Andreas Beinsteiner: Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität

Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität Book Cover Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität
Heidegger Forum 17
Andreas Beinsteiner
Paperback 29,00 €

Reviewed by: Daniel Neumann (Universität Klagenfurt)

In Heideggers Philosophie der Medialität, Andreas Beinsteiner sets out to reconceive Heidegger’s central term “Being” as mediality. The overarching goal of the book is twofold: giving a coherent interpretation of the meaning of Being throughout Heidegger’s oeuvre, as well as contributing to the foundational thought of media studies. In doing so, Beinsteiner takes a cue from Dieter Mersch, whose concept of “negative mediality” is based on the assumption that what constitutes the mediality of media has yet to be philosophically elucidated. The “manifest justification deficit of the media concept” (Mersch 2015, 19) could be remedied, Beinsteiner argues, with Heidegger’s thinking of Being. Thirty-seven years before Marshall McLuhan famously pronounced that “the medium is the message”, shifting the focus on the elusive role the medium itself plays in the process of mediation, Heidegger had similarly discovered the constitutive withdrawal of Being itself in the unconcealment of beings (205). The role of mediality is thereby expanded beyond that of media in the strict sense. By looking at Heidegger’s philosophy, Beinsteiner suggests that the way we experience digital media, but also art and technology in the broader sense, has to be grasped from how we experience anything at all, in other words, how we come to experience the Being of beings. As he makes clear in later chapters of his book, Beinsteiner is convinced that Heidegger does not just speak to the fundamental mediality of our being in the world, but also to specific modern forms of mediality of technology, such as autonomously operating machines. The aim of the book is of philosophical and media theoretical interest not just because it aims at laying the groundwork for a concept of mediality, based on a close reading of Heidegger’s philosophy up to his later years, but also because this reading promises an integrated account of mediality, comprising its fundamental and specific aspects equally.

In the first two thirds of the book, Beinsteiner develops this idea vis-à-vis central concepts found in Heidegger’s works, such as presence, event and equipment. In Sein und Zeit, the interested involvement which unveils Being as equipment (Zeug), putting me in a pragmatic mode in which I use this equipment without thinking about its significance, is conceived as a paradigmatic case of mediality. It is not just my existence, being oriented around the care of the being that I am, which mediates the concernful handling of equipment. It is also the equipment as concrete artifact that helps to shape my access to the world. Thus, “contrary to the dominant anti-hermeneutical reading of Heidegger in media studies” (33), artifacts play a central role in the constitution of mediality and the mediation of sense. Mediality here is shown to depend on an interplay of our pre-understanding (Vorverständnis) for equipment to even be recognized as such (a requirement that Beinsteiner shows to be based on Heidegger’s understanding of Platonic ideas) as well as the material artifact, in which understanding, purpose and craftsmanship have coagulated into a being which mediates our access to the world in different ways. Here, basic Heideggerian terminology such as availableness (Zuhandenheit) and occurrentness (Vorhandenheit) are coherently interpreted as modes of mediality. While the scope of the meaning of being in Sein und Zeit seems to follow the paradigm of the availability of being-as-equipment, in later writings Heidegger thinks of the meaning of Being as taking on historical proportions: the meaning of Being concerns historicity, instead of the temporality of an individual existence (51). Yet across the Kehre, mediality retains its central significance for how Heidegger thinks Being. Thus, Beinsteiner argues for a continuity and an expansion between Heidegger’s earlier and later writings, instead of a break, based on the interpretation of Being as mediality.

Throughout the book, a consistent vocabulary is developed to capture this continuity. The early Heidegger’s concern with the meaning of finite existence is conceived by Beinsteiner as the “existential-hermeneutical as” (existentialhermeneutisches als). The “as”, that Being appears as is hermeneutically motivated, following the existential structure of existence. In other words, how we grasp Being, e.g. via equipment, language and mood, is a matter of the constitution of Dasein’s being in the world. In later Heidegger, the way Being discloses the world is still a question of the “as” of Being. But to account for the historical dimension of Heidegger’s questioning, Beinsteiner now speaks of Being appearing as “regimes of accessibility” (Zugänglichkeitsregime), which imply an unavoidable reduction of the ambiguity of Being, i.e. mediality. The regime (or paradigm) of accessibility is what pre-selects the way in which Being is perceived (vernommen). Just as the manners of being (Seinsarten) in Sein und Zeit are shown to be forms of mediality, the historical regimes of Being (roughly, physis in Antiquity, creation in Medieval Times and subjective representation beginning in Modernity) turn out to be forms in which Being is collectively understood. Through this synthetical reading of early and later Heidegger, Beinsteiner is able to demonstrate a basic selectivity of mediality, which spans the understanding of individual being, Being as a whole as well as the selectivity of accessibility to Being itself (65).

The latter aspect is especially important as Heidegger’s interest is not just in discussing the multivalence of Being in existential or historical terms, but more fundamentally in showing that the way Being can be grasped, perceived and understood, is irreducible to any one meaning. According to Beinsteiner, Heidegger comes closest to the idea of Being as mediality when discussing Being in terms of immediacy and mediatedness:

“What is first present in all gathers everything isolated together into a single presence and mediates to each thing its appearing. Immediate allpresence is the mediator for everything mediated, that is, for the mediate. The immediate is itself never something mediate; on the other hand, the immediate, strictly speaking, is the mediation, that is, the mediatedness of the mediated, because it renders the mediated possible in its essence.” (Heidegger 2000, 84).

“Das in allem zuvor Gegenwärtige [d.h. die physis, AB] versammelt alles Vereinzelte in die eine Anwesenheit und vermittelt Jeglichem das Erscheinen. Die unmittelbare Allgegenwart ist die Mittlerin für alles Vermittelte und d.h. für das Mittelbare. Das Unmittelbare [die physis] ist selbst nie ein Mittelbares, wohl dagegen ist das Unmittelbare, streng genommen, die Vermittelung, d.h. die Mittelbarkeit des Mittelbaren, weil sie dieses in seinem Wesen ermöglicht.” (cited in Beinsteiner, 76f)

In opening and selecting our access to the world, Being (or mediality) takes on the double role of immediate allpresence and mediation. Being is immediate, insofar as everything we perceive is necessarily a manner of it. Yet Being is mediation, since it is never grasped in itself, but only in a certain way. Being is immediate mediation or mediated immediacy. From this, Beinsteiner concludes that “nothing is immediate, except for mediality” (77), while also conceding that grasping this “accessibility of accessibility” confronts us with a fundamental difficulty in thinking about the unconcealment of Being.

Yet neither for Heidegger nor Beinsteiner does this constitute a purely epistemological issue. One of the challenges in interpreting Heidegger lies exactly in characterizing the meaning of Being itself, and the role of the philosopher in taking up this meaning. Beinsteiner’s approach is to grasp this as a fundamentally ethical question: to be sensitive to the irreducible meaning of Being and to become aware of the historical and philosophical contingency of a specific regime of accessibility is to increase one’s own freedom, whereas to insist on an established form of mediality without even realizing its ontological antecedents is to become less free. While this may be characterized as the individual’s share in the exercise of freedom, equally important for Beinsteiner’s interpretation is the fact the specific regime of mediality precedes individual thinking and understanding. Taking up the idea of thrownness (Geworfenheit), Beinsteiner deems this the “ek-sistential disempowerment” (ek-sistentiale Depotenzierung) of human beings. In other words, the fact that we are always already participating in the modes of Being of a certain regime cannot be overcome by philosophical reflection. The “thinking of Being” will not lead to a supreme position from where all its meanings unfold in a cohesive picture. No matter how many ways of Being’s mediality are grasped, neither any one of them, nor their totality, amounts to a grasping of Being itself.

Instead, Beinsteiner takes Heidegger’s thinking of the event as the paradigmatic case in which the sensitivity for Being’s irreducible and abyssal meaning is articulated. Since his discussion is mostly restricted to the works published in his lifetime, Heidegger’s thinking of the event is considered only cursorily. Yet what matters to Beinsteiner’s approach is that the event is what brings us closest to the contingency of the being we perceive. To understand the event (the happening of Being) as event means refocusing thinking from one’s immediate engagement with ontic things towards that which makes this engagement possible. Grasping the fact that Being happens enables us to realize the openness in which we stand as reasonable (vernünftig or vernehmend) beings. The exercise of freedom, according to this interpretation, is this movement or “stepping back”, as Heidegger calls it in his Beiträge zur Philosophie, which decenters our place in the world and which simultaneously makes thinkable our taking place in the world, which is inseparable from Being, taking on a specific meaning. Beinsteiner connects this exercise of freedom with Heidegger’s terminology of comportment (Verhaltenheit) and releasement (Gelassenheit), the latter taking the place of the former in the writings after the Second World War (145). The two terms express a somewhat different attitude towards abyssal Being, Verhaltenheit insinuates a timidity and hesitation, while Gelassenheit seems to emphasize a receptive and patient attitude. The semantics get plausibly streamlined so that in Beinsteiner’s interpretation, both terms are shown to attempt to think the necessary selectiveness of our access to the world.

In Heidegger’s own writings, the thinking of the event is often, though not always in a clear way, connected to the mediality of language. Language is what lets things be, it enables the meaningful grasping of things. In this sense, Beinsteiner speaks of the “as-like structure” (alshafte Struktur) of language. In speaking and hearing language, something can be thought, perceived or grasped as something. Language is medium of sense as well as mediality, because in using language we are not merely participating in a specific regime of accessibility, but we are shaping and changing its mechanism of selectivity. Thus, a poem might make us see a statue in a completely new way and Descartes, in writing a meditation about the nature of his mind, helps to create and stabilize subjectivity, making possible a new understanding of our being in the world which becomes our representation. These examples are to suggest that the thinking of Being in Heidegger doubtlessly relies on language as a key paradigm of mediality, though it certainly is not exclusively a philosophy of language. In arguing that Heidegger strives to critically examine and question the meaning of a regime of accessibility by broadening the scope (Spielraum) of how we understand the meaning of being (169), Beinsteiner seems to concur with the emphasis on language without clearly separating the mediality of language from Being as mediality. The “politics of reinterpretation” (172) that Heidegger is said to put into motion presumably operates on different levels of mediality.

This equivocality might be due to the interpretative decision underlying the whole book, which is to understand Being as mediality. The expression of the “mediality of Being” used above is thus not wholly accurate, as it is not Being itself which mediates our access to the world but mediality in its stead. Beinsteiner speaks of a “forgetting of mediality” (Medialitätsvergessenheit) instead of a Seinsvergessenheit, and a “history of mediality” (Medialitätsgeschichte) instead of a Seinsgeschichte to indicate the shift his interpretation operates. Yet it seems to me that the reconfiguration of the ontological difference between Being/beings (Sein/Seiendes) as Medialität/Seiendes is not fully reflected upon. The notion that all beings refer to mediality has different implications than their referral to Being: beings are of Being, in the sense that Being ontologically comprises what beings are, whether this be in a more general, immediate or truer fashion. One of the momentous assumptions of Sein und Zeit was the idea that what is most proper to beings, their being (or Being) itself, has yet to be fully grasped. There is an intimate connection between Being and beings, which might be compared to the relationship between presence (Anwesenheit) und present things (Anwesendes), bearing in mind that presence for Heidegger is merely one way to understand Being temporally. But there is no such relationship, ontological or otherwise, between mediality and beings. Rather, when we understand the specific form of beings as due to an underlying mediality, this necessarily turns these beings themselves into media of this mediality and thus narrows their ontological meaning. While a being might be considered a unity in many ways (following Aristotles’ famous dictum of being as pollachos legomenon), a being that is the medium of mediality is already designated to present something as something else.

Possibly to avert such difficulties, Beinsteiner does not build his interpretation on the ontological difference of Being and beings, but instead suggests speaking of “a difference between mediality and the phenomenal” (42). While this solves the issue of the missing affinity between mediality and what it discloses, it raises another problem because it seemingly restricts phenomenality to what is made available by mediality, whereas in Heidegger there is a sense in which Being itself, even though it does not manifest itself in an ontic way, has a phenomenal quality as well. An essential aspect of the experience of the event consists in Being, in order to disclose beings, withdrawing itself. This withdrawal of Being, as Beinsteiner shows as well, is not something purely negative, but a concealment which can be experienced as such (198). Instead of a simple absence, concealment draws our attention to the fact that there is concealing. But when Beinsteiner quotes Heidegger in insisting that this concealment is one of the characteristics of artworks (200), an aesthetic or phenomenal quality is evidently involved. If it is thus correct to speak of a phenomenality of concealment, then what conceals itself (i.e. mediality in Beinsteiner’s interpretation) cannot be clearly distinguished from the phenomenal. It seems to me that this aesthetic aspect of withdrawal hinges on the intrinsic affinity between Being and beings, which is abandoned when replacing Being with mediality.

Would the situation have been different if mediality was not understood as replacing Being but instead as the way that Being discloses itself to us, in other words, if it was a matter of the mediality of Being? This would have added another conceptual layer between Being and beings, one in which Being would be grasped as itself in a concrete form. But this would turn Being into an absolute entity, existing beside beings. The strength of Heidegger’s philosophy, and one which is amply expounded in the book, is to resist hypostasizing either Being or beings as absolute, and instead implicating them in what Beinsteiner calls a constant “hermeneutical oscillation” (155ff). With Dieter Mersch, one could say that the question is not how Being is mediated, or how something can appear as something else, but instead how the “as” itself comes to be (Mersch 2015, 20). This in turn means that mediality, the “as itself”, is foundational, in the sense that it enables the appearance of something as something, but that it remains concealed, or rather, that it can only be noticed in the seamless way in which it operates ontic unconcealment.

The last third of the book deals with the specific forms mediality takes on, and the role of media in the usual sense of the word. These issues are tackled by Beinsteiner’s interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology, in which a dominant form of mediality threatens to permanently bar alternative accesses to phenomenality. In this approach, two things seem especially remarkable. Firstly, Beinsteiner forcefully argues for the idea that Heidegger’s thinking of technology is one of artefacts, not an abstract philosopher’s critique of the contemporary world, making an empirical turn against Heidegger unnecessary (237). Secondly, the different forms of “phenomenological artifacts”, comprising not just technological objects but also artworks, are seamlessly integrated into the idea of Being as mediality. Beinsteiner suggests that equipment and the artwork are two paradigmatic artifacts which refer to the maximum concealment (as technological Gestell) and unconcealment (as event) of mediality. In other words, these artifacts exist on a continuum of concealment, as it were, which either question and broaden the regime of accessibility, or by contrast, insist in it, naturalizing the criteria of accessibility to the point where they almost seem without alternative.

This latter stage is reached with technology when the handling of technological objects becomes more and more a manner of maintenance. With fully automated, interoperative machines, the scope of possible meanings diminishes in the face of efficient, planned and unceasing repetition. Beinsteiner emphasizes that this is not meant as a scathing critique, nor as a call to simpler times in which the relationship between techne and physis was less determined, but that it merely follows the logic of increased insistence within a specific regime of accessibility. While the whole argument of the book mostly focuses on Heidegger’s own writing, at this point a sideways glance to other contemporary theories of technology would have been interesting. Gilbert Simondon, in his On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (originally published in 1958) offers for instance a much more positive account of the relationship between man and automated machine, which is not merely one of maintenance but of engineering. More to the point of Heidegger, Simondon also constructs a genealogy of technical objects stretching back as far as animist theories. But in Simondon, increased levels of technological ingenuity are described as enabling more creativity and openness, based on the knowledge of the modes of existence of these technological objects. Thus, the complex inner workings of an automated machine present not merely a closed system to the outside observer, but an intricate set of ideas which have taken on a fixed form that can be amended and emended through playful experimentation. This creativity that is manifest in the complexity of the machine is not found in Heidegger. On the other hand, Heidegger’s philosophy of technology could be construed as a lifelong struggle with the “technological condition” of his own thinking, for instance as an underlying technological bias dating back as far as Sein und Zeit, where the world is disclosed in the form of technical or pragmatic affordances (Hörl 2008, 651f).

Some of the ambivalences in Heidegger’s view of the role of technology are conveyed by Beinsteiner’s concepts of the hermeneutics of the user and designer, respectively. Technological objects always entertain a complex relationship to their surrounding sense. They are not abstract functions, but first of all projected ideas. In their objective form, they are subject to the sense the user, as a hermeneutical creature makes, of them, just as their design is not merely the application of a form on matter, but an Entwurf and Zuwurf in which the possibility of unexpected discovery appears (246). In this sense, there is a Simondonian quality to Heidegger’s technological thinking. Outside the realm of subservience, technological artifacts may thus gain relevance in the play with accessibility.

In the last chapter, Beinsteiner draws some consequences from the fact that humans are constitutively related to media strictly speaking and to mediality broadly speaking. This exteriority, which is tied back to the basic condition of ek-sistence, is distinguished from concepts in which technology is understood as the extension of an interiority, like Ernst Kapps’s thesis of technology as organ projection. The argument Beinsteiner makes is that Heidegger does not think technology as an anthropological feature: technology will never determine what humans are, or vice versa, as it is just one part of a broader regime of accessibility which is always open to variability through language (283). This variability of language is also at play when Heidegger’s writing process is deemed a “media-philosophical strategy” (289) which mediates the volatile movement of thinking and the crystallization of thought in letters.

It is not just in this work-biographical self-attribution (Wege, nicht Werke is the epigram of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe) that Beinsteiner follows Heidegger. Throughout the book, it becomes clear that the defense of the coherence of the thesis of Being as mediality coincides with the defense of Heidegger’s philosophy itself. But in arguing for Heidegger’s continuous effort to hold open and question existing regimes of accessibility, the mediality elucidated by the interpretation appears much more uniform than Heidegger’s own term of Being, which, as Dasein or event, signifies quite different forms of mediality. It would have been thinkable, for instance, to distinguish mediality as disclosedness and as unconcealment, relative to the ontological framework in which mediality operates. I also disagree with Beinsteiner’s negative assessment of “critical Heidegger studies”, which historicize Heideggerian terminology, thus going against Heidegger’s own semantic intentions (173). On the next page, Beinsteiner warns that, for it not to seem dogmatic and authoritative, one has to follow closely Heidegger’s own “expanding reinterpretation” of metaphysical concepts to liberate and transform thinking (174). Thus, while Heidegger is granted maximum semantic freedom, reading him seems to require abstaining from calling his semantics into question. From this hermeneutical attitude also follows that the historicity of Being, i.e. mediality, remains elusive. In other words, the regime of accessibility is always already in place and we may increase our freedom by thinking its very mediality, but this remains an exercise of reason, not a media archaeology. Yet it would have been possible to grasp Heidegger’s thinking of mediality, especially as it relates to media in the strict sense, in a more empirical way, that is by consulting the invention and distribution of machines. Likewise, paradigm changes in artworks, for instance from figural to more abstract paintings, emphasizing the creative act rather than reproducing ontic features, might have played a role in describing the artwork as an event showing us the limits of our selectivity of accessibility. But the fact that Beinsteiner chose to follow Heidegger closely instead results in a very consistent interpretation, one which is able to convincingly incorporate ideas and terminology from early to late Heidegger.

Thus, the book succeeds in what it set out to do: providing a coherent interpretation of “Being” as mediality, which is shown to be of central importance for concrete media such as artworks, equipment and interoperative machines. Through this careful and thorough reading, Beinsteiner also exposes the limits of a mediality according to Heidegger, thereby laying out premises for media ontologies to come.


Heidegger, Martin. 2000. Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry. Translated by Keith Hoeller. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Hörl, Erich. 2008. “Die offene Maschine. Heidegger, Günther und Simondon über die technologische Bedingung.” MLN 123(3): 632-655.

Mersch, Dieter. 2015. “Wozu Medienphilosophie? Eine programmatische Einleitung.” Internationales Jahrbuch für Medienphilosophie 1(1): 13-48.

Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.): The Challenge of God, Bloomsbury, 2021

The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition Book Cover The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition
Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.)
Paperback $35.96

Martin Heidegger: Thought Poems, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021

Thought Poems: A Translation of Heidegger's Verse Book Cover Thought Poems: A Translation of Heidegger's Verse
New Heidegger Research
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Eoghan Walls
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Hardback $165.00

William McNeill: The Fate of Phenomenology: Heidegger’s Legacy

The Fate of Phenomenology: Heidegger's Legacy Book Cover The Fate of Phenomenology: Heidegger's Legacy
New Heidegger Research
William McNeill
Rowman & Littlefield
Paperback $39.95 • £31.00

Reviewed by: François Raffoul (Louisiana State University)

In this short book, The Fate of Phenomenology. Heidegger’s Legacy, Heidegger translator William McNeill engages the question of phenomenology in Heidegger’s work. The question or conceit that is taken as a guiding thread for this work runs as follows: while the early Heidegger “enthusiastically” embraced phenomenology as proper access to authentic philosophizing, and as the “method of ontology,” after the publication of Being and Time, McNeill considers thatHeidegger appears to abandon phenomenology,” and that his “later thinking is for the most part no longer carried out in the name of phenomenology” (41). With respect to this alleged abandonment of phenomenology, McNeill adds that Heidegger “never fully or systematically explains why, neither in his published writings nor in his public lectures,” to then conclude: “the apparent abandonment or further transformation of phenomenology remains something of a mystery” (117). In what follows, I will briefly reconstruct the sequence of the work, and then raise a few questions.

As mentioned above, this is a short book, and McNeill recognizes the limited scope of his work, characterizing it as a series of “musings” (xiv), a “set of short reflections,” a sketch that “cannot and does not claim to offer a full or systematic account of Heidegger’s complex relationship to phenomenology” (ix). Rather, this work is more like a “provocation” on the way to a philosophical reflection on the fate of phenomenology in Heidegger’s thought. The book is composed of 7 chapters, with a preface and no conclusion. Two chapters are either already published or drawing from an earlier essay.

The first chapter looks at Heidegger’s early work, focusing on his confrontation with Husserl, on the interpretation of what is meant by “the things themselves.”  In opposition to Husserl’s emphasis on consciousness and transcendental subjectivity, and to a certain theoreticism, Heidegger posits “life” in its historical concreteness as the “‘primordial phenomenon’ (Urphänomen) of phenomenology,” 14).  McNeill follows Heidegger’s appropriation of phenomenology, insisting on its hermeneutic and deconstructive scope.

Chapter two pursues and develops Heidegger’s radicalization of phenomenology around the time of Being and Time, fleshing out the ontological sense that Heidegger gives it (as opposed to Husserl’s orientation towards consciousness). Being for Heidegger must be considered as what is primarily concealed. This, it should be noted, already announces the late expression of “phenomenology of the inapparent,” to which I will return. This element of concealment is crucial and determines Heidegger’s thinking of phenomenology.

In Chapter three, McNeill argues that Heidegger’s radicalization of phenomenology “was not quite radical enough: It did not quite get to the root of the matter, of the Sache.  That would require a further step, one that Heidegger would begin to venture only in 1930.”  McNeill claims that the early Heidegger approaches “the λόγος of phenomenology in its scientific guise,” maintains a “scientific” (wissenschaftlich) aspiration that is in tension with phenomenality itself” (xi), and concludes that, “The conceptual discourse of phenomenology, it turns out, was by implication complicit with doing a certain violence to things, indeed to phenomenality itself,” thereby necessitating a turn towards poetic thinking that is “no longer the conceptual λόγος of phenomenology” (xii). Further in the book, McNeill still refers to such “conceptual thinking of phenomenology” (123). These claims are a bit surprising, first because Heidegger had broken with the dominance of the theoretical as early as 1919, in a Freiburg lecture course, where he spoke of “breaking the primacy of the theoretical” on the way to an originary phenomenology of the facticity of life (GA 56/57, 59/50); second, because as we will see Heidegger rejected the ideal of scientificity in Husserl’s phenomenology; and, finally, because he approached λόγος in Being and Time in its apophantic and phenomenological scopes, and not under the form of the concept. The early Heidegger has certainly already broken with the dominance of the theoretical and of conceptuality, approaching phenomenology as belonging to life itself in its process of self-explication (always occurring against the background of a certain opacity, as factical). Heidegger still reminded us in the Zollikon seminars that “Phenomenology deals with what is prior to all conceptualization” (GA 89, 172/131). Referring to a “turn away from phenomenology” toward a more poetic attunement to letting be after Being and Time, McNeill contrasts this alleged conceptuality with Heidegger’s new emphasis on the motif of “letting.” But did Heidegger not precisely characterize in Being and Time the λόγος as a “letting be seen” (Sehen lassen)? The contrast established by McNeill in chapter three, although convenient, is thus not without complications.

In Chapter 4, McNeill focuses on the 1936 version of “The Origin of the Work of Art,” a choice that McNeill never really justifies. This is an odd chapter, as it is not entirely clear how it fits the problematic of the book on the fate of phenomenology in Heidegger’s thought. The chapter draws from an earlier publication by McNeill, but its justification in this work is not provided. We are asked to “reflect on the implications of that essay for the phenomenological approach.” Yet the question that follows reads: “Does the essay provide us with a phenomenological account of the work of art, as is sometimes claimed?” That is not the same question. The first statement seeks to reflect on the implications of “The Origin of the Work of Art” for phenomenology. The second asks whether the essay offers a phenomenological account of the work of art. Further, McNeill makes the very odd claim that the work of art “takes the place of phenomenology.” Heidegger’s effort in that essay would be to “twist our thinking free from the violence” (79) of conceptual thinking. Once again, the contrast made with an early privileging of conceptual thinking in Heidegger’s early work is without basis.

In Chapter 5, McNeill focuses on two recently published essays or self-critical notes written by Heidegger in 1936, “Running Remarks on Being and Time” and “Critical Confrontation with Being and Time,” texts that McNeill interprets as showing Heidegger’s intent “to take leave of phenomenology.” Yet the reason given for such a view is most telling. Heidegger would distance himself from phenomenology (as well as fundamental ontology), not because they “are simply inadequate or inappropriate, but because of their very success” (87). This nuance is crucial, for it shows that Heidegger does not simply dismiss or discard phenomenology, but on the contrary assumes its vocation in getting us to the matters themselves, in opening the way to a thinking of the event of being, or Ereignis, “the originating Ereignis of Being.” As McNeill puts it,

“Phenomenology, on this account, can be left behind because it has brilliantly accomplished its proper task and is thus no longer needed—at least by that thinking that now thinks the truth of Being as Ereignis” (76).

Ereignis becomes the ultimate phenomenon. This is why we are not seeing  a movement away from phenomenology, but rather, “a turning into and toward the issue or Sache of phenomenology” (58).  In a sense, it is a turning back, back to the matter of thinking. Phenomenology is a re-turn to the things themselves.  A leap into Ereignis, yes, but in the sense in which Heidegger speaks of it in What is Called Thinking?: “A curious, indeed unearthly thing that we must first leap onto the soil [Boden] on which we really stand” (GA 8, 44/41).

In Chapter six, a slightly revised reprint of an earlier essay, McNeill develops the “transition” (and the entire difficulty lies in determining the sense of this word), from phenomenology to the thinking of Being as Ereignis, referring to Heidegger’s thinking of a “history of being,” which he labels the “concept” of the history of being. A word in passing: McNeill has a tendency to designate Heidegger’s key words as “concepts.” We saw how he referred to the notion of a “conceptual λόγος” in Being and Time (when Heidegger was proposing there a phenomenological understanding of λόγος as “letting be seen”). He also writes of “the concept of destruction” (13), of the “central concept of care (Sorge)” (17), of how “the λέγειν of the early phenomenology tends, first, to bring Being to a concept” (79), or how Heidegger “develops the concept of the happening of Ereignis as a ‘history of Being” (103), etc… The title of an earlier essay of his reads: “On the Essence and Concept of Ereignis,” an essay in which McNeill keeps referring to the “concept of Ereignis.” Now, the language of conceptuality (or essence!) is certainly not appropriate to approach Heidegger’s thought, and particularly not the thinking of Ereignis: Ereignis is not a concept, but as we saw the ultimate phenomenon. In any case, in this chapter McNeill attempts to relate the notion of destruction with Heidegger’s later problematics of a history of being. We may note here that Destruktion in the early work was already connected to, indeed grounded in, historicity.

In chapter 7, after having spent the entire book claiming that Heidegger abandoned phenomenology, McNeill has to recognize (and without giving an explanation for the discrepancy) that in his last texts and seminars Heidegger did claim phenomenology as his own approach, and sought “to reclaim or rehabilitate the term phenomenology, along the lines of what he calls ‘a phenomenology of the inapparent’ (eine Phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren)” (122). This last expression, according to McNeill, “fulfills what Heidegger now calls the original sense of phenomenology, that which phenomenology has always sought, its concealed τέλος, as it were” (xiv), implicitly recognizing that phenomenology (as a phenomenology of the inapparent) has been a continuing thread in Heidegger’s thought. The original Sache of phenomenology has now been rethought as “the letting of letting presence as the happening of the inapparent” (xiv). We witness in these texts by Heidegger an assumption of phenomenology: not a move beyond phenomenology, but on the contrary an appropriation of a more primordial sense of phenomenology. This compels us to return to the assumptions of this work.

As we saw, McNeill’s entire problematic rests upon the hypothesis of an “abandonment” of phenomenology by Heidegger after Being and Time, upon the claim that “phenomenology is, to all appearances, discarded by Heidegger as the designation for his own method of thinking” (65). This led McNeill to wonder whether Heidegger remained a phenomenologist at all:

“Is the later Heidegger of the 1930s onward still thinking phenomenologically, as is often claimed? If so, in what sense? Why, in that case, does he no longer appeal to phenomenology as the method of his thinking? Has phenomenology been left behind or abandoned? Or is it somehow retained, but in a transformed or radicalized sense? Yet why, then, does he no longer use the term phenomenological to characterize his later thinking?” (ix).

Now, with respect to this last claim, we saw that Heidegger did use the term phenomenological to characterize his later thinking, during a period that spanned two decades (the 1960s and the 1970s), acknowledging his debt to phenomenology, claiming it as his own, and professing faithfulness to the phenomenological approach as constitutive of his own path of thinking. Would that have happened if he had “abandoned” or “left behind” phenomenology?

We note here several issues: first, it seems as if McNeill wonders whether Heidegger remained a phenomenologist after Being and Time because for a time he used the word less, considering that it is “the deployment of phenomenology itself, at least in name, that disappears” (65). As if the relative absence of the word “phenomenology” amounted to a repudiation or a retraction. Because the word is not uttered we have to conclude that phenomenology was left behind and abandoned? That would be a superficial view. To ask whether Heidegger is still a phenomenologist, if he still “belonged,” as it were, to the phenomenological movement, is to reduce phenomenology to a title or a school of thought as opposed to an effort directed at the “things themselves.” Heidegger always stressed that phenomenology is not to be approached as a particular philosophical movement but rather as a permanent possibility of thought, entirely oriented towards the access to the things themselves: “This procedure can be called phenomenological if one understands by phenomenology not a particular school of philosophy, but rather something which permeates [waltet] every philosophy. This something can best be called by the well-known motto ‘To the things themselves’” (GA 14, 54/TB, 44-45). This is why in the autobiographical essay “My Way to Phenomenology” (1963), Heidegger suggested that phenomenology “can disappear as a title [als Titel] in favor of the matter of thinking [Sache des Denkens]” (GA 14, 101/82, slightly modified). Instead of worrying about “titles” or “labels,” it might be worthwhile to question about what such relative eclipse of the term might harbor. In “A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer,” when asked about his neglect of the term “phenomenology” (along with “hermeneutics”) after Being and Time, Heidegger had this telling response: “That was done, not — as is often thought — in order to deny the significance of phenomenology, but in order to abandon my own path of thinking to namelessness” (GA 12, 114/29). We recall here that remark in the “Letter on Humanism” where Heidegger stated that the human being “must first learn to exist in the nameless,” and how, “before he speaks the human being must first let himself be claimed again by being, taking the risk that under this claim he will seldom have much to say” (GA 9, 319/243). If there is any abandonment, it is to the nameless, so that, as William Richardson put it, the term “phenomenology” disappears “in order to leave the process name-less, so that no fixed formula would freeze its movement” (Through Phenomenology to Thought, 633). Indeed, the Sache of thinking is not some static object, but an event to which phenomenology always responds and corresponds, a response that always occurs as a relationship to the nameless. Phenomenology is never finished or complete, but always underway in its response to the eventfulness of being. As Heidegger stressed in an early course, whereas “Worldview is freezing, finality, end, system,” “philosophy can progress only through an absolute sinking into life as such, for phenomenology is never concluded, only preliminary, it always sinks itself into the preliminary” (GA 56/57, 220/188). The fact that there was less thematic discussion of the term “phenomenology” after Being and Time says nothing about the fact that Heidegger would have renounced the phenomenological impetus of his early thinking. There is simply no basis to make that claim. In fact, Heidegger actually rejected that view.

In his preface to William Richardson’s work, Heidegger ponders the initial title of the book, From Phenomenology to Thought. This expression might suggest that phenomenology would be left behind to the benefit of another kind of approach, i.e., “thought.” However, Heidegger disputes that implication, and proposes to replace “from phenomenology” with “through phenomenology,” precisely in order to show that not only phenomenology is not left behind, but that it is the very process and way of thought itself. He begins by recalling how his understanding of phenomenology as a return to the “things themselves” differs from Husserl’s orientation towards the modern categories of consciousness and transcendental ego. Whereas “‘phenomenology’ in Husserl’s sense was elaborated into a distinctive philosophical position according to a pattern set by Descartes, Kant and Fichte,” Heidegger returns to the question of being as fundamental Sache of thinking: “So it was that doubt arose whether the ‘thing itself’ was to be characterized as intentional consciousness, or even as the transcendental ego. If, indeed, phenomenology, as the process of letting things manifest themselves, should characterize the standard method of philosophy, and if from ancient times the guide-question of philosophy has perdured in the most diverse forms as the question about the Being of beings, then Being had to remain the first and last thing-itself of thought.” In fact, he insists, “The Being-question, unfolded in Being and Time, parted company with this philosophical position, and that on the basis of what to this day I still consider a more faithful adherence to the principle of phenomenology” (GA 11, 147-148/Through Phenomenology to Thought, xiv, my emphasis). On the basis of this reorientation of phenomenology, Heidegger then discusses the title of Richardson’s book in this way: “Now if in the title of your book, From Phenomenology to Thought [von der Phänomenologie zum Seinsdenken] you understand ‘Phenomenology’ in the sense just described as a philosophical position of Husserl, then the title is to the point, insofar as the Being-question as posed by me is something completely different from that position” (GA 11, 148/Through Phenomenology to Thought, xiv). However, if “we understand ‘Phenomenology’ as the [process of] allowing the most proper concern of thought [der eigensten Sache des Denkens] to show itself, then the title should read ‘Through Phenomenology to the Thinking of Being’ [durch die Phänomenologie in das Denken des Seins]” (GA 11, 148-149/Through Phenomenology to Thought, xvi). Through phenomenology as opposed to from phenomenology: this shows that the thinking of being enacts the task of phenomenology as a return “to the things themselves.” There is thus no shift from an early espousal of phenomenology to a later thinking of being and letting-be, as McNeill suggests. This is how Heidegger describes his so-called “turn” or reversal (Kehre) in his thinking: “The thinking of the reversal is a change in my thought. But this change is not a consequence of altering the standpoint, much less of abandoning the fundamental issue, of Being and Time. The thinking of the reversal results from the fact that I stayed with the matter-for-thought [of] ‘Being and Time’” (GA 11, 149/Through Phenomenology to Thought, xvi). There is no essential change of standpoint from an early to a later phase, but only the persistence of the same fundamental issue, i.e., the question of being. What matters in phenomenology is the revealing of the matters themselves, and, “Once an understanding of these is gained, then phenomenology may very well disappear” (GA 19, 10/7). Could it be for that reason (among others, such as Heidegger’s distancing with Husserl) that the term itself was not as often used after the turn, a turn or reversal that as Heidegger clarified in no way signifies the abandonment of his phenomenological thinking?

Heidegger thus speaks of the persistence of the same fundamental issue, i.e., the question of being. Indeed, the fundamental issue in Being and Time, accessed through an analytic of Dasein, is being. What is asked about [Gefragtes] in Being and Time is the meaning of being. And phenomenology is precisely understood by Heidegger as the method of ontology, as the access to being. In fact, as early as the 1925 course Prolegomena to the History of the Concept of Time, Heidegger had distanced himself from the Husserlian conception of reduction, which he characterized as a forgetting of the question of being. Husserl’s phenomenology is marked by a prior orientation toward an absolute science of consciousness.

“Husserl’s primary question is simply not concerned with the character of the being of consciousness. Rather, he is guided by the following concern: How can consciousness become the possible object of an absolute science?  The primary concern which guides him is the idea of an absolute science” (GA 20, 147/107).

In the final analysis, according to Heidegger, Husserlian phenomenology is a fundamentally Cartesian undertaking: “This idea, that consciousness is to be the region of an absolute science, is not simply invented; it is the idea which has occupied modern philosophy ever since Descartes” (GA 20, 147/107). Heidegger reiterates this point in the Zollikon seminars: “Thus, the term ‘consciousness’ has become a fundamental conception [Grundvorstellung] of modern philosophy. Husserl’s phenomenology belongs to it as well” (GA 89, 191/146). Consequently, the project of returning to pure consciousness, carried out through the various stages of the reduction, rests upon a subjectivist presupposition and can lay no claim to being an authentic phenomenological enterprise. “The elaboration of pure consciousness as the thematic field of phenomenology is  not derived phenomenologically by going back to the matters themselves but by going back to a traditional idea of philosophy” (GA 20, 147/107). To that extent, as Heidegger is not afraid to affirm, Husserlian phenomenology is … “unphenomenological!” (GA 20, 178/128). By contrast, Heidegger defines phenomenology as the very method of ontology, allowing him to grasp the phenomena (in contrast with Husserl), not in relation to a constituting consciousness, but to the event of being as such. Indeed, Heidegger stresses that phenomenology is concerned about the being of phenomena, the appearing and happening of phenomena (an appearing that, as will see, is itself inapparent). The opposition that Husserl established between phenomenology and ontology, or rather the “bracketing” of ontological themes in the transcendental phenomenological reduction, is a foreclosure of ontology that can be said to be rooted in the determination of phenomenology as a transcendental idealism, that is, in the subjection of phenomenology to a traditional (Cartesian) idea of philosophy. For Heidegger, on the contrary, as he stated in Being and Time, ontology and phenomenology are not two distinct disciplines, for indeed phenomenology is the “way of access to the theme of ontology” (SZ, 35). In turn, and most importantly, ontology itself “is only possible as phenomenology” (SZ, 35, modified). Thus, if the question of being, of the event of being, is the fundamental issue of thought, then phenomenology, as the pure apprehension of being, could not have been left behind and abandoned by Heidegger. Even when he had recourse to other terms, whether “mindfulness” (Besinnung), “remembrance” (Andenken) or “releasement” (Gelassenheit), Heidegger continued to think phenomenologically. As Thomas Sheehan clarifies: “Heidegger did all of his work on the question of being as phenomenology” (Making Sense of Heidegger, 106).

As we saw, McNeill seems committed to the view that Heidegger has abandoned or discarded phenomenology, returning to it throughout the book and claiming that his “later thinking is for the most part no longer carried out in the name of phenomenology” (41). Now, Heidegger’s later thinking was in fact carried out in the name of phenomenology. This is a simple matter of scholarship: precisely in his later thinking, through the 1960s and 1970s, Heidegger did explicitly and repeatedly claim phenomenology as the most authentic way of thought, one that he claimed as his own. The question thus arises: if Heidegger had abandoned phenomenology, then why did he claim it in the last two decades of life as his own? McNeill’s question, “Why, in that case, does he no longer appeal to phenomenology as the method of his thinking?”, is misleading at best: Heidegger did continue to appeal to phenomenology, not as the “method,” but as the way of his thinking until his very last years. This, in fact, is implicitly recognized by McNeill, when he refers to the notion of a “phenomenology of the inapparent,” which appears in Heidegger’s 1973 Zähringen seminars. This expression, I would argue, accomplishes the early sense of phenomenology, for instance as it is presented in Being and Time. Heidegger defines there the concept of phenomenology as a “letting be seen” (sehen lassen), which necessarily implies the withdrawal of the phenomenon. Indeed, if the phenomenon was simply what is given and apparent, there would be no need for phenomenology. As Heidegger put it, “And it is precisely because the phenomena are initially and for the most part not given that phenomenology is needed” (SZ, 36). This is why Heidegger could write that the phenomenon, precisely as that which is to be made phenomenologically visible, does not show itself, although this inapparent nonetheless belongs to what shows itself, for Heidegger also stresses that “‘behind’ the phenomena of phenomenology there is essentially nothing” (SZ, 36). What is the full, phenomenological concept of the phenomenon in Being and Time?

“What is it that phenomenology is to ‘let be seen’? What is it that is to be called a ‘phenomenon’ in a distinctive sense? What is it that by its very essence becomes the necessary theme when we indicate something explicitly? Manifestly, it is something that does not show itself initially and for the most part, something that is concealed [verborgen] in contrast to what initially and for the most part does show itself. But at the same time it is something that belongs to what thus shows itself, and it belongs to it so essentially as  to constitute its meaning and its ground” (SZ, 35).

What is concealed according to Being and Time is being itself, although in “The Way to Language,” Heidegger would state that Ereignis is “the least apparent” of the inapparent: “Das Ereignis ist das Unscheinbarste des Unscheinbaren—the least apparent of the inapparent” (GA 12, 247/128, modified). Phenomenology, in its very essence, is for Heidegger a phenomenology of what does not appear, a phenomenology of the inapparent, as he put it in his last seminar in 1973:

“Thus understood, phenomenology is a path that leads away to come before…, and it lets that before which it is led show itself. This phenomenology  is a phenomenology of the inapparent [eine Phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren]” (GA 15, 399/80).

Thought must be brought “into the clearing of the appearing of the inapparent,” Heidegger also wrote in a letter to Roger Munier, on February 22, 1974. The entire phenomenological problematic is thus rooted in the concealment of being, in what Heidegger calls the forgetting of being, which is to be meditated upon and remembered (itself to be understood paradoxically as a standing in oblivion: GA 14, 38/30), as opposed to overcome. Phenomenology becomes the guarding of the inapparent. This would suggest, without ignoring the various twists and turns that occurred throughout, a profound continuity and unity (which McNeill tends to ignore as he cuts Heidegger into pieces) between the early and later Heidegger, what Richardson refers to as the “Ur-Heidegger” (Through Phenomenology to Thought, 633). McNeill seems to only situate the problematic of a phenomenology of the inapparent in the 1973 Zähringen seminar, and only in terms of what Heidegger calls there “tautological thinking” (tautologisches Denken),  without realizing that not only does the theme of a phenomenology of the inapparent run throughout Heidegger’s corpus, but also the motif of tautological thinking: let us mention here the following occurrences that one encounters throughout Heidegger’s work: “die Welt weltet,” “die Sprache spricht,” die Zeit zeitigt,” “der Raum räumt,” “das Wesen west,” “Das Walten waltet,”  “das Ding dingt,” “Das Ereignis ereignet,” etc… In fact, the very idea of a “phenomenology of the inapparent” could be seen as the guiding thread of the entirety of Heidegger’s thought: from the “ruinance” of factical life in the early lecture courses to the concealment of being in Being and Time, from the errancy and the lethic at the heart of aletheia in “On the Essence of Truth” to the notion of “earth” in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” from the Geheimnis or mystery in the Hölderlin lectures to the sheltering of the λήθη in the 1942-1943 lecture course on Parmenides, from the withdrawal or Entzug in the essay on the Anaximander fragment or in What is Called Thinking to the Enteignis within Ereignis in “On Time and Being”… Each time phenomenological seeing is exposed to an inappropriable and inapparent phenomenon.

In conclusion, the work provides precise and detailed analyses of several of Heidegger’s texts, and to that extent is a valuable contribution. However, the overall interpretation is flawed, and the underlying hypotheses and questions that drive those analyses are misguided and miss the ultimate stakes of the question. The book is constructed upon an artificial problem: McNeill assumes an abandonment of phenomenology in Heidegger’s work that is not warranted by the texts and by the very trajectory of his thought. Further, this assumption is itself based on an inadequate understanding of phenomenology as a particular discipline or school of thought, a view that Heidegger rejects. Heidegger insisted that phenomenology was to be rigorously approached in its “possibility” (that is, not exclusively connected to the philosophical movement founded by Husserl). This is how Heidegger presents the issue in this passage from Being and Time, beginning with an ambiguous homage to Husserl that is immediately followed by a distancing with his former mentor: “The following investigation would not have been possible if the ground had not been prepared by Edmund Husserl, with whose Logische Untersuchungen phenomenology first emerged. Our comments on the preliminary conception of phenomenology have shown that what is essential in it does not lie in its actuality as a philosophical ‘movement.’ Higher than actuality stands possibility. We can understand phenomenology only by seizing upon it as a possibility” (SZ, 38). In “My Way to Phenomenology” (1963), Heidegger reiterates the same point:

“And today? The age of phenomenological philosophy seems to be over. It is already taken as something past which is only recorded historically along with other schools of philosophy. But in what is most its own phenomenology is not a school. It is the possibility of thinking, at times changing and only thus persisting, of corresponding to the claim of what is to be thought. If phenomenology is thus experienced and retained, it can disappear as a title in favor of the matter of thinking [Sache des Denkens] whose manifestness remains a mystery [Geheimnis]” (GA 14, 101/82, slightly modified).

“At times changing and only thus persisting”: this passage captures the persistence of the phenomenological thread in Heidegger’s thought. In a letter to Roger Munier from April 16, 1973, Heidegger still claimed that “For me it is a matter of actually performing an exercise in a phenomenology of the inapparent,” while clarifying that “by the reading of books, no one ever arrives at phenomenological ‘seeing’” (GA 15, 417/89). In fact, a proper introduction to phenomenology “does not take place by reading phenomenological literature and noting what is established therein. What is required is not a knowledge of positions and opinions. In that way phenomenology would be misunderstood from the very outset. Rather, concrete work on the matters themselves must be the way to gain an understanding of phenomenology. It would be idle to go back over phenomenological trends and issues; instead, what counts is to bring oneself into position to see phenomenologically in the very work of discussing the matters at issue. Once an understanding of these is gained, then phenomenology may very well disappear” (GA 19, 10/6-7). There lies, ultimately, the limit of McNeil’s work, if it is the case, as Heidegger reminds us, that “talking about phenomenology is beside the point” (GA 63, 67/53, modified).

Works Cited:

(GA): Martin Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1978–)

Martin Heidegger. GA 8. Was heißt Denken? (1951-1952). Ed. Paola-Ludovika Coriando, 2002. What is Called Thinking? Trans. J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.

Martin Heidegger. GA 9. Wegmarken (1919-1961). Ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, 1976, 1996 (rev. ed.). Pathmarks. Ed. William McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Martin Heidegger. GA 11. Identität und Differenz (1955-1957). Ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, 2006. Letter to William J. Richardson. In William J. Richardson, S.J., Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought, 4th ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 2003.

Martin Heidegger. GA 12. Unterwegs zur Sprache (1950-1959). Ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, 1985. On the Way to Language. Trans. Peter D. Hertz and Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Martin Heidegger. GA 14. Zur Sache des Denkens (1927-1968). Ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, 2007. On Time and Being. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Martin Heidegger GA 15. Seminare (1951-1973). Ed. Curd Ochwadt, 1986, 2005 (2nd rev. ed.). Four Seminars. Trans. Andrew Mitchell and François Raffoul. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

Martin Heidegger. GA 19. Platon: Sophistes (1924-25). Ed. Ingeborg Schüßler, 1992. Plato’s “Sophist.” Trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Martin Heidegger. GA 20, Prolegomena zur Geschichte des Zeitbegriffs (1925). Ed. Petra Jaeger, 1979, 1988 (2nd, rev. ed.), 1994 (3d, rev. ed.). History of the Concept of Time: Prolegomena. Trans. Theodore Kisiel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Martin Heidegger, GA 56/57. Zur Bestimmung der Philosophie (1919). Ed. Bernd Heimbüchel, 1987, 1999 (rev., expanded ed.). Towards the Definition of Philosophy. Trans. Ted Sadler. London: Continuum, 2000.

Martin Heidegger. GA 63. Ontologie. Hermeneutik der Faktizität (1923). Ed. Käte Bröcker-Oltmanns, 1988. Ontology—The Hermeneutics of Facticity. Trans. John Van Buren. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Martin Heidegger. SZ. Sein und Zeit (Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1953). English translations: Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962; Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rev. Dennis J. Schmidt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

William Richardson. Through Phenomenology to Thought. 4th Edition: Fordham University Press, 2003.

Thomas Sheehan. Making Sense of Heidegger. A Paradigm Shift. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014.


Uriah Kriegel: Brentano’s Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value

Brentano's Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value Book Cover Brentano's Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value
Uriah Kriegel
Oxford University Press
Hardback £49.99

Reviewed by: Daniel Herbert (University of Sheffield)

Although his admiration for the British philosophical tradition is widely recognised, Brentano’s antipathy to classical German philosophy is no less well-known. That Brentano may be at all committed to the construction of a grand system in the tradition of Kant or Hegel seems to run contrary to the most basic wisdom regarding this pivotal figure in the history of the phenomenological movement, and several of his most well-regarded interpreters have explicitly rejected any suggestion that he might helpfully be understood as a systematic philosopher. This, however, is precisely the claim which Uriah Kriegel defends with such force and clarity in his impressive study, Brentano’s Philosophical System: Mind, Being, Value. According to Kriegel, Brentano ranks amongst the greatest systematic philosophers of the Western tradition, offering a comprehensive account of the true, the good, and the beautiful, ultimately grounded in an understanding of the modes of consciousness which facilitate the mental representation of these ideals.

In spite of his systematic aspirations, however, Brentano’s philosophical style bears closer comparison to the analytic tradition than to the works of Kant and his idealist successors, according to Kriegel. Indeed, Brentano is, for Kriegel, a kind of analytic philosopher avant la lettre, whose concerns and priorities belong not to an outmoded nineteenth-century agenda, but to the domain of contemporary philosophy. There remains, however, a sense in which Brentano has less in common with analytic philosophy than with its nineteenth century predecessors, insofar as his focus is very firmly upon consciousness rather than language as the principal object of philosophical investigation. Brentano does not participate in the linguistic turn which is partly constitutive of the switch from idealist to analytic philosophy, and his focus on consciousness is an enormous part of his legacy to later phenomenologists (with the possible exception of Heidegger and his followers). This is, however, something of a pedantic objection, and Kriegel leaves little doubt that Brentano’s philosophical style is one which should make his work accessible to contemporary analytic philosophers. Across nine well-argued and engaging chapters, Kriegel elucidates Brentano’s compelling and highly original contributions to philosophy of mind, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields of current philosophical interest, repeatedly showing that Brentano merits a place in contemporary debates within each of these thriving areas. As such, Kriegel’s study should be of interest not only to scholars of Brentano and early phenomenology, but also to researchers in several areas of contemporary analytic philosophy.

Part One, ‘Mind’, opens with a chapter on ‘Consciousness’. For Kriegel, Brentano’s interest in consciousness is an interest in what today’s philosophers of mind call ‘phenomenal consciousness’ – its felt qualitative character. As such, many of Brentano’s remarks concerning consciousness rest ultimately upon appeals to phenomena with which it is assumed that all subjects are immediately acquainted insofar as they are conscious at all. According to what Kriegel calls Brentano’s ‘awareness principle’, one cannot be conscious without being conscious of being conscious. Such awareness of one’s own mental states is the source, Brentano maintains, of immediate and infallible self-knowledge resulting from what he famously labels as ‘inner perception’ and distinguishes from introspection or ‘inner observation’.

In an impressive display of scholarly engagement with the relevant primary and secondary literature, Kriegel advocates a novel and compelling interpretation of Brentano’s position, according to which the same mental state may be viewed either as the ‘consciousness of x’ or as the ‘consciousness of the consciousness of x’. As such, inner perception owes its unique epistemic merits to the identity between (i) a conscious state and (ii) the consciousness of that very state. Kriegel clearly distinguishes his interpretation from those offered by other Brentano scholars, such as Textor. Moreover, Kriegel credits Brentano with a position which he argues is more compelling than many modern theories of consciousness, such that Brentano’s approach is of more than merely historical interest.

Kriegel also notes however, the implausibility of Brentano’s commitment to the co-extensionality of mental states and conscious states. As he aims to show throughout the remaining chapters however, this is a position which may be excised from Brentano’s system with minimal repercussions. All the same, Kriegel maintains, it is important to note that Brentano’s philosophy of mind is, for this reason, more properly a philosophy of consciousness.

In Chapter Two, ‘Intentionality’, Kriegel advances an original interpretation of the concept with which Brentano’s name is most associated. Parting company with widely-held ‘immanentist’ interpretations, such as Crane’s, Kriegel denies that Brentano understands intentionality as a relation between a mental act and a subjective content internal to that act. Indeed, according to Kriegel’s ‘subjectist’ interpretation, intentionality is not, for Brentano, a relation at all, but a modification of the subject. Their misleading surface grammar notwithstanding, sentences appearing to commit one to the existence of a relation between a conscious state and an object thereof are more accurately understood as statements concerning a condition of the subject, according to Kriegel. As he interprets Brentano, non-veridical experiences have no intentional object at all, Kriegel maintains, rather than a merely private intentional object. To think of dragons, then, is not to be related to a fictitious object but to inhabit a state of a certain kind. By the same token, it is not constitutive of one’s thinking about the Eiffel Tower that it is indeed the intentional object of such a mental state. All that matters, in either case, according to Kriegel, is that the subject occupies such a state that, were certain conditions to be satisfied, that state would have an intentional object. Talk of ‘merely intentional objects’ is, as Kriegel understands Brentano, admissible only as a convenient fiction, as shorthand for the unsatisfied veridicality-conditions of some mental state.

While it is distinct from adverbialism, according to Kriegel, the position thus attributed to Brentano may, he acknowledges, appear vulnerable to an objection similar to that which Moran raises against the adverbialist. The last part of the chapter offers an answer to this revised criticism, showing again that Brentano’s views remain plausible. Kriegel proceeds with clarity and precision throughout in recognisably analytical fashion.

Chapter Three concludes Part One with a detailed account of Brentano’s taxonomy of the various kinds of conscious states. As Kriegel notes, Brentano’s interest in the systematic classification of mental states – and its centrality to his philosophical project – is characteristic of the taxonomically-fixated nineteenth century, but seems quite foreign to the priorities of contemporary philosophers of mind in the analytic tradition. Kriegel further remarks that Brentano is in disagreement with late twentieth and early twenty-first century orthodoxies in consequence of his anti-functionalist classification of mental states according to attitudinal properties rather than inferential role. Related to such anti-functionalism is Brentano’s notorious claim that disbelief-that-p is not equivalent to belief that not-p – a position starkly opposed to Frege’s.

All the same, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s philosophy of mind loses much of its unfamiliar appearance when the scope of its claims are limited to the domain of the conscious, whereupon they become compatible with a broader functionalist outlook. With slight qualifications, Brenatano’s foundational distinction between judgement and interest may be understood to correspond to a familiar distinction between mental states, on the one hand, with a mind-to-world direction of fit and those, on the other, with a world-to-mind direction of fit. Brentano treats the distinction between propositional and non-propositional content as of secondary importance, however, and Kriegel takes it that there is nothing in contemporary classifications of the mental corresponding to Brentano’s treatment of presentation as a category of phenomena no less fundamental than judgement or interest. Much of chapter three is devoted to a reconstruction and defence of Brentano’s commitment to such an account of presentation – a position which Kriegel regards as persuasive and correct, but detachable from the rest of the Brentantian system without need for significant revisions elsewhere. Judgement and interest, however, remain of crucial systematic importance, according to Kriegel.

The second part of Kriegel’s fascinating and well-argued study concerns Brentano’s metaphysics, opening with a chapter on ‘Judgement’. As Kriegel re-iterates, Brentano’s account of judgement differs radically from more familiar theories in several respects. Firstly, no judgement is ever merely predicative, according to Brentano, but every judgement either affirms or denies something’s existence. Secondly, affirmative and negative judgements differ not in content but in attitude, and are therefore able to share the same content. Thirdly, the content of any judgement is always some putative individual object, rather than a proposition or state of affairs. In spite of its remarkable heterodoxy, however, Kriegel judges that Brentano’s account is astonishingly compelling and can be defended against several possible objections while facilitating a nominalistic ontology which is likely to appeal to current trends of metaphysical opinion. Kriegel ably and methodically proceeds to assess the prospects for Brentanian paraphrases for various forms of judgement, aiming in each case to show whether that judgement is reducible to an affirmation or denial of some particular object’s existence. In most cases, Kriegel maintains, adequate paraphrases are indeed available, although he expresses some doubt that such paraphrases accurately match the phenomenology involved in judgements of that kind. According to Kriegel, the best available Brentanian paraphrase of the negative compound judgement “­­­~ (p & q)” would be something along the lines of “there does not exist any sum of a correct belief in p and a correct belief in q”. While respecting the strictures of Brentano’s theory of judgement, Kriegel maintains, such a conceptually elaborate paraphrase – which involves second-order beliefs – is questionable as a description of the conscious experience involved in the judgement, “~ (p & q)”: a potential shortcoming in a theory alleged to rest upon no other foundation than the accurate description of immediately accessible conscious states.

Brentano’s metaontology – his account of what one does when one commits to the existence of something – provides the focus for Chapter Five. After summarising what he takes to be the three most prominent approaches in contemporary metaontology – those which he attributes to Meinong, Frege, and Williamson – Kriegel proceeds to distinguish Brentano’s position from each of these. Unlike any of the more familiar positions, Brentanto’s holds that nothing is predicated of anything – whether a subject or a first-order property – when something is said to exist. Rather, to say that something exists is to say that it is a fitting object of a certain kind of mental attitude – that of belief-in, or affirmative judgement. To say that x is a fitting object of belief-in, moreover, is to say that were a subject capable of deciding the matter on the basis of self-evidence then the attitude they would take to x would be one of belief-in. In view of serious problems attending Brentano’s analysis of belief-fittingness in terms of hypothetical self-evidence, however, Kriegel offers the revisionary proposal that belief-fittingness be understood as no less primitive than self-evidence. Belief-fittingness would be unanalysable in that case, although particular instances of belief-fittingness would be distinguishable by comparison against contrasting cases.

It is, for Kriegel, a liability of Brentano’s position that, by interpreting existence-statements as disguised normative claims, it fails to accommodate the phenomenology of such judgements, which do not seem at all, to those who make them, like statements about the mental attitude appropriate to one or another intentional object. Nonetheless, Kriegel maintains, Brentano’s position impressively circumvents a host of problems which have confronted the three most familiar metaontological approaches, and is entirely unburdened by any implicit commitment to objects which lack the property of existence without failing to qualify as beings of another exotic variety.

Brentano’s unorthodox theory of judgement and metaontology are largely motivated by a strong aversion to abstract entities, and it is to the nominalistic upshot of these Brentanian innovations that Kriegel turns his attention in chapter six. As Kriegel explains, however, Brentano’s ‘reism’ is quite unlike familiar ‘ostrich’ and ‘paraphrase’ forms of nominalism and is not vulnerable to the kinds of objection which have often been raised against such positions. As a form of ‘strict’ nominalism, it is not only abstracta which Brentano’s position rejects, but also universals, such that the Brentanian ontology condones no other entities than concrete particulars. The truth-maker for “Beyoncé is famous”, to take one of Kriegel’s own examples, is not a proposition or state of affairs, but the concrete particular “famous-Beyoncé”. “Famous-Beyoncé” is a curious entity, however, being co-located with a host of other complex concrete particulars, each of which makes true a certain statement about one and the same Beyoncé to which they are related as accidents of a substance.

Kriegel readily acknowledges, however, that a number of counter-intuitive commitments result from Brentano’s ‘coincidence model’. While recognising Beyoncé as a proper part of Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is unwilling to risk the admission of abstract entities into his ontology by permitting Famous-Beyoncé to consist of any other proper part than Beyoncé. Although he thereby avoids any commitment to an abstract ‘fame’ supplement, the addition of which to Beyoncé results in Famous-Beyoncé, Brentano is also driven to the odd result that Beyoncé is a proper part without need of supplementation by any further part – a conclusion firmly at odds with the principles of classical mereology. In spite of its shortcomings, however, Brentano’s reism is, according to Kriegel, at least as plausible as any of the nominalist positions currently available, and provides a novel response to the truth-maker challenge.

With Part Three, ‘Value’, Kriegel turns his attention to Brentano’s much-overlooked account of the good. Chapter Seven offers an inventory of the main forms of interest – that basic genre of conscious states, all of the species of which present their objects as either good or bad in some way. Much as Brentano’s metaphysics rests upon his analysis of judgement, so does his theory of value bear a similar relation to his account of interest in its various forms – such as emotion, volition, and pleasure/displeasure. Because Brentano did not complete the projected Book V of his Psychology, in which he had intended to focus on interest in general, several of Kriegel’s proposals in this chapter are offered as ‘Brentanian in spirit’ and Kriegel is forthcoming in appealing to various scattered primary texts in supporting an interpretation of Brentano which he admits may seem anachronistic in its terminology and dialectical agenda.

All the same, Kriegel persuasively shows that Brentano’s works provide the resources for a distinction between will and emotion which respects their common evaluative-attitudinal status. Kriegel develops Brentano’s somewhat sketchy distinction between interests in compatible and incompatible goods by distinguishing between presenting-as-prima-facie-good and presenting-as-ultima-facie-good. Before deciding between incompatible alternatives, both might be emotionally presented as similarly good or bad, but one cannot rationally have incompatible alternatives as an object of volition. Volition differs from emotion, therefore, by presenting its object as ultima facie good, to the exclusion of objects with which it is incompatible. Although he does not suppose that Brentano would draw the distinction in such a fashion, Kriegel also maintains that pleasure and displeasure may be distinguished from emotions in a Brentanian spirit by treating algedonic states as presenting-as-immediately-present some good or ill, whereas emotions do not distinguish, in the presentation of an object, between present and absent goods.

Proceeding in chapter eight to an account of Brentano’s metaethics, Kriegel argues that Brentano may qualify as the original fitting attitude theorist. To call something ‘good’, according to Brentano, is to say that it is fitting to adopt a pro-attitude towards that thing. As such, the good is to interest, for Brentano, as the true is to judgement. The analogue for self-evidence, with respect to interest, is what Kriegel terms ‘self-imposition’ – a feature of those positive or negative value-assessments which irresistibly command our agreement, and which is directly available to inner perception. Those interests are fitting, Brentano maintains, which are either self-imposing or which would be given in inner perception to any subject with a self-imposing attitude towards the intentional object in question.

While highlighting the originality of Brentano’s metaethics – which he claims to anticipate Moore’s celebrated open question argument in certain important respects – Kriegel views self-imposition as a liability for Brentano, inasmuch as it is tasked with both normative and psychological-descriptive functions. For Kriegel, Brentano’s metaethics is an unstable combination of naturalist and non-naturalist features. Nonetheless, Kriegel shows Brentano to argue compellingly against a number of rival accounts and to circumvent certain difficulties which confront such competitors. What is more, Kriegel helpfully locates Brentano’s metaethics within a wider systematic context, returning throughout to parallels between his fitting attitude accounts of judgement and interest. Brentano’s aesthetics, or theory of beauty, is also seen to occupy a location within the same system and to involve a ‘fitting delight’ account, according to which that is beautiful the contemplation of which is itself the fitting object of a pro-attitude. The beautiful is therefore a species of the good, as Kriegel understands Brentano, and is distinct from moral value insofar as it involves the adoption of a pro-attitude towards the contemplation of a presentation.

With the ninth and final chapter, Kriegel turns his focus to Brentano’s normative ethics. Brentano is shown to advocate a pluralistic consequentialism which recognises four intrinsic goods: consciousness, pleasure, knowledge, and fitting attitudes. Whatever is instrumentally valuable in promoting the realisation of these intrinsic goods is therefore of derivative value, according to Brentano, and the right course of action to pursue in any given situation is that from which the greatest good shall result. Although he admits pleasure as an unconditional good – irrespective of its source – Brentano avoids certain counter-intuitive implications of cruder consequentialist positions by acknowledging fitting attitudes as further intrinsic goods. As such, Brentano can admit painful feelings of guilt at one’s own wrongdoing as being of intrinsic value. Whereas, however, Kantians can deny that there is any value in a pleasure derived from wrongdoing, this option is not open to Brentano, for whom the issue of weighing the various goods against one another therefore becomes especially pressing.

Kriegel takes Brentano to face a challenge here, however, and expresses concern that Brentano’s ethics may be unhelpful as a guide to moral action. Having highlighted, in the previous chapter, certain difficulties confronting the notion of self-imposition, Kriegel notes that it is to this same concept that Brentano appeals in attempting to distinguish between which of any two goods is preferable to the other. The fitting preference in any such case is that which the subject would take were their attitude self-imposing, but Kriegel argues that for most such comparisons this moral equivalent of self-evidence will presuppose a measure of knowledge unavailable to any recognisably human agent. As Kriegel observes, it is of little use to advise someone to act as they would were they endowed with perfect impartiality and all of the facts relevant to the case in question.

There is much to recommend Kriegel’s ambitious and scholarly text, which certainly achieves its stated task of demonstrating Brentano’s relevance for contemporary debates across several fields of analytic philosophy. Kriegel impressively avoids the dual perils which confront the historian of philosophy, by locating Brentano’s original contributions within their historical context without, however, denying their relevance to today’s debates. Kriegel perhaps sails uncomfortably close, for some tastes, to an anachronistic reading of Brentano’s arguments and commitments, by phrasing these in terms of a conceptual vocabulary which owes much to late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century analytic philosophy. Kriegel is forthcoming, however, in admitting his departures from the letter of the relevant Brentanian texts in order to facilitate comparisons between Brentano’s positions and those of more contemporary analytic philosophers. Kriegel also admits to contributing ‘Brentanian’ theses of his own where necessary, in order to fill certain gaps in Brentano’s system or to accommodate objections which Brentano did not anticipate. As such, Kriegel’s account is explicitly revisionary in certain places, such as his recommendations concerning the nature of ‘fittingness’ and his proposals concerning a Brentanian aesthetics. At no point, however, does Kriegel depart significantly from Brentano’s stated position without having already clearly motivated the appeal of a broadly Brentanian contribution to some on-going philosophical debate.

If Kriegel’s Brentano is too much the analytic philosopher for some historians of the phenomenological movement then no doubt he is too much of a system-builder for others. As Kriegel recognises, Brentano’s works are not typically regarded as contributions to a systematic philosophical enterprise, and much of Kriegel’s effort is devoted to correcting this oversight. Here too, Kriegel admits to making ‘Brentanian’ contributions of his own in order to clarify possible links between different parts of Brentano’s system and to provide possible details for areas which Brentano himself left only in outline sketches. That Brentano’s various contributions to ontology, metametaphysics, metaethics, normative ethics and other fields merit interpretation as parts of an overarching system is left in no doubt, however, and this would be sufficient achievement for Kriegel’s impressive monograph, were it not also to highlight the originality and insight which Brentano brought to each of these fields. Most importantly, however, Kriegel admirably shows Brentano’s work to deserve the attention of researchers in several areas of philosophical research, and to reward careful study not only by historians of philosophy and scholars of phenomenology, but also contemporary analytic philosophers.