As neither a Wittgenstein nor a Heidegger specialist, I found David Egan’s The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday to be a fascinating, creative, accessible study of perhaps the two most noteworthy figures of 20th-century philosophy. One would think that such studies would be more plentiful than they are, given (as Egan reminds us) that these two monumental figures were born into the German-speaking world in the same year (1889) and then came, as he extensively argues, to advocate not so much a positive body of philosophical work but instead a sustained effort at linguistic and conceptual “disencumbrance” (6). Though this dearth of comparative studies could be accounted for variously, an unfortunately obvious aspect of it would seem to be the ready-made tendency to cast Wittgenstein into the Anglo-American or “analytic” wing of contemporary philosophy (though his principal works were composed in his native tongue) and Heidegger into the “continental.” Wisely, I think, Egan avoids this simplistic and over-played distinction and instead showcases how both thinkers were monumentally first-rate philosophers who deeply engaged the aporetic task that is most characteristic of their discipline.
Interestingly, Egan introduces his study by recalling Tower of Babel, recounted in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis, and the “baffling” of human languages that resulted in this proud human exercise of “attempting to arrogate to themselves the powers of naming and creation that are proper to their creator” (2). He notes that Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s respective philosophical projects have both already been likened to the Babel episode; and he does likewise, highlighting how they both sought to undo the self-made exile into which philosophers’ “metaphysical” aspirations too often lead us. For Wittgenstein, this undoing crucially involves allowing words to “have a home” in their everyday usage rather than in the sought-after “essences” of philosophers. For Heidegger, it involves allowing Dasein (our characteristic mode of being) to be “in the truth,” as it is; not as we otherwise posture it to be (6). They both seek to move us away, then, in their respective manners, from the frictionless vacuum of philosophical essentialisms to the concepts and being of our ordinary experience and the practices within which they are intelligible.
Chapter 1 deals with concerns of grammar and ontology, the former of which are more relevant to Wittgenstein and the latter to Heidegger. Egan commences by considering the famous Heraclitan reflection regarding whether one can step into the same river twice. Whereas this philosophical challenge is constructed so as to cast doubt on whether one in fact can step into the same river twice, Wittgenstein invites us instead to consider the “home” that talk of rivers has in our ordinary language and discourse. Within it, we quite obviously can and do speak of doing just that: having a swim in the Thames today and then, tomorrow, dipping our toes into it. The point he seeks to highlight, Egan contends, is that Heraclitan-type philosophers tend to err in thinking that they will somehow discover, through their inquiries, a deeper, metaphysical essence to what a river is; or, perhaps just that they will discover some empirical facts about rivers and how they are. Instead, for Wittgenstein, that “one can step into the same river twice” is “the expression … of a rule” and so a matter of grammar within this language-game that we play (21). The mistake that the Heraclitan philosopher makes is to aspire to a fantastical point of view—a “sideways” one, to use McDowell’s expression—according to which one can, as it were, examine one’s concepts independently of their usage or vis-à-vis the standard of concepts-as-such. For Wittgenstein, “ordinary language is all the language there is” (28).
Heidegger, as noted, takes a more “ontological” angle on our everyday practices, seeking to highlight their “significance” in this vein, which he finds too often overlooked (29). He wants to direct his inquiry toward a “fundamental ontology” that considers being more simply than in the categorized, observational manner of the “ontic sciences” (30ff.) and that, through phenomenological methodology, uncovers the ways in which it self-discloses. Like Wittgenstein, though, for Egan, Heidegger is not concerned through his philosophy to argue for or establish some new instance, class, or category of knowledge, but instead to chip away at nefarious theoretical constructions, thereby allowing our words, concepts, and ordinary practices to be more simply what and how they are—though in Heidegger’s case, more through a process of revealing discovery.
Chapter 2 begins with some helpful explication of key Heideggerian terminology: Dasein as (our) being that has an understanding of being, which is analyzed existentially in “fundamental ontology” (37–9). Egan then proceeds to discuss the noteworthy distinction that Heidegger draws between the present-at-hand and the ready-at-hand. The former deals with what we can reflectively consider, whereas the latter treats what is present to us and accessible in our environment for use, particularly in the form of tools or equipment. Heidegger notes that our being-in-the-world is often most transparent and perspicuous when we are engaging some object or thing with a tool, in a ready-at-hand manner. For while doing so, we are able to look through or beyond the tool being used to the object or thing engaged. The tool serves, as it were, as a more vivid point of connection with the world—a point of connection of which we are reminded perhaps most poignantly when our activity employing it is interrupted.
Then, following Cavell—with whose interpretations of Wittgenstein Egan is often quite sympathetic—Egan draws a parallel in Wittgenstein’s thought, noting that the ordinary-language criteria of Wittgensteinian (and Austinian) philosophy in their own way orient us to the world, and not just the words we use and the language games we play. It is just, again, that Wittgenstein takes our concepts, which we deploy linguistically, not to be independently or metaphysically discoverable from a sideways perspective, but rather disclosed, in a way, in the grammatical criteria at play in the language games in which they are deployed, and the practices relevant to these games. So knowing what a chair is or means crucially involves understanding our use of chairs, the dining practices in which they are implicated at tables, for instance, and so on (60). To return to our earlier example, the fact that one can indeed enter the same river twice is a fact intimately pertinent to the people’s interaction with and use of rivers and what is and is not grammatically admissible in such contexts (61). Egan’s broader contention in this chapter is, again, that we undertake a fool’s errand, for Wittgenstein and Heidegger alike, if we seek to find our words, concepts, or being outside the realms they normally inhabit, where they ordinarily find their home.
A critical point that is worth noting here, which is relevant in subsequent chapters, too: Egan’s engagement with secondary literature at times seems a bit sparing or perhaps selective. His bibliography is sufficiently thorough, but his deferential preference for Cavell’s Wittgenstein is at times annoyingly on display. Charles Taylor, e.g., is another commentarial voice who does garner mention but whose most obvious essay dealing with these two thinkers and their philosophical likeness does not. I wondered at several junctures if a more variegated engagement with secondary literature, particularly that dealing directly with Wittgenstein and Heidegger and their work, could have helped this project.
Chapter 3 moves into an interesting discussion of Wittgensteinian attunement and Heideggerian being-with, particularly with regard to Das Man. Following upon his treatment of language games, Egan stresses that, for Wittgenstein, “attunement” is the kind of working agreement that we have in our shared forms of life, within which we converse, discuss, agree or disagree, and justify various claims. It gets at, for Cavell, the difficult and “terrifying” way in which, say, to allege truth or falsehood in some given case, there must more deeply be a working agreement with respect to the forms of life we share and that our discourse reflects (65). The claim here is not that there is some deeper underlying (or metaphysical) arrangement in such situations that we rightly call “attunement” but more simply just that our engagement in such shared activities and forms of life manifests attunement (69). This seems a further development of the previous chapter’s notion that criteria, grammar, and word usage do indeed, in surprising ways, connect us with the world and the forms of life that are home to our discourse.
Egan’s discussion continues with an illuminating treatment of Heidegger’s sense of being-with and the ways in which this pertains to the normative authority of what he terms Das Man. Egan begins by noting the way in which our interaction with other persons is similar to or reflective of the dynamic that we see on display more broadly with our use of tools, equipment, and other ready-at-hand objects. That is, when we encounter and experience other persons, we typically do not do so in the abstracted present-at-hand manner, in which they become to us objects of reflection or theoretical inquiry; instead, we encounter and experience them much in the same manner as we do tools or worldly objects that we use—as readily available to us, as co-involved in our activity in the world. They are accessible to us, often, in our engagement with the world, much in the way that a pair of shoes might be (73–5).
Egan also helpfully outlines Das Man in Heidegger, which is, as Carman notes, “the impersonal normative authority underwriting the social practices that makes things intelligible on a mundane level” (75). Comprising dimensions such as agreement in judgments and basic definitions; use of equipment; social and historical situatedness; moral and social norms; etiquette; ceremonies; shared wisdom, and so on, Das Man highlights for Heidegger the way in which Dasein is never abstractly autonomous but always, instead, embedded in a social order—even if one opts to rebel against it. One is, in a way, the milieu in which she finds herself (76). Egan stresses how Das Man can be especially vexing, among the Heideggerian lexicon, and how it, even for eminent commentators like Dreyfus, fails to stake out territory between a healthy conformity, within the world one inhabits, and an unhealthy conformism to prevailing norms.
Chapter 4 commences Egan’s broader treatment of what he terms “authentic everydayness.” To begin, he segues from his treatment of Das Man into the notion of inauthenticity in Heidegger, which amounts to an over-reliance upon Das Man in its ever-present task of self-interpretation. Egan notes:
Dasein is the being that relates to itself as a question. Accordingly, Dasein’s flourishing qua Dasein is a matter of fulfilling its nature as self-interpreting. Authentic Dasein explicitly owns up to this task of self-interpretation, whereas inauthentic Dasein hides from it. Inauthentic Dasein does a poor job or manifesting its distinctive Daseinhood (93).
Inauthenticity is not a failure of self-interpretation but is rather a mode of self-interpretation that defers the interpretive work as much as possible to Das Man, and reaches for the interpretive resources that are closest at hand (94).
Heideggerian anxiety, then, becomes a “special kind of fear” that is not so much directed at other beings that we encounter in the world, whether present- or ready-at-hand, but toward Dasein itself as being-in-the-world and so what is bound up with this. Dasein customarily seeks “absorption with innerworldly beings that anxiety disrupts” (95).
Egan then follows this discussion of Heideggerian anxiety with a treatment of what he takes to be a similar dynamic in Wittgenstein, though which more readily appears in the secondary literature on the latter under the rubric of “skepticism.” Wittgenstein famously notes that, at some point, our explanations will run out and our justifications be exhausted, and also that any set of rules we seek to abide by or implement will ultimately be subject to a variety of irresolvable interpretations, whether they regard following signposts down a trail or algorithms for adding sequentially to a numerical series (99–101). Egan seems to see a kind of isomorphism in the two authors’ work on these sorts of “anxiety.” To be sure, Heidegger’s is more chiefly concerned with the coherence of our practices and the anxiety that arises regarding them, vis-à-vis the self-interpreting tendency of Dasein; whereas Wittgenstein’s is more regarding our search for explanations, particularly final ones, and the situation that we face when we in fact do not reach them, or come to see them as unreachable. Nonetheless, Egan thinks—and I would concur—there is a noteworthy consonance between the two accounts.
The denouement of chapter 4 consists of a kind of reflective consideration of Wittgenstein as a philosopher, and is an attempt by Egan to resolve some of the aforementioned concerns, namely that the Heideggerian approach is more practical-existential, whereas the Wittgensteinian one is more conceptual-linguistic. Indeed, Egan notes that Wittgenstein had a lively sense that we are all rightly engaged in the sorts of philosophical questions that he treats—hence, for instance, his characteristic point of departure from humanly vexing questions rather than from the texts or arguments of the discipline’s “greats.” In this sense, Egan thinks, we can see Wittgenstein with Cavell, more in the vein of Socrates, Descartes, Hume, Emerson, or Austin, whose points of departure were the problematics disclosed by human experience more than they were the standard disciplinary texts (108). (And thus he stands in contrast, say, to Plato, Nietzsche, or Derrida, for whom philosophy involved a more cultural, institutional form of life and theorizing.)
I did find myself, at this point in the text and certain others, wishing that perhaps Egan would have engaged these two thinkers biographically a bit more. Such a move might not be apt in many philosophical settings, but it certainly seems more so in one such as this, where the leitmotif is a recovery of the “everyday” and a more authentic approach to the philosophical project. One thinks straightaway, for instance, of Wittgenstein’s sabbatical in the Austrian hills, teaching kindergarten; or perhaps his experience in the trenches in the First World War; or even his neurotic, suicidal, late-night strolls deliberating philosophical and existential questions. Likewise, Heidegger’s disreputable wartime political affiliations and administrative decisions or his tryst with his student Hannah Arendt come to mind in a similar vein. This is not to say that I think any one or other episode of either thinker’s life should be adduced in such a setting; but more just that I found myself as a reader wishing a bit more of an effort to this effect had been made, especially amidst a chapter on anxiety as a broadly philosophical topic.
Chapter 5 deals with an expected topic, Wittgenstein’s treatment of rule-following, and particularly Kripke’s take on it. Kripke, Egan contends, sees Wittgenstein as fundamentally presenting readers with a choice in such matters, in the face of the interpretive impasse with which they leave us: either skepticism or Platonism, the former which Kripke takes to be Wittgenstein’s preference. But Egan, once again, wants to re-situate or -contextualize our reading of Wittgenstein: here particularly as challenging our assumption as to whether or not there “is a coherent question to be asked about what justifies us in playing the language-games that we do” (115, emphasis mine). That is, the skeptic would have us doubt whether there is such an answer or justification, and the Platonist would have us look for some sort of external grounding to our language games; but Wittgenstein himself, for Egan—as we have seen already—would have us simply take them as the given, such that these sorts of meta-level questions would eventually dissolve (114). He then wonders, too, about how we might construe a Kripkean reading of Heidegger, “Kripkendegger,” as Egan terms this (117ff.).
The next section treats Heidegger’s notion of conscience, which Egan handles deftly, particularly for an issue that seems to invoke a stereotypically cluttered family of Heideggerian terms and concepts. Fundamentally, Egan links Heideggerian “conscience” to Dasein’s being-its-own whilst being-in-the world, such that its interpretive self-understanding constitutes a correlative understanding and appreciation of the world in which it is and in which it discloses itself (118–9). The conscience which at times comes “over” us serves as a kind of check against the inauthentic tendencies against which we steadily live and operate (120). The chapter continues with a broader foray into aspects of the everyday and, particularly, with a vindication of it in the two authors—in Wittgenstein, more via allowing ordinary language to be where it is, at home in its ordinariness; and in Heidegger, to allow Dasein to be as it is or inclines to be, rather than being consumed or distorted by preoccupation with Das Man.
Once again, with his treatment of Heideggerian conscience, Egan misses, I think, an opportunity to allow his work to veer more into the terrain of the “everyday,” both in a philosophical and a more ordinary sense. He notes throughout this section the uncharacteristic, and at times maddening, style of both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and especially the latter’s sometimes befuddling lexicon. The notion of “conscience” seems to be one that highlights this tendency; but I wonder, in looking back upon it, whether Egan could have done us the service of engaging some broader literature, historical or current, regarding conscience and how others’ approaches might dovetail or conflict with Heidegger’s. (One thinks here, for instance, of the Kantian notion of conscience, which no doubt would be apt, given the ways in which the Kantian project helped shape the phenomenological tradition.) This sort of move would have been especially fitting for a notion like conscience which is, philosophically and ordinarily, quite “everyday.”
Chapter 6 begins with a reiteration of Egan’s aspiration to find something of a balance between the typical “therapeutic” (later) Wittgenstein, who would have us count metaphysical and skeptical considerations as “ultimately empty” and a more “existential” Wittgenstein who, in harmony with Heidegger, is subtly attempting to draw us back to our being-in-the-world and its “uncanniness” (138). Egan leads us on an interesting foray through some of the game metaphors that Wittgenstein employs to help us understand language games and how they are constitutively embedded in various forms of life. He returns here to the key notion of attunement and to the idea that, for Wittgenstein, our attunement is manifest in the forms of life that we share and in which we participate; it is not, that is, something superadded onto them or metaphysically beneath them. Fundamental to language games and the forms of life where they are at home is education or training. The initiation that they call for is not so much typically a matter of explanation, but instead one of training and so familiarization with the various words and concepts that have meaning within them. True, there are correct and incorrect moves that one can make within the game of chess; but is also is inapt to describe (or critique) the rules themselves as correct or incorrect. They are simply the rules of the game (145). For Egan’s Wittgenstein, reasons, like explanations, will eventually “give out” (146). What matters in playing games—language games or other games, considered more broadly—is not so much having the rules down (explicitly), but instead having with the other participants a sufficient degree of attunement, such that they can together play the game.
Egan continues, noting that there are some interesting similarities between Wittgenstein’s work on rule-following and Heidegger’s on anxiety, sometimes termed the “motivation problem”—both of which can leave us wondering how to cope once our reasons or the foundations of our ordinary practices are exhausted (153). He also then engages in a fascinating aside dealing with Wittgenstein’s noteworthy pupil Rush Rhees and his concerns about the language-game approach: concerns dealing chiefly with the fact that these considerations might seem to make the ultimate goal of linguistic practice something like skill—the concern being that language use would ultimately seem to be about our practical ends and so come dangerously close to sophistry. Egan nicely, I think, deflects these concerns, following Huizinga, Gadamer, et al., by reminding us of the seriousness that games indeed demand, lest one become a spoilsport, a trifler, or a cheat (157ff). Egan closes this chapter with another nice restatement of his broader sense of the two thinkers’ respective projects, which fundamentally amounts to flagging and helping to remedy the (linguistic or ontological) blindness in which we so often, especially in philosophical circumstances, find ourselves (165–6).
Chapter 7 is largely a reckoning with the two thinkers’ treatments of typical or traditional doctrines of assertion, but also of their related conceptions of reality and theories of truth. Egan sees in Wittgenstein and Heidegger alike a criticism of a certain sort of naïve realism, no doubt predominant in popular discourse, but also perhaps surprisingly in philosophical domains. According to this sort of sensibility, things basically are the way that we think them to be, and in accordance with the ways in which we speak of them. But, again, for Wittgenstein, this tendency manifests a foundational confusion between the grammatical and the empirical and so leads to the metaphysical tendency toward nonsensical theorizing that is too often, in his view, on display in philosophical work, let alone in popular discourse. Heidegger’s work on this front is more historical and genealogical than Wittgenstein’s; and he wants to move philosophical thinking away from the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of truth—adaequatio intellectus et rei—toward a more primitively classical one: aletheia, or truth as a kind of discoveredness of what is disclosed (183). This jostling effort, to dislodge certain of our comfortably stable presuppositions, for Egan, significantly accounts for the two thinkers’ unique philosophical idioms and for their at times vexing word-choice and argumentative structure.
Chapter 8 continues this analysis, in closing the book, with a return to the two thinkers’ notions of ordinary language and discourse. Whereas Wittgenstein seems more content to allow ordinary language to be “at home,” as it is and to shake us free from the “picture” that has held us captive, Heidegger see his phenomenological method as affording a kind of “uncovering” potential that allows us (in principle) to come into contact with deeper aspects of being. The corollary of this is that, for Wittgenstein, the key discoveries that we are likely to make philosophically are that we are variously engaged in speaking and trading in nonsense (195ff.). Accordingly, Wittgenstein is not involved—as, say, those advocates of the hermeneutic of “suspicion” are—in directing us toward some sort of deeper, more fundamental reality that our modes of speech and practice are obscuring; instead, he seems keen on helping us to see that our debates—say among solipsists, realists, and idealists—are just not as contentious or substantive as we tend to think them (202ff.). We are simply misled if we think that those various doctrines can be adjudicated in the ways that we normally attempt. An example of this tendency, for Egan, is Carnap, vis-à-vis the later Wittgenstein, as the former seeks to set up a methodological procedure for settling such disputes and then funnel various such doctrines through it, to find a victor (ibid.). Instead, the methodology that the later Wittgenstein prizes is that of offering aspectual descriptions and employing particularly the metaphor of pictures and how looking at them offers us different (and manifold) perspectives on various matters. Indeed, he takes language to be as a picture, whose use and exact purposes remain opaque, but which is rightly to be explored from various angles (210).
In closing, Egan finds Wittgenstein’s later approach to be decidedly aesthetic in its character—less about asserting propositions or claims about this or that, or how things are, and rather more about suggesting angles, perspectives, or views on various issues, which could no doubt be multiplied (as in the famous case of the duck-rabbit image). Indeed, for Egan, this is what Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, along with Heidegger’s, tends to do: Not to argue for this or that point or claim, but instead—and particularly through idiosyncratic word-choice, structure, punctuation, rhetorical strategies, and the like—to peel back this problematic with which we have become accustomed; to shake our captive gaze to our inherited picture; and instead to help us appreciate the ordinary as it is, and whatever it would happen to disclose.
One final concern I would like to register, somewhat in accord with the previous ones: This book could have profited from greater engagement with ethics and religion, two regularly philosophical topics that are decidedly commonplace—in their own ways, “everyday.” Wittgenstein famously lectured, though very sparingly, on the two in conjunction; and they do not seem to have been a focal point for Heidegger. But both areas, I think, crucially draw together “everyday” thought and action in conjunction with philosophical interest and reflection. Both areas also, I think, raise some significant concerns for the arguably more quietist tendency on display in both authors, particularly on Egan’s reading of them. For it might be fine and well to be concerned mainly with chipping away at misunderstanding and pretenses about our language and thought, whilst claiming not to be saying much in the positive sense about the world or our involvement in it. But our practical, “everyday” engagement often seems to suggest otherwise: We find ourselves needing to say various things about a whole host of matters and affairs: tax policy, what we observe in outer space, our and our loved ones’ moral choices, foods’ nutritional value, the political and military stability of various regions, how religion should interact with politics, and so on. And we often think that judgments within such debates and matters of discourse are, to varying degrees, disputable or judicable, correct or incorrect, right or wrong—and, indeed, accessible as such through clarifying philosophical reflection. I do not mean to suggest that (Egan’s) Wittgenstein or Heidegger could not somehow deal ably with our ordinary practical discourse and its significance in such “everyday” affairs; but it does strike me that attempting to deal with such points of practical connection—particularly within a book with the thrust of The Pursuit—would have been helpful and constructive, and would have expanded the scope of this work beyond its more characteristically linguistic-cum-metaphysical purview. Nonetheless, this work, as noted throughout, is instructive, edifying, and humane—an expository homage, without being unduly deferential, to these two monumental thinkers; and now a crucial addition to the joint literature regarding them.
 Given my non-specialist’s status, I shall at times gloss over, throughout the review, some of the more intensely exegetical points that emerge.
 Egan also recently helped edit Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. David Egan, Stephen Reynolds, and Aaron Wendland (New York: Routledge, 2013).
 See Charles Taylor, “Lichtung or Lebensform: Parallels between Heidegger and Wittgenstein,” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 61–78.
 I acknowledge here and throughout that “everyday” is being used in a somewhat more precise sense by Egan, and indeed by Wittgenstein and Heidegger. But I do not think such proposed extensions are at all specious or unreasonable.
‘Existentialism’ has long been held as a concept of contention. It has been used as a buzzword for bleakness, and a synonym for pessimism. Despite its misuse within popular culture, it has also been employed as an umbrella term to denote a philosophical movement. The conflation of this concept has led to a legacy of confusion regarding precisely that which constitutes existential thought, and who ought to be considered as an existentialist. Even much of the secondary literature has failed to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘existentialism’. Instead, we are often offered a constitutive list of themes which ‘existentialists’ supposedly share in common, such as nihilism, absurdity, and authenticity. It is precisely this linguistic ambiguity that causes Jonathan Webber to rethink existentialism, and that which he sets about dispelling. In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label. Instead, Webber offers a carefully considered account, defining existentialism in accordance with the Sartrean maxim ‘existence precedes essence’. It is from this standpoint that Webber takes the reader on a journey of rethinking ‘existentialism’.
Webber begins to clear the confusion by demonstrating why the label ‘existentialist’ should not be applied to certain associated thinkers. In the second chapter, Webber addresses the misattribution of Camus to the inner circle. Here it is illustrated that Camus rejects the central tenants of existentialism, and that the disagreement between Sartre and Camus is a consequence of their subsequent philosophical stances. Another thinker who was initially associated with existentialism, but whom Webber demonstrates to be on the periphery, is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In chapter three, Webber depicts Merleau-Ponty’s divergence in terms of his criticism of Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and Beauvoir’s defence that Merleau-Ponty has misunderstood Sartre. Although Webber does an excellent job of disentangling the intellectual connections between these theorists, one would appreciate further elucidation as to why additional thinkers ought to be excluded. Whilst Webber focused his attention on the development of existentialism in post-war France, there are two further thinkers who could have been addressed. Gabriel Marcel, for example, released his Philosophy of Existentialism in 1946, and Jacques Maritain published his Existence and Existent in 1947. As contemporaries of Sartre and self-proclaimed existentialists (at least initially) it would be interesting to see how they fit into Webber’s narrative.
In the positive phase of his project, Webber sets about determining who ought to be included. Until recently, Simone de Beauvoir has been believed to be without philosophical merit. The reason for overlooking her intellectual prowess is often attributed to her own rejection of the label ‘philosopher’ and referral to Sartre as the brains behind their project. Webber takes this to task in chapter four, where he demonstrates that Beauvoir articulates the existential ideal ‘existence precedes essence’ within her metaphysical novel She Came to Stay. Moreover, that the account which Beauvoir presents contains the concept of ‘commitment’ which presents a significant development upon Sartre’s theory of mind. Within chapter eight, a further important, and unexpected, contribution which Webber makes, is to include Frantz Fanon within the existentialist camp. Webber argues that within Black Skin, White Masks Fanon can be seen to ground his theory on the definition of existentialism insofar as he rejects that there is any essential difference between black people and white people. That is, for Fanon the belief that black people are inferior is caused by the sedimentation of a negative cultural representation in the collective consciousness. This is shown to make a significant development from Sartre’s own attempt to explain racial prejudice in terms of bad faith in Anti-Semite and the Jew.
Although Webber defines existentialism in accordance with the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, he notes that Sartre and Beauvoir initially disagreed upon what this concept entailed. In this way, he maps the development of the definition amongst the advocates themselves. Whilst Sartre is usually considered to be synonymous with existentialism, Webber illustrates that Sartre’s early work is flawed in terms of addressing the problem of absurdity. By tracing the development of Sartre’s thought, Webber shows that Sartre later comes to adopt Beauvoir’s position to reach the mature position where his version of existentialism corresponds to those of Beauvoir and Fanon in terms of their respective concepts of commitment. Having illustrated the various stages in the development of the concept of existentialism, Webber differentiates these forms, which includes Sartre’s early approach, from what he terms the canonical account. Existentialism proper, for Webber, entails that there is no predetermined nature, and that one’s essence is formed through the sedimentation of projects. The canonical accounts of existentialism, according to Webber, are represented by Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Sartre’s Saint Genet.
The ethical ideal espoused by existentialism is ‘authenticity’ and which is a response to absurdity. Sartre and Fanon are shown to offer eudaimonian arguments for authenticity, which suggests that the desire for authenticity emerges in relation to the realisation that inauthenticity leads to psychological distress. However, Webber notes that Sartre’s and Fanon’s accounts of authenticity fail to sufficiently overcome the issue of absurdity because they cannot address the meta-ethical problem of the grounding of normativity. Although Sartre appears to be at the centre of attention at the beginning of the book, it is Beauvoir who emerges as the hero of absurdity, insofar as she is shown to present the most fully articulated account of authenticity. Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity is shown to be supported by the categorical imperative that we should not value any ends which conflict with the value of human nature. Throughout the text, Webber refers to the ‘virtue of authenticity’, however, he does not explain why we ought to conceive of authenticity as a virtue. It is also difficult to understand the way in which authenticity could be construed as a virtue. If in relation eudaimonia, it does not make sense to refer to authenticity as a virtue because eudaimonia is not a virtue for Aristotle, but the end which the virtues lead to. Again, on the Kantian account, virtues are ends which are also duties, but it is questionable whether a way of life could be considered authentic if we have a duty to live in that particular way. Thus, clarity regarding that which is meant by ‘virtue of authenticity’ would be appreciated in avoiding any such confusion.
Webber makes a number of interesting observations and insights within his book. Whilst existentialism is often thought to be at odds with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is demonstrated that this is not the case. In chapter five, it is argued on the contrary that existentialism in fact falls within the Freudian tradition. Although Freud’s account appeals to innate drives, and the existentialists reject the idea of a predetermined essential-self, Webber illustrates that there is no contradiction, but instead a sustained engagement with Freud in attempting to overcome the Cartesian subject. In chapter six, Webber offers an original interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. The standard interpretation is that since ‘hell is other people’, we ought to prefer our own image of ourselves as opposed to that projected upon us by other people. Webber, however, claims that the real moral of the play is that bad faith inevitably impairs our relations with others. In each of these chapters, Webber offers interesting insights which make original contributions to the literature. However, with regards to the overall aim of defining a canonical account of existentialism, neither of these chapters seem directly related.
In the final chapter, Webber brings his analysis to a close by discussing the future direction of existentialism. In particular, he illustrates the practicality of his canonical account and the impact that it could have upon interdisciplinary exchange. Namely, he portrays what experimental science can learn from a more refined account of existentialism, and that this will enable existential-infused approaches to develop further. Although psychoanalytic approaches which have been built upon Sartre’s concept of radical freedom are subject to the same criticism as Sartre, Webber claims this field could undergo a revival were it to instead be built upon the theory of commitment. Webber also notes that there are further lessons which can be learnt from existentialism. Whilst certain insights have been confirmed by experimental psychology, other claims, such as Fanon’s suggestion that psychiatric problems stem from the internalisation of stereotypes by the victim, remain unexplored. Thus, not only does Webber provides us with an analytically satisfactory account of existentialism, but also demonstrates the benefits possessing a more accurately defined theory.
The current political landscape has been marked by the sustained engagement with race and gender discourse. One can hardly open a newspaper, or read a social media news-feed without encountering a story about gender wage gaps, for example, or racism within first world countries. Whilst much philosophy remains decisively abstract in terms of application, Webber demonstrates how existential philosophers, such as Beauvoir and Fanon, engage with these very issues. In this respect, Rethinking Existentialism is a timely text which demonstrates the contemporary relevance of existential philosophy. Moreover, Webber’s book is lucidly written, and composed in an accessible manner which navigates both the personal relationships between theorists, and the development of their thoughts. Rather than individual sections which trace the trajectory of each theorist’s isolated intellectual development, Webber presents an interwoven account, articulating the development of particular existentialist figures in relation to one another. Whilst other authors confuse and conflate existentialism and existentialists, Webber clears the rubble piled-up and built upon by previous commentators. Webber provides elucidation and a clearing for those with an obscured view of existentialism, and a fresh and coherent perspective for those first approaching the subject. In this way, Webber’s Rethinking Existentialism is not only essential reading for anyone interested in existentialism, but the only book one needs.
Peter E. Gordon has written a compelling book entitled Adorno and Existence about Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s relationship to existentialism. Gordon admits in the very first sentence of his book that Adorno was not an existentialist, however, according to Gordon’s analysis, Adorno was intrigued by existentialism and tantalized by phenomenology through his academic career. Gordon offers a new research perspective on Adorno’s work which has often been bypassed by secondary literature. He suggests that, although Adorno is renowned as one who challenges philosophies of existence, his position as a critic is not as straightforwardly negative as one might think.
The structure of the work begins with early ontological matters, it moves to The Jargon of Authenticity (1964), then towards Negative Dialectics (1966) and finally to salvaging metaphysics. The form and the content of the book intertwine in a spiral which lures the reader in its undertow. In a laudable manner, Gordon offers a comprehensive view of Adorno’s often forgotten and marginalized writings and lectures. All in all, the sources he refers to in support of his endeavour are well chosen for the task in hand.
Despite the complexity and depth of the subject matter, the book reads well thanks to Gordon’s skills as a writer and his philosophical acumen (for instance, his book Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, 2010, won the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society). It would have been prudent and useful to readers if an accessible list of references had been included, and not only a list of aberrations, as this would save the reader from searching through the endnotes for titles which have been referred to. This small criticism aside, Gordon conducts encompassing and convincing research to demonstrate the importance of key existentialist thinkers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger from the beginning of Adorno’s academic career through to the final days of his life. Gordon builds the story eloquently; he starts and ends with Kierkegaard and the structure is insightful as Adorno wrote his Habilitationsschrift (a second dissertation) on Kierkegaard, and lectured on his work during the last years of his career (a 40 year timespan).
It is not surprising that Gordon presents Heidegger as the main opponent and counterpart to Adorno’s thought as Gordon has analysed Heidegger’s philosophy in his other books and in numerous articles (e.g. Gordon 2003; 2007; 2013). In this text he tries to situate Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy alongside Adorno’s social criticism; a daring and respectable task. Gordon argues that Adorno’s central idea about the primacy of the object is an attempt to finish what existential philosophers had sought to accomplish before him. According to Gordon, Adorno’s relentless criticism of existentialists is a redemption of existence. When Adorno argues that Kierkegaard and Heidegger failed to overcome a lurking idealism, it is because he envisions his philosophy as “the overcoming of existentialism but also its fulfillment” (145).
Gordon is clearly aware of Adorno’s repeated criticism of existential philosophers as the book examines even the harshest parts of these writings, however, he claims this is a reversal recognition. For Gordon, as Adorno’s intensive interest in existentialism and phenomenology spans multiple decades, he must see a hidden potential in these philosophical systems despite the failings he makes explicit. This speculative claim gives ground to a deeper consideration and reframing of Adorno’s critical thinking. Gordon builds on the old and accepted truth about Adorno (that if he states something, he will denounce the very same thought just a couple of pages later) to point to some neglected ironies in Adorno’s works and reminds us that it is intellectually insincere to focus on isolated critical slogans. As Adorno writes in the Negative Dialectics; philosophy should not forget its clownish traits: “Philosophy is the most serious thing, but then again it is not all that serious.” (Adorno, 1966, 14)
Counting on the aforementioned trait in Adorno’s writings, Gordon is able to turn the tables around time and time again. For instance, he notes how Adorno criticizes époché (a method of phenomenological bracketing) which is supposed to help to catch the pure oneself; a method of understanding and seeing how the world exists for one. Adorno suggests that this method fails miserably, and is basically transcendental xenophobia. Despite this straightforward crushing, Gordon finds evidence on how Adorno goes beyond a mere superficial panning, and wants to seek truth in what he has just a moment ago considered to be phenomenological untruth. Adorno, according to Gordon, does not want to refute phenomenology through negation but, instead, he is on a quest to show how this “failure bears within itself a hidden philosophical insight.” (64)
As the text proceeds, it is easy to grasp Gordon’s primary objective; to show that Adorno has an intellectual bond with existentialism and phenomenology. Gordon takes the sheer number of references provided as proof of this. However, one cannot accept that Gordon necessarily gets it right when he suggests that Adorno did not specifically reject existential philosophy just because he returned to the same themes again and again over many decades. Adorno was always critical towards authoritarianism, for example, and he never ceased to question the socially shared insanity in the Western world but it would be wrong to suggest that, because Adorno wrote so much about authoritarianism he saw a hidden promise in authoritarian thinking and movements.
The text does contain some careless formulations occasionally, e.g. Gordon considers Adorno a satirical writer who tries to pop the balloons of rigid authority with his dry and poisonous wit and it could be argued that true satirists tend to offer something to replace their ridiculed targets but Adorno does not do this. Instead, he uses bitter humour to belittle shared cultural insanity, philosophical hypocrisy and individuals who are simply wrong (according to his perspective). In his mockery Adorno rarely offers sympathy for the target of his ridicule; instead, he is sarcastic and quite often smug in relation to the way he offends others. Interestingly, Gordon includes an extract of one of Adorno’s letters to Herbert Marcuse where he belittles Heidegger’s student Otto Friedrich Bollnow after the publication of The Jargon of Authenticity (December, 15, 1964): “Ernst Bloch phoned to say that because of the ‘Jargon’ Bollnow is having a nervous breakdown. Let him.” (88). Adorno does give a charitable rationalization for his so-called satirical technique when he tries to embarrass people; he thought that once an authority is ridiculed its fragile nature is revealed (through laughter), then the followers of that authority would be keen to stop worshipping their former hero. This is the very same sociological thought on which Henri Bergson’s Laughter (1911) is based. Bergson argues that laughter is a form of social control and a tool to straighten people up from their silly habits. Sadly for Adorno, this does not justify every kind of banter, and a mere rationalization hardly turns a ruthless mockery into a more constructive form of satire.
At times, Gordon makes questionable rhetorical choices and one can identify a subtle smugness in formulations such as “Those who come to critical theory burdened with customary opinion…” (6), or “Adorno’s critical orientation can appear relentlessly negative, and many readers fail to see that his negativity still flows, however faintly, with a rationalist’s hope for a better world.” (11) If these points are to be taken literally, Gordon is suggesting that merited Adorno scholars are taking a ‘wrong’ approach and one might ask, where does this leave those who are new to Adorno’s work?
Similar accusations are present throughout the text as Gordon suggests that Adorno scholars who interpret his written works on existentialism as sidesteps and meaningless aberrations from the philosophical core do so neglectfully. Despite such criticisms Gordon himself displays intellectual lapses in relation to Heidegger as, though he acknowledges the controversies about Heidegger’s relationship to National Socialism, he claims that this should not cloud our vision of his philosophy. However, for the critical theorist truth is always historical and social circumstances must play a significant role. A shrug of the shoulders is not enough to allow one to bypass Heidegger’s engagement with National Socialism; this is a major issue of debate which has recently resurfaced due to the publication of the so-called Black Notebooks (2014a, 2014b, 2014c).
Whilst Gordon agrees that philosophical texts are part of a social whole (at least in Adorno’s case), he also claims that they cannot be reduced to this whole. It is on these grounds that he seeks to excuse the omission of any treatment of Heidegger’s relation to fascism in this text. Unfortunately, the rationale behind this omission not entirely convincing. Gordon allows himself privileges that he denies to others; he regards dubious writings by Heidegger as mere deviations (though some scholars argue that they are essential), and at the same time he claims that certain works by Adorno should not be neglected as they allow one to trace the development of his critical thinking. It is not entirely consistent for Gordon to claim that Adorno’s marginal texts are important (as one may understand them as intellectual test laboratories), but Heidegger’s marginal texts (which several scholars consider as representative of his philosophical thinking) should be considered mere sidesteps.
Gordon describes how the political and economic situation forced Adorno to emigrate from Germany to England in the 1930s, and how racial laws resulted in the decommission of his professorship. The situation resulted in Adorno having to complete a second doctorate at the University of Oxford in an intellectual environment where his enthusiasm for social theory was not shared. Gordon claims “it is against this sombre background of exile and isolation that we must understand Adorno’s readiness to bury himself in the texts of classical phenomenology.” (59) He makes a valuable point, but it again raises the issue concerning the importance of taking the social-historical situation into account when analysing the work of Heidegger.
Let us consider what remains untreated by Adorno and Existence; e.g. Gordon mentions Karl Marx twice and Sigmund Freud only once, yet both are highly influential thinkers in relation to Adorno’s intellectual development. The text concerns Adorno and existentialism so there is no need for a comprehensive study of these two critical thinkers; even so, a comparison of their influence on Adorno with that of existentialists’ would have been a valuable addition. Also, Adorno’s concept of somatic impulse (which is based on psychoanalytical thinking) is completely neglected by this text. Through this concept Adorno presents an individual with the possibility to feel that there is something wrong with the world without giving positive answers to the problem. Somatic impulse comes close to what Erich Fromm (Adorno’s former colleague and rival) calls ‘existential needs’; as they offer a dialectic but normative standpoint for both philosophy and social criticism. It would have been interesting to read about whether Gordon finds any connection between somatic impulse and, e.g. the phenomenological idea of ‘being in the world’.
All in all, Adorno and Existence is an important and insightful book as it highlights previously untreated features of Adorno’s intellectual development and his academic career. Gordon’s work presents an interesting historical and biographical study; his style concerns an original method which requires one to assemble clues that are presented through a complex story (which has not been told or fully understood before). In the style of Adorno, Gordon reminds us; that if one is to criticize something, it means that one has to make a serious and rigorous attempt to analyse the target of the criticism, otherwise the enterprise engages in nothing more than cultural chatter (a point which is well formulated and taken into account throughout Gordon’s work). It is unclear if jury will be unanimous with their verdict on this particular book as both phenomenologists and critical theorists may find the book, eventually, not entirely convincing. That said, Gordon succeeds in giving food for thought and opening up new perspectives to Adorno scholars about Adorno’s intellectual relationship to existentialism and phenomenology.
The gravest problems with the book (discussed above) lie on the meta-level and, if a brief speculation is allowed, Adorno would probably not agree with Gordon’s analysis in relation to Heidegger. Adorno, one of the sharpest critics of fascism in the 20th century, is portrayed as the saviour of Heideggerian phenomenology. Many philosophers argue (especially after the publication of the Black Notebooks) that there is an intrinsic connection between Heidegger’s philosophy and anti-Semitism. If this is the case, then Adorno himself would be rather appalled by Gordon’s conclusion: that Adorno is the one who wants to save Heidegger’s philosophical project. It is difficult to couple Heidegger (a member of the Nazi party from 1933 until the end of Second World War), and Adorno (a persecuted Jew who had to leave his motherland because of the atrocities committed by the Nazis). The historical burden is so heavy that it cannot by bypassed with a mere statement that the author does not agree with Heidegger’s fascistic tendencies but is not going to treat the question of how they are present within his philosophical works. Some scholars (e.g. Rée 2014, Losurdo 2014) argue that Heidegger’s anti-Semitic ideas taint only his person and do not impact deeply on the core of his philosophy. However, critics such as Peter Trawny (editor of the Black Notebooks) argue that Heidegger actually processed his anti-Semitic ideas philosophically. The issue of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism and its presence in Heidegger’s works should be taken seriously when discussing a critical thinker like Adorno (from a Jewish background) as it is significant in relation to understanding Heidegger’s legacy. Unfortunately, Gordon does not make such an attempt.
Adorno, T. W. 1964. The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. K. Tarnowski and F. Will, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
Adorno, T. W. 1966. Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: Seabury Press, 1973.
Bergson, H. 1911. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans., Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999.
Gordon, P. E. 2003. Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy. University of California Press.
Gordon, P. E. 2007. “Hammer without a Master: French Phenomenology and the Origins of Deconstruction (or, How Derrida read Heidegger).” In: Historicizing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Gordon, P. E. 2010. Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos. Harvard University Press.
Gordon, P. E. 2013. “The Empire of Signs: Heidegger’s Critique of Idealism in Being and Time.” In: The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. New York: Cambridge.
Heidegger, M. 2014a. Überlegungen II–VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931–1938) [Reflections II–VI (Black Notebooks 1931–1938)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.
Heidegger, M. 2014b. Überlegungen VII–XI (Schwarze Hefte 1938/39) [Reflections VII–XI (Black Notebooks 1938/39)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.
Heidegger, M. 2014c. Überlegungen XII–XV (Schwarze Hefte 1939–1941) [Reflections XII–XV (Black Notebooks 1939–1941)]. Edited by P. Trawny. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann.
Losurdo, D. 2014. “Heidegger’s black notebooks aren’t that surprising.” In: The Guardian. March 19, 2014.
Rée, J. 2014. “In defence of Heidegger”. In: Prospect. March 12, 2014.