity that outstrips subjectivity. (xxxv)

Given the brevity of Trigg’s discussion of Heidegger’s treatment of anxiety—being little more than what is put forth here—it is difficult to fully assess this purported distance from the Heideggerian tradition. However, despite the theoretical ambiguity of Trigg’s overt position there is nevertheless a sense in which he develops a compelling argument for a certain non-recoupable negativity that is inseparable from anxiety, and yet is absent in the phenomenon’s treatment by major figures such as Heidegger. It is important to not misread Trigg as suggesting that Heidegger limits anxiety to “human subjectivity,” but to remember the extent to which the Heideggerian treatment of anxiety is caught up in the possibility of “self-realisation.” While Heidegger’s account of anxiety in a text like “What is Metaphysics?” provides us with a compelling ontological placement of anxiety as a fundamental mood, his argument hinges on anxiety as the site for the authentic revelation of what could be referred to as the groundless grounds of beings. In such an account, no matter how disturbing the experience of anxiety might be for the individual in question, there is always the possibility of recuperating this encounter in the movement towards an authentic grasping of oneself and one’s historic meaning. Against this, Trigg’s project orients itself towards anxiety as resistant to recuperation and reintegration. This is to say, in Topophobia, Trigg looks to discuss anxiety in the sense of our being disturbed by a negativity at the heart of our subjectivity, and one that cannot be mustered towards the production of an authentic comportment, meditated on for the purposes self-actualisation, or tarried with in order to be eventually overcome. Instead, Trigg presents anxiety as the possibility of “experiencing one’s body as uncanny or alien,” (xxxvi) and, accordingly, as a blind spot in our fundamental corporeality that insists through disquieting disturbances.

Again, given the brevity of Trigg’s engagement with the more well known discussion of anxiety—such as those produced by Heidegger—it is difficult to fully asses his readings of such figures. Indeed, it is possible that one could find in Heidegger or Kierkegaard an account of anxiety that is sympathetic to Trigg’s own position. Despite this, Trigg’s account is nevertheless compelling insofar as it looks to linger for as long as possible on the disruptions produced through anxiety, and to do so in a way that avoids casting the subject of anxiety in a heroic light—that is to say, in terms of a possible triumph that awaits the subject who reflects on anxiety correctly. By dislocating anxiety from a broader question of authentic self-actualisation, Trigg is able to provide an account that is far richer descriptively than many conventional accounts of anxiety within the phenomenological tradition. Indeed, it is this descriptive sophistication that speaks most directly to the strengths of Trigg’s book. On the one hand, each chapter begins with a second person narration of an experience of anxiety that will inform the rest of that section’s argument. On the other hand, the less literally descriptive sections, those that do not necessarily attempt to simply sketch out what it is like to encounter certain kinds of anxiety, have a different kind of descriptive power. It is in the sense in which Trigg is able to describe encounters with anxiety as meaningful, as helping to provide an account of the significance of anxiety for understanding space and the body—and vice versa—that points to the real descriptive power of the project. In thinking through the problem of the meaning of anxiety, though not in terms that suggest anxiety to be the fundamental mood—or a mood that offers the possibility of a heroic movement towards authenticity—Trigg is able to take what is often a most intangible and ephemeral encounter, and allow it to find articulation.

Fundamental to Trigg’s argument is the phenomenological insight that the body is always already intersubjective and liminal, and that space is neither absolutely internal or external. In our encounter with anxiety, the problem of the body and space as dynamic thresholds insists upon us. In anxiety, the gap between my given sense of self, and the body as an excess irreducible to that sense, is revealed. In anxiety, the vast externality of a space that looms around me, and the deeply intimate sense that the discomfort caused by such a space can follow me, or can become part of me, reveals the problem of viewing space as either wholly internal or external. It is in anxiety, so Trigg argues, that the identity of space and the body—the sense of the body as mine and here, and space as other and “out there”—is disrupted to reveal a dynamism between the two that can produce immense fear and discomfort. While Trigg would agree with Heidegger that the encounter anxiety does not centre on a specific object, he nevertheless argues that in the revelation of alienness that accompanies the encounter with anxiety, what is typically taken as trustworthy and familiar—a nearby street, one’s own hand, etc.—can become terrifying. As Trigg states, with regards to the example of agoraphobic anxiety,

Quite apart from the idiosyncrasies of the subject’s psychological characteristics, being a subject means being exposed to and in touch with the bodies of others. Here, we can formulate an overarching thesis: with the agoraphobic experience of anxiety, the relation between the anonymous structure of intersubjectivity and the irreducibly personal experience of intersubjectivity effectively fracture. (105)

If the subject is not able to reconcile the irreducible gap between one’s personal experience of intersubjectivity—two or more hermetic bodies coming into contact with one another—with the revelation of an alien impersonal intersubjectivity—the broader context of shared interrelations that cannot be made fully individual—then the encounter with this irreducible alienness at the heart of subjectivity will produce a sense of terror in the everyday. “The failure to incorporate ambiguity and alterity leads to a bifurcation of the body,” Trigg’s argues (ibid). Rather than being able to tarry with the body’s simultaneously reliability and unreliability, controllability and unruliness, the body becomes bifurcated into the fear inducing “bad” body of anxiety, and the “good” body of control and self-regulation. It is in this sense, in navigating anxiety in relation to the meaning of the body’s intersubjective character and the liminality of space, that Trigg is able to recast anxiety as offering a hermeneutic opportunity that lies outside of notions of biological defect.

What at times feels absent from Trigg’s book is a reflection on the historical shifts that see self-control and self-regulation as virtues. Investigating the historical prominence of the kind of anxiety discussed by Trigg could only have deepened the richness of his account. Nevertheless, Topophobia is not only a vital resource for any foray into the meaning of the disquieting encounter with space, but it is furthermore a text that offers the potential for pathos and solace. Rather than producing an account of a passive subject that is simply prey to neuro-chemical interactions or childhood traumas, Trigg provides us with the opportunity to meditate on the ways in which our attempt to control and stave off negativity is linked to the terrible affects associated with anxiety. Our desire to contain our surroundings and to control ourselves are linked to the very fears of space and the body that are produced through the encounter with anxiety. It is in this sense that Topophobia allows the reader a space for reflection and an invitation for purposeful contemplation that is as not only intellectually productive, but also potentially therapeutic. Indeed, it is wonderfull to see Trigg end his text with a meditation on the possible confluences between the phenomenological tradition, and other intellectual traditions that challenge a physicalist and reductive approach to mental illness. The dialogue that Trigg encourages between psychoanalysis and phenomenology is certainly fruitful, and seemingly necessary if we are to foster serious political and ontological discussions of mental illness.