I came to this book because of the back cover’s promise that “for Derrida, salutation, greeting and welcoming is resistant to the economy of salvation”. Having written a book myself on the topic of greetings and salutations—a book that contested precisely this claim—I could not not be intrigued. There is no doubt that the salut, and especially the ‘salut sans salvation’ plays a central role in Jacques Derrida’s later writings. In fact, it would be really hard to doubt whether, for Derrida, this little word ‘salut’ could ever be sufficiently resistant to the economy of the salvation: many of his writings in effect question whether it is, for us late moderns, possible at all to distance ourselves from Christianity or any other matter that speaks of salvation.
Yet Saghafi promises (the promise being a salvific remainder in itself) to give us just this. In seven chapters and a prologue, all in one way or another devoted to mourning the death of the other, which arguably is the book’s main concern, Saghafi explores what happens when the other greets us and what happens when this no longer occurs—on the occasion of the other’s death for instance. The author is quite clear that a personal event had interrupted his writing: “a heartrending, ravaging event in ‘my’ world led me, forced me, in my grief” (xxiii, also 137, n.19) to think about these themes of mourning and departure—the latter theme inspired, though, by Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the other protagonists of the book. It is true that the death of the other is no small matter, not for Derrida, and not for any one of us. Derrida, in brief, claimed that the other’s death is not a ‘part’ of the world that disappears but that with the death of the other—every other—no less than an entire world crumbles.
The book argues that “Derrida’s taking up of the notion of ‘the end of the world’ […] dictates an engagement with the thought of salut, for if the death of the other—a parting—signifies the end of the world, this departure then necessitates, stressing the perfomative, a salut-ation” (xxvii). How to address the other once she has left and gone to ‘the other side’ and how, if so, does she greet us ‘from wherever she is’ (referring to Derrida’s final note saluting his audience at the gravesite ‘smiling at us from wherever he might be’)?
The first chapter comments on Derrida’s reading of Paul Celan’s verse ‘the world is gone, I must carry you’. One is reminded here of Ludwig Binswanger’s account of the death of the lover: when my lover dies, our relationship depends on me, and on the few friends that are similarly left behind. It is we who will have to carry (out) our relationship. Our love, the love between my lover and me, is upon the occasion of her death, in my hands entirely. Derrida’s comments on our mortal condition make us aware that it is only through our dealings with the other that there is world in the first place. We carry the world, in a sense, through and for the other. If the other is gone, the world no longer makes sense and one might rightly say: it is the end of the world—the world is gone indeed. Throughout the book teases out some of Derrida’s more familiar themes in his last seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, reception of which is only now beginning. Saghafi carefully reads into this seminar’s interpretation of ‘carrying the other’ a “remarkable description of an experience” (12). It is with this experience that Saghafi’s book will close.
Chapter two introduces to the debate between Derrida and Nancy. Where Derrida states that the reason for religion is to provide a safe space for the living, a promise that they’ll be safe and intact, Nancy’s notion of what is intact differs. It is for Nancy only the dead body, which for him attains a certain completion, a state of ‘being finished’, that is intact. Nothing can happen to or arrive for the dead. Derrida’s account of religion mentions that the sanctity, which provides and promises that the living will be safe and intact, assumes itself a position of perfect integrity: the holy is what will remain untouched—it is ‘at a distance’ and is what will save us without itself feeling the need to be saved. Yet to know about this safe haven over there, about this instance that is set apart from all the rest, some mediation is needed. This is what Derrida calls the “law of tact” (25). In a language echoing the tradition, one would need to say that the divine must first have ‘touched’ us whilst so instructing us not to touch the divine, that is, not to grasp, comprehend it in its immediacy. Saghafi adds: “what is tact but ‘knowing how to touch without touching’” (25, quoting Le toucher, 82). The tactful advance of what is saintly needs to be reciprocated similarly, on the part of us humans, with tact. One is reminded of the beginning of The Animal that therefore I am, where Derrida notes that reticence and restraint are at the origin of the religious attitude: Bellérophon is admonished not to expose and make public the nudity of a women imposing herself, which he had, of course, had already seen. Bellérophon needs to ‘unsee’ what he has seen and ‘untouch’ what had touched him. The latter movement Derrida calls the drive for immunity: to leave untouched what has touched us.
Both Derrida and Nancy here take Christic scenes from the gospels, particularly of Jesus’ supposed resurrection, as figurative of how we today could approach the question of death. Christ’s frequent insistence of touching the sick, for instance, illuminates the law of tact. Nancy has responded to Derrida’s stance in his Noli me tangere, insisting, for his part, on what remains (and needs to remain untouched) in these scenes. Well-known are the examples of the risen Christ ‘not to touch’ him—’for I will be with you for not much longer’. For Nancy, this departure of the Christ is a figure for the parting that we all experience, witness (and eventually undergo) in this span of eighty odd years granted to us. Christ so presents “the infinite continuation of death” (29 quoting Noli me tangere, 17) to us. For Nancy, what is untouched is what is intact and which will no longer touch. What remains with and for the living is the persistence of death and departure of everything which surrounds us. This is what Nancy’s secular notion of anastasis intends to convey: it is the attitude of the men and women who have seen death in life and are ‘still standing’. Derrida will however fiercely critique Nancy’s, well, stance, because this secular account of resurrection for Derrida cannot sufficiently distance this secular ‘salut sans salvation’ from its religious counterpart and will therefore continue to console and save. A deconstruction of Christianity as Nancy proposes is destined to repeat Christianity in its very gestures.
Chapter three focuses on Derrida’s deconstruction of death. Here Saghafi discusses Derrida’s Aporias where the latter questions the most common “figure” of death, namely as “the crossing of the line between existence and non-existence (45): one moment you’re here and the next moment you’re not. Noteworthy here is the parallel between death and the event: “both are unpredictable, radically other, lack a horizon, and come as an absolute surprise” (48). Death, for Derrida, is the great unknown: one cannot even say, with certainty, that through death one crosses a threshold between one place and the other or that one moves from one state to the other. Death, then, is not a threshold, not what crosses a threshold “but rather what affects the very experience of the threshold itself” (47, quoting Aporias, 34): death is no longer that instance that separates life from death, existence from non-existence but that skandalon that is ‘already here’ whilst ‘being over there’ and utterly other. Concretely this would mean that the living, somewhat like Nancy also argues, need to learn to live with death in the midst of their lives already. Like Heidegger, death for Derrida is not something that will happen later—’eventually’—but what happens ‘first and foremost’ to others; on the contrary, death is already here to the point of being the condition of a meaningful life. Life then is itself (a form of) dying constantly. It is, in short, a “living of death” (50, quoting H.C For Life, 89) while dying alive—a factum for a mortal being that is dying, ‘coming closer to death’ general opinion would say at every point in time. Saghafi states it nicely: “”the finitude of Dasein does not mean that it will die one day, but that is exists as dying” (85). Derrida’s difficult idea somewhat resembles the more popular opinion that it is only because of our mortality that life makes sense and that we undertake actions at all (an echo of which one, in turn, can found in John D. Caputo’s recent works).
Chapter four focuses on Nancy’s take on resurrection as ‘anastasis’. Nancy is quite clear that he seeks to retrieve the nonreligious meaning of resurrection, a sense utterly secular and mundane. In a text devoted to Maurice Blanchot—’Consolation, Desolation,’ part of Dis-enclosure—Nancy, Saghafi argues, responds to Derrida’s objection mentioned above. Nancy insists that no consolation is at issue here. At times one has the impression of a race between Derrida and Nancy to interpret death as the utmost foreign instance. For Nancy for instance the dead do not leave something behind as if something of them would remain in a certain place (64). One wonders whether Nancy is thinking of the place Derrida mentioned at his salutary note. On the contrary, Nancy argues, the dead do not depart to somewhere, we just “enter into the movement of leave-taking” (64, referring to Partir-le départ, 46): the dead one is the one who never stops leaving us (without a place to go to or to return from).
Here Nancy meets, in a way, Derrida again. For if the dead friend in a sense never stops leaving us (however painful), it is up to us to keep the dead alive. This is possible from out of a peculiar sensibility Nancy argues: “as soon as I name the dead one […] I grant her another life” (71). Another example might be the phone calls people make to the voicemails of deceased loved ones. This address and salutation is something we would need to think about when pursuing this sensibility. Yet it is not the end of religion, as Saghafi at the beginning of his book seems to imply, it might instead be its very beginning—no thought of salvation would perhaps ever occur without these salutes. In any case, this is where Nancy’s stance toward death arrives: “relations do not die” (71, referring to Adoration 92). There remains something of our relations to the dead as long as we speak about or address our dead ones. Again we find these difficult thinkers approaching a thought that has passed into cultural knowledge. A strange consequence of this kind of resurrection is, of course, that such a resurrection no longer befalls the good and the saintly only but the wicked ones just as well (and perhaps even more): after all, people still speak about (and thus relate to) Adolf Hitler too—an insight I owe to William Desmond, who mentioned this to me already a long time ago.
Saghafi concludes the chapter with mentioning that Nancy, somewhat oddly and unexpectedly, mentions “an unheard-of place” (72 in Adoration, 92) in which one could somehow encounter the (dead) other. It is clear then that both Nancy and Derrida are partaking in a thought of “the beyond of death” (74), however secular they are or wanted to be. With this, Saghafi suggestively and also somewhat provocatively, asks: “Would it be a strange hypothesis to suggest that Nancy’s [is] a reading of Derrida’s seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, 2?” (74). There is, to my knowledge, no direct reference to this seminar in Nancy’s most recent works.
Chapter five discusses Martin Hägglund’s recent interpretation of Derrida in his book Radical Atheism. It is safe to say that Saghafi is not a fan of Hägglund, who refuses to see any ethical or religious turn in Derrida’s thinking, whereas Saghafi’s account of Derrida’s deconstruction of death rather sees in Derrida a secular account of the ‘beyond’ of death, a ‘dying alive’ that, even though it might be a phantasm is no less real. The desire for survival can therefore not be, as Hägglund has it, a mere desire to live on, as long as possible, until our deaths. Saghafi does not spare harsh words when it comes to Hägglund: his work is supposed to be “shorn of subtlety, elegance and complexity” (79 and esp. 154, n.4).
There is a lot to say about Derrida’s atheism, but the best lines come from Derrida himself. Saghafi quotes from Penser ce qui vient (80), a talk given at the Sorbonne in 1994 just after the publication of Spectres of Marx. Here Derrida beautifully says that he is an atheist “who remembers God and who loves to remember God”. The quote is sufficient already to question Hägglund’s indeed rather straightforward account of a rudimentary—Dawkins-like—radical atheism in Derrida. Derrida knew very well what damage a thought of the absolute can do; yet he knew, similarly, that there is, as Nancy has it in Adoration, a genuine need for the absolute and that it, here and there, has done some good too.
Saghafi agrees with Hägglund that there is an “infinite finitude” to be detected in Derrida, but he differs from Hägglund’s interpretation about how the phantasm of infinity from out of finitude is to be conceived. With Geoffrey Bennington’s classic Derridabase, Saghafi states that différance has given us to think “the inextricable complication of the finite and the infinite” (83-4) just as it complicates, as we have seen, the boundaries between life and death. This complication, for Derrida, has an odd consequence: if our mortal condition is such that we exist and are alive as dying then death is the end of this possibility of dying. When dead, my possibility to die (alive, continuously) has come to an end. By dying, I stop dying alive. This also means that, as long as we are not dead, we are in effect “essentially survivors” (91, quoting Politics of Friendship, 8) like one says after a hard day of work that we have survived another day.
These subtleties aside, it is time to ask: from whence the phantasm of infinity in these mortal lives of ours? From what experience, say, a phenomenologist (which Derrida also was) might start? If we are here only ‘for a little while’, as Heidegger would have said, how does this while, this span between birth and death, this delay, this lapse and deferment of death—terms that are all linked to Derrida’s French sursis—dream up something of the infinite? For these questions, chapter 6 turns to Michael Naas’ magnificent Miracle and Machine (2012) and its elaborate discussion of survival and living on: “Derrida did not believe that we live on somewhere else or that we live again […] While we are not resurrected for another life […] ‘we’ do survive or live on for a time after death” (99, quoting Miracle and Machine, 270). What is this ‘for a time’ and in what sense goes it grant us a sort of delay from death? Saghafi here offers a reading of the second seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign: “Survivre does not refer to a state of life after demise […] but to a reprieve, an afterlife that is more than life or more life still” (100). General opinion would have: gone but not forgotten.
Derrida came to this idea, one might argue, through his idea of the originary trace and the traces we leave on, say, post-cards, in letters, home-movies and so on. There is something awkward about writing a few lines in a book, for instance, once one realizes that it is likely that these lines might survive my own very being and will be read by someone, likely a loved one, long after my demise. These traces of what I was, then, might even occur grief and pain on the other’s part (or joy if these few lines were funny). In that sense, these traces are ‘my’ survival and are already, in a sense, left there in this book, on this post-card, for the other. This ‘curvature of intersubjective’ space, to allude to Levinas, is present for Derrida in all friendly relations. One might even say that if I am not ready to mourn your loss, I am not really your friend either. This means that, from the very beginning, the possibility of loss is present in friendly and loving relations: the possibility that he or she parts and that one of us will have to mourn about this demise is always present. Yet the loss of the friend, as we have seen, is not the loss of the friendship altogether, except that he, she or me will have to carry the relationship forward. Friendship, Derrida says, “is promised to ‘testamentary revenance, the haunting return of […] more (no more) life’” (103, quoting Politics of Friendship, 3)—Derrida’s plus de vie means both no more life and more life. All this, of course, signifies that for Derrida “surviving begins before death and not merely after it. [Life] itself is originarily survival” (104). Since the infinite dying will always persist, we will always (at least for a while) be survivors of the other. In this way, Derrida takes the idea of a testamentary revenance to an ontological level.
Chapter six turns to Derrida’s treatment of the phantasm of living death, mostly through Derrida’s reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in, again, The Beast and the Sovereign 2. With the phantasm, Derrida (and Saghafi) are trying to understand “the phantasm of infinitization at the heart of finitude” (36, quoting Death Penalty 1, 259). Such a phantasm, in no way, can be separated from the real as the metaphysical tradition was wont to do. On the contrary, the phantasm (although dreamed up and imagined) is what exercises a power over us, what makes things happen (or not). It is this hold over us, of the idea of the infinite and of infinitization more general (which happens most often, these days, in the repetitive machine-like bad infinity of consumption culture) that Derrida sought to understand.
The phantasm of ‘living death’—the topic of the seventh chapter—is for Derrida most noteworthy in Robinson Crusoe’s constant fear of being buried alive by an earthquake or swallowed alive by wild beasts. Such a phantasm of ‘dying alive’ is, although imagined, no less than a lived experience. Derrida even argues that Robinson, because of his repeatedly imagined anxieties, has already lived through the experience of being buried alive. The phantasm is a performative: it provokes the event (Cf. 124). It is this experience (of the phantasm as phantasm) that Derrida tries to take seriously. Yet this, say, ontic and fictional phantasm in Defoe’s novel is a figure just as well for our ontological status as survivors who are, as long as we are living, dying.
This ‘shared sense’ of dying alive is, for Derrida, an affect and a sensibility: we sense that we are survivors now and will be survivors for a while later. It is with a finitude that reaches further than mere finitude that we are dealing here. A phenomenologist might compare this idea to the idea of breathing: with every breath I take, I am in effect closer to death. Yet every breath I take also entails that I am still alive and will live a bit more. In this sense, breathing too is an auto-immune pharmakon.
This leads us to a second somewhat odd consequence of Derrida’s thought of eternity, immortality or the afterlife. Robinson’s fear and phantasm are not the eternal life of the gods or of souls saved, but rather the fear of, come the moment, not being able to die. This ‘immortality’, if any, wavers between no longer able to live and not yet capable of death. This is also what separates Derrida’s idea of eternity from Nancy’s: where Nancy is influenced by a “Spinozist reading of eternity” (74) when arguing that eternal is what is independent of time, Derrida’s dealing with the phantasm shows a dying alive that still takes time. It is an eternity or a ‘beyond’ that arises from within time.
One might sense an idea of community in Derrida here: since I sense that something will survive (of) me, I sense the other as “the survivor of me” (126, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 131). Since, however, I am also the other of the other (as Derrida famously argued in his critique of Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics) I will necessarily also be a survivor of others. In every relation, then, there is survival and there will be survivors.
It is this “weave” (127) of life and death that the concluding pages of the book bring to bear. This weave is the ground without ground from which all ideas of infinity, all phantasms of infinitizations, spring: we believe that it will go on forever and act accordingly. And even though Derrida will not subscribe to any simple (bad) idea of infinity, such a groundless ground is nonetheless the base from which one can speak of “an excess of life that resists annihilation” (129, quoting Archive Fever, 60).
Does this thinking of survival offer anything to those who have lived through the experience of loss and death? Is there beyond the idea that I will survive my living body for a while anything that speaks ‘from beyond the grave’ as it were? The odd logic of community mentioned above, through which I live as if I will live eternally (or at least for an indefinite amount of time) also means that the logic of this (mortal) life surpasses the logic of thinking, rationality and consciousness. This, Derrida argues, entails that “this thinking of affect requires a certain ‘as if’, ‘as if something could still happen to the dead one’” (132, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 149). There seems to be developing a new sense of sensibility here which arises “if we allow ourselves to be affected [by a possibility of the impossible, [by] the impossible possibility that the dead one can be still affected or that we could still be affected by the dead one him- or herself” (ibid.). This, then, seems the final deconstruction that Derrida has left us with: “is being-affected excluded by death? Is there no affect without life?” (133). It seems that The Beast and the Sovereign permits us to doubt—and this is a lot. It means that although it might not be reasonable to believe in the afterlife, it is not altogether unreasonable to come up with the idea.
It is to Saghafi’s credit to makes us think about these issues. Yet one must also state that the book feels somewhat incomplete. At times, Saghafi gives us a cacophony of citations which leaves us guessing just a bit too much about the book’s overall argument. The two main themes of the book, namely mourning after ‘the end of the world’ and the question whether Derrida’s discourse can be dissociated from the discourse on religion are handled in a quite unbalanced way. In fact, after chapter two or so the latter theme disappears completely from the book’s focus (although there is a mention of it at p. 97). This bring us to two critiques.
Perhaps, first, the author realized that the two discourses, on salut and salvation, in Derrida cannot be dissociated? There is no way for Derrida that today, in contemporary culture, any discourse can be safely sheltered from the discourse of Christian religion (precisely because the idea of being saved and safely sheltered is the very idea of Christianity) and certainly not the discourse of greeting and address as being one of the very sources of religion for Derrida. This is at least what Derrida implies in Rogues where he speaks of two orders within the earthly Jerusalem: these orders, be they of the unconditional and conditional, of the salut with salvation as much as the salut sans salvation, are indeed ‘heterogeneous’ (which Saghafi notes) but also indissociable and inseparable (Rogues 114 and 172n. 12). The one time that Derrida actually mentions a “radically non-Christian deconstuction” (35, quoting Death Penalty 1, 245), one might also read: “can one think [such] a deconstruction?” “Nothing is less certain” (Death Penalty 1, 245).
Secondly, one cannot help to detect some romantic exaggeration in Derrida’s thinking of death as the end of the world, each time anew. Although it certainly is the case that every other death is absolutely other and a genuine loss for all the people around the deceased one, it also needs to be acknowledged that differences are to be noted between the deaths of a lover and a friend over and against the death of a long-lost friend, an acquaintance or, say, a former coworker. It rather seems the case that the sense and shape of the shared world with this particular other alleviates or strengthens rather our experience of his or her loss. One therefore also needs to ask whether Derrida is not, with the idea of every other death as a genuine ‘end of the world’ introducing some ‘sameness’ in the idea of death: is it true that all deaths, always and everywhere, would entail ‘the end of the world’ for us and for me?
In a recent review, Kate Hayles praises Catherine Malabou for admitting in Morphing Intelligence that she was “dead wrong” about some scholarly matter. While not begrudging Malabou her applause, most academics would have to admit the low cost of such an admission for a full professor invited to speak across the globe, and treated as a “celebrity,” as Malabou is. More praiseworthy is for younger academics, and those with unsubsidized careers in higher education’s hierarchy, to write that some prominent author is wrong. Those assertions can mean banishment from conferences, withdrawal of speaking invitations, and the like, since professional societies devoted (in the questionable sense) to major authors are understandably controlled almost always by an author’s fans, disciples, and sometimes family members. Speaking truth to yourself (a confession) and speaking truth to power is a distance similar to being winged in a Twitterstorm for your views and being “canceled.” None of this should be compared to the kind of courage, say, Alexey Navalny exhibits. That’s a different realm, but needs to be part of the context, lest academics damaged by schoolhouse politics slip into masochism.
The contributors to Interrogating Modernity demonstrate an inspiring irreverence and willingness to declare that the volume’s star, Hans Blumenberg, has gotten things wrong. That virtue makes for an admirable collection worthy of its subtitle. At this early stage—Blumenberg’s ashes were scattered only a quarter century ago—the scholarly work on Blumenberg has been uncritical, making Interrogating Modernity a refreshing novelty on the Blumenbergiana shelf.
Blumenberg’s followers have fashioned a mythic Blumenberg, portraying him as a mysterious intellectual Colossus, adopting Blumenberg’s own tendency later in his life toward self-aggrandizement. Thus, we have the film The Invisible Philosopher, for example. The followers’ strategy has upped the stakes for anyone who might question or criticize the great philosopher.
Willing to be heretical, the contributors to this volume refuse to be intimidated by The Wizard of Oz scenario fabricated by Blumenberg’s fans to promote knee-bending as opposed to scholarly spinefulness. The volume’s editors charged the authors with “putting [Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the book that arguably launched Blumenberg’s international reputation] into dialogue with later versions of modernity” (vii). The editors insisted on rethinking issues Blumenberg raises in Legitimacy, and the contributors frequently exceed expectations in responding to the call for rethinking.
The first essay out the gate encapsulates all that is good about this book. It’s not a head-on meeting with Blumenberg’s Legitimacy. It’s creative. It takes risks. It could have failed. Here’s a taste of Bielik-Robson’s experimentation: “Although it does not mention Job explicitly, Hans Blumenberg’s reading of Descartes suggests this affinity very strongly” (4). Bielik-Robson resurrects an old-fashioned scholarly recipe: rub any two things together and see what sparks fly.
Bielik-Robson recognizes Job as a figure of “self-assertion,” a topos in Blumenberg. Unable to tie Blumenberg directly to Job, Bielik-Robson uses a side door. Blumenberg’s research counterpart in the Hermeneutik und Poetik group, Hans Robert Jauss, views “Job as the first hero of self-assertion” in his essay “Job’s Questions and Their Distant Reply” (6). This clever move allows Bielik-Robson the opportunity to demonstrate an incompleteness in Blumenberg’s attention to Descartes. In Legitimacy, Blumenberg acknowledges the importance of Descartes: “Descartes appear[s] not so much as the founding figure of the epoch as rather the thinker who clarified the medieval concept of reality all the way to its absurd consequences and thus made it ripe for destruction.” Blumenberg wants to downplay “the founding figure,” the singular Descartes,” in order to promote “the thinker,” synonymous with anyone who employs the method Descartes used to bring about the old reality’s destruction.
The new reality Descartes advocates post-destruction appeals to Blumenberg, because it involves principles of construction to philosophize. That is, Descartes emphasizes the form and conditions of thinking rather than the contingent content. Like Descartes, Blumenberg wants “reoocupation” to function as a transcendental model untainted by historical events, a point fleshed out in the last chapter by Whistler. Historical changes are to be explained by Blumenberg’s ahistorical model.
Descartes studies his “own self” in a room of his own, where it occurs to him “that frequently there is less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by a single hand.” The primacy of the individual thinker is Job redux. Bielik-Robson describes Job’s situation in memorable prose. Job’s story becomes important when “the anthropological minimum [Job] asserted itself for the first time against … the theological maximum [God]” (15). In a schoolbook, this might be described as individuality versus omnipotence.
Job becomes a synonym for “enough is enough!” (16). For Bielik-Robson, Job’s story is the journey of a patient moving toward health. “According to [Jonathan] Lear, the patient reaches the point of relative health when she is able to exclaim: ‘Oh, this is crap!’—which very nicely corresponds with Blumenberg’s take on Descartes, who may be said to have reacted in a similar way, by simply deciding to cut himself off emotionally from the theological morass and call deus fallax a ‘metaphysical fable’—basically, a very crappy story” (16). Unfortunately, Blumenberg’s focus on the meta-analysis instead of the patient means the trauma of being fed up is not given its due as a revolutionary catalyst (18).
Elad Lapidot’s “Legitimacy of Nihilism” juxtaposes Hans Jonas and Blumenberg. Lapidot argues that Blumenberg rejects Jonas’s critique of modernity as “the return of Gnosticism” (45). For Blumenberg’s taste, that would leave modernity without as radical a break as he wants. Blumenberg needs a way past the logic that “legitimacy enters the world through negation, through illegitimacy” (48). Modernity establishes its own legitimacy apart from the previous historical epoch. According to Lapidot, the New itself “is a category of entitlement and legitimation.”
Opposing not only Jonas but also Martin Heidegger, Blumenberg seeks to jettison a notion of continuity attached to a substance. Lapidot writes, “This original constant substance is the basic assumption of all critiques against any historical age” (45). Blumenberg is uninterested in substantialism. He is after something more radical. “The new has no other foundation but itself, and so its specific form of legitimacy is self-legitimization” (47). This antifoundationalism is partly what attracted Richard Rorty to Blumenberg (Rorty was an early Anglophone reviewer of Blumenberg’s Legitimacy book).
Lapidot’s essay pairs well with Daniel Whistler’s “Modernizing Blumenberg.” Whistler begins boldly: “[Blumenberg] gets modernity wrong” (257). According to Whistler, Blumenberg supplements modernist figures’ arguments for modernity’s legitimation, fashioning a case that the modernist figures themselves did not make.
Like Lapidot, Whistler reports that the continuity between the middle ages and modernity Blumenberg emphasizes is functional, but not substantive. In a way, it’s the old form versus content argument. Rather than seeing the two as dependent on other, Blumenberg elevates form over content, since that’s the airplane ticket out of any historical ruptures at ground level. Forms fly above temporality’s constraints. From such a height, anyone might have anticipated Blumenberg to look down on things. Thus, Whistler writes, “[I]t is hard not to discern a slight tone of condescension in Blumenberg’s narrative of modernity” (259).
By siding with form and functionality, Blumenberg asserts that his account offers a novel stability. Whistler: “[W]henever the content of history changes, the forms stay the same. Forms may themselves be changing slowly, but their inertia is sufficient for them to remain a stable reference point by which to make sense of any novelty in history” (263). Blumenberg is not content with the messiness of mere history. “Like Kant, Blumenberg considers his transcendental apparatus to be immutable, to exist outside of the frame of historical change and epochal transformation” (264). Whistler concludes that this viewpoint makes Blumenberg a “right Aristotelian” (268). Given Blumenberg’s allegiances to far-right ideas linked to Latinate Catholicism, Whistler’s “right Aristotelian” designation rings true. Blumneberg is a “conservative” (267).
In the chapter contrasting Bruno Latour and Blumenberg, Willem Styfhals understands Blumenberg as an “apologist” (77) for the ecological mess we are in, and decides Latour offers better options for the predicted apocalypse. “The apocalypse is an unstable, unbearable position that might be conceptually appealing but not practically endurable. This is what Blumenberg made crystal clear in Lebenszeit und Weltzeit as well as in Legitimacy. The apocalypse is so attractive because it allows us to see the world in a radically different perspective, liberates us from the old world for a moment. But this moment does not give rise to a stable and durable position in the world” (77). Syfhals has missed Frederic Jameson’s insight, cited in Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, that calls for distinguishing among apocalypses: “[I]t is easier to imagine a total catastrophe which ends all life on earth than it is to imagine a real change to capitalist relations” (334).
Latour does not see capitalism as the problem; it’s religion: “If modernity were not so deeply religious, the call to adjust oneself to the Earth would be easily heard.” (71). Thus, Styfhals says, “[W]e should develop a political theology of the environmental apocalypse” (61).
While Blumenberg published at least one book specifically about technology, it’s difficult to categorize any other of his major writings as confronting environmental issues in the way Styfhals does with his focus on Latour and the Anthropocene. No one would think of Blumenberg as a stand-in for Rachel Carson.
The fourth chapter by Joseph Albernaz and Kirill Chepurin also addresses the theme of political theology. Styfhals’s use of apocalypse in the previous chapter has its place in the fourth chapter. For anyone acquainted with televangelism, the continual announcement of forthcoming apocalypses is a staple of populist Christianity. No matter that a specific date for the rapture is given and then passes. That failure is overlooked while a new date for the end is announced. The misreading of signs can be chalked up to human fallibility rather than an indication of a flaw in “God’s plan.” Albernaz and Chepurin recognize that what becomes important for Christianity is not that the world didn’t end as predicted, but that it continues: “But as Christianity found itself needing to explain the world’s continued existence, it was also establishing itself … as a [worldly] power. As a result, it needed to justify not the end of the world, but its prolongation” (86). The Christian Church sets itself up “as the institution of the not-yet that is the world – as the institution ‘stabilizing’ this not-yet” (86).
Within this context of an ever-delayed apocalypse, Christians fashioned a God with unlimited sovereignty and omnipotence. However, by the late medieval period God’s characteristics became incomprehensible, “alien to consciousness,” according to Albernaz and Chepurin (88). In response to this affront to consciousness, human beings develop their own rationality to give themselves security that is comprehensible (91-92).
The deleterious effects of Christianity’s global power as explored by Albernaz and Chepurin also concern Lissa McCullough. Her essay makes the case that if you thought Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt were harmful, then you need to take a second look at John Locke (124). “Locke founded a new religion focused around the sacrality of proprietas in The Second Treatise on Government, while retaining in The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) as much as was reasonably salvageable of the trappings of Christian faith to give the new religion a respectable pedigree, hitching it to . . . the authority of an apparent continuity with Jewish-Christian tradition (122). If you wonder why some people feel it legitimate to kill others for stealing, you can thank Locke for valorizing property over human lives. McCullough writes that Locke and his advocates managed to persuade numerous capitalists that the individual’s only incentive to consent to “join” society is to protect the property he has” (122).
McCullough sifts through Blumenberg to demonstrate Blumenberg’s allegiance to Locke’s valorization of property, despite Blumenberg’s efforts to make Locke seem insignificant to the massive scholarly buttresses Blumenberg uses to build his cases. Vital matters pivot on a reference to Locke in a footnote, for example. “[A]n extended footnote in Paradigms for a Metaphorology (1960) … proves a vein of gold when mined for its immense implications. This footnote expands on the notion of truth as a product of labour. In it, Blumenberg remarks that this sort of produced [constructed?] truth is truth that is legitimately one’s own. The possession to be taken” (110). McCullough’s hermeneutical attention shows Blumenberg’s participation in Locke’s scheme. Blumenberg contributes to overturning the Horatian view that what is natural is not something one can own: “Nor he, nor I, nor any man, is made/by Nature private owner of the soil” (111).
In addition to articles that confront Blumenberg’s arguments and politics, the collection features authors who affirm Blumenberg’s positions. Zeynep Talay Turner’s “Political Legitimacy and Founding Myths” corroborates Blumenberg’s criticism of Hannah Arendt in Blumenberg’s “Moses the Egyptian,” written around 1978. Turner writes, “As Freud took Moses the man from his people [Blumenberg says Freud “damaged” his people’s “self-confidence”], so Hannah Arendt took Adolf Eichmann from the State of Israel.” Blumenberg does not hide his “indignation” towards this “stealing” (129).
Turner captures the salient features of “Moses the Egyptian” and presents an effective précis of Blumenberg’s use of the term “prefiguration.” Even though Turner seems ultimately to agree with Blumenberg about Eichmann in Jerusalem, Turner notes in his conclusion that Blumenberg may have been venturing outside his area of expertise in taking up the question of “what a Jewish state should do with someone who had sought to destroy the Jews” (146).
According to Turner and Blumenberg, Israel needed Eichmann to take on a mythic role at his trial in order to solidify Israeli nationhood. It’s not clear whether anyone ever laid that task at Arendt’s feet during the trial, since she was writing in the moment, as events unfolded. Unlike Blumenberg, Arendt did not have the luxury of hindsight, nor was she alive in 1978 to respond to such criticism. Furthermore, Turner and Blumenberg do not provide details of how Arendt’s book on Eichmann undermined Israel, then or since. Conceptual damage is of a different order from “stealing” a nation’s legitimacy.
In Chapter 7, Robert Buch concentrates on a “neglected” (153) part of Legitimacy of the Modern Age, the section about theoretical curiosity. Why has it been neglected? Buch: “The reasons for the relative neglect of the third part undoubtedly have to do with its length and more specifically its detail and apparent digressiveness, but above all its sheer material abundance.”
The editors sought to bring Blumenberg into conversation with other thinkers, and Buch chooses Husserl as Blumenberg’s conversation partner. Buch’s aim is “to juxtapose Blumenberg’s account of the genesis of early modern science with Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences” (153).
Perceptions of science’s legitimacy have relevance, Buch writes, given “the modern suspicion of science, aggravated dramatically in our times of climate crisis” (164). Husserl questioned the cause of a universal science, a science that adhered to rational structures and objectivity (166). Husserl reacted against the easy division between objectivity and subjectivity. Husserl posits that modern science fails to consider consciousness as a component of its investigations.
In Buch’s account, Blumenberg owes many debts to Husserl’s view of science and technology. The differences are fewer than the commonalities. One important difference appears in Blumenberg’s narrative about the electric doorbell in an essay Buch leans on heavily, “Phenomenological Aspects on Life-World and Technization,” now available in English in The Blumenberg Reader. Blumenberg says the electric doorbell, the workings of which are hidden in comparison to a mechanical doorbell, “is ‘packaged’ in a way that it conceals this history and deprives it from us in its abstract uniformity…. [I]t is legitimized by being … put into operation” (Blumenberg Reader, 386). The “artificial product,” the doorbell, is “shrouded” with “obviousness”; technization produces this unquestioned obviousness (Reader, 387), a point Blumenberg claims shows the limits of Husserl’s commentary on the connection between life-world and technization. Blumenberg aims to show that his account is “more complicated.” To appreciate Blumenberg’s point, think of the unknowability about the functioning of crosswalk buttons in urban centers, many of which remain deliberately unfixed. Even a non-working button gives the illusion of control.
Charles Turner’s chapter on “infinite progress” in science concludes with an exploration of time and the life of the politician (175). In the middle of the two topics is C. Turner’s choice for Blumenberg’s partner in dialogue, Max Weber. The question Weber poses that C. Turner investigates is: [W]hat are the chances that someone whose life is necessarily limited to one arena of activity can achieve something of lasting significance?” (181). Weber directs that question at scholars and politicians.
In making Weber’s question contemporary, C. Turner reminds readers about the fast pace of contemporary life coupled with an increase in life expectancy. In the infinity of time, how are finite individuals to gather meaning for their lives? For scholars, the fear is that one’s work becomes obsolete within the scholar’s lifetime. For the politician, long-lasting glory can come with great success, but few politicians are remembered beyond their lifetimes. As Weber puts it, the scholarly life is chained to progress (thus fear of obsolescence), while the political life is more like art in that multiple spectacular achievements by different artists are possible, though those achievements must be of a stature to escape temporal constraints (184).
Weber’s long view echoes Blumenberg’s considerations of Lebenszeit and Weltzeit, the tension between the individual’s tiny lifetime amidst the ocean of time that is world history. Blumenberg suggests we leave the tension in place, lest the world itself suffer as it did with Adolf Hitler. According to Blumenberg, Hitler’s sin was an effort at melding Lebenszeit and Weltzeit. The evidence lies in a quotation from Hitler: “I … stand under the command of fate to achieve everything within a short human life … That for which others have an eternity, I have merely a few meagre years” (191).
In Chapter 9, Oriane Petteni escorts her readers into the world of art history and optics. This gives Petteni reason to ponder Blumenberg’s preference not to be photographed (202), as if Blumenberg’s own study of optics caused his wish to avoid the medium. Petteni is well aware Blumenberg’s avoidance of selfies is something more than shyness. Petteni sees it as connected to much larger matters, like truth. The visible and the hidden link up with Western beliefs about truth. Petteni writes, “[I]n the modern age, truth no longer reveals itself; instead, it must be revealed by decisive action” (195). That is, we must work for our truth.
The comments on truth correspond to Blumenberg’s views about biology. Petteni sees that Blumenberg derives his anthropology from biology. Petteni turns to The Genesis of the Copenican World for evidence. “The Earth requires both exposure to the Sun for complex lifeforms to arise and protection from direct exposure to sun rays, which would otherwise threaten to consume every living thing. The exposure to light requires—for the Earth as well as for human beings—a kind of filter or screen” (203). Others back up Petteni’s sense that Blumenberg foregrounds the importance of indirection and camouflage, such as the recent biography by Uwe Wolff, who notes multiple times Blumenberg’s penchant for indirect communication.
Petteni finishes her reflections on Blumenberg via a journey through Franz Kafka’s Der Bau. The unfinished Kafka text parallels, for Petteni, Blumenberg’s open-endedness regarding the human impulse to fashion “endless significance” (211). The story about a burrow also fits in with a quotation Petteni cites by Heinz Wisman, “[Blumenberg’s] thought is strongly marked by the worry not to remain at the surface of things” (202).
Chapter 10 might serve readers best read in conjunction with the first and the last chapters where Descartes has a prominent role. One difference about Adi Efal-Lautenschläger’s chapter is the linkage between Descartes and Blumenberg’s book The Legibility of the World. Blumenberg himself points out the parallels between his theme in Legibility and Descartes’s Traité du monde et de la lumière. What does Blumenberg find in Descartes’ book? “The self is to be experienced according to the measure of the world, as compatible or not with its changing conditions” (Legibility, 92). This lesson runs counter to interpretations of Descartes that rely on the celebrated cogito ergo sum and tend to make Descartes a happy solipsist. The lesson also seems a challenge to Whistler’s essay in which Blumenberg leaves behind the messy world for timeless forms and models, though keep in mind that Whistler’s interpretation launches from a different Blumenberg work, Legitimacy rather than Legibility.
Efal-Lautenschläger contributes a useful dichotomy based on the arguments of Legibility: “Blumenberg chooses to put his concept of reality on the side of world-imaging, instead of world-modelling. [R]eality is understood as belonging to the arena of representations or of world-imaging. World imaging – and, with it, reality itself – has an interpretative orientation: the reality that results from the image of the world is designated as an act of reading” (224-25).
Credit the editors with choosing to follow Efal-Lautenschläger’s essay with one that expands Efal-Lautenschläger’s points. Returning to Blumenberg’s Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Sonja Feger dives into another pairing, “reoccupation” (Umbesetzung) and “reality-concepts” (Wirklichkeitsbegriffe). Feger tells readers that Blumenberg uses reoccupation “to explain how epochal change can be grasped. On the other hand, and in other texts, he provides a historical analysis of what he calls “reality-concepts.” “In this chapter, I attempt to bring these two concepts into line with each other” (237).
Reoccupation is up first. Feger: “It is important to note that “reoccupation”, that is, the English term Wallace uses to translate the German word Umbesetzung, does not allude to anything antagonistic; it is not about any kind of (intellectual) conquest or usurpation. Rather, the term brings into focus the process-character of epochal change” (244). Emphasizing the “process-character” of change points to Whistler again, because “reoccupation” is about a perennial question-and-answer model Blumenberg wants to say is at work. Not that a “firm canon” of “great questions” exists. Fegel warns readers not to become fixated on answers or questions in their concrete content. Relying on a quotation from Blumenberg’s essay on secularization, Fegel asks readers to remember that “the historical identity and methodical identifiability of supposedly secularized notions is an illusion created by the identity of the function that altogether heterogeneous contents can assume in certain positions within man’s system of understanding the world and himself” (245).
How do we find out about reality? In some places, like Blumenberg’s famous essay on the possibility of the novel, his response seems to be “sometimes we won’t.” Feger pinpoints his wording: “[I]t is quite natural that the most deeply hidden implication of an era – namely, its concept of reality – should become explicit only when the awareness of that reality has already been broken.” (246). It’s a version of not being able to see the forest for the trees. “The subject as historically situated can only account for earlier concepts of reality, not current ones” (246).
Exiting that reality dilemma depends on reality-concepts. “Making a reality-concept explicit draws on the distinction between an object (i.e. a certain behaviour towards reality) and reflection on that object” (247). While it looks as if Blumenberg’s position is that our reflecting on an object called reality is accurate only for earlier periods, Feger says our access to what’s real about the moment we are in depends on Husserlian transcendental phenomenology. “[T]ranscendental consciousness both carries out and simultaneously reflects upon the process of (reality-) constitution” (248). Problem solved (if Blumenberg is correct).
Bajohr, Hannes, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll (Eds.). 2020. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader. Ithaca, NY. Cornell University Press.
Hayles, N. Katherine. 2019. “Review of Morphing Intelligence.” Posted May 17, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/n._katherine_hayles_reviews_morphing_intelligence.
Prisco, Jacopo. 2020. “Illusion of Control: Why the World is Full of Buttons that Don’t Work.” CNN.com. Accessed November 1, 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/placebo-buttons-design/index.html.
Wolff, Uwe. 2020. Der Schreibtisch des Philosophen: Erinnerungen an Hans Blumenberg. München: Claudius Verlag.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2011. Living in the End Times. London: Verso.
This book consists of two lectures given by Foucault in the last years of his life. The first, a recently discovered recording of a talk on Parrēsia at the University of Grenoble in 1982. A transcript of this lecture was originally published in 2012 in the journal Anabases. It was preceded by a study of the text by Henri-Paul Fruchaud et Jean-François Bert, not included in this volume. The second consists of transcripts of a seminar given in English by Foucault at Berkeley in 1983. These lectures have been published earlier, with the title Fearless Speech (2001). This volume is based on a new and more accurate transcription of the original audio recordings. According to the ‘Preface,’ Foucault’s preparatory French notes, today deposited in the BNF, have been consulted and were relevant, printed as notes (xii).
The original impulse for this publication was to make the Berkeley seminar available to the French public. The English version follows the text established for the 2016’s French translation. This book is part of a sustained effort to create an authoritative Foucauldian text, one that is as close as possible to the original voice and to delegitimize and marginalize the independent publications made over the years following his death.
We will later deal with some of the differences between this new edition and the precedent one. Still, we can point out to the quantity and quality of the Editor’s notes, which not only refer the reader to parallel sections in the lectures in the Collège de France but also to Foucault’s sources.
The book is introduced by Frédéric Gros, who also edited many of Foucault’s Collège de France’s lectures. Gros retraces the history of Foucault’s interest in the concept of parrēsia, first developed in the three last lecture series in the College de France. Parrēsia (in previous publications, the term was transliterated ‘parrhesia’ and in French parrhêsia) is a Greek term that means to ‘say everything,’ in an unfiltered and uncensored way. Parrēsia can also be translated, according to Gros, as ‘frank speech,’ ‘courage of speech’ or ‘freedom of speech.’ Foucault pays a lot of attention to the transformations of this concept from its Greek origins, through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and finally early Christian forms. Foucault claims that earlier references can be found in Euripides’ tragedy Ion, where parrēsia refers to the prerogative of a citizen to speak his mind publicly. Later, in Plato, the concept indicates the freedom that a wise king grants its counselors to express themselves. Finally, in philosophical circles in the Hellenistic and Roman period, parrēsia becomes a quality or virtue of a person that assumes the role of a ‘spiritual director.’ Gros shows that Foucault explores the concept of parrēsia in two directions: a re-evaluation of wisdom in antiquity and a redefinition of philosophy in the sense of critique. Gros claims that ‘for Foucault, from the clarity of the Greeks to the “Enlightenment” of the moderns, philosophy finds something like a metahistorical resolve through its critical function, one that refuses to dissociate questions of the government of self, the government of others, and speaking-truly…’ (xix).
As Gross points out, Foucault’s understanding of parrēsia evolved in this period. In Grenoble’s lecture, Foucault rejects the idea of a Cynic or Socratic parrēsia. Still, in Berkeley, he discusses for the first time Plato’s Laches and shows interest for the Cynics. Furthermore, in Berkeley, he adds an analysis of Euripides’s Orestes. Foucault will develop these ideas further in the 1983-1984’s lectures in the Collège de France.
Parrēsia (Grenoble conference)
According to Fruchard and Bert, Foucault was invited to lecture in Grenoble in May 1982, shortly after the last session of the Hermeneutique du Sujet lectures. His host was Henry Joly, a Greek philosophy specialist also interested in the study of language. Joly and Foucault knew each other from their previous postings at the University of Clermont Ferrand in the early 1960s. Joly was curious about Foucault’s ‘Greek turn,’ and Foucault was interested in Joly’s feedback.
Foucault asked not to publicize the venue to allow a more intimate gathering and discussion, but more than one hundred people attended. However, as Foucault needed to return the same night to Paris, no real discussion ensued except for some general exchanges between Foucault and Joly (Fruchard and Bert, 2012).
Foucault starts the Grenoble lecture with a programmatic statement connecting his current interests and his previous work. He formulates his project as an inquiry into the question, central in our occidental culture, of the ‘obligation to tell the truth,’ obligation to tell the truth about oneself. This probe into the forms of truth-telling about ourselves, Foucault explains, is what he researched in the domain of 19th century psychiatry, in the modern judicial and penal institutions, and finally in Christianity and the problem of the flesh (2). It is by looking at the history of the forms of telling the truth about ourselves in Christianity that Foucault discovers the existence, before the institutionalization of the sacrament of confession in the 12th century, of two different forms of truth-telling in Christianity. One, the obligation to manifest the truth about ourselves, which originated in the sacrament of penance (exomologesis). Penance consists of dramatic representation of oneself as a sinner. Penance, it was not primarily verbal but rather dramatized in external symbols, such as torn clothes, fast, and corporal expression. Foucault explored this practice in his 1981 lectures at the University of Louvain, now collected in Mal faire, dire vrai (2012). The other form of telling the truth about ourselves originates in the monastic practices (exagoreusis). It consists of the novice’s obligation to disclose to his spiritual advisor every thought, desire, and agitations of his mind. This ‘obligation to tell everything’ retains Foucault’s attention and will serve as a unifying thread for his research in pursuit of the roots of this extraordinary demand and its aftermath in the development of the Western concept of subjectivity. For Foucault, the origins of this confessional practice are correlated with changes in the function of parrēsia, and with the shift on the responsibility to tell the truth from the master to the pupil.
In the Grenoble conference, Foucault proposes to limit himself to the two first centuries of the Roman empire. However, before the Roman, he introduces the early Greek forms of parrēsia. Foucault mentions Polybius, Euripides, and Plato. In Euripides, parrēsia refers mostly to a political right of the citizen, whereas in Plato’s Gorgias seems to refer to a test and touchstone for the soul. In the Roman empire, ‘franc speech’ operates primarily in the context of the techniques of spiritual direction. Even in the political context, advice given to the sovereign does not apply to the conduct of the affairs of the State, but to the prince’s soul. Parrēsia is here restricted to a context of spiritual direction. Foucault explains that his approach would be that of a ‘pragmatics of discourse,’ but he does not elaborate on the meaning of this expression (15). The same claim appears in more detail in the Hermeneutics of the Subject and the Berkeley seminar, but also in those occurrences, Foucault prefers not to develop his position. Regarding the Roman period, Foucault refers to texts from Epictetus’ disciple Arrian, and Galen. Arrian’s problem is the effect of the words of Epictetus on his students and how to communicate them in writing in a non-rhetorical way. In Galen, the problem is how to identify a person who can help us in our self-examination. Instead of a list of technical capabilities, Galen suggests that a proper choice is a person who is capable of speaking the truth, who is not a flatterer, etc.
Summing up, Foucault emphasizes three features of parrēsia: (1) is the opposite of flattery, in a context of self-knowledge; (2) is a discourse attuned not to the rules of rhetoric but of Kairos (the right timing); (3) is a technique used in an asymmetrical interpersonal relation intended to foster the self-knowledge of the student. (20-21). The lecture concludes with a brief exchange with Joly and others regarding the exact meaning of parrēsia in Plato and Aristotle. Foucault and Joly also disagree whether the ‘obligation to tell it all’ has its roots in the judicial sphere.
Foucault’s reply to Joly incidentally reveals how this ancient notion comes to have such an essential place in his late thought:
Notwithstanding the etymology of parrēsia, telling all does not seem to me, really or fundamentally, entailed in the notion of parrēsia…I think it is a political notion that was transposed, if you like, from the government of others to the government of oneself, that it was never a judicial notion where the obligation to say exactly the truth is a technical problem, concerning confession, torture, and so on. But the word parrēsia and, I think, the conceptual field associated with it, has a moral profile (37; my emphasis).
The Berkeley Seminar:
Foucault taught this seminar at Berkeley during October and November of 1983. The ‘Note’ to the English edition explains some of the editorial considerations and also refers to the previous edition of these texts. The editors state the criteria used to select English translations of the classical texts quoted by Foucault. This is important because Foucault used some translations, which in the meantime, have been superseded by new ones. We are told that the criteria finally employed were to retain the translations chosen by Foucault whenever those have been identified, and otherwise to use the ones selected for the English translation of the Lectures in the Collège de France. There is also a discussion of how the Editor decided to render Foucault’s English.
In one of his concluding remarks to the last session of the Berkeley seminar, Foucault explains that:
The point of departure: my intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of the truth-teller or of truth-telling, or of the activity of truth-telling. I mean that it was not for me a question of analyzing the criteria, the internal or external criteria through which anyone, or through which the Greeks and the Romans, could recognize if a statement was true or not. It was a question for me of considering truth-telling as a specific activity, it was a question of considering truth-telling as a role. But even in the framework of this general question, there were several ways to consider the role of the truth-teller in a society. For instance, I could have compared truth-telling, the role and the status of truth-tellers in Greek society and in other Christian or non-Christian societies— for instance, the role of the prophet as a truth-teller, the role of the oracle as a truth-teller, or the role of the poet, of the expert, of the preacher, and so on. But in fact my intention was not a sociological description of those different roles for the truth-teller in different societies. What I wanted to analyze and to show you is how this truth-telling activity, how this truth-teller role has been problematized in the Greek philosophy (222-223).
Elsewhere in the text, Foucault describes his project as the study of the history of the obligation of telling-all, and its roots in Greco-Roman philosophy and the in the theoretical practices and techniques related to the ‘care of the self.’
Foucault opens the first seminar declaring that the subject of the seminar is parrēsia and proceeding to describe the meaning and grammatical forms of the word. Only after, he proposes some English translations. This initial examination leads to a preliminary finding: parrēsia does not refer to the content of what is said, but to the personal relationship between the speaker and his speech. For the Greeks, according to Foucault, such a personal relationship guarantees the truth of the content. Parrēsia also involves an element of danger. There is danger in exercising parrēsia. Parrēsia is the courage of speaking the truth when facing risk from the potential reaction of the interlocutor.
As in Grenoble’s conference, Foucault sets up to study the first two centuries of the Roman empire, and as in Grenoble, he provides some additional background, referring to Euripides, Plato, and Polybius. As in the conference, Euripides’ references to parrēsia are mostly framed as the problem of citizenship. Who is a citizen, why it is vital to be one, what is the relationship between citizenship and being able to speak one’s mind? But Euripides also knows the meaning of parrēsia in the context of unequal relationships between a servant and his master. Foucault summarizes his views: parrēsia is a verbal activity in which the speaker has a particular relationship to truth, to danger, to law, and to other people in the form of critique. This can take the form of self-criticism or of criticism of other persons. We see here how Foucault connects the dots between all the seemingly diverse areas he is exploring at that time: ‘criticism’ as in his reading of Kant, ‘care of the self’ and its eventual metamorphoses in Roman, Christian, Modernity and as forms of resistance. The evolution of parrēsia from its early Greek forms to the Christian form follows three main stages: a) parrēsia as opposed to rhetoric; b) parrēsia in relation to the political field; c) parrēsia as part of the art of life or ‘care of the self’. For Foucault, parrēsia is not the only form of truth-telling. Foucault refers to different roles of truth-tellers, such as prophetic, wise man, teacher, etc. These forms of truth-telling, which in some cases overlap, are also present in our societies. A section of Foucault’s manuscript, placed as a note by the editors, explains that the role of the parrhesiast (here the transliteration adopted for this form is different of the one chosen for the noun) shows in specifics figures like the moralists, or social and political critics (69). The rest of the seminar studies parrēsia in the relationship between man and the Gods.
The main difference with previous analyses are the repeated references to Sophocles’ Oedipus. Foucault evoked in several Collège lectures the figure of Oedipus. Foucault sees in Oedipus the emergence of a new paradigm of truth, as opposed to the old model of the seer. Comparing Euripides’s Ion with Sophocles’ Oedipus, Foucault claims that in Ion, the gods are silent, they cheat, etc. It is not the divine but the emotional reaction of the human characters that opens up the path to truth. However, truth itself requires inquiry, because the inquiry is the specific human way to get to the truth. Foucault sees in Euripides tragedy examples of two different forms of parrēsia: a discourse of blame, which is addressed against somebody that has much more power, and the second in which somebody tells the truth about himself. It is the combination of these two discourses that make possible the disclosure of the total truth at the end of the play (98).
The next session of the seminar refers again to Euripides, but now the context is political. Foucault introduces the term Athurostōmia, as the form of speech that is the opposite of parrēsia. Athurostōmia is to speak in an uncontrolled way. According to the editors, this opposition is idiosyncratic of Foucault and not shared by other scholars. He uses the opposition to illustrate the criticism of democracy, and the emergence of a different relationship to truth, one that is not solely based in courage and frankness, but in attributes that require a process of personal development (114). This section also contains an interesting discussion of the difference between Foucault’s approach –which he calls in this text ‘history of thought’ and ‘history of problematizations’– and the ‘history of ideas’ (115-116; cf. also 224-226).
Foucault turns then to Plato’s criticism of parrēsia. Foucault is trying to illustrate the turn from a relatively unrestricted right to free speech to a situation were ‘franc speech’ is more dependent on the personal qualities of both speaker and receiver. In Laches, Plato introduces a different form of the parrhesiastic game. In this form, bios (life) appear as the main element, besides the traditional elements of logos, truth, and courage (146). The second novelty that Foucault detects in this platonic account is the dyadic element, two individuals, only two, that confront each other. There is a harmony between logos and bios, which serves as ground, as the visible criterion of the parrhesiastic function, and as the goal of the parrhesiastic activity (147).
The following two sessions of the seminar look into the development of this new form of parrēsia, and with the relations individuals can have with themselves. Foucault claims that our moral subjectivity is rooted, at least partially in this relations. To that effect, Foucault looks into the forms of parrēsia that developed in the different philosophical schools of late Greek and Roman society. He differentiates between: a) community relationships in the framework of small groups, characteristic of the Epicureans; b) parrēsia as an activity or attitude in the context of community life, which is typical of the cynics; c) finally, parrēsia in the personal relationships between individuals, like in the stoa.
The first part of the November 21 session explores the first two. Foucault refers to the discussion of the Epicureans using Philodemus’ book in an account similar to that of the Grenoble conference. Foucault dedicates a large section of the November 21 session to a discussion of the cynic practice of parrēsia. Then, finally, on November 30 and the last session, Foucault addresses the interpersonal dimension of franc speech.
Foucault ends his presentation with remarks about the shift between a paradigm were franc speech meant to be able to say the truth to other people, to a different practice, which consists of telling the truth about oneself. This new model appears as askēsis or practical training. Foucault explains that asceticism came to mean a practice of renunciation of the self, and explains the difference between the Greek and the Christian take on this notion.
‘Discourse and Truth’ versus ‘Fearless Speech’:
The Berkeley conferences were published in 2001, and this version was used for a number of translations. As this new edition seems to relegate the former one to oblivion, it is worthwhile to look at some of the main differences between these two editions.
First of all, both editions are based on the same audio recordings (deposited in Berkeley and the IMEC, and also available on the Internet. The new edition benefited from the recent opening of Foucault’s archives, and of a better understanding of the preparatory work, bibliography and alternatives weighted by Foucault.
Beyond those differences, the main difference is that Fearless Speech has the aspect and organization of a summary rather than of transcription of Foucault’s lectures. Particularly in the first lecture, but also to some extent on the next ones, Foucault’s dialogue with the public is wholly elided in Fearless Speech. We miss not only the livelihood of the event but also the background to Foucault’s comments that are made in answer to questions and not part of a prepared text. Therefore, Fearless Speech appears as a more compact text, whereas Discourse on Truth is more rumbling and dialectic.
Engel, Pascal. Michel Foucault. 2011. “Verité, connaissance et éthique.” In: Artières, Phillipe, Jean François Bert, Frédéric Gros, Judith Revel (Eds.), Cahiers de l’Herne: Foucault, Paris, 318-325.
Foucault, Michael. 2012. Mal faire, dire vrai: function de l’aveau en justice, edition etablié par Fabianne Brion et Bernard E. Harcourt. University of Chicago Press and Presses Universitaires de Louvain.
Fruchaud, Henri-Paul et Jean-François Bert. 2012. Un inédit de Michel Foucault: ‘La Parrêsia’. Note de présentation, Anabases, 16: 149-156; (http://journals.openedition.org/anabases/3956; DOI: 10.4000/anabases.3956;
Consulted on September 11, 2019. Their account follows the statement of Patrick Engel, who was at that time teaching in Grenoble. Cf. Pascal Engel (2011), p. 324 note 6.
Radicalisation as Entmenschlichung
Notes on the credibility of a phenomenology of Scripture
Since the exegete exists historically and must hear the word of Scripture as spoken in his special historical situation, he will always understand the old word anew. Always anew it will tell him who he, man, is and who God is, and he will always have to express this word in a new conceptuality. Thus it is true also of Scripture that it only is what it is with its history and its future.
Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 296.
Adam Wells’ new book, The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis, is a provocative one. With Husserl, it takes up once more the dream of phenomenology as an absolute science, that is to say, a presuppositionless science that as such is able to ground all positive sciences. In doing so, Wells sees an analogy between the phenomenological gesture of reduction and Paul’s so-called kenosis hymn (Philippians 2:5-11). Exploring this analogy by operating a kenotic reduction, he sets up a phenomenology of Scripture in which the phenomenological method and Scripture mutually clarify one another (97-117). It is in this phenomenology of Scripture that contemporary Biblical criticism ought to be grounded, according to Wells, because it alone does not let itself be restricted by dogmatic presuppositions that arbitrarily impose limits on how and to what extent the experience of Scripture enters the field of inquiry. Only this phenomenology would be presuppositionless, thus forming an absolute science of Scripture, that is able to ground the scientificity of positive Biblical criticism. The thrust of the book is then made up of an intriguing critique of contemporary Biblical criticism, the problem with which, Wells suggests, “is not that it is overly scientific, but that it is not scientific enough” (150).
To those of us shaped by his most significant critics, Heidegger and Derrida, Husserl’s dream of an absolute science sounds more like the stuff of nightmares. Wells is all too aware of this and admits from the outset that there are very good reasons to be suspicious of the very idea of absolute science “as a modernist, metaphysical ideal” (1), pointing to the calamities of the twentieth century as an example. Yet, he says, entirely abandoning the dream of absolute science would amount to giving up “any ability to ground the sciences, to determine the boundaries of scientific inquiry, and to provide answers to meta-theoretical questions about the ethical status of the sciences. (…) For that, one needs absolute science; one needs a way to ground the sciences in the broader context of the life-world” (2). Returning us to the foundational need that was felt so urgently in the first decades of the last century—embodied philosophically by Husserl and theologically by Barth—, the “‘dream’ of absolute science is not a metaphysical ideal,” for Wells, “but a practical necessity” (2). Of course, this simply ignores the fact that said dream could very well be both a metaphysical ideal and a practical necessity at the same time: as it was for Kant, for whom the moral God is needed to make the scientific endeavour meaningful whilst remaining himself outside the scope of that endeavour, which secures the very nature of ethical reasoning as distinct from science and thus able to ask such questions about science. Kant’s insight is precisely that even though something may be practically necessary, that does not make it theoretically possible; it is a question of making this impossibility into an asset rather than an obstacle (as Derrida knew all too well). Nevertheless, Wells intends “to dream Husserl’s dream again, to reopen the question of absolute science, navigating between the practical necessity of such a science and the temptation to universalize it” (2).
Aware of how this sounds, however, he is quick to note that both absolute and science will “lose their mundane imperial connotations when transformed phenomenologically” (7). The first half of the book executes that phenomenological transformation by spelling out what Wells means by absolute science. Throughout its three chapters, Wells tracks the radicalisation of phenomenology and its reduction from Husserl’s early static phenomenology, through his later genetic phenomenology, and up to the constructive phenomenology developed by Eugen Fink and Anthony Steinbock. This exposition perhaps contains little that would be new to anyone familiar with the basics of phenomenological philosophy and its transcendental method, but it is remarkably clear and—unlike much Husserl scholarship and to Wells’ great credit—avoids any self-indulgent revelling in the immense technical complexity of Husserl’s philosophy: like all good phenomenology, this is a constructive work.
The phenomenologically transformed conception of absolute science Wells ends up with is then the following. Starting with science, he says that whilst “mundane sciences are concerned with that which is given in the world; phenomenology is concerned with how the given becomes given” (60). In other words, unlike the positive sciences, phenomenology is not a science of innerwordly objects; as an absolute science, it considers the constitutive source of these objects as unities of meaning and is operative within the new ontological field that Husserl calls transcendental subjectivity, which is opened up by the reduction: “Absolute science must, therefore, be a science of transcendental subjectivity” (20), for “as the source of all objectivity,” it is “the proper subject matter of absolute science” (21). So far, so Husserlian. For his understanding of the absolute, then, Wells turns to Fink, who defines the absolute as the synthetic unity of the whole of transcendental life, not merely the constitution of objects, but also the transcendental act of phenomenologising itself. That is to say, phenomenology is absolute because it maintains itself in a circular self-referentiality: the transcendental reflection on the constitution of objects itself leads to a transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method, which then in turn renews the transcendental reflection on constitution. “In the phenomenological reduction,” as Wells puts it, “transcendental subjectivity investigates its own constituting activity. Consequently, if phenomenology is going to be complete, if it is going to investigate all aspects of transcendental subjectivity, then it must investigate its own investigation, in the form of a transcendental theory of method. (…) The ultimate ‘object’ of phenomenology is the transcendental subject” (57-58).
As such, Wells believes to have seen off the modernist imperialist connotations of the notion of absolute science: “Consequently, phenomenology is not a universal science even if it is an absolute science. As a scientific practice on the part of transcendental subjectivity, phenomenology is within the process of genesis even as it evaluates the generation of givenness. (…) Phenomenology has no right to the phrase ‘once and for all’” (46). Indeed, precisely because, as caught up in its own circular self-referentiality, phenomenology exists in an infinite hermeneutic circle that it cannot escape to define the absolute ‘once and for all’: since it is itself absolute, “phenomenology cannot transcend the Absolute in order to offer a final objective account of the absolute” (71). This is an impressive and sound argument. However, at the same time, if “phenomenology guarantees its absoluteness only to the extent that it is self-referential” (51), the conception of the absolute offered is merely a formal one that lacks any material content. Wells, as it were, gives us no entry into the hermeneutic circle.
Yet, this is entirely the point, for it is here that absolute science becomes an absolute science of Scripture, that phenomenology becomes a phenomenology of Scripture, which follows from the radicalisation of phenomenology as such. For, Wells remarks, “while Fink’s ‘theory of method’ goes a long way toward radicalizing Husserl’s concept of absolute science, it remains incomplete inasmuch as Fink never connects the theory of method to any particular phenomenal element. Fink never performs absolute science” (150). In virtue of phenomenology or absolute science’s circular structure, the absolute cannot be defined in advance, but only takes shape within the practice (the performance) of phenomenology, within the phenomenological analysis of phenomena: “absolute science only becomes absolute in concrete application. That is to say, the method of absolute science cannot be specified in advance; it must be derived from concrete engagement with phenomena” (2). The material element chosen by Wells to make the formal notion of absolute science substantive is Scripture: “the phenomenological idea of absolute science,” he says, “gains real content inasmuch as theoretical phenomenological reflection exists in a ‘synthetic unity’ with scripture itself” (156). That is to say, following Fink, Scripture is a positive phenomenal element, transcendental reflection on which leads inevitably to transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method itself and thus fleshes out that method (makes it leibhaftig). As such, it is indeed the case that “Scripture and phenomenology elucidate one another within the circular hermeneutic of absolute science” (3). However, insofar as Wells seems to imply more generally that “if scripture requires phenomenological clarification,” it would be the case that “phenomenology requires scriptural clarification” (2), he seems to be taking this a bit too far: Scripture is but one possible material element amongst many capable of clarifying the formal method, even if phenomenological reduction and the kenosis hymn are analogous in structure.
Having made the bridge between phenomenology and Scripture—namely that, to be a properly absolute science, phenomenology must be performed or applied to particular phenomenal elements, in this case Scripture—, we can now consider how Wells performs phenomenology, how he develops his phenomenology of Scripture as an absolute science of Scripture in the second half of the book. He proceeds by reading the kenosis hymn phenomenologically in order to argue that it “operates as a type of phenomenological reduction—a kenotic reduction that is, in the end, far more radical than Husserl’s reduction” (97), which means, given the circular structure of phenomenology, that phenomenology is itself in the end kenotic. This kenotic reduction is a bold but perhaps flawed idea. Its original sin is perhaps that it is based on an extremely uncritical reprisal of Fink’s understanding of the reduction that links it to divine cognition, the formulation of which Wells repeatedly cites throughout the book: “already in German idealism,” Fink says, “there was the recognition that the traditional antithesis between ‘intellectus archetypus’ and ‘intellectus ectypus’, which constituted metaphysical difference between human and divine knowledge, in truth signified the antithesis between human and un-humanized (entmenscht) philosophical cognition,” which would mean that “phenomenologizing is not a human possibility at all, but signifies precisely the un-humanizing of man, the passing of human existence (…) into the transcendental subject. (…) Before phenomenologizing is actually realized in carrying out the reduction there is no human possibility of cognizing phenomenologically (…). Just as man is the transcendental subject closed off to its own living depths, so too all human possibilities are closed off to the inner transcendentality of the subject. Man cannot as man phenomenologize, that is, the human mode of being cannot perdure through the actualization of phenomenological cognition. Performing the reduction means for man to rise beyond (to transcend) himself, it means to rise beyond himself in all his human possibilities.” It is here, Wells says, that “the analogy between reduction and the kenosis hymn becomes clear. By bracketing the world, and all being in the world, the human ‘I’ of the natural attitude calls into question that which it fundamentally is. The human ‘I’ relinquishes its ties to the world, emptying itself of its own humanity” (104). Kenosis, for Wells, is thus not the divine emptying itself of its divinity and in doing so becoming human; but, somewhat bizarrely, the human being emptying itself of its own humanity (being-in-the-world) and in doing so achieving transcendental (un-worldly) consciousness, which is then identified with the divine: “what is ‘emptied’ is not Christ’s divinity, nor his status vis-à-vis God, but the status of the cosmos as the primary source of truth and value. The kenotic reduction opens up the possibility that worldly authority and value are not primary but derivative,” namely of transcendental, un-humanised, un-worldly, even divine (!) processes of constitution; indeed, “in the kenotic epochē, the cosmos is bracketed as the ground of truth and value, and the world is revealed as a new creation, which is renewed and sustained by God’s infinite love and power. Kenōsis, in this reduced sense, is not an ‘emptying out’ but an ‘overflowing’ of God’s love unto creation” (3). The kenotic reduction, then, is a “reduction from cosmos to ‘new creation’” (107). The rest of the book is then spent outlining the structure of this ‘new creation’ through a critique of Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness, which, by the standards of the kenotic reduction, Wells considers not yet fully reduced (131). By way of an eloquent discussion of Lacoste and Fink, he shows how “the kenotic reduction brackets the cosmos, and discloses a new creation, in which space-time is a horizon whose essential horizontality is [divine] represencing” (147).
However, Wells’ conceptualisation of both kenosis and reduction strikes me as problematic, precisely because of the uncritical way in which it assumes Fink’s conception of the reduction and the related primacy of transcendental subjectivity understood as a transcending of finite being-in-the-world. First of all, Husserl’s notion of transcendental subjectivity has received its fair share of criticism, even Wells himself calls it “problematic” (9). It is therefore odd that this further radicalisation of transcendental subjectivity as explicitly un-humanised is taken over by Wells without reflecting on it critically at all (even though, as I said, the quotation returns multiple times, giving him ample opportunity). What does it mean to say that in doing phenomenology we would somehow transcend our humanity as such? What could possibly be left of me, or of any consciousness, once I have transcended my humanity? What comes to mind here is Kierkegaard’s constant mocking of the thinker who—in his attempt to be sub specie aeterni, in forgetting to think everything he thinks along with the fact that he exists—simply ends up thinking something unreal, illusionary and irrelevant. Not even reduction can lift us out of our humanity, for even the reduction must first surely be initiated by finite human beings existing in the world: even the phenomenologist as phenomenologist is finite; Husserl is dead. “When one has abstracted from everything, is it not the case then that, etc.,” Kierkegaard sighs, “Yes, when one has abstracted from everything. Let us be human beings.” Perhaps Fink and Wells have a counter-argument that refutes this exasperation at such overzealous use of the reduction; however, if they do, it is never offered and the critique—which nevertheless seems somewhat obvious—is not pre-empted. In the absence of a persuasive reason for why I should un-humanise myself in order to do phenomenology, it seems more worthwhile to remember Kierkegaard’s warning that “one who exists is prohibited from wanting to forget that he exists.”
This Entmenschlichung can also be questioned theologically, this time not in terms of the reduction, but in terms of what functions here as its analogue, namely kenosis and its incarnational character. As we know, for Wells, “what is ultimately emptied in the kenotic epochē is not Christ’s divinity (…), but the status of the cosmos as the ultimate ground of truth and value; Christ’s kenotic act—whether one emphasizes the incarnation or the cross—turns worldly hierarchies upside down. The very idea that one who is equal to God (…) would choose to become human and become crucified is completely at odds with worldly notions of divine power and authority. From the worldly standpoint, it makes little sense to forgo divine power in favour of human existence and slavish death. One would never choose to die like a slave when given the option to be Caesar; to do so would be inhuman” (105, see also 114). This, in my view, gets it precisely the wrong way round: that it is a human being doing something inhuman is precisely the point. If it were simply God who chose to die as a slave, would we really be all that bothered? After all, for God, all things are possible. It is a human being, in which God has emptied himself of his divinity and taken on the full existential reality of the human being, who chooses to do something in-human—precisely that is what makes up the scandal of the Christian story and its power: worldly hierarchies are turned upside down from within the world itself by an event that transforms the structure of the world, opening it up from within unto the kingdom that is coming. That God’s power is completely at odds with ‘worldly notions of divine power and authority’ is likewise precisely the point of his power, namely that it is, as John Caputo puts it, “madness from the point of view of the ‘world’.” Indeed, Caputo’s weak theology, which thinks God’s power precisely as his weakness, forms a much needed nuance to the disconcertingly strong theology of power that seems to be underlying Wells’ phenomenology: the divine is not reached by way of the impossible, by transcending the human (what on earth would this even mean?); rather, it is a question of being able to entertain the im-possible humanity of the un-human, the im-possible possibility of the impossible (Derrida).
If uncritically relying on an un-humanised transcendental subjectivity is problematic, it surely is even more so when this transcendental subjectivity is identified with God. Yet, this seems to be the final move in Wells’ formulation of the kenotic reduction: “In reduction, the transcendental subject achieves that which is impossible for human subjectivity, namely, un-humanized or ‘divine’ philosophical cognition of the world (…). In reduction, man rises above the world as the pre-given ground of truth and value, and therefore exceeds worldly possibilities. The world, the cosmos, is revealed as the end product of the constituting acts of transcendental subjectivity; or to put it theologically, the cosmos is created” (107). This extraordinary claim, which amounts to a theologisation of the reduction in which transcendental cognition is identified with divine cognition and the transcendental field itself with divine creative activity, strikes me as unprepared by the argument and therefore unwarranted phenomenologically (in spite of the language Fink uses). In other words, a theological leap is performed here that must be resisted by phenomenology precisely as phenomenology until its legitimacy can be established phenomenologically. Without this, I see no reason again to follow Wells in his expansion of Husserlian notions of transcendence and subjectivity “by integrating the transcendental subject into the divine life” (117).
The problem becomes particularly acute, I feel, when this kenotic phenomenology is applied to Scripture in Wells’ absolute science of Scripture: for reading Scripture “in a kenotically reduced way,” would mean heeding the kenotic reduction’s instruction “to bracket the cosmos as the source of truth, validity, and meaning. No language or mode of reason derived from the cosmos should predetermine our reading of scripture” (108). We have now thus achieved Wells’ absolute science (or phenomenology) of Scripture, in the sense of an inquiry that “places no dogmatic restrictions on the experiences and contexts of scripture; every mode of scriptural givenness is, in principle, open for phenomenological investigation” (25). Though Wells stresses that this absolute science does not negate but instead underlies empirical Biblical criticism (23), it is worth noting that this does nevertheless appear to lay waste to immense parts of the tradition of said criticism: “So, for instance, Heidegger’s Dasein, restricted as it is to a worldly conception of finitude, cannot determine our phenomenological hermeneutic in the way that it determined Rudolf Bultmann’s strategy of ‘demythologisation.’ More importantly, in bracketing worldly modes of reason and language, huge swaths of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (…) are ruled out” (108). When reflected back, in virtue of its circular or absolute character, on the phenomenological method itself, we find that there too a conceptual purification (reduction) should be performed: Husserl’s idea of monadicity, for example, is simply declared “not relevant here,” for “divine life is the source of infinitely overflowing power and love, while ‘monadicity’ is a concept derived from worldly finitude” (117).
Yet, after so much reduction, after such a thorough cleaning out of our conceptual apparatus, what remains when the dust has settled? Not much of interest to anyone actually living their life, Kierkegaard might answer, which should worry us. Indeed, according to Wells, we would be left with the unadulterated “experience of scripture” (24). Yet, at no point does he provide a description of what this experience might be. Though again, as I discussed, this is of course entirely the point: he does not provide us with an a priori entry into the hermeneutic circle in which this experience takes shape, precisely because it only takes shape within or as that circle. However, one wonders if Wells has not closed that circle in on itself to the point of the experience having no worldly subject, and thus being inaccessible to us as human beings (hence, perhaps, Nancy and Derrida’s emphasis on the ellipsis, rather than the circle, that all writing and thinking completes). For in reducing, if we reduce too far, it is very possible to reduce away the very structures that make appearance possible (say, human finitude), thus causing appearance to disappear in its own impossibility. Here again, Wells’ account fails to address or at least to pre-empt a powerful objection that is easily raised by someone like Caputo: “the truth is gained not by approaching things without presuppositions—can you even imagine such a thing?—but by getting rid of inappropriate presuppositions (frame) and finding the appropriate ones, the very ones that give us access to the things in question. (…) ‘Absolute’ knowledge absolves itself of the very conditions under which knowledge is possible in the first place. Presupposing nothing results in knowing nothing.” Note that this critique is directed against absolute, rather than universal knowledge: it is not a question of the scope of the epistemic domain, but of the conditions under which the judgement is valid. As Kant might have said, absolute anything is simply nothing. Wells is often quick, like Husserl, to dismiss “dogmatic restrictions” placed on the field of inquiry by presuppositions; however, like Fink, he never considers whether it is perhaps these presuppositions that might be what opens up that field of inquiry (as opposed to reduction), what provides an entry into the circle absolute science completes (and which reduction closes off), for us as human beings in the first place: precisely because we are finite human beings living in the world, we are limited; “but that limit also gives us an angle of entry, an approach, a perspective, an interpretation. God doesn’t need an angle, but we do. Having an angle is the way truths open up for us mortals.” To pretend that we are anything but mortals, that we could somehow transcend our finitude and humanity, is to disregard the problems that confront us as such. If we continue radicalising phenomenology (be it with Husserl, Heidegger, Fink, Marion, or Henry), instead of practicing phenomenology, we risk losing sight of what show itself as such.
This is not merely, it should be said—and this is particularly evident in the work of Lacoste—, an atheist humanism speaking the language of phenomenology; but equally entails a theological imperative: indeed, “it is necessary to read Lacoste,” Emmanuel Falque argues, “probably above anyone else, in order to see and to understand the degree to which theology itself actually insists upon and does not contradict finitude as such (understood as the limiting horizon of our existence).” The seriousness of this problem should not be underestimated, for it essentially concerns the question of who the Bible is for, who it speaks to, who can access the experience of Scripture. A distinction, borrowed from Nancy, that Falque makes in relation to the Eucharist, might be helpful here as well: the Bible “is not only ‘believable’ (by giving faith), it is also ‘credible’ (with a universalisable rationality)—in which the present work maintains the pretention of addressing itself to all,” for the Christian message “is not simply one of conviction, but also one of ‘culture’, or of pure and simple humanity.” Instead of being absolute but not universal, perhaps the phenomenology of Scripture should be universal but not absolute: addressing itself to all (opening itself up as universally credible)—and thus doing so in the language of the human and worldly finitude we all share (whether the message is believed or not)—, without the violent insistence of being true for everyone (absolutely). Indeed, if no language derived from the world can be used to read or make meaningful the Christian message as it is found in Scripture (108), that message shrivels up in itself and dies, for there is no other language available. Essentially, the distinction between the transcendental or absolute (phenomenological) and the empirical or positive (historical) science of Scripture is simply not tenable: “the science of history goes to work on all historical documents,” as Rudolf Bultmann argues, “there cannot be any exceptions in the case of biblical texts if the latter are at all to be understood historically. Nor can one object that the biblical writings do not intend to be historical documents, but rather affirmations of faith and proclamation. For however certain this may be, if they are ever to be understood as such, they must first of all be interpreted historically, inasmuch as they speak in a strange language in concepts of a faraway time, of a world-picture that is alien to us. Put quite simply, they must be translated, and translation is the task of historical science.” Readings of Scripture are always predetermined by some presuppositions shared by a particular community, otherwise there simply could not be any reading (or experiencing). Falque summarises this nicely by saying that it is above all a question of culture: “It is incumbent on each of us to decide on this, and it is also a matter for all of humanity, at least in the doctrine and tradition of Western culture that we inherit. (…) My basic argument (…) is not put forward so as to convert or transform others. It comes down to an acceptance or recognition that Christianity has the cultural means, as well as the conceptual means, to touch the depths of our humanity.” In other words, it is a matter of securing for Christianity its credibility, the means by which it can continue to be meaningful to us and today, universally yet not absolutely, to all but not therefore believable in just whatever situation: “the issue at stake in philosophy, but also in the theology of today, is to envisage the meaning, including the cultural one,” of Christianity, for it forms “the condition for God himself to continue to address himself to man.”
Wells’ absolute though not universal science of Scripture, because it is a closed circular system (the absolute), cannot account for how God could still address himself (credibly) to man as man, how Scripture could speak across traditions, engage humanity as such in its community of being (universally): “This brand of radical phenomenology may well apply outside of the Christian context,” he says, “but only to the extent that there are concepts analogous to kenōsis operating in other traditions (as there surely are)” (157). What these analogous concepts would be, we are left to guess. Ironically, if this were indeed to be true—and hopefully it is—, it would detract from Wells’ argument: if different religious traditions all have analogous concepts, that means that those concepts themselves are not theological, but precisely concepts belonging to the world and originating in human finitude. Having rejected monadicity, different traditions (or phenomenological ‘homeworlds’) seem to function very much like Leibniz’s ‘monads without windows’ for Wells. Simultaneously, whilst Christianity, or at least its Scriptures, would lack the means to speak meaningfully to non-Christians (because the science of Scripture is not universally credible); it risks—and I say risks, because Wells is unclear about whether intra-Christian differentiation counts as different phenomenological homeworlds—suppressing all interpretative difference within the Christian tradition itself (because the science of Scripture is absolutely to-be-believed). However, precisely because, as Bultmann puts it, “historical knowledge is never a closed (…) knowledge,” to the degree that it maintains a reference to the knower’s ‘life-relation’—unlike Wells’ transcendental or absolute science which is circular and thus only self-referential—, it is better at avoiding the modernist pitfall: “For if the phenomena of history are not facts that can be neutrally observed, but rather open themselves in their meaning only to one who approaches them alive with questions, then they are always only understandable now in that they actually speak in the present situation. (…) It can definitively disclose itself only when history has come to an end.” I am therefore not sure whether Wells is justified in concluding that “kenotically radicalised phenomenology brooks none of the modernist hope for universal science” (157), for his absolute but not universal science still has the distinct flavour of a localised modernity: believable, within a particular tradition, and perhaps even to-be-believed (absolutely valid or grounded within a particular homeworld); even if it is not universally credible, outside of that tradition, in the human community of being where it has lost all meaning because it has transcended what that community has in common—human finitude.
There is no virtue in radicalisation when it amounts to Entmenschlichung—perhaps only within the dry vocabulary of transcendental philosophy could these words somehow appear innocent. Simply observing that securing an absolute ground for the sciences is a practical necessity does not make it theoretically possible, which is a lesson we should finally learn after having witnessed one attempt after the other fail over the course of what is now more than a century since Husserl first articulated this ambition (though, of course, it predates him). Instead, we need a discourse that “learns to appreciate the groundlessness of what is happening” (Caputo), making the best of it in a “practical conversion of the theoretically ‘impossible’” that has “the objective reality of the task (Aufgabe)” (Nancy), to be performed in the world itself as world. We must avoid that this ever-continuing radicalisation of phenomenology turns Husserl’s dream into a nightmare, whilst the coextensive desire for a scientific (be it a phenomenological or theological) grounding of Biblical criticism obfuscates the outrageous and life-transforming message of Scripture, or at least its worldly direction and medium: the result of a phenomenology of Scripture cannot be that the message found therein loses its credibility.
 Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’ in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, trans. by Schubert M. Ogden (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), 289-296 (296).
 Wells also formulates this critique theologically, though less prominently, by saying that “modern biblical criticism (…) lacks a theological grounding” (81). In that sense, Wells’ phenomenological account of an absolute science of Scripture is similar to Darren Sarisky’s recent theological account of a theological reading of the Bible (published just two months after Wells’ volume) in that they both reject naturalistic readings of Scripture in an attempt to ground Biblical criticism. For Sarisky’s account, see his Reading the Bible Theologically (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
 This is also the experience taking shape in those critics of Husserl that are dismissed by some as ‘nihilists’ because they would somehow have done away with very notion of an absolute. However, in reality, the exact opposite is true. Derrida, for example, expresses this well when he says that “there is a want for truth (il faut la vérité)” (see Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 58n32 (trans. modified)): there is a need or a want for truth, precisely because truth is lacking; deconstruction is indeed motivated by the absolute, namely by its presence as absence in its constant displacement, which forms the very movement of différance.
 Eugen Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation: The Idea of a Transcendental Theory of Method, trans. by Ronald Bruzina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 77.
 Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation, 120.
 It should be pointed out that the human being for Fink (and Husserl) is probably not the same as what Heidegger calls Dasein, but rather refers to worldly or empirical consciousness whilst transcendental consciousness is constitutive of the world. On this, see: James McGuirk, ‘Phenomenological Reduction in Heidegger and Fink: On the Problem of the Way Back from the Transcendental to the Mundane Sphere’ in Philosophy Today, 53.3 (September 2009), 248-264.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 97.
 Kierkegaard, Postscript, 256.
 In kenosis understood along incarnational lines, God does not simply empty himself of his divinity in order to come into the flesh (Verleiblichung); but, by coming into the flesh, he also takes on the whole existential reality of man, namely his finitude and facticity (Menschwerdung). On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘A Phenomenology of the Underground’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 45-75; Emmanuel Falque, The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018).
 John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 103.
 More generally, what one would not know from reading the book is that the theme of kenosis has gained remarkable currency within contemporary philosophy: not just in Caputo and Derrida, but also in Catherine Malabou, Gianni Vattimo, Jean-Luc Nancy and Emmanuel Falque. Though Wells has a chapter situating the kenosis hymn within contemporary Biblical criticism and theology, a philosophical consideration of the issue of kenosis is entirely absent. It seems wrong to me to identify the phenomenon of kenosis with Paul’s kenosis hymn. This is a missed opportunity and might lead one to wonder whether what this book provides is actually a kenotic phenomenology of Scripture, rather than a phenomenology of kenosis.
 For more on this, see: Jacques Derrida, ‘Ellipsis’ in Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 294-300; Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Elliptical Sense’, trans. by Jonathan Derbyshire in A Finite Thinking (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 92-111.
 John D. Caputo, Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age (London: Penguin, 2013), 182.
 Caputo, Truth, 13.
 On this, see also Frédéric Seyler’s ‘Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life’ in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 27.3 (2013), 277-286.
 Emmanuel Falque, ‘The Visitation of Facticity’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 195-219 (196). See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man, trans. by Mark Raftery-Skehan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 194: “Man takes hold of what is most proper to him when he chooses to encounter God. This argument can now be made more specific: we can now assert that man says who he is most precisely when he accepts an existence in the image of a God who has taken humiliation upon himself—when he accepts a kenotic existence.”
 Emmanuel Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist, trans. by George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 43 (trans. modified).
 Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 292.
 Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 10.
 Emmanuel Falque, ‘Spread Body and Exposed Body: Dialogue with Jean-Luc Nancy’, trans. by Nikolaas Deketelaere and Marie Chabbert in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 26.1/2 (February-April 2021) (forthcoming).
 Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 294-295.
 John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 66.
 Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Dies irae’ in La faculté de juger (Paris: Minuit, 1985), 9-54 (34).
 It is precisely this idea that forms the essential and lasting legacy of Bultmann’s work. David Congdon expresses it well in his ‘Is Bultmann a Heideggerian Theologian?’ in Scottish Journal of Theology, 70.1 (2017), 19-38 (38): “Translation is not the imperialistic removal of ideas from their native context; it is rather an act of intercultural communication. Translation is a dialogue between past and present that respects the cultural distinctiveness of both text and reader. It is actually the rejection of translation that is imperialistic, because that inevitably means denying the significance and value of some cultural context, whether ancient or modern.” Thus, even in asking valid and important questions like Wells does, “one must be careful not to criticise the act of translation as such, and thereby inadvertently undermine the capacity to facilitate genuine understanding across cultural barriers—thus undermining the possibility of theology itself.”