Paul Livingston: The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time, Northwestern University Press, 2017

The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time Book Cover The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time
Paul Livingston
Northwestern University Press
Paper Text $34.95

Chad Engelland: Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind

Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind Book Cover Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind
Chad Engelland
MIT Press
Hardcover $42.00

Reviewed by: María Jimena Clavel Vázquez (St. Andrews/Stirling Philosophy Graduate Programme)

How do children come to learn their first words? One key term in answering this question is ostension: lacking linguistic resources, language speakers recur to ostensive acts or movements –such as gestures and pointing– to teach someone the name of an object. This is the phenomenon that concerns Chad Engelland in his book Ostension: Word Learning and the Embodied Mind. For Engelland, the question regarding first-word acquisition involves several other matters: how are the intentions of the language speaker available for the infant? (i.e. the phenomenological problem); if intentions are available through animate movement, what is the concept of the mind that allows such availability? (i.e. the intersubjective problem); how can infants understand an ambiguous movement such as an ostensive act? (i.e. the epistemological problem); and, finally, what is the place of animate movement in nature and its relationship with language? (i.e. the metaphysical problem).

Engelland focuses on the phenomenological question, a matter he takes to be prior to other issues. For him, phenomenology is necessary to make sense of ostension because it is a matter of availability. He claims that the question of ostension “asks how the intentionality of the other is intersubjectively available in a prelinguistic way (…) ostension concerns how specific items in the public world can be mutually manifest as the target of joint attention” (xxvii). Only when we have an adequate grasp of the phenomenon we can answer the epistemological question and advance into the metaphysical problems of the nature of the mind, and language. According to Engelland, phenomenology is an adequate method to tackle the problem of first-word acquisition because it is concerned with making explicit the way something is manifested in our everyday experience. Phenomenology grasps the interplay between presence and absence, manifestation and hiddenness, an interplay that lies at the heart of Engelland’s account of ostension. Ostension is, for him, the prelinguistic means by which infants enter the public game of language, a character that necessitates a phenomenological account.

This understanding of phenomenology allows Engelland to engage with philosophers within the phenomenological tradition such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Robert Sokolowski, but it also allows him to read Wittgenstein, Aristotle and Augustine on this basis. Besides recurring to historical figures, he engages with contemporary thinkers, within both philosophy and psychology, such as W.V.O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Paul Bloom, and Michael Tomasello. The dialogue with philosophers that belong to different traditions and times is part of Engelland’s strategy. Philosophy is, for him, a conversation that inevitably ends up facing questions regarding human nature. In that respect, he claims that: “The restlessness of conversation, its incessant movement back and forth, is rooted in the natural aims of human like. To reflect on language in terms of conversation is to reflect on those who desire to converse with one another, with those who wish to share a life with one another. The turn to conversation necessarily involves the question concerning human nature” (216).

Part I. Contemporary Resources

Engelland begins this philosophical dialogue conversing with contemporary thinkers and scientists. In the first chapter, he starts by looking into the theory of language acquisition of Quine and Davidson. Quine gave a central role to behaviour in his explanation of language learning. He takes behaviour to be intrinsically ambiguous, an ambiguity that can only be (partially) remedied through repetition. However, Engelland considers that Quine’s external account of behaviour results in an artificial reconstruction of ostension and fails to see that, in an ostensive act, an item of the world is jointly disclosed but from different embodied perspectives: “[o]stension makes something jointly present to each, and presence involves people for whom it is present, people who together experience the world but from different points of view. In this way, there is an ineluctably ‘inward’ dimension to ostension, and there is more to behaviour than the behaviorist can see” (5).

Donald Davidson follows Quine in his account of ostension, but he emphasizes an important relational feature of the phenomenon. Language learning is the result of triangulation, that is, of the interaction between two agents, and other items in the world. The language learner associates the intention underlying the behaviour of the other agent with changes occurring in their surroundings.

Quine and Davidson are clear in that ostension is the prelinguistic means that allows first word acquisition. But, as mentioned earlier, for Engelland, ostension can only be properly unpacked phenomenologically. Phenomenology can answer “how the intentions of others are on display” in our actions (11). The movement Engelland is concerned with is not mere behavior, rather he is interested in intentional actions, actions in which one’s affective engagement is advertised. Even perception is among this kind of actions: it is not a passive process. He follows Ava Noë and Kevin O’Regan in their enactive account of perception, according to which perception is an embodied activity. Perception advertises intentionality and affectivity just like any other action; and just like any other action, perception takes place in the world and not just in our heads. Engelland also draws on the enactivist movement to account for the intersubjectivity that is constitutive of experience. Finally, Engelland draws on Gadamer’s concept of “play”, a concept that bring action and manifestation together. Play involves turn-taking and mirrored actions; players are interacting between each other, they are presenting their actions to themselves, to other players, and to spectators; it displays actions that are directed to the world and which are structured with a distinction between means and ends. This will turn out to be important features of ostensive actions.

In the second chapter, Engelland turns to scientific accounts of first-word acquisition, a matter he qualifies to be “a burning issue” in contemporary psychology. He draws mainly, on the one hand, on the work of Paul Bloom, who recovers an Augustinian proposal of language learning; and on the other, on the work of Michael Tomasello, who offers, in turn, a Wittgensteinian account. The psychological studies recovered by Engelland show that infants do not learn new words unless both the language speaker and the named item are present. For language learning, presence and intersubjective interaction is crucial. Ostension presupposes what Colwyn Trevarten identifies as the first and second stages of intersubjective development: (1) first, an understanding of others as “fellow animate beings” to whom a newborn child pays attention and with whom she interacts by imitating and by taking turns in their interactions; (2) second, an understanding of others as “intentional agents” with whom an infant engages in joint situations. It is not only that the infant can understand gestures and follow gazes, she recognizes “that these actions have reciprocal possibilities” (28). To explain the phenomenon of mirroring, Engelland recurs to the mechanism of mirror neurons, which fire when seeing the actions of another agent.

At the end of this chapter, Engelland reaches the following definition of ostension: it is “[a]n unintentionally communicative bodily movement, arising from a pattern of meaningful human action, that makes an item in the world jointly present and affords the opportunity for an eavesdropper to identify a certain kind of item in the world and/or to learn the articulate sound used to present the identified item” (36). It differs from ostensive definition in that (a) it does not necessarily have communicative intentions; and (b) it arises from a meaningful pattern of action.

Part II. Historical Resources

The historical conversation held throughout the second part of this book sets the stage for the final philosophical discussion. Although Engelland chooses four thinkers that come from different backgrounds and contexts, the way he guides the discussion enables a productive intertwining that enlightens the problem of ostension. While Augustine, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty explicitly deal with the problem of language acquisition, Aristotle does not. This is one of the virtues of the text. Engelland shows that Aristotle has the conceptual resources to deal with the issue of world learning; furthermore, Aristotelian philosophy allows the clarification of problems that arise within the other views, such as the nature of movement, and of animal life.

In the third chapter, Engelland starts this historical journey analysing Wittgenstein’s position which he reads in a phenomenological manner: the task of philosophy is not to raise scepticism, but to clarify the phenomena that appear in our everyday experience. Wittgenstein develops his account in opposition to Augustine’s. Firstly, he regards Augustine’s theory to apply only to naming; secondly, he takes it not to involve ostension, but ostensive definition which supposes the infant to have some kind of mental language; finally, he emphasizes the ambiguity of ostension as a central aspect of ostension, one that Wittgenstein considers to be missing in Augustine’s account.

Engelland argues that these objections are due to a misconstruction of Augustine’s position which, without realizing, is a lot closer to Wittgenstein’s own account in the following aspects: (1) firstly, ostensive acts (i.e. gestures) enable infants “to follow intentional cues and, when coupled with training, find their way into a language game” (52); (2) secondly, there are some human voluntary movements that are universal and which reveal our intentions; (3) gestures reveal the consciousness of another, (4) facial expressions betray our attention, (5) and the tone of voice and its modulation reveal emotions; (6) finally, all of these reveal affections, they “serve to make manifest one’s affections in the pursuit or avoidance of things” (53). Given that our body manifests our intentions, one can perceive the other’s affective life. Per Wittgenstein, minds are not private, they rather seem hidden when we are facing an ambiguous behavior. Despite the similarities of Wittgenstein’s account with Augustine, there is one central difference. For the former, ostension is disambiguated thanks to training, because the infant cannot surpass ambiguity without the help of a teacher. Engelland rejects this picture of the passive child and instead takes Augustine’s perspective of a ripe infant who desires to participate in the language game.

In the next chapter, Engelland revisits Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s position regarding language learning. The phenomenological perspective of Merleau-Ponty allows Engelland to account for the intersubjective interplay that lies at the basis of ostension. For Merleau-Ponty it is not so much that the child acquires language, rather she gets habituated to the language game. In learning to speak, the infant is learning to play a role and, thus, is acquiring not language but a whole world of meaning. In that sense, Engelland claims with Merleau-Ponty that “the body gains a ‘figurative significance’” (71).

To understand the communicative powers of the body, Merleau-Ponty abandons the opposition between a material world governed by causal relations, and consciousness. The body “must become the intention” if it is to account for our communicative interplay. The reciprocity of communication is possible in virtue of a common world to which both the language speaker and the infant belong. Engelland follows Merleau-Ponty in claiming that intersubjectivity is constitutive of the body. The flesh, a term that the French philosopher coined to refer to the basis of this embodied intersubjectivity, brings together the activity of the lived body and the passivity of the perceived body. Engelland claims that “the twofold or chiasm of flesh places each of us in a world together, enabling gesturing and joint attention” (81). For Engelland, Merleau-Ponty captures in a brilliant way “how the body is the best picture of the mind” (82). However, he fails to account just how it is that the body is twofold, a task that can be accomplish by two classical programs.

In the fifth chapter, Engelland addresses the first of these programs: Augustine’s account of word learning. With Jean-Luc Marion, Engelland takes Augustine to be concerned with the phenomenological question regarding ostension. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine notices that there are signs that are instituted or conventional, and, therefore, are arbitrary. However, that poses a problem for word acquisition: if these signs are arbitrary, how can they be acquired? To explain this, it is necessary to account for the joint attention that precedes language learning. Augustine recalls the context in which he acquired language: “a context of interpersonal affection nourished by expressive bodily movements” (93). In that context, the infant fails to disclose her needs, affections, and desires, and “discovers the ability to do so by understanding the bodily movement of language speakers” (94). Unlike the passive infant in Wittgenstein’s account, Augustine’s infant wishes to participate in the language game. This infant learns in an important sense by eavesdropping the conversations that take place in daily routines. Context controls ambiguity in an important way.

But, what happens when the context is not enough to disambiguate? For Augustine, the infant possesses some kind of perception or receptivity that allows disambiguation. The child conjectures that “bodily movement signifies soul” (101). But this conjecture is not an inference, it is rather an awareness we share with other animals and that is rooted in our inner sense. The infant develops this awareness when developing motor control. Nonetheless, interanimal awareness is not enough to make sense of this phenomenon. The child requires understanding as well to grasp bodily movement as an intentional action. Engelland intends to show, contra Wittgenstein, that Augustine does consider ambiguity as a problem. Not only that, Augustine realizes that ambiguity is a central feature of language learning, and that it is an obstacle that is not easy to surpass.

The last stop in Engelland’s historical route is Aristotle. As mentioned earlier, Aristotle does not have an account of word acquisition, however, Engelland reconstructs what would be the Aristotelian account of language learning, an account that offers some important concepts that were lacking in Augustine’s view. Engelland begins his reconstruction with the argument against the denier of PNC (the Principle of Non-Contradiction). For Engelland, this refutation shows that the PNC accounts for the possibility of intelligibility. But, what accounts for the possibility of joint intelligibility?

For Aristotle, animals communicate on the basis of natural significations: they express pleasure and pain. Humans, on the other hand, transcend this and institute conventional terms to express something other. However, these conventional terms are problematic in that they must communicate the way the world appears individually to each of us. This inward dimension of affectivity does not represent a problem, because it can be shared through our bodily movement. Aristotle’s account of movement differs from that of modern physics. For him, natural movement reveals the power to move. Animate movement, which is common to all animals, has a discriminatory character because it “targets a good or avoids a bad” (116). What is specific of deliberate human gestures is that they invite the other to look beyond them and to rest their attention in something else. Human joint activity goes beyond coordination, and turns into political cooperation (i.e. into a “share[d] belief about what makes for a good life” (124)). According to Engelland, the reciprocity of understanding in Aristotle’s description of friendship, sheds light to the meaning of cooperation: in friendship, we understand ourselves by understanding others.

Part III. Philosophical Investigations

These two conversations –the one with contemporary thinkers and the historical one– allow Engelland to set the stage for his philosophical investigations. In chapter seven, he gives a phenomenological account of ostension, according to which the intention of ostensive bodily movements is manifested, and not inferred. Engelland draws on the theory of the perception of emotion developed by J. L. Austin for whom: “one’s body advertises the movement of emotions to all those who have eyes to see” (p. 134). For Engelland, the advertisement of our affections is not reduced to emotion, but extends to action and perception in general.

Engelland rejects the inferential position because it assumes the “Cartesian bifurcation of internal and external evidence” (136). This bifurcation implies that, in order to go from behavior to internal intentions, the infant would need to experience such an internal realm. Inference requires the experience of internal intentions as evidence. Without it, the child has no basis for inference. He claims that: “[The inferential view] assumes a flawed framework in which the terms inside and outside, private and public, self and other, are mutually exclusive. The chasm separating these two domains cannot be bridged by endowing the infant with mindboggling powers of inference; it can be bridged only by uncovering the perception of animate movement. On this view, the infant appears more naturally as an understanding animal, not an inferring scientist” (138).

Per Engelland, ostension is not the coordination of the inner lives of two agents through behavior, it is rather joint perception. Joint perception requires spatial and temporal presence not only of the agents, but of the perceived item as well. Our individual perspective of the perceived object does not cancel joint perception because we perceive the public appearance or look of the item. Things have a public dimension and it is this dimension that we perceive and intend. In ostension, my bodily movement manifests the intended object, thus, bringing it to presence or making it an object of joint attention to anyone who is attentive to my movements.

In the following chapter, Engelland tackles the problem of other minds. The inferential view of ostension claims that, in analogy to ourselves, we take the other to be an agent. Wittgenstein notes that underlying this view is the notion of the body as a machine inhabited by a consciousness. However, for Engelland, this is an odd view: it would seem more natural to “perceive fellow animate minds at work” (155). He follows several phenomenologists, such as Edith Stein, Hans Jonas, and Evan Thompson, in claiming that our body is not properly understood as a machine, it is rather a lived body. We live among animate bodies, and our own animate movements “puts us into spontaneous communion with one another” (p. 155). Engelland takes one step forward from these phenomenological considerations in that, for him, although it is the case that we take the others to be animate beings because we understand ourselves as such, it is also that we are aware of our own life because we perceive it in the others.

The notion of mind that is at play in Engelland’s view is one that recovers an Aristotelian hylomorphism according to which “[p]oints of view are essentially embodied” (p. 170). Engelland enriches this position with the phenomenological account, thus, resulting in a view that takes the mind to be animate: “The mind is not incidentally attached to a body; the mind is essentially embodied and on display in animate action” (170).

And how does this account of ostension and of the animate mind deal with ambiguity? The ninth chapter of the book deals with the epistemological challenge regarding ambiguity. Although ostension recurs to similar resources to those of ostensive definition to control ambiguity –for instance, movement and novelty–, it also has “unique disambiguating cues”: (a) natural wants and desires, (b) daily routines and games, and (c) repetition across contexts. However, Engelland, inspired by Aristotle’s and John McDowell’s reflections on human nature, also argues that we are naturally inclined to the development of specific habits. To explain what he means by natural inclinations, Engelland draws on the concept of life-form developed by Michael Thompson. Life-forms are judgments that we use to “make sense of each other” (181), in that they afford ways of “generalizing or profiling” (183). Human inclinations are natural because they belong to our common nature, one that is available in the intersubjective realm of our perception. When learning a language, infants risk acts of identification and profiling. Engelland claims that “[t]he ostensive act affords the interlocutor or eavesdropper the opportunity to achieve something like a nominal definition, that is, an understanding that allows him or her to identify the spoken item and distinguish it from other sorts of similar things” (188).

In the final chapter of the book, Engelland focuses on the metaphysical problems concerning ostension. For him, what makes ostension logically possible is the structure of our experience. Given that experience is dominated by rest and sameness, movement and change call our attention. The relevance of movement and difference make ostension possible.

In this chapter, Engelland also discusses the relationship between phenomenological movement of disclosure and manifestation, and physical motion. For him, physical happenings are necessary for phenomenological movement, nonetheless, the latter does not identify with mere physical happenings. He claims that “[p]henomenological movement needs all this physics to happen, but it is something other than the physical happening” (198). Furthermore, we can only make sense of physical motion if it is immersed in our phenomenological experience.

This distinction leads Engelland to discuss the relation between scientific explanation and phenomenology. Although Engelland does not explicitly refer to this debate, I believe he engages with the problem of naturalization of phenomenology when dealing with the question about the relation between these two kinds of explanations. Engelland adopts Sokolowski’s notion of lensing to account for the role the brain, the nervous system, and our senses have in our experience. These do not appear in our everyday experience since they are transparent. These physical structures enable experience and “[make] the world available” (201).

Given their transparency, Engelland considers that a phenomenological account of consciousness is irrelevant for biological explanations. For him, there is an uncontroversial division of labor between phenomenology and science: biology is equipped to understand life, while philosophy is equipped to understand the manifestation of life. Philosophy, then, cannot contribute to biology as such, but it can make a non-biological contribution. In that vein, Engelland shows that joint presence is a condition of possibility of scientific discourse. Philosophy contributes in our understanding of the world, a world to which science belongs. Engelland would seem to claim that phenomenology cannot be naturalized in the sense that: “philosophers have no reason to adopt the scientific image as their point of departure or their point of return” (214). If that is so, why engage with science at all? Engelland is right in distinguishing the tasks of philosophy and science, but such a distinction should not amount to the claim that philosophy does not depart nor return to science. Claiming the latter inevitably leads to philosophical solipsism, something that Engelland himself avoids throughout his book by taking philosophy as conversation.

Concluding Remarks

Ostension invites the reader into a dialogue that not only goes through different disciplines, but also through different philosophical traditions and problems. It offers a treatment of first-word acquisition that takes into account traditional and contemporary considerations, but goes beyond them by introducing a new perspective that is enriched by phenomenology and psychology. Its originality lies in the explicit formulation of the phenomenological question regarding first-word acquisition. This book will be valuable to anyone who is interested in theories of meaning, language acquisition, and the dialogue between phenomenology, analytic philosophy, and science.


Stefan Roski: Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding

Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding Book Cover Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding
Studies in Theoretical Philosophy vol. 5
Stefan Roski
Vittorio Klostermann
January 2017
Paperback 59,00 €

Reviewed by: Petter Sandstad (University of Rostock)

Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848) was a Catholic priest and held, until his politically-motivated dismissal by the Austrian Emperor Franz in 1819/20, a professorship on religious doctrine at the University of Prague.  He was a polymath, writing on philosophy of religion, political philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, and social reform (and engaged in philanthropic work). Yet his most notable and original work, largely ignored during his life, is on mathematics, logic, and philosophy of science. This part of Bolzano’s work was influential upon many students of Franz Brentano (Smith 1994:156), e.g., Carl Stumpf, Alexius Meinong, Kazimierz Twardowski, and not least Edmund Husserl, who wrote: “Bernard Bolzano’s Wissenshaftslehre… far surpasses everything the world-literature has to offer in the way of a systematic sketch of logic… we must count him as one of the greatest logicians of all time” (Prolegomena, appendix to §61, Husserl 2001:142).  Bolzano’s notion of “proposition in itself” (Sätze an sich) is a predecessor of Brentano’s “immanent content,” Frege’s “thought” (Gedanke), and Husserl’s “ideal meaning.” And more generally, Bolzano’s view that propositions are, in Husserl’s terminology, ideal or abstract entities was highly influential (Smith 1994:185-190).

There has recently been a vast expansion in the literature on Bolzano’s theoretical philosophy.  In 2014 the first complete English translation of Bolzano’s main work from 1837, the Wissenschaftslehre (Theory of Science), was published in four volumes (Bolzano 2014).  Some noteworthy recent monographs are Morscher’s (2008) Bolzano’s Life and Work and Lapointe’s (2011) Bolzano’s Theoretical Philosophy. For a brief introduction see Morscher (2014) and Šebestik (2016).  What is of interest for the purpose of this review is the fact that Bolzano was, as claimed by Roski, perhaps the first to have a proper, though tentative and fragmentary, theory of grounding (55; here and henceforth references to page numbers alone refer to the book under review).

Grounding is a topic which has received immense attention these last 15 years or so (see Correia and Schnieder 2012; Bliss and Trogdon 2016). It is often seen as a replacement for the controversial notions of truth-makers and of supervenience, where it is taken as a virtue of all these notions that they allow for non-eliminative theories, for instance of the mental or of social reality. Still, grounding is perhaps an even more controversial notion. For instance, the notion is criticized for being too coarse-grained (Wilson 2014). Some examples of grounding especially conducive to Bolzano’s conception are (216):

  • Moral facts obtain because non-moral ones do. E.g. Metternich’s actions are bad because they yield to a decrease of the overall distribution of happiness.
  • It is true that p because p. E.g. it is true that Socrates is brave because Socrates is brave.
  • A conjunction is true because its conjuncts are true. E.g. Socrates is Greek and Socrates is a philosopher because Socrates is Greek, and because Socrates is a philosopher.

The use of  “because” indicates that a relation of grounding holds between two true propositions (the relata). “Because” is here not used in an evidential and epistemological sense, but rather to express an explanatory metaphysical priority-relation.

Roski’s Bolzano’s Conception of Grounding is the first book-length treatment solely devoted to Bolzano’s theory of grounding. The author is concerned with Bolzano’s mature theory of grounding as expressed in his main work, the Wissenschaftslehre (especially WL §198-221).  Aside from a few notes, the book does not discuss Bolzano’s transition from his early theory to his mature theory (especially, both from 1810, the Aetiologie and the Beyträge zu einer begründeteren Darstellung der Mathematik; but cf. Centrone 2016). Nor does it discuss Bolzano’s influence on his successors, e.g., Husserl. By all meanings of the term, this is a scholarly work—both in its varied use of texts from Bolzano’s collected works (the Bernard Bolzano Gesamtausgabe), and in its discussion of relevant secondary literature. As I am no scholar of Bolzano, I will not engage with Roski’s interpretation. Rather, I will focus on the value of this book for a general reader, who is either already familiar with the recent grounding-literature and interested in learning more on Bolzano’s view, or interested in an historically-guided introduction to grounding.

The book is a revision of Roski’s 2013 doctoral dissertation, from which two chapters have been omitted (one on Bolzano’s early work and one on his conception of science) and one chapter added (ch.5).  It consists of an introduction (ch.1); a presentation of key notions from the Wissenschaftslehre, especially deducibility (ch.2); one chapter on Bolzano’s pure logic of grounding (ch.3), and a very long chapter on his impure logic of grounding (ch.4).  Roski takes the distinction between pure and impure from Fine (2012).  The pure logic of grounding “contains principles that hold for every case of grounding, irrespective of…the relata,” whereas impure logic of grounding “consists of more specific principles that mostly apply only to truths from deductive or a priori sciences” (16).  The book concludes with a comparison between Bolzano’s theory and contemporary theories of grounding (ch.5).

Chapter 1. Introduction

The introduction not only contains the customary brief description and motivation of the book, methodological remarks, and outline of the chapters. It further gives a brief description of grounding. Bolzano’s terminology is that of a relation of grounding (Abfolge) which holds between two relata (both truths), the ground (Grund) and the consequence (Folge).  Unfortunately, the translation of Abfolge as “grounding” is nowhere defended in the book; in Bolzano (2014) it is translated as “the relation of ground and consequence,” and “grounding” might be a misleading translation. Roski characterizes grounding as an explanatory consequence relation—thus, the consequence not only follows deductively (Roski explains this notion in ch.2, see below) from the ground(s), but the ground is also explanatory of the consequence (2). Further, grounding is an ordering relation and is as such asymmetric: a grounds b, yet b does not ground a.  Roski presents two of Bolzano’s examples of grounding (for both these examples, though presumably not in general, either proposition is deducible from the other).  First, the truth that the atmospheric pressure has dropped partially grounds the truth that the barometer stands lower.  Second, from Euclid’s Elements (Proposition I.1), the truth that for every two points a and b, there is a point c such that lines ab = ac = bc grounds the truth that the circumferences of any two circles with common radius ab and centres a, b, lying on the same plane, intersect at a point c equidistant from a and b.

Historically, Roski situates Bolzano within what he names, following Betti and de Jong (2010), the Classical Model of Science.  This model goes back to Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, and Roski says that similar views are defended inter alia by Arnauld and Nicole’s Port Royal Logic, Leibniz, and Wolff.  Its central idea is that science should be structured axiomatically (e.g., Euclid’s axiomatization of geometry).  Earlier discussions of this model simply call it the Ancient Axiomatic Theory (Scholz 1930/1975).  This accords with the traditional interpretation of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics (dating back at least to Philoponus’ 6th century commentary), although it is by no means the only possibility (for an interpretation more along the line of a Husserlian formal ontology, where each science is a regional ontology, see my (2016)).  In the remainder of the book Euclid, not Aristotle, will represent this model (although Bolzano considered Euclid’s Elements to be highly flawed).

Roski notes strong similarities between Bolzano’s two examples (especially the barometer) and Aristotle’s example that “it is not because the planets [C] do not twinkle [B] that they are near [A] – rather, because they are near they do not twinkle” (APo I 13, 78a37-38).  For one, we have a similar use of “because.”  Further, Aristotle says that either truth deductively follows from the other: “B belongs to C, and A belongs to B, therefore A belongs to C” is a valid syllogism, but it gives the wrong explanation (aitia).  The correct explanation has A (being near) as the explanatory middle term: “A belongs to C, B belongs to A, therefore B belongs to C.”  This illustrates Aristotle’s distinction between a merely valid and a demonstrative (explanatory) syllogism (a modern variant is Bromberger’s flagpole-counterexample to the Hempel-Oppenheim-account).  Similarly, Bolzano speaks of demonstrations (Begründungen) which present the objective ground for a truth (10-11).  A further similarity, unremarked by Roski, is Bolzano’s distinction between objective and subjective grounds, where the latter corresponds to the evidential/epistemological use of “because.”  Thus, while the fall in atmospheric pressure is the objective ground of the fall of the barometer, conversely the fall of the barometer is the subjective ground of the fall in atmospheric pressure.  This is the same as Aristotle’s distinction between what is prior to us and what is prior in nature/simpliciter (APo I 2, 72b25-32).  Third, Roski does not mention the strong similarity between Aristotle’s view throughout the Posterior Analytics and Bolzano’s view that the “generality of the premises is thus, as it were, measured in terms of the terminus medius…the highest possible generality is given by the case in which terminus medius and predicate idea have the same extension” (179).

Finally, Roski presents six claims central to Bolzano’s conception of grounding (12):

  1. Grounding proceeds from more to less general truths.
  2. Grounding proceeds from simple to more complex truths. (Roski argues in ch.4 that Bolzano came to reject this claim.)
  3. The grounds of a given consequence are uniquely determined.
  4. There are ungrounded truths.
  5. Grounding is an asymmetric relation.
  6. Grounding gives rise to deductive economy.

Chapter 2. Objective truth, variation & truth-preservation

Roski presents some key notions from Bolzano’s Wissenschaftslehre, which are prerequisites for understanding Bolzano’s theory of grounding.

For Bolzano, the relata of grounding are true propositions (Sätze an sich).  Propositions are abstract objects (Bolzano merely speaks of non-existing objects), bearers of truth and falsity, and composed of ideas in themselves (Vorstellungen an sich) (20-21).  Ideas are in turn either complex (zusammengesetzt), e.g. [prime number] and also [prime], or simple (einfach), e.g. [not] (as is customary in Bolzano-scholarship, square brackets indicate propositions or ideas).  Further, ideas can either refer to one or more objects, or to no object at all.  Both propositions and ideas Bolzano sharply distinguishes from their corresponding mental items, viz. judgements and subjective ideas (in Husserlian terminology, propositions and ideas are ideal, not immanent, contents).

Bolzano understands the distinction between intuitions (Anschauungen) and concepts (Begriffe) somewhat different from Kant.  An intuition “is defined as a simple idea that has exactly one object” (24), e.g., “this pen,” and a concept is “(a)ny idea that is not an intuition and that does not contain an intuition as a part” (25).  The third group, “ideas that aren’t intuitions, but contain at least one intuition as a part” (25), Bolzano calls mixed ideas (gemischte Vorstellung).  Correspondingly, Bolzano distinguishes between intuitional propositions, i.e. propositions containing at least one intuition, and conceptual propositions: for Bolzano roughly equivalent to a posteriori and a priori truths (26).

Bolzano holds that all propositions have the form [A has b]; [has] is an objectless idea (copula), [A] is a subject-idea and [b] is a predicate-idea.  This requires Bolzano to heavily paraphrase ordinary propositions, e.g. “there are cows” into [[Cow] has objectuality] and “there are no real square roots of -1” into [[Real square root of -1] has lack of objectuality].  A proposition, [A has b], is then defined by Bolzano as true “just in case A is objectual and all objects that fall under [A] have at least one of the properties that fall under [b]” (29).

Bolzano’s notion of deducibility (Ableitbarkeit) constitutes not only a significant improvement compared to his contemporaries’ alternative accounts (19), but is also, with its focus on truth-preservation under variation, close to the now standard Tarskian definition (43-44).  However, it is highly unorthodox in that it is a ternary relation: deducibility holds “between a collection of premises, a collection of conclusions and a collection of ideas that are considered to be variable” (45).  Thus “Bolzano’s notion validates many arguments that are not logically valid on a modern understanding of the notion” (47).  Fortunately, Bolzano also has a binary relation of logical deducibility which is close to our modern understanding, defined such that the collection of premises Δ is logically deducible from Γ iff Δ is deducible from Γ when all non-logical ideas are considered to be variable.  It is logical deducibility that is important for Bolzano’s theory of grounding (47).  Further relevant to grounding, Roski presents a notion of mutual deducibility/equivalence (Gleichgüldigkeit), e.g. as in the example of the barometer; and a notion of exact deducibility (genaue Ableitbarkeit), i.e. an argument containing no redundant premises or ideas.

Chapter 3. Explanatory priority: Bolzano’s pure logic of grounding

Roski reconstructs Bolzano’s theory of the pure logic of grounding, i.e. the logical properties of grounding independent of its relata.

Bolzano distinguishes between complete and partial grounds, and between immediate and mediate grounds.  A partial ground is a part of a complete ground, e.g., the truth of a conjunct is a partial ground of the truth of a conjunction.  A mediate ground is a ground of an immediate ground, e.g., in Euclid’s Elements Postulate I.1 is a mediate ground of Proposition I.19, while Propositions I.5 and I.18 are its immediate (complete) ground (64).  Bolzano only applies the partial/complete distinction to immediate grounds (65), and thus we have a tripartite distinction between partial immediate grounds, complete immediate grounds, and mediate grounds (and correspondingly for consequences).  Bolzano explicitly takes the complete immediate ground to be the only genuine case of grounding (66).  However, Bolzano scholars disagree on which of the following two cases should be considered basic: either the relation of a complete ground to its complete consequence, or the relation of a complete ground to one of its partial consequences.  Roski favours the second alternative, thus naming this relation “grounding.” The first he names “complete grounding.”

Roski first roughly follows Bolzano’s presentation of immediate grounding (WL §198-215) in his section 3.4, and then gives a more concise reconstruction in 3.5. In the latter, Roski shows that most properties of pure grounding can be derived from three basic principles: the asymmetry of partial grounding, the uniqueness of grounding (i.e., there is only one complete ground of a consequence), and the existence of fundamental truths (i.e., some truths are ungrounded). Both partial grounding and complete grounding are defined in terms of the primitive notion of grounding. From this Roski derives, first, the theorem that there is no overlap between any complete ground and its complete consequence; second, the asymmetry of complete grounding; third and fourth, the irreflexivity of complete grounding and partial grounding; fifth, that complete consequences do not overlap; sixth, the uniqueness of complete grounds; seventh and eighth, anti-monotonicity of grounding and of complete grounding; and, ninth, failure of transitivity and cut. In order to derive the last properties of pure ground, two further principles must be supplied, corresponding to what is sometimes called Aristotle’s insight (cf. Metaphysics Θ 9, 1051b6-9; and Categories 5, 4b8-10 and 12, 14b18-22): “Every truth φ and every collection of truths {φ1,…,φn}is the complete ground of a truth of the form [φ is true] and [Each proposition in {φ1,…,φn} is true] respectively” (71). From this Roski derives, first, the seriality of complete grounding, grounding, and partial grounding (i.e., every collection of truths has another collection of truths as its complete consequence, every collection of truths is a complete ground of another truth, and every truth is a partial ground of another truth); second, linkedness of partial grounds (i.e., there are truths φ, θ, ψ such that φ partially grounds θ and θ partially grounds ψ); third, internal dependence (i.e., “that truths which form the complete ground of a given truth may themselves stand in grounding relations” (97)); and fourth, anti-amalgamation (i.e., pairs of complete grounds and consequences cannot be fused).

The chapter also discusses mediate grounding, showing it to be irreflexive, transitive, and asymmetrical (103), and briefly discusses the possibility of infinite grounding trees.

Chapter 4. Simplicity and economy: Bolzano’s impure logic of grounding

The main source for Bolzano’s impure logic of grounding, where only conceptual truths are the relata of impure grounding, is WL §221. In what is by far the longest chapter of the book (109-213), Roski gives a very thorough discussion of §221 (most of which I am unable to discuss here for reasons of space), including a discussion of some tensions between Bolzano’s pure and impure logic.

The fundamental notion in this chapter is complexity.  Grounds are required to be less complex than their consequences. Bolzano strictly defines complexity in terms of the number of “simple parts” in a proposition, such that a proposition with more simple parts is more complex than a proposition with less simple parts.  Roski here argues that the relevant parts are not the type but rather the token occurrences (e.g. of the simple idea [not]) (115).  In addition, grounds should avoid redundancy and therefore not contain logically analytic truths nor consist of logically dependent propositions.

Here enters the tension with Bolzano’s pure logic, which says that every truth and every collection of truths grounds some other truth.  Yet, not every truth satisfies the simplicity and economy principles.  To resolve this tension, Roski argues that “Bolzano should let go of the seriality of grounding, and consequently of (Truthcoll)” (159), where “(Truthcoll)” is Aristotle’s insight applied to collections of truths.

Chapter 5. Bolzano’s logic of grounding and the logic of metaphysical grounding

Roski generally notes much convergence between Bolzano’s and contemporary theories of grounding, most strongly for his pure logic of ground.  However, Bolzano held pretty much the opposite view from the contemporary, regarding ground of quantificational truths (229-231).  He took truths containing an existential quantifier, e.g., “there is something,” as basic, rather than as grounded in a truth without the existential quantifier; and he took a truth containing a universal quantifier as partially grounding one of its instances.

Further, Roski earlier (10) notes that grounding does not hold among two truths because a relation of ontological dependence holds between the objects mentioned in the truths.  Dependence- or priority-relations have no further explicit role in Roski’s discussion of Bolzano, yet they are central to many contemporary theories of grounding (especially to Benjamin Schnieder’s work).  I would have liked some discussion on this point.


The book is written in clear and concise English, and does not presuppose previous knowledge of Bolzano.  There are some typos, none of which should present any obstacle to understanding the text.  The logical notation used is introduced and explained, and a list of symbols, definitions, and principles is included.  However, I must note some shortcomings of the index.  Preferably, the index should have contained names of other scholars of Bolzano discussed in the book.  Similarly, some of the entries are incomplete (e.g., a number of passages mentioning Aristotle have not been included in the index).  Further, the Bolzano scholar would, I think, appreciate an index locorum for passages from Bolzano.

While the book is mainly a scholarly work rather than a theoretical contribution, Roski is too modest when he asserts that “the book will not contribute anything new to the debate on metaphysical grounding” (2-3).  For he later says: “Bolzano did not merely anticipate many views that are part and parcel of the current debate. He also went beyond them in interesting ways” (232).  The presentation of these ideas can be said to be an addition to the debate, even though this still leaves the possible application and defence of these ideas as a task for future research. In conclusion, Roski’s book should be of strong interest to anyone interested in Bolzano or grounding.



Ansten Klev, Ludger Jansen, and Georg Fuellen provided helpful feedback to a draft of this review.


Betti, A. and de Jong, W.R. (2010) “The Classical Model of Science: A Millenia-old Model of Scientific Rationality,” Synthese 174:185-203.

Bliss, R. and Trogdon, K. (Winter 2016) “Metaphysical Grounding”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E.N. Zalta (ed.),

Bolzano, B. (2014) Theory of Science, 4 vols., trans. P. Rusnock and R. George, Oxford: Oxford University  Press.

Centrone, S. (2016) “Early Bolzano on Ground-Consequence Proofs,” Bulletin of Symbolic Logic 22:215-237.

Correia, F. and Schnieder, B. (eds.) (2012) Metaphysical Grounding: Understanding the Structure of Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fine, K. (2012) “The Pure Logic of Ground,” Review of Symbolic Logic 5:1-25.

Husserl, E. (2001) Logical Investigations, Vol. 1, trans. J.N. Findlay, London/New York: Routledge.

Lapointe, S. (2011) Bolzano’s Theoretical Philosophy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Morscher, E. (2008) Bolzano’s Life and Work, Sankt Augustin: Academia.

Morscher, E. (Fall 2014) “Bernard Bolzano,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E.N. Zalta,

Sandstad, P. (2016) “The Formal Cause in the Posterior Analytics,” Filozofski vestnik 37: 7-26.

Scholz, H. (1930/1975) “The Ancient Axiomatic Theory”, trans. J. Barnes, Articles on Aristotle: 1. Science, 50-64, ed. J. Barnes/M. Schofield/R. Sorabji, London: Duckworth.

Šebestik, J. (Spring 2016) “Bolzano’s Logic”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. N. Zalta,

Smith, B. (1994) Austrian Philosophy: The Legacy of Franz Brentano, Chicago/La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.

Wilson, J.M. (2014) “No work for a theory of Grounding,” Inquiry 57:535-579.

Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy

The Beginning of Philosophy Book Cover The Beginning of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
Ancient Philosophy, History of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Academic
Paperback $20.66

Reviewed by: Zachary Isrow (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

Where does philosophy begin? Often, in the West, Thales of Miletus is considered father of philosophy. Yet, if one looks Eastward towards India and China, or South towards Egypt, there are surely philosophical origins long before Thales existed. Still, in the West the presocratics are where we look to uncover the beginning of philosophical thought. While many texts have been written addressing and interpreting the presocrates and their thought, Hans-Georg Gadamer’s The Beginning of Philosophy is not one of these – at least not in the typical sense. Gadamer’s book, based on the lectures he gave in 1988 at the Naples Institute for the Study of Philosophy in Italy, does not strictly seek to explore presocratic philosophy in its own regard, but rather hopes to address the hidden origins of philosophy.

Gadamer, a renowned philosophy of the 20th Century, with these lectures, introduces a new approach to ancient philosophy. Much of the current literature on presocratic philosophy focuses strictly on the ideas generated and discussed in relation to their influence on the future development of philosophy. While Gadamer does not fall far from this in his lectures, the book’s beginning two chapters “The Meaning of Beginning” and “Hermeneutic Access to Beginning” pave the way for a unique approach to thinking about presocratic philosophy. For this review, I will focus on this new approach Gadamer suggests and then briefly discuss how this new approach to presocratic thought lends itself to a more complete system of thought, rather than a series of seemingly sporadic fragments.

When we ask ourselves “where does philosophy begin?,” it is often question answered by reference to a time, place, or individual. Interest in actual interpretation of presocratic philosophy was never really a task set forth by intellectuals until the nineteenth century romantics in Germany, with Hegel and Schleiermacher (10). Still, none questioned the very origins of presocratic thought. Why did it develop the way it did? Was it mere curiosity? Was it the myths that sparked interest in things unseen? Gadamer, thinks that there is a secret origin to which “beginning” refers. He writes that “there is yet another, far more obscure precursor – something that lies prior to all rich in tradition, prior to medical literature as well as presocratics, namely, the language spoken by the Greeks” (13).

The Greek language is well-formed to investigate philosophical questions. Gadamer notes two aspects of the Greek language which make it most suitable for philosophic inquiry as being, in the first place, the use of the neuter, and in the second, the existence of the copula (14). Regarding the former, he writes that “It has to do not with the quality of a being, but the quality of a whole space, “being,” in which all beings appear” (14). This poses Greek as a language not only capable of abstraction, but rooted in an abstraction. The copula, which relates to the actual sentence structure in Greek, refers to the “use of the verb ‘to be’ to link the subject and the predicate” (14). Together, these two important distinguishing characteristics of the language used by the presocratics, positioned them to be able to immerse themselves into what would become philosophy.

The second sense of “beginning” is reflective, in that it already presupposes an end. “The anticipation of an end is a prerequisite for a concrete beginning” Gadamer suggests (15). In other words, beginnings always have an end or goal towards which they progress. There is, then, a teleology at work in the development of history, particularly in the history of philosophy. However, this development, already contains its end within its beginning and as such, nothing given to it along its progression is innovative or unexpected. So long as “nothing new, no innovation, and nothing unforeseen is present, there is also no history to relate” and so thus the “primordial opposition between nature and spirit” enters into philosophical discourse (16).

Gadamer here offers a final consideration of the meaning of “beginning,” which is most suitable for discussing the presocratics and their role in the history of philosophy. This is “beginning” as incipience, rather than the incipient entity. This allows that “many eventualities – within reason, of course – are still possible (17). More so, it escapes a predetermined or a presupposed path – it signifies an element of “uncertainty”. Gadamer thinks this is true of presocratic thought, in which there is “a seeking without knowledge of the ultimate destiny” that their seeking will have or at which it may conclude.

After setting up the three meanings of beginning as his premises, Gadamer shifts to focusing on the history of philosophy from a hermeneutic standpoint. This is what he calls ‘effective history’ and approaches the issue of scholarship through problemgeschichte, or, “problem history.” “In this sense,” writes Gadamer, “a problem is something that impedes the progress of knowledge” (25). Thus, in different fields and disciplines, the problemgeschichte is different. In more scientific fields we must continuously seek additional confirmation, never feeling fully satisfied by the current theory. Likewise, in most fields, if we disprove a theory, it is of little to no more use.

Philosophy, unlike other disciplines, does not disregard the problem simply because any possible solution has also been eliminated. It is, then “not correct to say that if a problem admits of no falsification then it presents no question to the thinker” (26). We must therefore approach the presocratics differently than has been previously attempted. Rather than interpreting the texts out of our own vantage point, that is, via reflection, we should instead let the text itself provided us with an interpretation. This means simply that “it is not correct to assert that the study of a text or tradition is completely dependent upon our own decision making” (28).

As Gadamer continues on with his lectures on the presocratics, he uses this approach so as to only use what the text itself allows for, without filling in gaps with speculation and reasoned interpretation. Only what the texts suggest does he consider to be a valid method of understanding the presocratic philosophers and their views. In doing so, he offers a unique approach to the contemplation of the very origin of philosophic thought.

Overall, this work provides an attempt to reconsider the presocratics in a way not typically found. The approach offered by Gadamer is one which enables the reader to reconnect with the texts themselves rather than resting only upon various interpretations. While this gives one a different method with which they can approach the presocratic texts and philosophies, it does not actually result in a new way of perceiving the presocratics. No real new insight is offered into the presocratics and their views, other than some details which have perhaps at times been overlooked due to the current “survey” methods used.

Due to its depth, I would not recommend this book to anyone altogether unfamiliar with ancient Greek thought as much of the value of the book would be lost in such a case. However, this text is valuable, especially for those who study philosophy and ancient philosophy in particular. It carries with it not only the new approach offered throughout, but also a new appreciation for the presocratics which are so often overlooked or by-passed.

Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy

The Beginning of Philosophy Book Cover The Beginning of Philosophy
Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
Ancient philosophy
Paperback $20.66

Reviewed by: Guy Bennett-Hunter (University of Edinburgh)

The textual history of The Beginning of Philosophy is long and convoluted. Its origins are in Gadamer’s final lecture course as Professor Emeritus at Heidelberg delivered shortly before his retirement at the end of 1967. 20 years later, Gadamer delivered a series of Italian lectures on the same topic without a script. These were recorded and transcribed by Vittorio DeCesare. Reclam published a German translation by Joachim Schulte (Der Anfang der Philosophie (1988)). The present volume is based on Gadamer’s own ‘definitive revision’ of Schulte’s translation (ix).

It is perhaps appropriate that there should be such ambiguity about whether, and in what way, we can reasonably hope to have the authoritative version of this text. For rendering such questions explicit was Gadamer’s life’s work.

Gadamer’s theme is the beginning of Western philosophy, which he says also represents the beginning of Western culture (1). But what is most illuminating about the volume is the way in which Gadamer approaches his subject. He claims early on that ‘the sole philosophical access to an interpretation of the Presocratics’ is not Thales, Homer, or the Greek language but Plato and Aristotle. ‘Everything else is historicism without philosophy.’ (2) And, as he explains towards the end of the book, ‘I would not by any means want to be understood as though I did not appreciate the method of the historians. It is just that philosophy is something different.’ (102)

This ‘something different’ is a way of thinking that, rather than trying to eliminate the prejudices that are integral to all understanding, acknowledges them and works within their constraints. For, as Gadamer defines them, our prejudices are simply our rootedness in a tradition (38). Gadamer’s insistence on Plato and Aristotle as our sole hermeneutic access to the Presocratics is motivated by his recognition of the inadequacy of the concept of method ‘in the sense of guaranteeing objectivity’. For when they spoke of their predecessors, ‘Plato and Aristotle did not have our historical scholarship in mind but were guided by their own interests, by their own search for truth’ (22). Therefore, the sense of ‘beginning’ that Gadamer has in mind is ‘that of the beginning that does not know in advance in what way it will proceed’ (12). True research is not about finding answers as much as it is about discovering new questions and imagining fruitful new ways of posing them (17). Thus Gadamer embarks on his discussions of the Presocratic conception of the soul and its relationships to life and death.

His distinctive philosophical approach to these discussions, however, draws attention to his key point. Every text has at least two contexts: that in which it was created and that in which it is read. It follows from the fact that it is impossible, in a given case, to know whether these contexts align that, ‘torn out of its context,’ a quotation can be used for any purpose whatsoever. ‘Whoever quotes,’ Gadamer says, ‘already interprets by means of the form in which he or she presents the text of the quotation.’ (13) Witness the quite different purposes for which the Presocratics were quoted by the Stoics, Sceptics, and patristic writers. While there are significant difficulties involved in using the texts of Plato and Aristotle (which were not written for this purpose) to find out about this other tradition, Gadamer believes that Plato’s transparent use of that tradition to depict ‘his own turn toward the Idea’ (31) permits him to ‘guess at certain tendencies of the culture of this bygone era’ (30) in a way denied to the compilers of compendia of Presocratic quotations.

With regard to the first context, that in which the ancient Greek texts were created, Gadamer displays an erudition that is rare today. But it is their second context, that of contemporary philosophy, that impresses this reader with greater urgency. Through his engagement with Greek culture, Gadamer hopes to realize his ideal of philosophical research as ‘a movement that is open at first and not yet fixed but which concretizes itself into a particular orientation with ever-increasing determinateness’. What this engagement shows is that the supposed freedom of modern science to stand at a distance from the object being investigated simply does not exist. ‘We all stand in the life-stream of tradition’, Gadamer writes, ‘and do not have the sovereign distance that the natural sciences maintain in order to conduct experiments and to construct theories.’ (19) Rather than a philosophically problematic relation between subject and object, which is simply presupposed by the empirical method, Gadamer stresses ‘participation’, ‘like the believer who is faced with a religious message’ (22). While this may read like a challenge to the natural sciences’ ideal of objectivity, which they threaten to extend even to the human subject, Gadamer reassures us that the human sciences are properly occupied with quite different tasks (21).

In instructive contrast to the contemporary academy, where not only the social sciences but also the human sciences and philosophy have arguably been infected by these naturalistic inclinations, Gadamer identifies the ‘highest point of Greek philosophy’ as the idea of a ‘mutuality of participation existing between object and subject’. ‘For the Greeks,’ he writes, ‘the essence of knowledge is the dialogue and not the mastery of objects’. (60)

Such thoughts emerging from Gadamer’s reading of the Presocratics via Plato and Aristotle, will be familiar to the readers of phenomenologists like Karl Jaspers, who explicitly described the nature of the subject–object split [Subjekt–Objekt Spaltung] in similar terms. Subject and object are not to be reified, considered as entities or substances, each of which could possibility exist without the other. A Spaltung, usually translated as ‘split’ or ‘cleavage’, is not a dichotomy. It is a distinction between aspects of reality that are, at the most primordial level, unified. In form as well as content, then, The Beginning of Philosophy leads us to the perhaps unexpected conclusion that it is the phenomenological method, for Gadamer represented by Husserl and Heidegger, that has ‘pointed the way for contemporary philosophy’ (60).

Ursula Renz (Ed.): Self-Knowledge: A History, Oxford University Press, 2017

Self-Knowledge: A History Book Cover Self-Knowledge: A History
Oxford Philosophical Concepts
Ursula Renz (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £64.00

Mauro Antonelli, Federico Boccaccini (Eds.): Franz Brentano, Routledge, 2017

Franz Brentano Book Cover Franz Brentano
Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers
Mauro Antonelli, Federico Boccaccini (Eds.)

John Sallis: The Return of Nature

The Return of Nature: On the Beyond of Sense Book Cover The Return of Nature: On the Beyond of Sense
Studies in Continental Thought
John Sallis
Continental Philosophy
Indiana University Press
August 10, 2016

Reviewed by: Zachary Isrow (Global Center for Advanced Studies)

There is a growing concern in the world today, especially in contemporary philosophy, regarding nature. However, despite the strong concern, few texts adequately address the topic. In his work The Return of Nature, John Sallis attempts to show just how imperative it is that we reflect on nature and come to a new understanding of the relationship between humans, the current state of our world, and nature. This book serves as a solid call to arms, forcing us to reevaluate the meaning of nature and compelling us to take up the challenge of re-envisioning a future that is both sustainable and more fulfilling of our being.

The work emerges at the forefront of an ever growing concern with nature. With increased awareness of climate change and other environmental issues we face today, scholars from a wide array of disciplines have sought to address ways we can combat the evolving crises. In philosophy, nature has long been subject to investigation. Up until recently, the focus on nature was aimed at understanding its relationship to being or law, and related issues. Today, much of the focus has been on reconsidering various perspectives of nature in an attempt to account for the current movement to “return to nature,” with advocates for natural medicine, ecological living and energy.

This is indeed where Sallis fits; the goal of his text is to raise awareness to the necessity of accounting for nature in such a way that a paradigm shift occurs from man vs. nature, to man with nature. As with any text in this field it must not only provide a coherent and valid argument, but it must also draw from the tradition out of which it arises. Sallis utilizes German Idealism and American Transcendentalism to establish differing conceptions of nature as well as to interpret what a return to nature might mean for us today. Specifically, he focuses on the works of Emerson, Hegel, and Schelling in order to give an account of nature.

I believe that Sallis’ book can be broken down into three major sections based on the goal of each chapter. These are as follows: understanding nature, evaluating nature, and connecting nature to man. The first of these is the objective in the first three chapters, the second the middle three chapters, and the last the final two chapters. I will consider each of these sections as I see them in greater detail.

First, Sallis must provide a detailed background for viewing nature in the many ways that it has been understood. Accounting for the pre-Socratics through Nietzsche, he has done precisely this. In the first section, Sallis discusses the various ways in which nature can be said to “return.” He points out changing seasons, abandoned cities or buildings, and other instances in which nature may return – the meaning of return changing in different senses. In addition, “There are occasions when nature lets its beauty appear, when it shines forth in a scene so wondrous that it draws us into a contemplative repose in which we linger before the scene” Sallis writes (7).

Having set forth an explanation of the ways in which nature can be said to return, that is, the various meanings of “return” such that nature may do so, Sallis attempts to outline, in the second chapter, the origins of thought regarding nature, or what the Greeks termed φύσις, which reveals the etymological origins of the word to mean “birth” (28). Sallis then seeks to explore the foundations of nature in theoretical thought. He suggests that nature is “the place from within which natural things are born and determined as such” (29). Tracing nature in thought through German Idealism, and specifically through the philosophy of Schelling, Sallis concludes that nature tends to serve as grounding, a replacement for God. With this, “God can no longer be regarded as the causa sui but rather as progeny of the ground, as given birth by nature” (42).

Next, Sallis insists upon stablishing a distinction between the phrasing a “return of nature” and a “return to nature,” the former having been dealt with in the first chapter. The return to nature represents an often philosophical assertion, that we must derail the current trend of societal development and instead return to a state in which we give more regards to nature. As Sallis writes, it is an imperative which “presupposes that its addressees either have themselves retreated from nature or somehow been withdrawn from it, so that in either case they have been separated or at least distanced from nature” (44). Sallis considers the focus on a ‘return to nature’ through the theories of natural man in Rousseau, aesthetic judgment in Kant, and nature in Emerson. Following this, he briefly continues on into the German idealist tradition, as well as its successors in Nietzsche and Heidegger.

In accounting for Rousseau’s position on natural man as a starting point for a ‘return to nature’, Sallis notes that it “opens the way to a condition that, though not that of a savage, in a way accordant with modern life, approximate the state of nature” (46). It is thus theoretical and descriptive in content as it describes the state of nature, with the goal of leading to a method of critiquing or analyzing the modern political state. In the case of Rousseau then, the notion of a ‘return to nature’ is not asked on a sharp contradistinction between the separation of nature and this return. However, the opposite is true in Kant.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant “begins by acknowledging the dependence of knowledge on experience, the primary movement enacted in the critical project consist in a regress from experience – primarily the experience of nature – to the a priori conditions of such experience, conditions that lie not in nature but in the subject,” Sallis notes (49). The separation of man from nature is evident in Kant’s theoretical philosophy, but is perhaps more profound in his practical, moral theory. According to Kant, morality consists in acting in accordance with the categorical imperative and goes against nature. Sallis writes “morality itself lies in self-determination that, utterly detached from natural inclination, is carried out in accordance with the moral law” (49).

Stemming out of this separation, this fierce distinction between man and nature, Emerson’s essay Nature,  argues in favor of a ‘return to nature’ considering that man has so far removed himself from nature due to his entrapment in urban atmospheres. Emerson, Sallis suggests, saw “the human spirit is expanded by coming into proximity to nature, by returning from the detachment from nature inculcated and enforced by city life” (50). Thus nature serves as the means through which spirit manifests itself and presents itself contrary to its becoming subservient to materialism and the goals associated with materialism.

While I will not comment further on the general outline of the views of a return to nature as it develops in the German idealist tradition, it is clear the direction which it is headed. As Sallis writes, “From nature one is displayed to oneself in some specific manner” and that “The return to nature also awakens a sense of the elemental in nature and of our capacity to master and control it,” we can already note the progression this takes (51). For example, Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘Will to Power’ is easily traced and tied into this development of a ‘return to nature.’

In the first section of the text, Sallis has set-up the background for the ability to analyze the concept of ‘nature’ as such, a task which I have described as understanding nature. He has provided a detailed history of the development of ‘nature’ as a concept, including its ancient Greek origins as well as its changing tone in German Idealism. Additionally, he examined the conceptions of “return of nature” and a “return to nature” differentiating the two and clarifying the concern over nature in contemporary continental philosophy. In doing so, Sallis has given the reader the ability to understand nature such that they may critique and analyze nature along with the next aim of the text: evaluating nature.

The goal of evaluating nature is one of analysis and critique, through examining in detail the theories in which a certain conception of nature is presupposed. This section is condensed into a single chapter, chapter four, “Return to Nature from a Beyond Nature,” though it penetrates into the remainder of the work. In this chapter, Sallis argues that nature is, in one sense, reduced to mere sensation, i.e., colors and shapes. In this case, nature is no longer ‘nature’, i.e., landscapes and environs. In order that the former can be determined to be “reconstituted” as the latter, “determinacy must supervene upon it from elsewhere, from somewhere beyond nature,” and so thus, “posits a nature beyond nature” (61). Sallis traces this ‘beyond nature’ through Nietzsche’s thought and notes that the metaphysical ground of the beyond nature is shifted to a subjective ground. “Nature is thus recalled to nature,” or, in other words, nature is not constituted by a “nature beyond nature” anymore, but instead contains its own self-determinacy, nature as such (63).

Sallis then shifts in chapter five, “The Elemental Turn,” to applying philosophy to practical political and ecological concerns. This final section of the book, which I have termed, connecting man to nature, seeks, by making philosophy contemporary in its goals, to illustrate ways the philosophical conception of “return to nature” may be applied to a revised concern for nature and the environment. Thus, this section serves ultimately as a “call to arms,” a militancy, with the objective of eliminating a particular mode of living in the world that is not only contrary to, but ultimately destructive of our nature. It is the task of philosophy to “dismantle the frame of this turn so as to return to a nature,” which we have neglected throughout the whole of philosophy (74).

Overall then, this book is one of many in a push to reconsider and reevaluate nature, and our place within it. More importantly however, it joins the contemporary effort to utilize humanities research, especially philosophical research, to impact the global effort to combat our own actions that have proven devastating to the environment as well as to our very own nature. With that said, while this book expertly provides insight into how we ought to conceive of ‘nature’ such that a “return of nature” is possible, and even necessary, little is done to suggest where this might lead. The one effort made to provide a suggestion is what Sallis calls the “disintegration of difference” which involves the elimination of being a particular of being, and instead focused on the “plurality of being.” It is, Sallis writes, “precisely in being the kind it is, it would be devoid of selfsameness and so would not be a kind. There would be a disintegration of difference at the very heart of being” (119).

Sallis ends with questioning what this would lead to, but does not himself posit this future. Without this, the book almost feels incomplete. Unless, however, one considers this book amongst another which may perhaps put into perspective this emphasis on the plurality of being. Read together with the other works that complement each other in this emerging push for philosophy to influence practical issues, this book might be able to offer an alternative to our current mode of being in the world.

The Return of Nature is nevertheless an inspiring read which engages its readers from the very beginning. It can be read by anyone looking to open up their mind to the reflection on other ways to live more closely in tune with their own nature and to the nature that is around them.

Martin Heidegger: Interprétations phénoménologiques en vue d’Aristote. Introduction au cœur de la recherche phénoménologique, Gallimard, 2016

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Collection Bibliothèque de Philosophie, Série Œuvres de Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger. Trad. de l'allemand par Philippe Arjakovsky et Daniel Panis
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Hans-Georg Gadamer: The Beginning of Philosophy, Bloomsbury, 2016

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Bloomsbury Revelations
Hans-Georg Gadamer
eBook £14.99