The forgetfulness towards Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State is telling about the fate of phenomenology. Over the past century its political concerns were mostly overlooked. The noticeable return to political phenomenology since the post-cold war period has had the peculiar character of neglecting most of the preceding political phenomenologies from the past. So, the publication of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics, edited by Eva Reyes-Gacitúa and Antonio Calcagno has the value of calling attention to one of the earliest texts on political phenomenology. While there a few occasional analysis of Stein’s contribution on the state to Husserl’s Jahrbuch für Philosophie und phänomenologische Forschung, the essay is far from being a canonical text in phenomenology, regardless of its unique object in the early period of the phenomenological movement.
The encompassing nature of the book edited by Calcagno and Reyes-Gacitúa reflects its genesis. It results from the 2016 symposium by the Edith Stein Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies held in Chile, a centre that convenes annually to contribute for the expansion of scholarship on Stein’s work. 4 years ago, they attempted to introduce most of the content of Stein’s exploration into the state. The book has two parts, the first offers 8 chapters in an exhaustive presentation of the contents of Stein’s book, the 5 following chapters explore the usefulness of the book to approach current topics that were less salient in the 1920s.
As the essay was written between 1919 and 1921, and published in 1925, one wonders why did it take so long for any attention to be devoted to it? The editor’s introduction offers three reasons, 1) Stein is mostly associated with phenomenology or with Christian philosophy, and the State is not seen as a particular concern, 2) research on Stein’s wider works has only recently started and this book is part of her earlier unexplored texts, 3) for its association with the German intellectual mood of the interwar years (viii-ix). Strangely, the first two points assume that her readership would be constituted of specialists on Stein, without the inclusion of intellectual historians or other readers of phenomenology. The third point directs us into a more interesting dimension. On the one hand, the editors claim that the entire inter-war period is tainted by the involvement of Germany in the two most violent processes of the preceding century. More importantly, the intellectual explorations that have similarities with what lead the extremist policies of the period, were pushed aside, and ignored. This may make some sense as a fault of Stein’s support for World War I, before she started to write the essay on the state, but she was not a supporter of the Nazi regime. Indeed, she died in a concentration camp. Thus, the similarities between her work and some of the rising totalitarian ideas should be explored to understand the multiplicity of voices, and the specific differences of the period. What remains most surprising is that the editors did not mention Martin Heidegger’s collaboration with the Nazi regime. Heidegger isn’t even mentioned in the book, and his political choices are likely to have served as a greater deterrent for the development of political phenomenology. The specific reasons for overlooking An investigation Concerning the State seem insufficient to explain such a long delay between publication and its recent critical reception.
The opening chapter of part I by Mariano Crespo offers an allusion to the earliest works of political phenomenology that precede Stein’s contribution. Crespo’s attempts to provide prior explorations in the two most clear phenomenological influences for Stein, Husserl, and Reinach serve to emphasize the relevance of Stein’s endeavor. It becomes obvious that Husserl’s late emphasis on intersubjectivity and Reinach’s take on law inform Stein but both fall short of arriving at the political as their object. At the same time, the influence of Reinach is well presented and his apriorism constitutes a driving force for Stein’s considerations, a topic that is recurrent across the edited book. Stein replaces Reinach’s term apriori law for pure law and uses it to distance her approach from the concrete forms positive law assumes, while also avoiding the pitfalls of natural law and the apriori contents it offers. As Crespo states “a priori theory of law is nothing more than a theory of the ‘formal norms of legality’” (10). What applies for this first presentation applies for the entirety of the Stein’s perspective and for the chapters that are contained in this book.
Rather than analysing the concrete appearance of the state, the book chapters follow the ways Stein approaches the conditions of possibility of the state: Law (“Certain Legal Presuppositions About the Idea of Law in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State”, by Marcelo Gidi SJ), Community (“People and State in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” by Marcela Aranda), Ethics (“Sovereignty and the Ethical Demands of the State, by Luis Mariano de la Maza). Aranda presents how Stein takes the People to be a special form of community, Gidi approaches the specific function of Law in Stein edifice, and de la Maza analyses the Ethical realm, particularly in its relation to Stein’s Aristotelian conception of autonomy, in opposition to modern conceptions of sovereignty.
Stein’s personal trajectory, and mostly her conversion to Catholicism, ended up by determining the audience for her writings as she seems to be more popular among catholic intellectuals than phenomenologists, some statements about her life assume a particularly important role. The text on the state was written before her 1922 conversion, and both the editors and de la Maza suggest that it is related with her affiliation with the German Democratic Party. De la Maza suggests there may be a “tension between the interests and personal involvement of Stein with the social and political reality of her time in Germany and the philosophical intent to address the subject of the state in the most objective and neutral way possible” (63-64). While it is difficult to argue that any thinker can develop a thought totally bracketing their own time, these assertions require explanation beyond mere biographical assertions. So, rather than suggesting that her adherence to the German Democratic Party was an influence on her thought on the state, they should have elaborated on how is such an influence felt, mostly when Stein leaves the state open to any ideological actualization. Or, perhaps more productively, they should have explored how Stein’s emphasis on the appearance of the state as either a community or a law creating entity, are the result of the increased bureaucratization of early 20th century state or of an increased perception of a rupture between community and authority. The diverse conceptions of the latter point drove much of the political instability of the interwar period, with competing understandings, from nationalism to Marxism, taking it as a point of dispute.
Likewise, Eva Reyes-Gacitúa’s “Woman and the State in Edith Stein’s thought” offers an important consideration on Stein’s thought on the necessity for an increased role of women in politics, accentuating particularly the contribution women may bring to a reform pedagogical culture. The relevance of women and any other fringe group remains highly relevant to this day, and the way their contribution can be valued and promoted should remain a central concern for conceptualizations of the state and politics. But her positions should also be viewed in relation to the period’s increased involvement of women, and catholic women in particular, in the public sphere to promote specific topics usually associated with education and family. Stein likely outpaces many of these proposals for the centrality of the civic dimension in her thought on women, but it is still remains part of this greater awareness of women’s activity. Reyes-Gacitúa’s chapter occupies a strange place in he edited book, as the Stein’s concern about women is posterior to the essay on the state, and she fails to make a relevant connection between Stein’s two explorations.
To this day, Stein’s continued influence comes less from her collaboration in phenomenological circles than from her spiritual quest that led to her conversion to Catholicism. Even though the book was written just prior to her conversion, it certainly represented a step in the journey that led to it, even if just as an exploration of the fields in which a mystical experience was supposed to remain absent. The significance of this element is felt throughout the recently published edited book and particularly explored in Juan Francisco Pinilla’s “Religion, Mysticism, and the State”. This chapter advances a challenging quest: to explore the mystical dimension of the state, particularly through the connections between the early book by Stein on the state and her later mystical writings, this despite of Stein’s refusal of a spiritual dimension in the life of the state. Pinilla’s parallelism between the two periods of Stein thought brings them together through a politico-theological perspective that clearly deserves further exploration in an analysis of Stein’s early forcible rejection of a religious enmeshment into the state.
Calcagno’s “The Challenges Posed by the Community of Law-Givers and Law-Followers in Edith Stein’s Idea of the State” that appears at the end of Part I is the most challenging and interesting chapter of the entire book. The chapter brings together much of the content of the preceding chapters, while also attempting to challenge and overcome Stein’s proposals. Calcagno’s analysis starts by approaching community, and the related concepts masses and society, in Stein’s works. This section is followed by an analysis of Stein’s approach to the state, and the chapter is concluded by a proposed alternative. By focusing on the centrality of sociality in Stein’s approach to the state, Calcagno attempts to avoid an excessive emphasis on philosophy of law to prioritize the sociological dimension of her proposal. Calcagno’s aim is to claim that “the intimacy and intensity that typify Steinian community pose a challenge for her understanding of the state”. Overall, his claim is that the value of Stein’s analysis lies outside of political theory, and that her conceptual apparatus is inadequate for an understanding of the state. It is surprising that the most interesting chapter in the book is an opposition to the relevance of this Stein’s book.
Calcagno’s discussion of sociality in Edith Stein pays attention to her relation to contemporary sociology and the emphasis on the mass or crowd, society, and community. Soon after completing her An Investigation Concerning the State she published her essay on the Individual and Community. Calcagno, just like Steiner, passes quickly through the notion of the masses as it seems of little relevance to the state for her, a position that Arendt would later regret to be false in the rise of totalitarian regimes. Calcagno also adds a dismissive note to the conceptual apparatus supporting an analysis of the masses by defining it as «marked either by imitation or what Stein and others call psychic contagion”. In the end, the analysis of the support of the state gets reduced to the two opposing social bonds that were central for Tönnies, society and community. Fundamentally, the distinction ends up by being supported by the individual’s relation to the form of sociality. In a community the individual assumes an objective character and it is guided by the attempt to achieve a certain goal, it is “an overextending desire for complete unification that cannot be practically achieved within material and historical circumstances” (88). Stein is explicit that it is community that is best suited as a foundation for law and the state. This very definition of community already pushes it to the constitution of the state. But is this a fair assessment of the value of her analysis of the relation between community and the state? It partly is, and Calcagno’s knowledge of Stein’s work is hardly reproachable, but there is an interpretative overstretch that deserves further exploration.
Calcagno’s interpretation of Steinian community is not exclusively based on her book on the State, but he gets most of his support from the 1922 text on the “Individual and Community”. While this is a common practice, it should be noted that Stein presents the community that feeds the state as a special type of community, unlike for example the family, and it should be noted that this difference makes the state community less intense than the smaller forms of community. Furthermore, the later text is closer to Stein’s conversion to Catholicism, and the limitations of earthly community are more explicit for her, but in her case that points towards a mystical experience that includes a relation to a dimension that supersedes sociality. Stein does assumes that there is a spiritual dimension to the state, but as Calcagno recognizes, it is because the state “appertains to the realm of freedom and motivation” (91). It can hardly be claimed that in the 1921 text she would accept that this could be brought back into a religious experience. So, the overlap of these two works to dismiss the political relevance of the earlier text require much more sustenance than what was done by Calcagno.
At the end of the chapter Calcagno uses the earlier analysis to support a liberal society as a more viable source for the state than community. Calcagno’s criticisms of Stein are generally informative, but his inclination towards society as a better support for the state is based on dubious assessments of Stein’s perspective. First, Calcagno seems to read Stein’s analysis of the state as a set of positive normative proposals. While there is no doubt there are several normative considerations guiding her inquiry, the inadequacy of this view is revealed by Calcagno’s puzzlement at the lack of explorations of specific political ideologies (84). Hers is not intended to be an ideology of the state, but a phenomenology of the state independently of the ideology that is to be deployed. Second, Calcagno is correct to claim that “her philosophical view of the underlying sociality required for statehood runs certain risks” (92), that is, the risk of totalitarianism that incidentally followed the writing of Stein’s book. But by reducing the hazards to an authoritarian personality becoming the leader of the community, Calcagno misses the point that the difference between society and community as support of a state that becomes totalitarian is the difference between a bureaucratic and a nationalist totalitarian state. Third, when Calcagno views society as a better means to achieve unity, he misses the point that this claim can only be done through profound reconceptualization, as he attributes a function to society that it necessarily is not able to sustain. While Stein clearly fetishizes the unity associated with community at a political level, Calcagno’s depoliticized fragments hardly seem to be ready for the task he proposes.
The emphasis Calcagno places on the role of sociality as the basis of the state is the best analysis of the implications of Stein’s work offered in the entire book. All the other elements, including her philosophy of law, remain void without a critical assessment of this point. For Stein, the question is how all the components of the state are experienced, and Calcagno offers a rich introduction to Stein’s ground-breaking dislocation of the support for the state to a careful analysis of sociality.
Part II of the book presents several explorations on the current usefulness of Stein’s approach to the state. These chapters analyse several of the dimensions that current researchers should be able to bring out of analysis of historical texts, how can we bring it to our day?
In “Bioethics and Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” Alberto Rojas Osorio explores how Stein’s understanding of the role of the individual contributes for an assessment on how to deal with bioethical issues raised in contemporary society. The overview of the history of bioethics and the relation of humans to non-humans is brought out as being relevant beyond the field of medical research and it is enlightening and of significant relevance for many contemporary debates on posthumanism, object-oriented ontology, etc. Focusing on Stein’s presentation of sociality as relating to a common world of values, the author offers a reading on how Stein’s approach can be relocated to a bioethical concern. Clemens Franken’s “The Issue of the State’s Power and its Abuse in the Literature of Gertrud von le Fort in Light of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” presents a parallelism between Stein and the literary productions of her contemporary von le Fort. This chapter’s interest arises mostly due to the way Franken is able to approach the two authors despite of their different ideological positions and literary genres. They obviously also had much in common, and despite von le Fort’s focus on literary production, she was also very interested in philosophy. And perhaps more importantly, both converted to Catholicism. It is this latter point that makes the most akin, as Franken shows that both authors supported a view of the individual’s appurtenance to community as breeding an acceptance of obedience, an aspect that became relevant in the contemporary development of personalism. Franken’s chapter is not only important for the relation between the two thinkers, as it also offers an insightful intellectual history of their period. The Last chapter of the book is written by a Chilean politician reflecting on the relevance of Stein’s book for an assessment of current political reform in Chile. Soledad Alvear’s “The Current Process of the Constituent Assembly and the Relevance of Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State” embraces Stein’s encompassing theory of the state as allowing for a continued concern with the community to which it is directed.
Unlike the other chapters of Part II, Fredy Parra’s “The Justification of the Modern State in Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: A Political Theological View” and María Esther Gómez de Pedro’s “Forms of the State: An Approach to the Work of Edith Stein Based on its Aristotelian Influences” approach topics that are not alien to Stein. Parra approaches the state from a perspective that hadn’t yet been developed at Stein’s time, political theology, and he brings to discussion authors that were all born in the decade that succeeded the production of Stein’s book. Parra’s chapter introduces Stein’s analysis of the state, emphasizing how the final form of her study remains unable to hinder the seizure of the state by undesirable values. Parra brings Ratzinger and Metz to explore the current predicaments of the state, as they result from his assessment of Stein. De Pedro focusses on the centrality of the bearers of the state in Stein’s understanding of the relation between community and the state. She also extends Stein’s analysis by further presenting how a greater focus on Aristotelian virtues could add to Stein’s view, claiming a political continuum between Aristotle, Aquinas and Stein.
Edited books are always a strange endeavor, and anyone who ventures into this field should always be lauded, but the current one presents a further challenge, it didn’t start as a book. In the beginning it was a conference. Perhaps more in the present day than ever before, the bringing together of researchers into a common physical space to present, explore, and criticize on common topics is of greater relevance in the production of renewed reassessments of the legacy that the world and intellectual tradition have legated us than most publications that arrive to us. So, the present book serves as a testimony to events that are becoming scarce and that threaten to consolidate the digitalization that was already impending. At the same time, the conference was performed by a group that was mostly starting to enter into Edith Stein’s book, and this led to presentations that privileged breadth of content rather than critical analysis. So, while the book covers most topics advanced by Stein, they bring limited novelty to what Stein wrote to start with. Furthermore, most contributions had to be translated from Spanish into English to be included in the book, but that left some problematic choices. For example, it is a poor choice to retain references to the Spanish translation of a German text in an English language text, as most readers won’t find these references helpful.
Edith Stein’s An Investigation Concerning the State: Sociality, Nationhood, Ethics serves as remembrance of the relevance of books that remained undervalued. Stein brought fresh light into the problematic of the state by directly focusing on aspects that remain pertinent and unresolved to this day.
Felix Duque is arguably the most important living philosopher in the Spanish-speaking world. Remnants of Hegel is the first book translated into English. It is not a mere interpretation of Hegel, but rather a critical study that attempts to drive the aspects of its subject matter toward their ultimate consequences using Hegelian criteria. In other words, if Hegel’s philosophy is a critique of Kant’s critical philosophy, then Duque’s exposition is a critique of Hegelian philosophy. Furthermore, and just as Hegel develops Kantian categories in order to reveal a truth that goes beyond Kant, Duque develops Hegelian concepts in order to deduce a truth that transcends them. Indeed, Duque says that “The Hegelian system, impressive as it is, ultimately reveals itself as a miscarried attempt to reconcile nature and theory, individuality and collective praxis” (Duque, x).
Moreover, I should begin my review by noting that the book is clearly written for readers who are well acquainted with Hegel’s philosophy. In this respect, my review will attempt to overcome this difficulty by limiting itself to a reading that makes it accessible to those who are not conversant with this philosophy.
The book itself contains five chapters:
Chapter I: Substrate and Subject (Hegel in the aftermath of Aristotle). This chapter is concerned with the famous expression made in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit: “According to my view of things, which can be justified through the exposition of the system itself, everything depends on apprehending and expressing the true not as [nicht als] substance, but just as much [eben so sehr] as subject” (Duque, 17).
Chapter II: Hegel on the Death of Christ, is a discussion that seeks to analyze the transition from nature to society, or, rather, the transition from a natural human being to a historical being, and to a being having a second nature, which is the political life of man, a transition which is made possible by the understanding of society and politics as a higher level of self-consciousness.
Chapter III: Death Is a Gulp of Water. This chapter is concerned with terror in World History. More specifically, it is a critical exposition of Hegel’s idea of revolution and terror which primarily refers to the French Revolution. The politics of terror, the chapter argues, is the necessary result of trying to implement the revolution without mediations, that is, directly and as an abstract revolution (Duque, 83). Here Duque does not limit himself to an analysis of Hegel and his time, but also deals with its historical reception by the likes of Communism and Stalinism in the twentieth century. Such an idea of terror does much to radically undervalue the value of life and also makes us remember Hanna Arendt’s Banality of Evil. Indeed, terror is, paradoxically, a result of the French Revolution in its historical imagining of Napoleon, namely, the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity as mediated by his political force appearing as the opposite of those values’ true essence.
Chapter IV: Person, Freedom, and Community is an analysis of the last chapter of Hegel’s Science of Logic which is concerned with the notion of the absolute idea. It is an essential problem to understanding the book as a whole since Hegel begins and ends the book by praising this notion rather than explaining or developing it.
Chapter V: The Errancy of Reason. This chapter summarizes the previous chapters and engages in a holistic critical analysis of the topics discussed.
I would now wish to develop some ideas on Hegel inspired by reading Duque’s work and by my own understanding of Hegel’s philosophy.
Hegel’s logic is not normative. Unlike formal logic, which determines how we should think and not how we actually think, Hegel‘s Science of Logic, proceeds in the opposite direction by studying thought as it is as well as its development from the most abstract stage (the thought of pure being without further determinations) to the most concrete, this being the absolute idea as the unit of theoretical and practical thinking. Duque’s interpretation adopts this principle, and unlike the interpretations offered by Alexandre Kojève and many others, asserts that it should be taken literally, that is, by not trying to correct the author in order to understand him! Understanding by correcting makes the original a tabula rasa since it allows the interpreter to introduce any idea as it occurs to her or him to the work in the belief that it is an interpretation, while it is actually a creation of her or his own mind.
Hegel’s Logic is a reflective study of the concept. In Duque’s words, “the entire Logic is nothing but a relentless attempt to furnish a conscious and deliberate reconstruction of fugitive and fleeting linguistic forms and determinations.” (Duque, ix). The terms in his Logic do not have the fixity that they have in formal logic (both classical and modern), but their meaning varies according to the context, and especially according to the level in which the study is developed. Hegel perceives only the term, the word, as fixed, but not the concept or content that is expressed through words.
Hegel’s logic attempts to solve the classic problem of Aristotelian logic, in which “to say what something in the last instance really is, its ultimate logos, amounts to affirming all the affections, properties, and determinations of that thing” (Duque, 4). Hegel, however, is not successful in resolving this difficulty despite believing he is.
Hegel suggests that thought and reality, as well as mind and world, are inseparable in the sense that their meaning undergoes constant change and construction with respect to the conceptual level and context in which it takes place. A concept’s level of abstraction or concreteness thus simultaneously determines the degree of reality to which it refers. Put differently, this reading suggests that the Science of Logic ultimately serves as an ontological proof which not only proves the existence of God but also the existence of every concept subjected to actual thought. In other words, if I really believe in the concept of having a hundred thalers in my pocket, and not merely imagining them, then the hundred thalers become real and become part of my patrimony. I thus either have them in my pocket or, alternately, owe them and am obliged to pay them. This is not the case with Kant, since he merely imagines them, that is to say, recognizes from the very outset that they are not real thalers. This, in turn, is the difference between abstract and concrete concepts.
The process of concretion is clearly explained in the “logic of the judgment” discussion in the third part of Science of Logic, which is nothing but logic from the perspective of the relationship between the two essential components of judgment—subject and predicate. Thus, every judgment announces that the subject is the predicate. More explicitly, the subject of the judgment is the entity whose identity is being subjected to inquiry, and the answer is offered by all the predicates that refer to that subject. Each predicate thus changes the meaning of the subject, and, in reality, amplifies its meaning. In this respect, a subject is enriched by having more predicates attributed to it – as each of the latter forms another subject with other questions. In other words, to think is – formally — to pass from the subject, which functions as what is unknown and in need of becoming known, to the predicate, which functions as what is known and therefore as what bestows knowledge and meaning on the subject. It is thus a relation between a bearer of meaning (the subject) and a meaning (the predicate).
However, this relationship occurs within the frame of another relationship that occurs in the same intentional field. It is the relation (entirely unlike that of subject and predicate) between subject and object. Despite their difference, subject-predicate and subject-object relations cannot be separated but only distinguished. In effect, when the thought passes from the subject to the predicate, it does not consider the predicate (that is to say, it does not think about grammar) but its content, that is, the object or, rather, something that acquires the status of an object. The subject thus objectifies the target of though by means of predication. In the case of philosophy, that is to say, thinking about thinking, thought passes to something else, to what is being thought about, namely the object. And what is an object if not something that stands in front of the subject as a correlative to the subject? Hegel indeed argued that the object possesses nothing more than this relational character. The object is thus what was thought about by the subject. It is the entire universe existing insofar as it is the content of thought. There is no other universe. However, it is not the thought of my individual reflection. It is ultimately a universal reflection, and Hegel goes so far as to maintain that everything is Spirit (“There is nothing at hand that is wholly alien to spirit” (Hegel, Encyclopedia § 377, note, quoted by Duque, 38).
The Spirit is the objectification of subjectivity, the whole universe as thought of, a conceptualized universe, insofar as another does not replace it. But if something else remains, it is the task of thought to appropriate it, that is, as we said, to conceptualize it and thus imbue it with reality. This, in turn, is the secret of the coincidence of logic and metaphysics.
Thus, it turns out that the object is the complete expression of the subject. A strange reflection indeed. Fully aware of being a reflection and its denial at the same time—because it always returns to thinking about the object when it is supposed to be thinking about thinking about the object.
Hegel nonetheless moves backward. He rethinks the thought, concentrating not on content but on the fact of thinking about it. Hegel and his readers believed that they were thinking about Being when they were actually thinking about Essence; they thought they were thinking about Essence, and they were actually thinking about Concept! That is to say, Hegel was not concerned with a question of being but with the concept of being. It was not a question of essence but of the concept of essence, and it was not about concept but about the concept of concept. Hegel and his readers believed that they were thinking about substance when they were actually thinking about themselves—about the subject. Duque is therefore right in saying that all this does not mean we are solely concerned with thinking about substance, but also about the subject. This is because the substance is not even the truth, although it is a reflection, but this is a reflection that lacks reflection, or that does not know that it is a reflection. In other words, we are ultimately concerned with a subject thinking about itself.
The culmination of this backwards-advancing reflection is the Absolute Idea, which also serves as the culmination of subjectivity in the Subjective Logic (the third and last part of the Science of Logic). This must not be forgotten, as must the assertion that Hegel’s thought cannot migrate to another sphere, or does not enter it because Hegel does not need it, although he promises to explain something new, viz. the content of the Absolute Idea. But it is precisely here, at the end of the Science of Logic, that Hegel begins being poetic and stops being philosophical: he offers pure promises without any fulfillment. Such is the end of the great Science of Logic despite its colossality. Duque, in turn, ascribes a great deal of importance to this abrupt end in Hegel’s Logic. When the Absolute Idea is reached, according to Duque, “Everything else [Alles Übrige] is error, obscurity, struggle, caprice, and transience [Vergänglichkeit].” (Hegel, Science of Logic, quoted by Duque, 38). Is it not the case that everything should be included in the Absolute Spirit? Is the whole path unnecessary, as is the case of the ladder for the young Wittgenstein? This would go against the spirit of Hegel’s philosophy no less than his own assertion about error, obscurity, etc.
The Absolute Idea, then, does not fulfill Hegel’s intention. The universal absolute should deduce the individual in her or his singularity from itself because the individual is absolutely relational. It is a being that includes what is not her or him in itself, as well as what is other than itself, as the determinant of what it is. In other words, it is a concrete individuality understandable in its concrete universality. This is especially apparent when we think of the individual as a social being. If we take away all of the individual’s «environment» and context, namely, every socially shared issue and every general feature including language and clothing it will remain, contrary to what could be expected, an abstract individual: Just as when attempting to isolate the individual in order to understand it in her or his singularity, nothing remains and the very individual disappears. This, in turn, means that individuals are wholly social, that is, totally relational. This does not, however, imply that the individual is not individual, but that this is what it consists of: The more singular the individual, the more dependent she or he is on her or his network of relationships. Thus, the more relationships the individual has, the more individual she or he becomes.
When the individual denies her or his otherness, as in the case of the worker or the slave in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, she or he not only denies the other but it denies her or himself when alienating her or himself from her or his other because that other is her or his own other, not an abstract, isolated other. Thus, the more she or he is social, the more individual she or he becomes. The more she or he has relations to and dependencies on other individuals, the more she or he is a concrete singularity, a singularity determined by its relationships. This is entirely unlike the Aristotelian relations of genera and species, where the individual is obtained through isolation. The Aristotelian individual is obtained by excluding all difference. In Hegel the opposite is true: the more a thing includes the differentiated as differentiated in itself, the more individual it becomes. History is thus a process of socialization which is – in actual fact – a process of individuation. In Aristotelian logic, intension and extension are opposed: the greater the intension, the smaller the extension; the greater the definition, the smaller the subsumed individual(s). In Hegel, there is no such opposition. The individual is more social the more determined she or he is and the more she or he includes the other. Hegelian logic is not, however, intended as an alternative logic to Aristotelian logic, but rather as the self-consciousness of the Aristotelian logic as well as its inner development and evolution. Formal logic is thus a stage that the spirit must pass through in order to be finally be criticized by consciousness, as it is in the Logic of Essence, the second part of the Science of Logic, which engages in the critique of the “laws” of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle.
I will now turn to the relationships between substance and subject. According to Aristotle, a substance is that which is neither said of a subject nor in a subject, namely, it is not a predicate as predicates are said about a substance (individuals, like this individual man or this statue). However, entities which say what a substance is are “secondary” substances, genera and species, that can be also subjects as well as predicates and are always general and never individual. However, saying what an individual is, has the genera and species as an answer, something that is not individual. The individual man belongs to a species, man, and an animal is a genus of that species. Thus, both man and animal are considered secondary substances. In this respect, Duque rightfully claims that the Aristotelian definition of substance as a negative definition arises from the impossibility of saying what it is without making it into something other than what it is. In other words, predicates will always betray their original intention since they cannot be individuals.
If there is something that is neither said of a subject nor exists in a subject, this is obviously because it is itself the subject, as Aristotle himself concedes: “All the other things are either said of the primary substances as subjects or in them as subjects” (Aristotle, Categories, 2a, 34–35, quoted by Duque, 6). Duque then proceeds to state:
Yet secondary substance does not exist of itself, unless it is given with primary substance. We are evidently confronted with a certain inversion here, with an irresolvable chiasmus: that which is first in the order of being is second in the order of logical discourse, and vice versa.” (Duque, 7)
The substance is for Aristotle the being of the being, and it is the fixed (permanent) side of change, something that does not change as things change. As a being of being it has a double function, meaning that it has two meanings in the sense that it is both the essence of the being and the being of the essence.
As the essence of being, the substance is the determinate being, the nature of the necessary being: the man as a two-legged animal. As the being of the essence it is the two-legged animal as this individual man.
This is a duality that Aristotle did not manage to resolve. When Aristotle says that the substance is expressed in the definition and that only the substance has a true definition, the substance is understood as the essence of the being, as that which reason can understand. But when, on the contrary, he declares that the essence is identical to determinate reality, as beauty exists only in what is beauty, Aristotle understands the substance as the being of the essence, and as a principle that offers necessary existence to the nature of a thing.
As the essence of being, the substance is the form of things and bestows unity on the elements that make up the whole where the whole is a distinct proper nature unlike its component elements. Aristotle refers to the form of material things as a species, and species is, therefore, its substance. As the being of the essence, the substance is the substrate: that about which any other thing is predicated but that cannot be a predicate of anything else. And as the substrate it is matter, a reality without any determination other than a potentiality. As the essence of being, the substance is the concept or logos that has neither generation nor corruption, that does not become but is this or that thing. As the being of essence, the substance is the composition, namely, the unity of concept (or form) with matter—the existing thing. In this sense, the substance comes to being and comes to its end.
As the essence of being, the substance is the principle of intelligibility of the being itself. In this sense, it is the stable and necessary element on which science is founded. According to Aristotle, there is no other science than that which is necessary, whereas the knowledge of what can or cannot be is rather an opinion. Substance is thus, objectively, the being of the essence and the necessary reality, and subjectively the essence of being, as necessary rationality. In short, the distinction Aristotle makes between primary substances (0ρώται οὐσίαι) and secondary substances (δεύτεραι οὐσίαι) consists of understanding the former as physical individuals and the latter as species (τά εἴδεα) and genera (τά γένη) of those individuals (Aristotle, Categories, 2a14).
In Hegel, on the other hand, the substance is the principle from which the individual is deduced. He argues for the primacy of the universal and the primacy of substance over the individual. Unlike with Aristotle, the universal is the principle of individuation, so that the individual has no meaning without the universal. This, in turn, is the basis on which his understanding of truth as substance but also as subject can be understood. Duque contends that “primary substance is entirely subsumed in secondary substance, or in universality. But this universality is indeed concrete since it bears and holds all particularity and all individuality within itself. It is concrete, but it does not yet know that it is.” (Duque, 2018, 24). Namely, it doesn’t know that it is also a subject.
The intentional character of the subject, as it is understood in self-consciousness, means the understanding of the subject as the one that externalizes itself and then internalizes what was rejected, that is, that understands that this is its way of acting. It also means that being is ultimately recognized in reflection as a first instance, that is, as thinking. Substance is itself thinking, though not recognized as such. Ultimately, therefore, subject is a synthesis of self-consciousness and objectivity.
In judgment, when the subject moves toward the predicate, when it is objectified and when, in subsequent reflection, discovers that it returns to itself (since the predicate is predicated from the subject), then the subject ends up enriched with what the predicate attributes to it.
This, in turn, allows us to understand the controversial and somehow obscure dictum in the 1806 preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:
According to my view of things, which can be justified through the exposition of the system itself, everything depends on apprehending and expressing the true not as [nicht als] substance, but just as much [eben so sehr] as subject (quoted by Duque, 17)
Hegel therefore contends that self-consciousness is externalized and thus becomes an object. But this posited object is itself the very subject that has been placed as another, thus appearing as an opposite to itself: it knows itself knowing the other.
And this happens because that object is not, as it were, a natural object, a given, but an object created or engendered (like any object, according to Hegel) by self-consciousness. They are, then, two momenta, that of subjectivity (being-for-itself) and that of objectivity (being-in-itself). In reality, however, they are not merely two momenta, but a single reality split into two momenta that are only true in their opposition and in their unity. For subjectivity does not become true if it is not objective and true objectivity cannot be natural but only produced by human endeavor (in the broad sense of the word). This is why the fact that men, at one point in history, had subjected other men to work, to externalize themselves, to produce objects out of themselves, and thus transform a given natural environment into a human environment, is a necessary step in human development, as this is a human creation, an elevation above the natural.
A misreading, according to Duque, is to believe that the substance is not true as if the subject has nothing to do with the substance (or mutatis mutandis, a misreading that believes that freedom has nothing to do with necessity). Just as reason does not exist without understanding, subject does not exist without substance. The subject is thus the conceptual understanding of the substance and the consciousness of necessity. Put differently, it is a continuation of Spinozism taken to its logical extreme.
A reader looking to make their first entry into Jean-Luc Nancy’s work is bound to feel intimidated by the extraordinarily vast and varied nature of this particular French philosopher’s oeuvre. As it spans over dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and engages with almost every major modern thinker, one would be forgiven for feeling somewhat at a loss in deciding where to start. This is why the set-up of the interviews collected in The Possibility of a World is full of promise: guided by Pierre-Philippe Jandin, who shows himself both knowledgeable of how Nancy thinks and skilful in driving the conversation to cover as much ground as possible, Nancy is made to reflect on the entirety of his career in fluent and conversational language: the interviews provide both an accessible articulation of all the major themes of Nancy’s thought, if sometimes only implicitly, for those who are new to it; as well as a valuable insight into how Nancy relates to his own thinking and writing, for those who are already familiar with it. The present translation of these conversations by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain generally captures Nancy’s playful use of the French language well, adding clarifying footnotes where necessary, and makes for a very fluent read in English that only falters occasionally when confronted with a particular French idiom or colloquialism.
Before delving into the conversations themselves, it is perhaps worth noting that, in my view, Nancy is a philosopher perfectly suited to be approached in this dialogical way: not just because it takes the sharp edges of his sometimes frustrating writing style; but also because the dialogical form – which, as Nancy notes, “has always been associated with philosophy” as the expression of “the free life of thinking” (Nancy 1982, 46-47) – embodies the very logic he wants to describe, namely the infinite circulation of meaning. Even when Nancy writes like any other philosopher would, he always does so under the guise of an engagement with someone else’s thinking: his own thinking exists in a dialogical interaction with that of others, to the point that it becomes hard to discern which ideas belong to which conversation partner, and that is exactly the point. Thus, in reading Nancy, we are always reminded of one fact: “without dialogue, no thinking, and no philosophy” (Nancy 1975, 330). In the case of the present text, we have the interesting opportunity to witness how, as prompted by Jandin, Nancy engages with himself, dialogues himself.
The first section of the book is dedicated to Nancy’s “formative years.” What the reader will not find here is a description of how Nancy sees the development of his own thinking throughout his life, for, as he admits elsewhere, he is “not somebody who is very self-aware, I don’t really have much of a conception of my own historical trajectory” (Nancy 2003, 45). What he does do in this section, however, is discuss the various “moments”, both anecdotal and more substantive, that would later prove important for his intellectual development. These anecdotes are really quite delightful. There is, for example, the very early memory of walking past a fence that “had these elaborate patterns.” Already betraying a theoretical orientation at that very young age, Nancy relates how he would “get lost in speculations about the necessity or non-necessity of all these adornments” (2). Then there is the story of his discovery of Heidegger: apparently the reason Nancy first engaged seriously with Heidegger was to play a trick on François Warin, by writing a text on Comte in a parody of Heidegger’s style that managed to convince Warin that it was actually penned by Heidegger himself (17-18).
One of the more informative moments he relates is his reading of the Bible together with the Young Christian Students when he was a teenager: for Nancy, this was “the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense (sens).” What he learned there was above all that “One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite” (7). This can still be seen in what we could call the hermeneutic logic that governs all of Nancy’s writing and sits alongside a critique of the specific hermeneutics formulated by Ricoeur and Gadamer. This interest in the texts of Christianity, however, soon became detached from a “properly religious relationship” (8). It is this religious orientation, together with a taste for social and political activism, which he sees as “the initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8). Nancy then goes on to discuss his initial discovery of Derrida, who he saw at the time as ushering in a profound intellectual upheaval (14, 22). Finally, it is worth mentioning how he looks back on his early work on Kant, undertaken when he was preparing to take the agrégation, for it sets the stage quite well for how he would later develop his own thinking: “What Kant taught us is that (…) pure reason is practical in itself.” Hence, he continues, “in our desire for the unconditioned, in our desire for sense, we’re practical, we act in the world, and so, a priori sensibility (…) is praxis. In every case, I am in action” (19). It is this notion of the sense of the world consisting in our action within it that sets Nancy up to articulate the idea that is at the core of, and indeed guides, his entire philosophy: “Images of the world must be substituted for a dwelling (habitation), a life of the world, in the world. (…) The world is a possibility of sense or meaning’s circulation and we have to make a world, to remake a world” (26).
This allows for a seamless transition to the second section of the book, which deals with Nancy’s understanding of world. Indeed, one of the strengths of these interviews is that they show very clearly how all of Nancy’s thinking hangs together quite closely. Regarding the world, he again takes up his starting point as it is formulated elsewhere (see Nancy 1997, 4): declaring that “There’s no longer a cosmos, there’s no longer a mundus” (38), by which he means that the world no longer appears to us as a coherent totality that is unified by some kind of inherent order. The world that we are to think “no longer has a sense, but it is sense” (Nancy 1997, 8), exists in a circulation of meaning. This leads him to formulate his relational ontology, where the meaning that is the world exists in what happens between entities, in how they relate to one another. It is this question of relation, central as it is to Nancy’s thinking, that he sees as never having received serious philosophical attention (48). Nevertheless, “What is the world,” he wonders, “if not precisely the possibility of the ‘between’?” (47). For, if meaning is not inherent to any single entity, it can only exist in how that entity relates to other entities. In that sense, it is the between, not the self-enclosed singularity of an entity, that comes first. It is only because of “the relation between the two, that is, the ‘between’ the two, which relates the one to the other and separates it from the other at the same time” (47), that something can be anything at all: thing A can only be thing A because it is separate from thing B, because it is-not thing B; because of a separation that constitutes thing A as thing A. It is only because of this between that there can be something, or rather, some things. Being, for Nancy, even when it is singular, is always plural. Indeed, it is only within plurality that there can be singularity. The world is then the totality of sense or meaning that is created by the constellation of different entities in their relation to one another (133). Nancy has coined the term transimmanence to describe the nature of the meaning constituted in this way: neither fully immanent, nor transcendent; but an immanence pointing outside of itself to the between that would be collapsed by full immanence (93).
Ultimately, this thinking of the between is a critique of self-sufficiency: the self does not constitute itself, but must go outside of itself in order to find itself. This opens up an entry into Nancy’s social and political thought, for this impossibility of self-sufficiency “is true for both the collective and the individual,” he notes, “the idea of ‘community’ quite clearly implies (through communitarianisms) the danger of shutting oneself off in self-sufficiency” (49). Indeed, the subsequent three sections deal mostly with Nancy’s handling of questions concerning community and politics. Political questions are essential for Nancy, as long as this is understood in a broad and nuanced way: for him, the French word politique means both “the organization of common existence (…), conjoining antagonistic interests,” as well as expressing “a sense or truth about this existence” (94), and as such has clear ontological significance. Most of the discussion revolves around Nancy’s (relatively) recent engagement with questions concerning identity in relation to the notion of the people, formulated polemically in reaction to the French government’s attempt to have a debate on national identity in 2009. Just like the world no longer has meaning, but is meaning; so too, the people no longer have an identity, but are an identity (Nancy 2015, 29-32). That is to say, their identity is not inherent but exists in their action within the world, their life of the world in the world: the people in themselves are not sufficient for the constitution of their own identity. Hence, speaking of the people always risks understanding this plurality inauthentically as absolute, coherent, self-sufficient singularity: “What allows one to make sense out of numerousness is the people,” Nancy says, “which gets expressed in forms that themselves are no longer numerousness, but suggest a ‘substantial’ unity (‘one’ people, ‘one’ nation)” (73-74).
The sixth section deals with Nancy’s understanding of religion, Christianity in particular. For Nancy, “in the depths of Christianity, there is something like the germ of the disappearance of the sacred” (99). What this means is that Christianity is the religion through which the West is able to leave the religious modality of thought behind. It is the religion that allows the West to emerge from its metaphysical closure, which Christianity is nevertheless at the same time also responsible for. Nancy traces this historical development in his two volumes on what he calls the deconstruction of Christianity (Nancy 2008; 2012). In doing so, he takes up various Christian concepts – God, creation, grace, etc. – and uses them to think atheologically: not necessarily against theology, but in any case against onto-theological metaphysics; in order to put on display how Christianity and the West are opening themselves up from their metaphysical closure. In doing so, these concepts come to describe the way in which we inhabit the world, our dwelling in the world: for example, “creation is the world existing,” Nancy says. “In another sense,” he continues, “one could say that within this lies an opportunity to recover the possibility of admiring, of adoring that the world exists, and the fact that I exist, that you exist” (102). That is to say, these concepts not only function within the (a)theological register, but also take on a much broader existential and ontological meaning.
In the same way, Nancy can be seen to charge the notion of art with ontological and existential significance in the seventh section of the book. There he explains how, given that we no longer live in a cosmos, a world that is unified in its display of a certain inherent order, art is in crisis: what is its role if it can no longer represent this order now that it has collapsed? Let me quote Nancy at length here: «It’s like another creation, a recreation of the world and when there isn’t actually a creator or organizer of the entire world anymore, then this gesture becomes detached for itself, but this gesture has always been the gesture of art, of opening the possibility of an ordering. And I think that one can say that the human being is the one who has to bring out a world, both as a form and as sense, or as language» (106-107). Here Nancy is first of all saying that when art is without ground it fulfils a truly ontological role: in the absence of an order or truth preordained by a creator, art is no longer in the business of merely representing this truth; rather, it performs the gesture of the opening of the possibility of an order, expresses the movement in which the possibility of a world exists, by exposing the void at its origin as “the complete absence of beauty, that is, what points out or indicates beauty” (105). Art exposes what Nancy calls the patency, the opening or the transimmanence of the world: that the world is possible even in the absence of a unifying cosmic order, for it is patently already there in our engagement with it. Art exposes that the world is possible, that the world straightforwardly or manifestly makes sense to us, without the need for a unifying and ordering cosmology or metaphysics. As such art is, as Nancy puts it, “the presentation of presentation” (Nancy 1996, 34), of the infinite circulation of sense that is the world. All we need to do is greet the world in its thereness. Art thus embodies the very gesture of the world as it is constantly coming to be in our engagement with it, in our dwelling within it. When Nancy then says that human beings bring out a world, he means that “the human being is both the expression of the world and the world’s expression,” that is to say that it “is the inhabitant of the world, but at the same time, it transforms the world deeply through its technē, its technology, what in Latin gets translated as ars, its art” (115).
The discussion on art, the presentation of presentation, makes for a smooth transition to the final two sections of the book, dealing with presence and joy. Nancy here reprises, albeit in a more metaphysical way, the analysis of presence that he already formulated in his essay on sleep (see Nancy 2009). According to him, there is never full presence, indeed absence is at the heart of presence: just like the self needs to go outside of it itself in order to find itself; so too he understands presence generally as the continual arrival, or birth, of non-being into being. Here Nancy makes this clear by talking about how when we fall asleep, we at the same time descend into nothingness as well as fall into ourselves and the world. “Every morning,” he says, “one comes back to the world after being truly absent during sleep, which is connected to this poor, physiological, biological truth: Without sleep, one can’t live for long” (121). Though this does not come through particularly clearly in these interviews, for Nancy joy (jouissance) is the moment or experience of being on the limit shared between those two opposites – being and non-being, inside and outside, presence and absence, etc. – through which meaning comes-to-be as the sense that is-about-to-be, to come, through one’s being-outside-of-oneself. “Joy, jouissance, to come,” Nancy says, “have the sense of birth: the sense of the inexhaustible imminence of sense” (Nancy 1993, 5). As such, joy is the experience of ek-sistence as it “strives toward (…) the world and Being-in-the-world, that is, toward the possibility of making sense” (133). Knowing that these interviews were conducted in 2013, Nancy’s thinking of joy here seems to anticipate the conversations with Adèle Van Reeth he would have on the subject not long after, conversations that were published in 2014 under the title La jouissance and translated into English in 2016 as Coming (Nancy & Van Reeth 2014; 2016). It is perhaps unfortunate that the translators do not make a note of this, as one of the strengths of this book is that otherwise, whenever a particular aspect of Nancy’s work is broached in the interview, it comes with a series of useful footnotes that direct the reader to the relevant texts by Nancy or indeed his interlocutors.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that some of the most interesting reflections Nancy articulates over the course of these interviews are often the result of him briefly going off on a tangent. For example, he perhaps shows himself the present-day Kierkegaard or Nietzsche – albeit with a decidedly less capricious personality – when he recounts how he envies the painter and the writer of literature and poetry, since their mode of expressing themselves might be more suited to what Nancy is trying to do. The relationship between philosophy and literature has been a central topic of Nancy’s thinking since the start of his career, and indeed continues to be to this day: “I have the feeling that my philosophical texts aren’t philosophical enough,” he says, “that they need to be more philosophical, but in order to be so, they need to no longer be philosophical, but something else” (23). Hence, Jandin describes Nancy’s writing strategy very accurately by saying that we “aren’t in the coincidentia oppositorum, nor are we in a dialectical logic; we are trying to go ‘between’” (124). The possibility of a world rests entirely on this notion of the between that is explored by Nancy’s writing. Therefore, Nancy’s writing itself must be understood as similarly structured as the world it is trying to shine a light on, to uncover, to stage; a world that is “centrifugal, erratic, open” (134).
Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘“Our World” an interview’, trans. by Emma Campbell in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 8:2 (August 2003), 43-54.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Le partage des voix (Paris: Galilée, 1982).
Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Le ventriloque (À mon père, X.)’ in Mimesis: Des articulations (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), 271-338.
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. by Jeffrey S. Librett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Jean-Luc Nancy, Identity: Fragments, Frankness, trans. by François Raffoul (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).
Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, trans. by John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).
Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. by Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).
Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, La jouissance: Questions de caractère (Paris: Plon/France Culture, 2014).
Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, Coming, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. by Brian Holmes et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).