Mauro Senatore: Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida

Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida Book Cover Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Mauro Senatore
SUNY Press
Hardback $80.00

Reviewed by: David Maruzzella (DePaul University)

Mauro Senatore’s first book in English, Germs of Death: The Problem of Genesis in Jacques Derrida, is a compact and ambitious reading of a significant portion of Jacques Derrida’s philosophical work from his earliest writings on Husserl to unpublished seminars from the 1970s and 1980s. Divided into 5 chapters (2 on Platonism and 3 on Hegelianism), Senatore’s book aims to provide “a systematic elaboration of how Derrida develops the Husserlian concept of genesis through a critical engagement with Plato’s and Hegel’s legacies as well as with the biological thought of his time” (xii). Indeed, if the chapters’ explicit focus are on Derrida’s on-going engagement with Platonic and Hegelian accounts of genesis, life, transmission and inheritance, the book’s toile de fond is no doubt the place of Derrida’s thought in larger debates and developments in contemporary biology and the life sciences more generally. By reading Derrida in light of the transformations that took place in these scientific fields—a shift, broadly speaking, from the genetic paradigm to the post-genetic or epigenetic paradigm—Senatore makes a convincing case that Derrida’s writings constitute nothing less than a significant contribution, “nonphilosophical and nonpreformationist,” to a “post-genetic interrogation of life” (xii). The stakes of this reading are high, since, if Senatore is correct, it would perhaps make Catharine Malabou’s abandonment of the Derridean language of writing premature and unnecessary. What Derrida will have meant by writing and programme, for example, as early as 1967 in De la grammatologie where he already speaks of biological writing and the biological pro-gramme[i], would in fact be quite close to what Malabou will call plasticity in reference to contemporary neuroscience.[ii]

In many ways, the center of gravity around which Senatore’s book turns is the recent wave of interest that Derrida scholars[iii] have taken in Derrida’s unpublished 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort[iv], which in turn makes clear the connection between deconstruction and the life sciences proposed by Senatore, since Derrida devotes a substantial portion of his seminar to discussing the French biologist François Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant[v] as well as the work of Georges Canguilhem. Senatore, with this seminar in mind, reads the Derridean notions of writing, dissemination, trace, etc. as responding to the latent teleological and metaphysical presuppositions that still structured the philosophical musings of biologists such as Jacob. But if Derrida shows how the then recent discoveries in genetics seem only to be a repetition of biological preformationism, this time without a divine creator—and thus of philosophical teleology more generally—, he also attempts to show how the contradictions and aporias in the biological text point necessarily beyond themselves to a new thinking of life, one more in line with the work of the biophysicist Henri Atlan who emphasizes the necessity of living beings not to simply repeat pre-inscribed genetic instructions, but to be submitted to the “aleatory perturbations” of the organism’s environment (xii).

Though a fair amount of attention has been recently given to Derrida’s engagement with mathematics and the formal sciences[vi], Senatore’s book opens up new debates and will certainly path the way for future research trajectories that seek to re-inscribe Derrida’s thought in larger historical and scientific contexts, thus avoiding the typical readings of Derrida that made his work a staple in English and Comparative Literature departments. It is perhaps not even an exaggeration to say that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift—if not at least a renaissance (to which Senatore’s book no doubt belongs)—in critical studies on the work of Jacques Derrida. Beginning with Martin Hägglund’s influential Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, 2008) and even continuing into the field of intellectual history with Edward Baring’s The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, 2011), as commentators have come to insist more and more upon the authentically philosophical nature of Derrida’s project.

Indispensable to this philosophical revival of Derrida is of course the meticulous editing and translation of Derrida’s seminars of which Senatore avails himself. This in turn has given scholars access to Derrida’s teaching as a philosophy instructor where he was often tasked with preparing young students for the competitive agrégation de philosophie. This meant that it was Derrida’s job to prepare students to work through the major philosophical problems of the Western tradition as treated by this tradition’s classical figures. Deconstruction was, it must be said, indebted to these close-readings of canonical texts that are to this day central to French philosophical training. In other words, Derrida is being read more widely as making original contributions to philosophy and no longer merely to literary theory[vii], where deconstruction was seen as one possible grid of literary analysis among others (psychoanalytic criticism, historicism, etc.), or, more generally, as an interpretive method applicable to any field whatsoever (i.e. deconstruction and architecture, deconstruction and legal theory, etc.). Indeed, this new turn in Derrida scholarship is making it quite clear that deconstruction does not consist simply in one possible hermeneutic strategy or analytic framework, nor is it a purely negative or critical project, but rather it uncovers and names in some sense the very movement of Being itself, the quasi-ontological conditions of possibility of all beings, the minimal and necessary structure of meaning and experience as such.

Senatore, rightly, does not shy away from such bold claims and asserts this at the outset: “I argue that Derrida conceives of the inscription-seed as the minimal structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis. This structure constitutes the element of a geneticism of sense in general—that is, of an analysis that accounts for the genesis of the discourse as well as of the living” (2). But this is not all. Derrida’s originality, according to Senatore’s account, is that this account of genesis in general is strictly “post-genetic,” by which he means that it is a thinking of genesis that is non-teleological and therefore breaks with the model wherein arche and telos coincide, the latter being simply an outgrowth of a potentiality present in the former. If the philosophical tradition from Aristotle to Hegel and beyond—albeit a particular reading of Hegel that has been largely discredited today[viii]—conceived of genesis as essentially the internal playing-out of instructions or a programme present already at the origin (a conception that is mirrored in the biological discourses from preformationism to modern geneticism whereby an organism is nothing other than the result of a set of pre-determined instructions transmitted from one generation to another), a post-genetic theory of genesis that takes seriously the irreducibility of the movement of necessary externalization that defines all beings. Indeed, it is Derrida’s contention that a kind of spontaneous Hegelianism was present throughout Jacob’s book La Logique du vivant. Yet Derrida’s engagement with the life sciences is not simply critical and destructive, but also seeks to to elaborate another thinking of life beyond the opposition life/death. Derrida in turn prepares the ground for the elaboration of a post-genetic thinking of life or what Derrida will come to call “life death”, one that anticipates more recent developments in biological epigenesis.

And yet while reading Senatore’s book, as well as Derrida’s seminar itself[ix], it is unclear how Derrida conceives of the relationship between philosophy and science. At certain moments, one gets the impression that Derrida is suggesting that philosophy, in particular deconstruction, can itself theorize certain objects and structures before the biological and life sciences, that is, that it anticipates discoveries and theoretical developments in various scientific fields. This would appear to make deconstruction a kind of science[x]—or a non-philosophical science? At other moments, it appears that the textual structure that necessarily conditions the life sciences as well as any being whatsoever, renders scientific objectivity both possible and impossible. Deconstruction, insofar as it is attuned to the particularities of the trace structure of beings in general, would be a paradoxical non-science of this most general condition of scientificity as such. Or put differently, and this is Senatore’s claim, it is indeed possible to generalize the notion of dissemination that unconsciously guides the text of biology into a quasi-transcendental structure that accounts for all genesis, “from biological to cultural genesis” (2). And in other moments still, Derrida’s position seems to be close to Althusser’s position in his 1967 lecture course Philosophie et philosophie spontanée des savants, where he explicitly takes up the biological theories of Jacob’s partner, Jacques Monod, in order to argue that there is a salvageable materialist tendency in Monod’s otherwise idealist discourse and that it is the text of philosophy to intervene politically within the scientists to help eliminate unquestioned ideological intrusions that hinder the practice of scientists. But what Althusser takes issue with is precisely Monod’s attempt to generalize his biological findings in order to explain genesis in general. Derrida, for his part, writes in the sixth session of his seminar:

The activity of the scientist, science, the text of genetic science as a whole are determined as products of their object, if you will, products of the life they are studying, textual products of the text they are translating or deciphering or whose procedures of deciphering they are deciphering. And this, which appears as a limit to objectivity, is also—by virtue of the structural law according to which a message can only be translated by the very products of its own translation—the  condition of scientificity, in this domain, of the effectuation of science (and of all the sciences).[xi]

Not surprisingly, this session begins with a reference to Gödel, since once we see textuality as a general structure, a paradox of self-reference immediately arises wherein the biological text studied by the life sciences (the genetic code or inscriptions) necessarily refers to other texts, to a text without a non-textual outside. And it is the paradoxical structure of textuality all the way down, so to speak, that seems to legitimate deconstruction’s capacity to outstrip the sciences, if not at the very least, guide their future researches into the textuality that they necessarily study, and which moreover conditions their object of study, but which the science’s fail to thematize. All of this by way of introduction not to delegitimate Derrida’s project, or Senatore’s remarkable interpretation of it, but rather as serious questions and challenges to attempting to think the relationship between philosophy and science from within a transcendental or post-phenomenological framework.


Senatore’s book begins with an introductory chapter that proposes a reading of Derrida’s 1963 essay “Force and Signification”, in particular, a passage where Derrida refers to the Leibnizian scene of divine creation wherein God necessarily brings about the existence of the best possible world. This will then be linked to the more or less contemporaneous translation and commentary that Derrida published on Husserl’s late manuscript The Origin of Geometry. What Derrida develops across both works is a rethinking of genesis that is fundamentally different from what Senatore, following Derrida, calls the logos spermatikos whose biological analog is preformationism, the doctrine according to which an organism develops out of an initial germ which contains already in itself that which it will only later become. Derrida argues, as is now well-known, that meaning or sense cannot be seen as pre-existing the act of inscription, and, in turn, that the moment of inscription should not merely be seen as an external, secondary, and empirical accident, but rather, as an essential condition of possibility for meaning in general. It is in Husserl’s late writings where Derrida finds the basic structure of a rigorously non-theological and non-classical thinking of genesis. Here, meaning must await its inscription, and does not precede the act of writing. Ideality is thus a result of the process that writing names, “only writing permits the full accomplishment of the ideal objectivity of ideality by unbinding the latter from an actual subjectivity in general” (9). And so if ideality is only produced in some sense retrospectively after the event of writing, genesis must be conceived of as a fundamentally creative and productive, and not as an act of revelation of some pre-existing meaning or essence. Since nothing precedes inscription, there is strictly speaking no ideality without writing. This understanding of a generalized writing, as Derrida will later call it, is what Senatore calls “the most general geneticism” whereby writing is conceived as “the structure of genesis in general, from biological to cultural genesis” (14). With Husserl’s account of writing in mind, Senatore turns to the structuralism espoused by Jean Rousset in his reading of Proust, the main subject of Derrida’s “Force and Signification.” It is clear in what way structuralism will necessarily presuppose and repeat the classical scene of Leibnizian creation, which is itself analogous to biological preformationism. The structure of which the work is an expression seems to suggest that literary work is nothing but the fully developed form of what was once a germ latent in the structure itself. In the same way, Leibniz’s God moves from essence to existence, inscribing the former in the latter, and in so doing avoids what Derrida calls the anguish of writing, that is, the necessity of essence being produced not before the act of creation, but only in and by way of the genesis of existence itself. Derrida writes, “the metaphysics implicit in all structuralism, or in every structuralist proposition…always presupposes and appeals to the theological simultaneity of the book, and considers itself deprived of the essential when this simultaneity is not accessible” (19-20). Put differently, the classical notion of genesis makes meaning the result of internal transmission, rather than meaning having to necessarily be constituted as the result of passing through an essential moment of exteriority in the act of writing taken in a general sense, a movement that in turn erases the “externality” of this process of exteriorization.

Senatore then turns to Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” in the first of two chapters on Platonism in order to differentiate Derrida’s notion of dissemination from the Platonic theory of genesis. Like Leibniz’s scene of divine creation, Platonism “tends to annihilate what Derrida identifies as its anagrammatic structure—namely, the site of the concatenation of forms, of the tropic and syntactical movements, which precede and render possible the concatenation or movement of Platonism itself as well as of philosophy in general” (26). Reading Derrida’s famous essay alongside the recently published seminar on Heidegger from 1964-65 Senatore insists upon the necessity of refusing to “tell stories”, that is, to assimilate being and Beings and to nominate one particular being to be the cause or ontic explanation of the origin of beings. Indeed, the early sessions of Derrida’s lecture course are devoted to investigating what he calls “ontic metaphors” and the necessity to think with them—what is needed most of all is not that we simply abandon these metaphors, as if that were possible, but rather think their necessity and introduce new ones into philosophical discourse. The discussion of metaphoricity brings Senatore to a discussion of the notion of a living logos in Plato’s text. Despite Plato’s attempt to describe the genesis of the logos without recourse to an ontic metaphor, the origin of logos is nevertheless inscribed in the zoological and biological metaphor of generation—Plato is necessarily forced to think speech’s difference from writing as the result of the former’s having a father, that is, its being accompanied or even chaperoned by the direct source of its emission. Whereas writing is orphaned, a dead letter left to circulate without the possibility of response and responsibility, the voice is a living logos that can answer directly and respond to all inquiries addressed to it. Senatore writes, “This suggests once more that the structure of the logos constitutes a metaphor borrowed from a certain understanding of the living and thus that the relation to its father (the noble birth, the body proper, etc.) hinges on a genetic and zoological explanation” (34). But Derrida’s argument is stronger: it is not simply that Plato appeals to the metaphor of paternity and biological generation to explain the origin of the logos in the voice of the speaker, but rather that the casual order of determination is precisely relational. The existence of logos produces the familial relation and not the other way around such that “the concepts of the living and of the zoological process of generation are grounded on the concept of logos and on the relationship between the logos and its subject respectively” (35). Now this conception wherein the logos is the logic of the living is precisely what Derrida seeks to rethink. Indeed, the problem is less that metaphors were imported into the text of philosophy whereas they should be ideally left out of it, but rather that the chosen metaphor makes the production of living logos in speech into a general theory of genesis. Turning to later sections of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Senatore convincingly shows that what Derrida sought to uncover was the irreducibility of writing or the anagrammatic structure of the text is itself an even more general geneticism. This is how we should understand Derrida’s famous interpretation of the signifier pharmakon: its inscription in Plato’s text makes it the untranslatable site of a condensation of multiple, contradictory meanings that are necessarily obscured in the moment of translation. Senatore quoting Derrida writes, “The effect of such a translation is most importantly to destroy what we will later call Plato’s anagrammatic writing…and, in the end, quit simply of the very textuality of the translated text” (37). Platonism is then the attempt to suppress the effects of the written trace, which necessarily carries with it these possible deviations and disseminations,  “the irreducible synthesis of grammatical concatenations and stories that make up the grapheme pharmakon constitues the very element of Platonism, the vigil from which it wishes to dissociate itself” (37). We see again that writing, the process of inscription itself, cannot be seen as a derivative or secondary moment in the production of meaning, as if we passed simply from intention to expression in language, but rather meaning is the effect produced by writing. And since writing is taken as the general condition of the production of meaning this means that it necessarily carries within itself, from the very start, the irreducible possibility of its going astray as its essential possibility. Logos spermatikos and logos-zoon are then both attempts by Platonism to neutralize the necessary and aleatory effects of writing, which are in fact the minimal conditions of possibility of all beings: “…the grapheme-seed is the element of linguistics, zoology, politics, and thus of all regional discourses” (44).

Senatore’s second chapter on Platonism turns to a reading of the Derridean notion of khora as developed in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Timaeus. Senatore here makes extensive use of Derrida’s unpublished seminars from 1970-71 (Theory of Philosophical Discourse: Conditions for the Inscription of the Text of Political PhilosophyThe Example of Materialism) and 1985-86 (Comparative Literature and Philosophy: Nationality and Philosophical Nationalism). What is at stake is pushing this previously elaborated thinking of writing to its extreme by considering its implications for the notion of origin.  It is a question of going beyond the opposition of paradigm/copy or father/son to what precedes and makes possible oppositionality as such. Philosophy, as Derrida suggests in the 1970-71 seminar, deals exclusively with the oppositional, but is not able to think what makes oppositions possible in the first instance. But khora names the very condition of these oppositions in general, the very possibility or opening for beings. Quoting Derrida’s unpublished seminar we read, “Being absolutely figurable, the receptacle escapes all figures, it does not let itself be captured by any figure and necessarily exceeds the trope or the representation that are intended for it [quon lui destine]” (60). Senatore will then connect this to Derrida’s final essay on khora wherein the originary opening and receptivity that this Platonic notion is meant to designate is thematized as the minimal condition for understanding history: history is possible only on the basis of the originary openness that khora names, that is, the empirical succession of events that we call history, wherein all thing come to be called historical, presupposes precisely this originary opening and condition of possibility, this formlessness that gives form. And it is here that Senatore suggests that Derrida discovers in Plato’s text a thinking of history irreducible to Platonism. We are no longer thinking in terms of generational succession, of direct and risk-free intergenerational transmission, but rather thinking on the basis of something—though certainly not a being— pre-originary, or as Derrida writes “before and outside all generation” (67). This thinking of the pre-originary, as Derrida understands it, is both the unthought of philosophy, what cannot be thought in the discourse of philosophy, but also philosophy’s necessary excessiveness: “Khora withdraws from the field of philosophy, as meta-philosophical necessity that remains unheard-of or is removed, that bears within itself another thinking of history, the only thinking of the concept and historicity of history” (68).

In the final three chapters Senatore moves on to discuss Hegelianism, that is, Hegel’s philosophical considered as the most radical attempt to think through the textuality of philosophical language that Platonism had denied in order to constitute itself as philosophical discourse (69). Now, according to Derrida in his 1969-70 seminar, his goal is to call “into question what constitutes the essence and telos of philosophy, that is, holding [tenir] the most general discourse, and thus the most independent one, in relation to which particular discourses (determinate domains) would be hierarchically ordered” (70). In other words, it will be an attempt to show the impossibility of philosophy constituting itself as a completely originary and independent discourse, that is to say, one which makes no recourse to metaphoricity or language imported from other discourses. This will in turn make possible a criticism of philosophy as the most general discourse whose task it is to order regional discourses and produce “the sense of sciences” (73). In this way, the concept of life and life of the concept in Hegel repeat the Platonic logos-zoon, which makes not biological reproduction the foundation of all transmission and generation, but rather biological reproduction is understood on the basis of the philosophical logos spermatikos wherein life is understood as “the generation of consciousness and thus as the nonmetaphorical and originary relation between the father and the logos-zoon, as the removal of the mother, self-reproduction, etc.” (73-4). To affirm against this position the Derridean thinking of dissemination or the anagrammatic structure of writing is tantamount to “pointing to a minimal structure (or an element) that would be diffracted into the transcendental signification and the natural one, and thus would remain behind their difference” (79). To think the textuality of the text is thus what Hegel gets closest to doing—after all Hegel is declared in  De la grammatologie the last thinker of the book and the first thinker of writing[xii]—when reflecting upon the speculative nature of the German language, that is, its ability to think with words whose meanings are antithetical. Hegel would then be the first philosopher to consciously accept and affirm the anagrammatic structure that Plato repressed when faced with signifiers such as pharmakon. Aufhebung, for example, is the metaphorical hinge that binds the concept of life and life of the concept together, but what Hegel precisely risks is reducing the generation of life to the generation of the concept and consciousness, in turn repeating the Platonic structure: “the process of Aufhebung, which he [Derrida] understands as the scheme of the organization as well as the development of the Hegelian system, accounts for the solution of the equivocity of philosophical language” (88). In other words, the speculative identity that the signifier Aufhebung establishes between life, concept, and consciousness reduces the irreducible equivocity of language as inscription, of the anagrammatic structure of writing, or the textuality of the text.

Turning to Hegel’s explicit usage of the term germ (der Same), from which the book gets it title, Senatore focuses on Derrida’s reading of Hegel’s natural images and metaphors. It is again the speculative identity between life and concept that allows Hegel to see the movement of the concept as analogous to the development of life from seed to organism that then goes onto produce more seeds. The seed alienates itself in the process of its very development only to return to itself. Hegel’s system functions by building larger and more comprehensive accounts of this same developmental process since spirit too is self-reproducing and returns to itself as shown in the Phenomenology of Spirit. This discussion continues to include Hegel’s image of the family tree and the book of life, in various texts such as The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate and Reason in History. Again, what is at stake is the apparent covering-over by Hegel of his discovery of an irreducible difference, a remainder or excess, that cannot be included into the movement of the concept-life. Senatore goes on to discuss Derrida’s treatment of this issue in the opening text of Dissemination, which questions the role of the preface as traditionally understood. Derrida’s most experimental writing practices were developed in this period as the unorthodox opening “preface” of Dissemination bears many relations to the form and content of Derrida’s Glas that would be published two year later following the contemporaneous seminar La Famille de Hegel. If the traditional preface is intended to prepare the reader for what is to come, to make the future present at the outset, Derrida’s text is meant to draw attention to the work of dissemination as an irreducible or minimal structure as such. Senatore writes: “Dissemination is the name given to a project that he [Derrida] has started elaborating in “Force and Signification…and further developed in Of Grammatology, where he thinks of writing as the general structure of genesis and thus as the element [or minimal structure] of history and life” (132-33). Dissemination is thus what cannot be appropriated in the self-movement of the concept or life since it is the latter’s irreducible condition of possibility. Meaning, as Derrida discovered in Husserl, thus cannot be signaled or indicated in advance (by a preface or pre-text), but must awaits its moment of empirical inscription or embodiment as an “irreducible delay” that Hegel describes as an “external necessity” (121). The preface is then the attempt made by philosopher’s to suture this originary structure of delay that is immanent and necessary to the unfolding of the concept, an attempt to reduce this essential “out-of-jointness” by making the sense of what is to come present in the present, that is, at the origin.

The preface to Hegel’s Science of Logic perfectly encapsulates this tension: it both does not proclaim in advance what is to come, since logic, for Hegel, can only emerge at the end of the text and cannot be seen as an empty formal method that is discovered at the outset and applied throughout. Yet this admission makes the preface itself superfluous in some sense since it is external to the work itself and is excluded from the immanent unfolding of the concept, that is, from the logic itself. But Derrida wants to read this double status of the preface as being itself a figure of the structure of genesis in general, as that element that resists being folded into the logic of the text itself, and yet is structurally necessarily. This discussion leads Senatore to directly address Derrida’s reading of François Jacob’s La Logique du vivant from the unpublished seminar La Vie la mort. Indeed, Derrida’s “Outworking, Prefacing” is thus the “protocol for a non-Hegelian and non-genetic understanding of genesis” (135). Jacob addresses directly, by way of Claude Bernard, the way in which modern biology has reconciled the contradiction between scientific explanation and teleology: the notion of “genetic programme” allows Jacob and other modern biologists to think the developmental logic of an organism as it follows out genetic instructions inscribed in itself. Heredity viewed as a coded program in chemical sequences dissolves the paradox. But for Derrida, this is not the problem. Whether divine creator or genetic inscriptions, both appeal to and are determined by the logos spermatikos insofar as modern biology posits a preformationism without intention. In other words, dissemination, inscription, anagrammatic writing and textuality are once again repressed.

Senatore’s book then quickly concludes by turning to Derrida’s writings on philosophy, philosophical education, and teaching, which were written during a time when educational and pedagogical reforms were being proposed in France. But in the provocative final pages, Senatore analyses Derrida’s reading of Marx in an unpublished GREPH seminar where it is suggested that ideology is produced necessarily as a result of the originality of sexual difference and thus belongs to the “space of biological and natural life” and not to the superstructure as Marxists have typically held (144).


I began this review by suggesting that what makes Senatore’s book so valuable is its insistence on Derrida’s thinking of a general or minimal structure of genesis, and that recent scholarship on Derrida, which is of a very high quality, also has been seeking to reclaim Derrida as an authentic philosopher against the many decades he was appropriated as a literary theorist and critic, a post-modern or post-structuralist thinker of the insuppressible play of meaning and language or who celebrates the absence of universals or essences. Indeed, I think these new readings are not only correct, but necessary. They find in Derrida a strong and essential thinking of what is necessary, or, a thought of the necessary minimal structures and conditions for the existence and experience of beings as such. Senatore’s claim is that Derrida thinks a general or minimal theory of genesis as such, one that accounts for the genesis of anything whatsoever, from cultural products to biological organisms. Yet throughout Senatore insists on the “nonphilosophical”[xiii] nature of Derrida’s deconstruction insofar as it is non-genetic or breaks with the classical idealist conception of the logos spermatikos. But what precisely is nonphilosophical about uncovering an absolutely general condition to which all beings are necessarily submitted? Or making clear this minimal element that is presupposed not only in all previous philosophical discourses, but also in all scientific discourses? Even if this condition is paradoxical, self-effacing, or never fully present. This strikes me as a quite typical gesture of transcendental philosophy, which is constantly seeking more and more minimal, but absolutely necessary structures, that all beings (cultural, biological, or otherwise) conform to in all cases. Recent French thinkers have even pushed this further, for example, Michel Henry, who claims that the supposedly originary difference of someone like Derrida or Deleuze in fact presupposes an even more originary identity or presence that he calls “life.” At the same time, however, Senatore quotes from unpublished seminars where Derrida seems acutely aware of this problem and criticizes philosophers for attempting to organize and hierarchize all other discourses in an attempt to theorize the meaning of sciences in general. Indeed, this was the general problematic of phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger that Derrida was steeped in and in many way ways continues and radicalizes. This, as I understand it, is Derrida’s insight in his La via la mort seminar, namely, that the biological sciences must come to terms with a necessary condition-obstacle, namely writing, that they at once unknowingly theorize (since they had just begun to speak of a “genetic code”) and yet fail to thematize as such for if they were to do so their investigations would have to be fundamentally altered to account for the irreducibility of the trace structure. Only deconstruction provides such an insight and can think science’s unthought conditions of possibility-impossibility.

But there is another philosophical tradition that runs counter to the one that Derrida deconstructs most often, namely, materialism. Rarely does Derrida engage in-depth with Machiavelli, Spinoza, Althusser[xiv], not to mention Marx, Engels, and Lenin and other canonical “Marxist philosophers.” Derrida himself admitted to not understanding Spinoza[xv] and Warren Montag has argued that this supposed distance covers what is in fact an extreme proximity.[xvi] In other words, my hunch is that precisely what Senatore calls the “nonphilosophical” is what, in other circles, simply gets called materialism or to be more precise, and borrowing an expression from Althusser, aleatory materialism. Indeed, Althusser had proposed, in his innovative reading of Marx and Spinoza, as early as 1966 (if not earlier), a renewed materialist conception of the “encounter” [“théorie de la rencontre] or of “conjunction” [théorie de la conjunction] that is fundamentally different from the genetic theory of genesis.[xvii] This thought of a non-genetic genesis was also at work in Machiavelli and Spinoza, Freud too, when he theorized the overdetermination of dream elements. And Althusser will later seek to establish an entire “underground current” of thinkers who belong to this materialist tradition.

None of this is to suggest that Senatore is unaware of these issues. On the contrary, I take it that Senatore is in fact pushing Derrida in the direction of  productive encounter with thinkers like Althusser and philosophical materialism more generally. And this potential encounter to come is perhaps the one best suited for re-thinking the relationship between philosophy and science, that is, to break with the tradition that Derrida has identified according to which it is the task of philosophy to make sense of the sciences for them or to assign to them their ultimate meaning. But to what extent does this effort in Derrida remain restricted, if not stifled, by his Husserlian inheritance? Or by transcendental philosophy more generally? These are questions that I hope will spur further consideration and future philosophical inquiry and Derrida’s inclusion in these debates is highly anticipated.

[i] De la grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967), pg. 19

[ii] See in particular Malabou’s 2005 book La plasticité au soir de l’écriture (Éditions Léo Scheer) as well as her 2004  Que faire de notre cerveau? (Bayard) and more recently Ontologie de l’accident: Essai sur la plasticité destructrice (Léo Scheer, 2009), Avant demain. Épigenèse et rationalité (PUF, 2009) and Métamorphoses de lintelligence: Que faire de leur cerveau bleu? (PUF,  2017).

[iii] I have in mind not only Senatore himself, but also Francesco Vitale, whose 2018 book Biodeconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Life Sciences (SUNY) was translated by Senatore, but also the work of Dawne McCance who is preparing a book on this seminar and has been publicly lecturing on it for some time now.

[iv] The Derrida Seminars Translation Project, consisting mainly of Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington, Elizabeth Rottenberg, David Wills, Michael Naas, and Pascale-Anne Brault, has published translations of Derrida’s final two seminars The Beast and the Sovereign and The Death Penalty, as well as an early seminar on Heidegger and an 1970s seminar Theory and Practice. The English language translation team is also now in charge of preparing the French manuscripts for publication, which will mean a faster rate of publication in both French and English. The La vie la mort seminar will soon be published in French by Éditions du Seuil in the new series “Bibliothèque Derrida”, having been edited scrupulously by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf. The English translation has already been completed by Brault and Michael Naas and is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press.

[v] François Jacob, it will be remembered, along with Jacques Monod and André Lwoff, won the nobel prize for medicine in 1965 and wrote La Logique du vivant as a kind of vulgarisation of his award-winning discoveries. Monod will do the same in his book Le Hasard et la Nécessité: Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne.

[vi] See, most recently, Paul M. Livingston’s excellent book The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism (Routledge, 2012) or Christopher Norris’ Derrida, Badiou, and the Formal Imperative (Bloomsbury, 2014).

[vii] The major early philosophical reading is no doubt Rudolph Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Gasché explicitly writes in the opening pages, “Indeed, Derrida’s inquiry into the limits philosophy is an investigation into the conditions of possibility and impossibility of  a type of discourse and questioning that he recognizes as absolutely indispensable” (2).

[viii] For example, in the work of Slavoj Zizek, Adrian Johnston, Frank Ruda, Rebecca Comay, and others.

[ix] The author of the present review had the honor of working on the translation of the first half of this seminar with the Derrida Seminars Translation Project in July 2017.

[x] Indeed, this paradoxical quasi-scientific character, or non-philosophical scientific character of deconstruction was precisely Derrida’s discovery in reading Husserl, namely, that phenomenology is necessarily led to posit writing as the most minimal condition for the historical transmission of ideal meaning, but in so doing, is forced to study a non-present “object”, that is to say, one that puts into question the very notion of objectivity as such. Derrida reiterates this logic in the beginning of the section “De la grammatologie comme une science positive”, where he suggests that the possibility of grammatology being a science, a science of writing or traces, rests upon its own impossibility since it would shake or make tremble (ébranler) the very concept of science itself (see page 109).

[xi] My translation.

[xii] De la grammatologie, pg. 41. This quotation is preceded by the claim that Hegel, despite appearing as, in some sense, the metaphysical teleological thinker par excellence, he is “also the thinker of irreducible difference.”

[xiii] Senatore uses this language on pages xii, 57, 63, 69, and 143.

[xiv] The recent publication in French and forthcoming translation of Derrida’s 1976-77 Théorie et pratique seminar certainly changes this. But for as much as Derrida engages with Althusser here, the seminar ultimately turns on a reading of Heidegger and the question of techne.

[xv] “Dialogue entre Jacques Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe et Jean-Luc Nancy.” Rue Descartes 2006/2 (no. 52), pg. 95.

[xvi] “Immanence, Transcendence, and the Trace: Derrida Between Levinas and Spinoza.” Badmidbar: a Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, 2, Autumn 2011.

[xvii] See Althusser’s text from September 1966 “Sur la genèse”, where he explicitly attacks the genetic theory of genesis where the result is contained “en germe in the origin. Available through décalages:

Richard Kenneth Atkins: Charles S. Peirce’s Phenomenology: Analysis and Consciousness, Oxford University Press, 2018

Charles S. Peirce's Phenomenology: Analysis and Consciousness Book Cover Charles S. Peirce's Phenomenology: Analysis and Consciousness
Richard Kenneth Atkins
Oxford University Press
Hardback £47.99

Sandra Lapointe (Ed.): Philosophy of Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The History of the Philosophy of Mind, Volume 5, Routledge, 2018

Philosophy of Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The History of the Philosophy of Mind, Volume 5 Book Cover Philosophy of Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The History of the Philosophy of Mind, Volume 5
The History of the Philosophy of Mind
Sandra Lapointe (Ed.)
Hardback £100.00

Thomas Fuchs: Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind

Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind Book Cover Ecology of the Brain: The phenomenology and biology of the embodied mind
Thomas Fuchs
Oxford University Press
Hardback £34.99

Reviewed by: Valeria Bizzari (Clinic University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany)

“Embodiment theorists want to elevate the importance of the body in explaining cognitive activities. What is meant by ‘body’ here?” (A. Goldman, F. De Vignemont, 2009, 154).

All’interno del panorama filosofico e scientifico contemporaneo, la domanda posta da Goldman e De Vignemont solleva questioni quantomai spinose e attuali: Che cosa significa essere corporei? Qual è il ruolo del nostro cervello: strumentale o costitutivo della coscienza e del suo rapporto con il mondo? E’ possibile ridurre le attività del soggetto a sostrati neurali o è necessario tenere in considerazione altri elementi, in modo da non decontestualizzare e isolare la soggettività? In altre parole, in che senso è possibile oggi parlare di embodiment?

Nel nuovo libro del professor Thomas Fuchs, noto filosofo e psichiatra presso la Clinic University of Heidelberg, è possibile trovare esaurienti risposte a tali interrogativi. Ecology of the Brain, uscito nei primi mesi del 2018 ed edito dalla Oxford University Press, offre infatti una descrizione innovativa e accurata del cervello, ben lontana sia dai paradigmi neuroriduzionisti sia da quelli funzionalisti e emergentisti, ma ancorata ad un’immagine di soggetto come persona essenzialmente intersoggettiva e inserita in un mondo-della-vita che, a sua volta, ne condiziona lo sviluppo, in un processo circolare in cui cervello, organismo e ambiente hanno un ruolo egualmente fondante rispetto alla vita di coscienza.

Circolarità può essere considerata, in effetti, la parola chiave dell’intero libro: si parla di circolarità ontologica, nel definire lo status del cervello (non organo isolato, ma parte di un organismo vivente); di circolarità epistemologica (non è il cervello che conosce, ma la persona) e di circolarità eziologica (processi neurali e interazioni intersoggettive si condizionano a vicenda, plasmando il cervello e il rapporto soggetto-mondo).

I. Cervello, corpo e percezione

Nella prima parte del libro, Fuchs critica i paradigmi delle neuroscienze cognitive, secondo le quali il cervello è l’unico soggetto dell’azione e della percezione e il vero e proprio costruttore della conoscenza e del rapporto che l’individuo intrattiene con il mondo. Negli ultimi anni in particolare, complici le numerose scoperte neuroscientifiche che sono state fatte (basti pensare ai celeberrimi “neuroni specchio”, che sembrerebbero attivarsi durante la comprensione intersoggettiva) il corpo sta in effetti subendo una riabilitazione ontologica e cognitiva. Si parla sempre più spesso di “embodied cognition”, “embodied action” e “embodied emotions”. Tuttavia, come nota anche Fuchs, è necessario porre attenzione al modo in cui il corpo viene inteso, poichè la maggior parte delle teorie rimane ancorata a una concezione “meccanica”, di “corpo-cervello” del tutto scisso dalle attività di coscienza.

Le prospettive che, pur enfatizzando il suo ruolo, considerano l’embodiment qualcosa di puramente esterno alla percezione, e non costitutivo di essa, sono molteplici, e si possono schematizzare come segue:

  1. Minimal Embodiment: questo approccio, supportato in particolare da A. Goldman, sostiene che ogni cosa che abbia una benché minima importanza per la conoscenza umana avvenga nel cervello, “the seat of most, if not all, mental events” (A. Goldman, F. De Vigemont 2009, 154). Tuttavia Goldman, ponendosi in aperto contrasto con gli altri sostenitori dell’Embodied Cognition (EB), non considera il corpo (inteso come il fisico nella sua totalità) e l’ambiente elementi decisivi nel processo cognitivo. La priorità viene attribuita piuttosto a stati cerebrali, che il filosofo definisce Brain-formatted: ad esempio, nel contesto della cognizione sociale, gli stati cerebrali coinvolti saranno quelli localizzati nell’area dei neuroni specchio, secondo una logica che riduce l’embodiment a processi neurali. In quest’ottica, il cervello non si configura come una parte del corpo, ma, al contrario, il corpo è nel cervello, e le rappresentazioni “brain-formatted” sono “the most promising concept” per promuovere un approccio “embodied”. Questa prospettiva, che potremmo definire internalista e computazionale, ricorda un po’ l’esperimento del “cervello in una vasca”: paradossalmente, infatti, sembra sostenere un’immagine di cognizione disincarnata, in quanto la visione di corpo che supporta viene semplicemente ridotta a una simulazione di fattori corporei che avviene all’interno del cervello. Risulta difficile, quindi, considerare il minimal embodiment un’autentica versione dell’ EC: al contrario, ridurre la corporeità a meccanici processi cerebrali, sembra piuttosto una rielaborazione della classica prospettiva rappresentazionalista e computazionalista. In altre parole, pur fornendo numerose evidenze empiriche, la proposta di Goldman non sembra sufficiente a una descrizione esauriente del processo cognitivo. Tuttavia, come sottolinea Thomas Fuchs (ponendosi in continuità con la proposta di Louise Barrett (2011)), non è possibile concepire un cervello completamente scisso dal corpo, né tantomeno pensare a una priorità degli stati neurali. Al contrario, è necessario pensare al corpo nella sua totalità e nella sua connessione con l’ambiente;
  2. Biological Embodiment: In netto contrasto con il “minimal embodiment”, tale approccio (adottato da autori come Chiel e Beer, Shapiro e Straus) rivaluta il ruolo dell’anatomia e dei movimenti corporei considerandoli centrali all’interno del processo cognitivo, in quanto antecedenti qualsiasi operazione cerebrale di elaborazione delle informazioni. In tal senso, le strutture extra-neurali costituirebbero l’assetto a partire dal quale si modella la nostra esperienza cognitiva. Piuttosto che essere completamente determinate dall’attività neurale, le attività cognitive, così come i responsi motori, sembrano il risultato della nostra conformazione fisica: la flessibilità dei tendini, l’attività muscolare e il complesso funzionamento corporeo determinano infatti le attività “mentali” e Il movimento si configura così come una funzione decisiva per la percezione e l’azione. Le prove empiriche a favore di questa tesi sono molte: è stato dimostrato, infatti, che le vibrazioni producano patterns propriocettivi che inducono un cambiamento nella postura corporea, così come modificazioni della percezione dell’ambiente; allo stesso modo, variazioni ormonali possono condizionare processi cognitivi come la percezione, la memoria o l’attenzione. Nonostante tale approccio abbia dunque il merito di aver rivalutato il ruolo del corpo nella sua complessità, secondo un’ottica che si potrebbe definire gestaltica, il rischio è tuttavia quello di scadere in un mero riduzionismo biologico incapace di spiegare ciò che concerne la vita emotiva e morale del soggetto agente.
  3. Semantic Embodiment: Secondo tale prospettiva (che include, ad esempio, il lavoro di G. Lakoff e M. Johnson), il corpo, insieme alla sua postura e ai suoi movimenti, non solo determina il modo in cui facciamo esperienza del mondo, ma anche i significati che attraverso la percezione siamo in grado di cogliere. Rispetto alle proposte sopra descritte, tale modello di comprensione fa dunque un notevole passo in avanti attribuendo alla corporeità una responsabilità strutturale e contenutistica. In altre parole, la conformazione del corpo percipiente e le sue capacità motorie possono influenzare le valutazioni del soggetto a proposito dell’ambiente: ad esempio, grazie al fatto di avere le mani, percepiamo un oggetto come manipolabile, afferrabile e così via. Il contenuto della percezione sembra così direttamente provocato dall’ “essere corporeo” del soggetto. In particolare, a mediare tra esperienza corporea e rielaborazione concettuale sarebbe la metafora, intesa come il prodotto di schemi ricorrenti relativi all’immagine corporea (sopra-sotto, di fronte, a lato, dietro e così via). Il ruolo delle funzioni sensorio-motorie si rivela dunque la chiave del processo percettivo e cognitivo, così come la base del linguaggio condiviso. E’ interessante notare come il semantic embodiment possa essere assimilato dalla prospettiva della “cognitive linguistic”, di cui gli stessi Lokoff e Johson sono sostenitori: secondo tale approccio,  linguaggio e cognizione interagiscono costantemente, e la capacità linguistica non viene ascritta a un potenziale innato ma deriva dalle interazioni e dal contesto d’uso in cui le abilità linguistiche stesse si acquisiscono e si sviluppano. Sebbene rifiuti il rappresentazionalismo, tale corrente si pone comunque a metà tra una spiegazione fisicalista e un approccio che, invece, considera le relazioni tra organismo-ambiente come referenziali. Anche in questo caso, tuttavia, sembra che alcuni elementi della vita soggettiva, ad esempio l’affettività e tutto ciò che concerne la sfera del pre-riflessivo, non siano tenuti in considerazione, e che una spiegazione che si rifaccia alle tesi principali di questo genere di EC non renderebbe giustizia alla complessità e peculiarità di tali tematiche.
  4. Functionalist Embodiment: la versione più accreditata di tale modello di embodiment è quella definita “extended mind”, supportata da A. Clark e D. Chalmers. Secondo tali autori, considerare il processo cognitivo un’attività esclusivamente neurale costituisce un gravissimo errore. Essi suggeriscono, piuttosto, che la cognizione dipenda dall’azione incarnata di un sistema complesso, del quale possono far parte anche alcuni elementi ambientali. In quest’ottica, il ruolo del corpo non si risolve all’interno della disputa tra meccanismi neurali o corporeità intesa nella sua totalità, ma viene enfatizzata piuttosto la possibilità che il cervello e l’organismo vivente costituiscano un continuum con l’ambiente esterno: si ha dunque una visione di corpo come sistema esteso. Al fine di determinare cosa faccia effettivamente parte del processo cognitivo, Clark e Chalmers hanno elaborato una sorta di test, il Parity Principle, secondo il quale “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is part of the cognitive process” (A. Clark, D. Chalmers 1998, 8). In altre parole, secondo tale approccio, i meccanismi cognitivi non si trovano necessariamente ed esclusivamente all’interno della nostra mente. Nonostante, quindi, venga enfatizzata la necessità di una visione gestaltica del processo cognitivo, pare che, tuttavia, tale modello non dia priorità al soggetto inteso come corpo vivo, ma consideri l’organismo in senso meramente biologico, uniformando il suo ruolo all’interno della percezione a quello che, in certe occasioni, potrebbe assumere l’ambiente, in quanto entrambi possono ugualmente farsi latori di informazioni utili. Inoltre, la coscienza e l’esistenza corporea sono considerate come due elementi separati, caratteristica che rimanda al cognitivismo classico e che conferma una visione di fisico alla stregua del fisiologico.
  5. Enattivismo: la prospettiva enattiva sostiene la tesi secondo la quale il processo percettivo alla base della cognizione sia costituito dall’azione. Il più famoso esponente di un simile approccio è E. Thompson, che insieme a Varela e Rosch, nel testo The Embodied Mind riprende la fenomenologia merleau-pontiana e cerca di svilupparne alcuni concetti. Similmente alla “mente estesa” di Chalmers e Clark, anche in questo caso viene sottolineato il fatto che il processo cognitivo non si svolga esclusivamente nel cervello, ma sia distribuito tra corpo, ambiente e mente. Tuttavia, nel caso dell’enattivismo il corpo mantiene comunque la sua priorità, in quanto modella e influenza la percezione: gli aspetti biologici, infatti, incluse le emozioni e le caratteristiche meramente organiche, hanno effetto sulla cognizione, così come i processi sensorio-motori che regolano il rapporto tra individuo e ambiente. Alva Noë ha sviluppato un modello di cognizione enattiva ponendo in diretta correlazione le contingenze sensorio-motorie e le affordances ambientali, sostenendo la tesi secondo la quale “la cognizione è azione” e si baserebbe sull’ ”esplorazione” che il corpo fa dell’ambiente e sulle “structures of our biological embodiment” (F. J. Varela, E. Thompson, E. Rosch 1991, 149). Nonostante tale approccio enfatizzi, dunque, il ruolo del corpo inteso nella sua dinamica relazione con il mondo, ricordando alcune tesi del fenomenologo Merleau-Ponty, esso non chiarisce, tuttavia, in cosa consista il sistema cognitivo, né tantomeno offre una definizione univoca di esperienza cosciente. Non è inoltre chiarito a sufficienza in che senso il corpo possa avere una funzione costitutiva nel processo percettivo.

Combinando fenomenologia, neuroscienze, psicologia dello sviluppo e enattivismo, Fuchs propone dunque un modello alternativo, per il quale la percezione consiste in una relazione attiva tra soggetto incarnato e ambiente, e sostiene la tesi per cui la soggettività non è un epifenomeno di processi neurali, né tantomeno si possa identificare con il cervello. Le neuroscienze cognitive, infatti, commettono errori categoriali, che ricadono sotto il nome di fallacia mereologica e fallacia di localizzazione. La prima, identificata da Bennett e Hacker nel 2003, riguarda l’errore di identificare una parte con il tutto, in questo caso, considerando il cervello l’unico soggetto della percezione, quando invece è la persona nel suo complesso a farlo. La fallacia di localizzazione, invece, indica l’errore di attribuire specifiche esperienze fenomeniche a determinate aree del cervello. Tuttavia, come nota Fuchs, non è possibile localizzare le funzioni cerebrali, ma soltanto i loro disturbi. Inoltre, l’attivazione di un’area del cervello è condizione necessaria ma non sufficiente a una determinata funzione. In atre parole, la coscienza non è il cervello, nè tantomeno può essere considerata un prodotto del cervello. Vi sono numerosi altri fenomeni che vanno tenuti in considerazione, e che non fanno parte del mondo fisico, bensì del mondo-della-vita. La coscienza, infatti, emerge da integrazioni sensoriali-motorie del soggetto vivente con l’ambiente in uno spazio d’azione intermodale; è dotata di un’intenzionalità affettiva che la connota teleologicamente; è consapevole delle potenzialità del sé; integra varie esperienze nel tempo ed è capace di auto-esperirsi in relazione all’ambiente. Al livello neurobiologico è quindi necessario aggiungere il livello dell’esperienza intersoggettiva di sé. Enfatizzando la priorità del mondo-della-vita, Fuchs sottolinea la necessità, da parte delle neuroscienze, di divenire sociali e prendere in considerazione anche quegli aspetti esperienziali che di solito vengono considerati superflui. Il pericolo del rinnovato interesse nei confronti della corporeità è infatti quello di sfociare in una sorta di “neuromania” che consideri il cervello, e non la persona, il vero soggetto dell’esperienza.

Avvalersi di un approccio fenomenologico si rivela quindi adatto per descrivere al meglio la relazione chiasmatica che lega il soggetto al mondo. In particolare, la nozione di “corpo vivo” si rivela utile a tale scopo poiché implica un organismo psicofisico che, per mezzo delle sue capacità cinestetiche, e, quindi, del movimento, non solo riesce a fare esperienza dell’ambiente, ma anche di se stesso (autocostituzione del corpo vivo).

II. Un approccio fenomenologico alla percezione: l’importanza del corpo vivo

Secondo la prospettiva fenomenologica, sia il processo cognitivo che la stessa coscienza altro non sono che il prodotto del nostro essere incarnati. Il corpo costituisce il mezzo attraverso il quale il soggetto può vivere nel mondo e distinguersi dalle creature inanimate. Il corpo vivo, infatti, è caratterizzato dal fatto di essere intenzionalmente diretto verso l’esterno (ponendosi come punto di partenza per ogni tipo di conoscenza) e da un’auto-affezione che gli permette di essere consapevole di se stesso indipendentemente da qualsivoglia interazione con il mondo.

E’, in particolare, Merleau-Ponty a sostenere l’inseparabilità tra capacità corporee e coscienza: in altre parole, la nostra percezione del mondo dipende dagli aspetti strutturali della nostra esistenza corporea. Tale affermazione è confermata, ad esempio, dal caso dell’arto fantasma: pare, infatti, che i pazienti che abbiano sofferto dell’amputazione o della perdita di un arto continuino ad avere percezione dell’arto in questione, come se lo possedessero ancora. Secondo il fenomenologo francese questo caso dimostra in modo esplicito come l’intenzionalità motoria—pre-riflessiva e corporea- strutturi a fondo le esperienze, indipendentemente dalla situazione meramente biologica del soggetto. Il motivo per cui l’arto perduto viene esperito come “quasi-presente” consiste nel fatto che le strutture corporee continuano a fornire al soggetto la percezione del mondo esterno. L’arto fantasma è ancora “incorporato” e inserito nel mondo, che lo “invita” a interagire con esso e i suoi oggetti, nonostante il soggetto non sia più effettivamente in grado di farlo quando. In altre parole, nonostante l’evidente deficit, il mondo continua ad apparire come un luogo a cui l’ “io posso” del soggetto può ancora relazionarsi.

Il ruolo del corpo vissuto sembrerebbe, infatti, quello di strutturare l’esperienza percettiva e renderla significante. Tale tesi risulta evidente, ad esempio, al momento dell’acquisizione di una nuova abitudine: quest’operazione, infatti, non si configura affatto come il risultato di un’operazione meramente intellettiva che avviene per mezzo di rappresentazioni o inferenze, quanto piuttosto come un atto pre-riflessivo, involontario e corporeo. L’incontro tra corpo e mondo implica inoltre un rapporto dinamico e dialettico: la percezione, infatti, non si configura come una mera rappresentazione, ma lo stesso “corpo abituale” viene costantemente modificato dalla sua interazione con l’ambiente. Imparare a danzare, a suonare uno strumento o a scrivere a macchina comporta infatti un cambiamento delle affordances e della relazione intenzionale tra soggetto e mondo.

A partire da quest’immagine di percezione è possibile sostenere che il corpo vivo sia un elemento fondamentale dell’intero processo cognitivo, motivo per cui pare necessario riformulare il rapporto tra cognizione e coscienza e, piuttosto, pensare a un approccio embodied alternativo o comunque complementare a quelli precedentemente descritti.

All’interno di tale proposta il movimento assume una funzione fondamentale, poiché si configura come lo strumento principale attraverso il quale si forma la cognizione: attraverso i movimenti corporei, infatti, il soggetto esplora il mondo, percepisce le affordances e determina le sue abitudini (habit body). In altre parole, il processo cognitivo non è affatto plasmato da rappresentazioni, ma sembra piuttosto il risultato di una percezione essenzialmente incarnata, che avviene a partire da un corpo vivo. Le capacità corporee non sono quindi meri strumenti all’interno del processo cognitivo, ma costituiscono esse stesse la cognizione: seguendo queste tesi, potremmo addirittura affermare che la mente (intesa come l’insieme dei processi cognitivi) sia essa stessa il corpo.

Nella seconda parte del libro, Fuchs sviluppa quindi una visione di cervello compatibile con il mondo della vita esperienziale, e coerente con la dualità che caratterizza la soggettività, che è sì corpo fisico, ma anche corpo vivo, in perpetuo contatto con un mondo culturale e sociale che ne condiziona lo sviluppo.

E’ interessante notare come, in questo contesto, il processo cognitivo sembri avere caratteristiche affettive: il movimento si configura, ad esempio, come la prima risorsa comunicativa, fonte di concetti non linguistici e cinetici (spazio, tempo, forza..). Le attività motorie, così come le esperienze emotive, sembrano quindi gli strumenti principali per rapportarsi e conoscere il mondo, prima che subentrino capacità cognitive più complesse, il cui corretto funzionamento pare piuttosto derivare da esse. Lo sviluppo della percezione mondana sembra perciò dipendere da esperienze corporee complessive e irriflesse, il cui protagonista è il corpo vivo, il corpo che si muove.

Focalizzarsi sulle capacità cinestetiche e motorie, piuttosto che sui correlati neurali attivi durante la percezione, permette perciò di avviare un’indagine verso un percorso più promettente. In altre parole, la concezione gerarchica tra i vari elementi attivi nel processo percettivo deve essere ripensata. Sebbene, infatti, un corretto funzionamento neuro-fisiologico sia necessario, ancor più importanti ai fini di una corretta percezione sono il processo propriocettivo e le cinestesi dell’organismo percipiente: il risultato sarà una concezione olistica di soggetto, e una visione circolare di causalità. Fuchs parla infatti di causalità circolare verticale, che avviene tra cellule (livello base), organi (livello intermedio) e organismo complessivo; e causalità circolare orizzontale, che coinvolge percezione, movimento e ambiente. Causalità circolare orizzontale e verticale si condizionano poi a vicenda, in un meccanismo complesso e olistico che permette il ciclo di cognizione, percezione e movimento. In altre parole, esiste una risonanza costante tra organismo, cervello e ambiente, legame che un approccio riduzionista e fisicalista non è affatto in grado di spiegare  esaustivamente. Il corpo vivo si fa mediatore tra soggetto e mondo, e questo legame non può essere descritto in termini di “rappresentazione”, “mappe”, “simulazioni” o “rispecchiamenti”, ma come una vera e propria risonanza, un rimando continuo e pre-riflessivo tra qualità affettive, corpo, cervello e stimoli esterni.

Prendendo come esempio lo sviluppo della socialità, e descrivendo l’ intersoggettività primaria (ovvero il rapporto diadico tra neonato e madre, che si configura come la prima forma di sincronizzazione affettiva) e l’ intersoggettività secondaria (che implica lo sviluppo dell’attenzione condivisa e relazioni intersoggettive che comprendono l’uso di oggetti), Fuchs enfatizza come fin dalla nascita l’individuo sia, in effetti, pre-riflessivamente e corporalmente legato all’altro e al mondo: l’intenzionalità corporea e l’immediata consapevolezza delle proprie cinestesi caratterizzano il soggetto fin da subito.

L’azione corporea non sempre, quindi, è complementare alla cognizione, ma è possibile sostenere che essa stessa sia cognizione. La posizione di Fuchs è quindi coerente con ciò che afferma M. Johnstone: “The human mind is not contained in the body, but emerges from and co-evolves with the body… A human being is a body-mind, that is, an organic, continually developing process of events”(M. Johnson 2007, 279).

Grazie alle nostre capacità cinestetiche impariamo a rapportarci con il mondo, acquisiamo nuove abitudini, diveniamo in possesso di quel “saper fare”, la praktognosia, essenziale per il nostro ancoraggio al mondo in quanto presenze animate (e non come cervelli disincarnati e decontestualizzati).

L’esperienza non è un epifenomeno, ma ha un ruolo centrale per la comprensione della mente: è quindi necessario un ripensamento della comprensione dell’apparato cognitivo: la mente umana sembra infatti “incarnata” nell’organismo e “incorporata” nel mondo, perciò irriducibile a strutture cerebrali.

La nostra vita mentale sembra coinvolgere, inoltre, tre tipi di attività corporee interrelate tra loro: auto-regolazione, interazione intersoggettiva, percezione sensoriale-motoria. Un approccio che tenti di spiegare in modo esauriente tale sistema deve quindi tenere in considerazione non tanto la correlazione tra attivazioni neurali e stimoli esterni, quanto il rapporto dinamico tra soggetto e ambiente circostante. Di conseguenza, anche l’apparato neurofisiologico dovrà essere ripensato come qualcosa di plastico, attivo e in costante evoluzione. Il risultato è un’immagine di soggetto e mondo come elementi ugualmente coinvolti in un processo circolare e olistico incomprensibile da una prospettiva meramente rappresentazionalista: cognizione e coscienza (incarnata) sono quindi intimamente connesse.

Un ulteriore vantaggio dell’approccio fenomenologico adottato da Fuchs è inoltre quello di rendere giustizia alla corporeità nel suo complesso: il corpo vivo, infatti, implica qualcosa di più di un insieme di schemi sensoriali-motori funzionanti. Essendo un’entità essenzialmente psicofisica, il Leib include fattori pre-noetici che, tuttavia, hanno un ruolo attivo nella percezione, come, ad esempio, i fattori affettivi ed emozionali.

Come nota Gallagher (si veda, ad esempio, S. Gallagher, M. Bower 2014) infatti, gli elementi affettivi e passivi hanno un valore motivazionale che anima l’interazione tra soggetto e mondo: si pensi, ad esempio, al caso della fame, istinto in grado di condizionare e talvolta distorcere i giudizi cognitivi. Uno studio effettuato da Danzinger et al. nel 2011 ha infatti dimostrato che le decisioni dei giudici non sono mai totalmente il frutto della mera applicazione delle leggi: molto spesso, piuttosto, il loro stato psicosomatico gioca un ruolo fondamentale nell’emissione del verdetto. Allo stesso modo è stato dimostrato come le emozioni condizionino la percezione mondana e i processi cognitivi: questo ha fatto ipotizzare l’esistenza di una coscienza affettiva e incarnata la cui posizione all’interno dell’esperienza non sia del tutto passiva.

Tale descrizione di persona come organismo essenzialmente duale ha conseguenze importanti. Innanzitutto, il contributo di Fuchs permette di ripensare il cosiddetto “mind-body problem” in termini di interrelazioni tra mente e corpo, o meglio, tra organismo vivente e cervello. Si potrebbe sostenere che la sua sia una versione “forte” dell’emergentismo, che va tuttavia a dare priorità al tutto rispetto alle componenti, e a enfatizzare la reciprocità tra livello locale e livello globale (grazie al concetto di causalità circolare). Il peggior difetto delle teorie contemporanee a proposito del rapporto mente-corpo, infatti, è quello di escludere un concetto autonomo di vita, che Fuchs (con esplicito riferimento alla nozione di autopoiesi introdotta da Varela) prende invece in considerazione, convinto che non sia possibile parlare di soggetto, o mente, senza aver ben presente il fatto che questo sia essenzialmente un corpo vivo, dotato di e-mozioni e “gettato” fin da subito in un mondo tutt’altro che asettico e passivo.

III. Per una psichiatria diretta alla persona

Una simile concezione di soggetto ha inevitabili conseguenze anche in ambito psichiatrico: negli ultimi capitoli del libro, quindi, Fuchs affronta il tema della malattia mentale e dello statuto della psichiatria. Anche in questo caso la sua posizione risulta antagonista rispetto a antagonista a quegli approcci neurobiologici riduzionisti, secondo i quali la patologia mentale altro non è che un disturbo cerebrale. In tal modo, tali prospettive reificano il disordine psichico (infatti localizzano gli stati mentali in specifiche aree del cervello), e isolano il soggetto (in quanto considerano esclusivamente gli aspetti neurobiologici, indipendentemente dal contesto). Tuttavia, i disordini mentali non sono localizzati nel cervello, ma affliggono la persona e le sue relazioni con gli altri e con il mondo. Riprendendo il tema della circolarità, che funge da filo conduttore dell’intero libro, Fuchs sostiene che la malattia mentale stessa consista quindi in un processo circolare nel quale processi psicosociali (interazioni intersoggettive), interazioni tra cervello, organismo e ambiente, e processi neurali e molecolari all’interno del cervello si condizionano a vicenda. Oltre a una predisposizione genetica, nell’eziologia della psicopatologia hanno quindi un ruolo anche le prime interazioni sociali (che influenzano la maturazione epigenetica del cervello) e le influenze ambientali (quelle negative, ad esempio, comportano uno sviluppo deficiente delle capacità relazionali).

Di conseguenza, anche i trattamenti dovranno tenere in considerazione sia i processi neurali che quelli intenzionali interattivi. Alla farmacologia (che influenza l’andamento del disordine a livello neurale, modificando le attività cerebrali che, a loro volta, influiscono sull’esperienza soggettiva) si andrà quindi a sommare l’effetto di una terapia interattiva basata su uno scambio interpersonale che ha l’effetto di alterare gli schemi neurali. I trattamenti si configurano così come vere e proprie azioni, forme di comunicazione incarnata orientate alla persona nel suo complesso.

Come sosteneva Merleau-Ponty, infatti, “la malattia è una forma d’esistenza completa” (M. Merleau-Ponty 2003, 177), espressione di una particolare variazione dell’essere-al-mondo del soggetto colpito.

Cercando quindi di oltrepassare la mera interpretazione e catalogazione dei sintomi, l’approccio descritto da Fuchs sembra avere il merito di spiegare scientificamente in cosa consista la malattia e comprendere cosa significhi per il paziente l’esperienza psicotica. Enfatizzando la centralità degli aspetti pre-riflessivi dell’esperienza, una visione “circolare” di patologia riesce così a porre la dimensione pre-teorica, vissuta e emozionale al centro dell’indagine psichiatrica.

Risulta chiaro, quindi, come un approccio meramente riduzionista sia insufficiente a spiegare la complessità dell’esperienza della malattia: non è possibile localizzare la patologia in una specifica area del cervello, in quanto ciò che risulta compromesso è la soggettività nel suo complesso. La dualità enfatizzata all’inizio del volume, in cui il soggetto viene descritto come corpo fisico e corpo vivo, permette quindi di definire la psichiatria come una scienza che possiede un “soggetto-oggetto”, un orizzonte di significato che, come già aveva osservato Basaglia, necessita di un approccio integrativo, che oltrepassi il gap epistemologico tra un riduzionismo neurobiologista  e una psicologia che spiega i sintomi esclusivamente in termini di disordini interni alla mente. Mutuando un’espressione di Jaspers, è necessario un pluralismo metodologico che tenga in considerazione la complessità della coscienza, i suoi vissuti e il ruolo delle interazioni sociali.

Il libro di Fuchs riesce quindi ad offrire non solo una rinnovata immagine di soggetto, ma anche un’interessante e concreta proposta nel campo della psicopatologia: la circolarità descritta all’interno del libro non è perciò un concetto astratto, o una semplice metafora dell’interazione soggetto-mondo, ma una vera e propria direzione che le terapie dirette ai disturbi “mentali” (se così possiamo ancora definirli) dovrebbero assumere.

Ecology of the Brain permette quindi di trovare risposte soddisfacenti ai quesiti che ci si poneva all’inizio di tale recensione: embodiment non è un semplice attributo, ma un modo di essere del soggetto che va ben oltre i suoi sostrati neurali, poiché il corpo vivo si fa fin dalla nascita coscienza dinamica e intenzionale in cui processi vitali e fisici (Leben e Erleben) si intrecciano ontologicamente in modo inestricabile.

Bibliografia Essenziale

Barrett, Louise. 2011. Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds. Princeton University Press.

Bennett, Max, Hacker, P. 2003. Philosophical foundations of neuroscience. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Clark, Andy, Chalmers, David. 1998. The Extended Mind. In Analysis 58.

Danzinger, Shai, et al. 2011. Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, a. CVIII, n. 17, pp. 6889-6892.

Gallagher, Shaun, Bower, Matthew. 2014. Making enactivism even more embodied. In Avant V No. 2/2014, pp. 232-247.

Goldman, Alvin, De Vignemont, Frederique. 2009. Is social cognition embodied?. In Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13 (4), pp. 154-159.

Jaspers, Karl. 1959. Allgemeine Psychopatologie. Springer, Berlin-Gottingen-Heidelberg; engl. transl. General Psychopathology. Chicago: Il, University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, Mark. 2007. The Meaning of the Body. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2003. Fenomenologia della Percezione. Bompiani Editore, Milano.

Varela, Francisco, Thompson, Evan, Rosch, Eleonor. 1991. The Embodied Mind. The Mit Press, Massachusetts.

Keith Whitmoyer: The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking

The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking Book Cover The Philosophy of Ontological Lateness: Merleau-Ponty and the Tasks of Thinking
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Keith Whitmoyer
Hardback $102.60

Reviewed by: Frank Chouraqui (Leiden University)

Through the last decade, it was de rigueur for most reviews of the new books devoted to Merleau-Ponty’s thought to chronicle his late but increasing accession to the status of a canonical philosopher. Such books showed us how much we had to learn from Merleau-Ponty, how the distinctions he made were potent for philosophy, and how they helped us organize the tradition that preceded him, especially the relations between empiricism and intellectualism. In that view, Merleau-Ponty was in the process of becoming a great philosopher because it had become obvious that philosophical questions had been addressed in his work in ways so definitive that engaging with such questions made engaging with his work indispensable. One had to know Merleau-Ponty if they were to talk of embodiment, of the phenomenological reduction, of the relations of hermeneutics and metaphysics etc. In such cases, the value of reading Merleau-Ponty was dependent on the value of doing philosophy.

Whitmoyer’s new book may be taken as a signal that such a process of canonization has been complete, and that we’re now moving to a further phase: to speak like Heidegger, not only are we interested in Merleau-Ponty’s thought, we are now also interested in his “unthought.” This is a shift because one’s thought is interesting because of the reader’s interest in those things discussed by the author. An author’s unthought, on the contrary, is interesting insofar as the author is him or herself the object of interest. With this move comes a metaphilosophical line of questioning addressed to Merleau-Ponty: it is not just Merleau-Ponty’s contribution to philosophy that motivates our reading of his works, but rather, it is his meta-philosophy itself.  We now care about Merleau-Ponty’s views so much that we are even considering changing our notion of what philosophy is or should be in order to follow him. A second moment of canonization indeed, where the order of priority between the philosophical project and our attachment to one philosopher becomes reversed. This is a tendency exemplified by Whitmoyer’s book for in spite of a very thorough understanding and knowledge of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical position and argument, Whitmoyer chooses to focus on what he regards as Merleau-Ponty’s implicit but fundamental critique of the philosophical project, his implicit reappraisal of the “tasks of thinking.”

Whitmoyer chronicles Merleau-Ponty’s “Philosophy of Ontological Lateness,” but this expression, taken from the title, contains two zones of ambiguity, one surrounding the proper sense of “of” and the other the proper sense of “ontological.” As a result, one may have a philosophical or a metaphilosophical reading of the title. As I suggested above, Whitmoyer emphasizes the latter.

In the first, philosophical, reading, it is not Whitmoyer’s concern to describe Merleau-Ponty’s account of “ontological lateness” if by this we mean some sort of phenomenon, group of phenomena, or even a certain region of being meant to account for the cases in which being or the beings are, in some sense or other, late. In this reading, ontological lateness is not Merleau-Ponty’s topic, but rather, it is his metaphilosophical approach, and a universalisable structure. Secondly, what is so ontological about this lateness? For Whitmoyer, again, it is not a matter of the discipline of ontology being late. It is, rather, that lateness has something ontological to it. On the basis of such a sense of “of” and of “ontological,” one could reformulate Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s view in this one claim: “being is lateness.” This needs clarification, but as I will try to show, this is entirely sound, indeed a helpful formulation for Merleau-Ponty’s most complex set of ideas. And there is reason to believe that this portrays Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty too. But, as I mentioned earlier, Whitmoyer’s interest is metaphilosophical: it is a matter of knowing what the task of philosophy is or ought to be.

This metaphilosophical concern relies on a different reading of the title: in that reading, Merleau-Ponty provides or motivates a discussion about the lateness of ontology over being, in much the same vein as Hegel claims that philosophy is always late. In that line of argument, ontology is—and ought to remain—late before her object, and the metaphilosophical view Whitmoyer attributes to Merleau-Ponty could be formulated thus: “the task of philosophy is to refrain from foreclosing being.” The opposition between closing in advance (or foreclosing) and the lateness of ontology becomes dramatized as the opposition of what Whitmoyer calls “cruel thought” (the thought that has dominated the history of philosophy, obsessed with totalizing views) and what he calls “the philosophy of ontological lateness.” This opposition, as the notion of “cruel thought” suggests, should also be understood as normative: not only is Whitmoyer concerned with the place of philosophy (a topic that has become more and more discussed in Merleau-Ponty studies), he is concerned with philosophy’s value, its virtues and duties (something much newer).

Unsurprisingly, Whitmoyer seems committed to both the philosophical and the metaphilosophical-normative view, the first whereby “being is lateness” and the second, whereby philosophy must remain “late.” He focuses on the latter however, leaving some obscurity on the relations he sees as holding between them. We shall return to this. Once the metaphilosophical focus of the book is thus established, many reading difficulties become ironed out. Let me now propose a brief linear reconstruction of Whitmoyer’s argument.

In part 1, Whitmoyer begins by setting out the metaphilosophical project he attributes to Merleau-Ponty in terms of his later writings and their emphasis on interrogation. Before addressing the notion of interrogation on its own terms, it can be approached negatively: if philosophy is essentially interrogation, it is also, essentially, open and infinite. In Whitmoyer’s reading, this notion of interrogation encapsulates Merleau-Ponty’s polemical stance towards the Cartesian tradition which regards certainty as the end of philosophy (in both senses of “end”). Unlike “cruel thought,” which violates its object by reducing it to a function of thought, interrogation attunes itself or even submits itself to the world it observes, and thereby, it follows it. We have here an initial notion of lateness as following, and an intimation of the normative implications of this lateness: the lateness of philosophy expresses the priority of the world over it. This, it could be added (although Whitmoyer leaves it aside), is widely illustrated in Merleau-Ponty’s critique of Bolshevism as abusive application of theory to practice in the Adventures of the Dialectic. On this basis, Whitmoyer engages in a game of variations around this notion of cruelty: the objectivism of Descartes is cruel because it seeks objectification, but the transcendental idealism of Kant and Husserl’s Ideen I, is, if not cruel, at least “claustrophobic,” because it reduces the embodied subject to the transcendental confined ego. Yet, Whitmoyer regards Merleau-Ponty as committed to transcendental idealism, since “Merleau-Ponty’s critical stance with respect to realism requires that we include him in the tradition of transcendental thought” (52). This is a highly controversial claim, not least because Merleau-Ponty’s entire Phenomenology of Perception is busy preventing such non sequiturs by suggesting that there is indeed a way between intellectualism and realism; in other words, that the mutual exclusion that forces one to choose for either side is misguided. However, such a statement only serves to make Whitmoyer’s work all the harder, and therefore, it make things more interesting: how can Merleau-Ponty’s own putative brand of transcendental idealism avoid the charge of claustrophobia? In spite of such a mispronouncement, Whitmoyer remains a keen reader of Merleau-Ponty, and the subsequent sophistication he attributes to Merleau-Ponty’s so-called idealism shows it to be idealism in name only, for it becomes replaced, in terms Whitmoyer doesn’t use, to a form of metaphysical hermeneutics in which the center of apparition is not the ego but unmotivated and infinite meaning-making. But meaning, as Merleau-Ponty repeats constantly, is never complete, and so such a position reopens what was foreclosed by transcendental idealism, and allows Merleau-Ponty to evade cruel thought.

In part II, Whitmoyer initiates a move from a negative notion of ontological lateness provided in Part I (whereby ontological lateness” is defined in contradistinction to “cruel thought”), to a positive one. This move is motivated by the problem of idealism alluded to above, and by the search for a solution of the hermeneutic kind. As such, it is also a move to the Phenomenology of Perception, in which the possibility to avoid idealism and realism is the philosophical center. Here, ontological lateness becomes characterized as the lateness of becoming to being (82): sense is not the result of thought, but it is a dynamic, temporal act: sense is the same as making-sense. It is endless, and therefore constantly incomplete: its horizon is full meaning, a complete sense of self-identity (being), but its structure is purely dynamic (becoming): it is always held back from this self-identity, it shies before it, it is late over it. Note how this doesn’t suggest that being—this that we are late over—is something that is; but rather, being is a fantasy of becoming, and lateness is simply the self-experience of being as failing, the experience that this fantasy is indeed an unattainable fantasy.

In part III, Whitmoyer gathers his findings. This is where the axiological undertones that motivated the metaphilosophical-normative approach become more overt. The abandonment of cruel thought, he suggests, is motivated by a concern for freedom, for love, and for non-religious “faith.” Thereby, the advent of ontological lateness constitutes a eulogy for a philosophy motivated in epistemological terms. This approach naturally leads into an extensive discussion of Nancy’s Noli Me Tangere, in which, also, indeterminacy is the ground of ethics.

As is the rule with all good books in the history of philosophy, it is where Whitmoyer is at his most interesting that he is also at his most controversial. His reading of Merleau-Ponty is accurate and deep, but what makes it original is its tone, which is normative. In a post-enlightenment world in which we have become hypnotized by the notion of singularity, many scholars have considered Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the body as containing the promise for a systematic basis to an ethics of the other, of care or of respect. As a result, we have witnessed a number of more or less ventriloquistic attempts at drawing an ethics from a body of work notoriously suspicious of normative arguments. In this context, Whitmoyer’s book will be of interest to any of the many scholars interested in making Merleau-Ponty formulate the ethics he never did formulate. Whitmoyer’s assumption here is that ontological lateness is elaborated out of a normative concern for evading cruel thought. The motivations for this are left vague, and indeed, Whitmoyer doesn’t seem to think that such motivations need providing: “cruel” thought should be avoided, for presumably obvious reasons (the hint is perhaps in the name). Let’s look at Whitmoyer’s notion of cruel thought, therefore, to see if we can draw from the aversion to cruelty, a positive, ethical ground. Cruel thought, Whitmoyer argues, is a violation of the integrity of its objects (it objectifies, and denies them their mystery, indeterminacy, and becoming). It is also, of course, hubris. He writes: “What is required for this love is not knowledge in the sense outlined above—not clarity, distinctness, and apodicticity—but pistis… the faith we demonstrate when we no longer take ‘knowing’ as our subject, when we let others—[Proust’s] Albertine, being—withdraw.” (3) The presumed motivation to evade pure thought therefore, should be something like respect (as non-intrusion), humility and love. Whitmoyer suggests that “Merleau-Ponty wishes to overcome the fear, jealousy and paranoia that motivate cruel thought and to re-think the sense of philia at stake in philosophia” (3). The decision to close the book with a discussion not of Merleau-Ponty but of Nancy’s Noli me Tangere should serves to confirm this. This is an interesting strategy, but to this reviewer, it seems misguided both philosophically and strategically. Indeed, if I am correct about this, it might even reflect onto the initial decision to place the stake of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in a question about the “tasks of philosophy” that is, a question about metaphilosophical normativity.

Here are the strategic worries: first, this is an approach that weakens Merleau-Ponty’s position. This may not be a concern for those who are interested in his “unthought” as they don’t need any further reasons to follow Merleau-Ponty. But to the others, it does: it detaches Merleau-Ponty from this tradition, it removes him from the context that makes his work meaningful and in my view, justified. Isn’t there a stronger rationale for reading Merleau-Ponty in his own claims that he’s dealing with the overcoming of the stalemate between empiricism and idealism for example? Or that he’s dealing with a stable account of the inherence of the so-called subjective and objective poles? Or body and soul? Secondly, and consequently, this commits Whitmoyer to too much: for example, it commits him to having to explain and trace this non-philosophical (or as yet non-philosophical) normative motivation at the root of Merleau-Ponty’s project, and it commits him to justifying Merleau-Ponty’s metaphysics in terms of value and not truth. But what the text gives us, is rather a Merleau-Ponty motivating his work with traditional questions, and his ontology of incompleteness as the result of fearless, unprejudiced and amoral focus for truth. Indeed, Whitmoyer seems to maintain a muted and ambiguous line of thinking in which the value of releasing philosophy from cruel thought is motivated in terms of truth. He writes: “The philosophy of ontological lateness, finally, is not an attempt to make sense of being, if we understand by that fusing and coinciding with it, but to make sense of the manner in which the sense of this becoming is constantly working itself out, to think through the fact that human inquiry, including the project of philosophy itself, is circumscribed by its immersion in the Strom, and that therefore what it seeks remains at a distance.” (150-151) This is both importantly insightful and ambiguous: insightful, because it is true that the object of Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is not being as an object but being as a mode of “working itself out.” Ambiguous, because in Whitmoyer’s view, this is different form “making sense of being” whereby for Merleau-Ponty it is exactly the same: being is the same as this “working out.” We may see therefore how this false distinction between “being” and the “working out” of being leads Whitmoyer to read Merleau-Ponty as driven by concerns others than theoretical, to the point that he returns to the problem by asking: “But is there not something profoundly pessimistic in a philosophy that bids us to give up on completing the tasks of thinking? … These kinds of questions however, again, are only asked from the point of view of thought that began with a presupposed ideal of finality. On the contrary, for Merleau-Ponty, a philosophy of lateness is optimistic precisely because it does not seek closure.” (166). But who asked for optimism? Who thought that optimism could redeem a philosophy that would indeed divert us from our theoretical concerns? Isn’t this already assuming that our motivation for doing philosophy is normative? Furthermore, why need that move to the normative, when Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy entirely satisfies the traditional requirements of philosophy as theory? For who says that the discovery of the openness as the fundamental structure of being is not a discovery?

The philosophical worry becomes visible therefore: Whitmoyer is correct that Merleau-Ponty distances himself from the ideal of “knowledge” as objectivity. The fact that he discovers that this yields an ontology of being, and that this leads retroactively into a formulation of philosophy as seeking not knowledge (the truth of objects) but understanding (which is the truth of meanings) is correct and important, but it is the result, not the motive. Even more, the confrontation of the ideal of understanding against the ideal of knowledge is crucial, indeed, it could very well be the core of the current crisis in philosophy, where the opposition between the so-called “Analytic” and “Continental” approaches to philosophy may arguably boil down to a confrontation between these ideals. As such, siding with the ideal of understanding, which is definitely what Merleau-Ponty does, is a normative move indeed, and it is metaphilosophical too, but it is emphatically not a departure from an epistemic ideal towards the ideal of respect. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty never hesitated to submit values to the test of truth (the long polemic with Sartre in the letters as well as in the end of the Adventures of the Dialectic and the preface to Signs among many other passages, should count as a glaring examples of this). Finally, implicitly attributing the values of respect and humility to Merleau-Ponty runs the risk of trivializing his thought. For Merleau-Ponty, they may be virtues worth having, but not for moral reasons. On the contrary, they are themselves motivated by the philosophical urge to avoid deceptions, for objectification is undesirable as a fallacy well before it is morally wrong: cruel thought doesn’t portray the world as it is, it is false well before it is wrong.

Whitmoyer’s reading of Merleau-Ponty’s texts, especially the texts from the Forties to the mid-Fifties, is reliable and often deep and insightful. His grasp of the Merleau-Pontian vision of a hermeneutic metaphysics and its connections with openness and becoming offers far-reaching systematic perspectives. His metaphilosophical and normativist reading, although open to the criticisms I have tried to outline here, is original and potent, and its purported weaknesses don’t affect the accuracy of his readings of the texts. Perhaps such an idiosyncratic decision was the cost of motivating and initiating a new kind of discussion around the ethics one could draw from Merleau-Ponty’s work. In that context, it offers a new, original and systematic way to pose the question. Whether this question is Merleau-Ponty’s own or his reader’s will soon become an academic distinction, as Merleau-Ponty increasingly becomes what he himself calls, a “classic.”

Sebastian Luft, Maren Wehrle (Hrsg.): Husserl-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung

Husserl-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung Book Cover Husserl-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung
Sebastian Luft, Maren Wehrle (Hrsg.)
J.B. Metzler
Hardcover 89,95 €
VI, 374

Reviewed by: Corinna Lagemann (Freie Universität Berlin)

Das vorliegende Werk Husserl-Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart 2017), herausgegeben von Sebastian Luft und Maren Wehrle, stellt einen vielseitigen, umfassenden Überblick über das Leben und Wirken Edmund Husserls dar. Sein besonderes Verdienst liegt darin, dass er deutlich über einen bloßen Überblick hinausgeht und inhaltlich auch in der Tiefe zu überzeugen vermag. Der Band versammelt eine Vielzahl von Aufsätzen, nicht nur zu Husserls Schaffen als publizierender und lehrender Philosoph – die Sektion „Werk“ umfasst immerhin 24 Beiträge und untergliedert sich in Veröffentlichte Texte und Nachlass – auch seinem Leben, seiner Biographie und den historischen Gegebenheiten seiner Zeit wird, immer in Hinblick auf sein philosophisches Projekt, Beachtung geschenkt. Abschließend widmet sich der Band dem Einfluss, den Husserl ausübte, sowohl auf Personen, deren Denken und Wirken er maßgeblich geprägt hat als auch Strömungen und Denkrichtungen innerhalb und außerhalb der Philosophie. So sind hier neben philosophischen Schulen auch Soziologie, Psychologie und interdisziplinäre Diskurse genannt.

Als „besonderes Anliegen“ und gleichzeitig als Neuartigkeit des Bandes bezeichnen die HerausgeberInnen dem Nachlass: „den in ihm behandelten Themen, seiner Entstehung und der sich durch diesen ausdrückenden Arbeitsweise Husserls, gebührend Raum zu geben. Die Betonung des Nachlasses in der Auswahl der in diesem Handbuch behandelten Themen ist in der Forschung ein Novum“ (S.3).

Die AutorInnen sind der internationalen Husserl-Forschung zuzuordnen; neben Beiträgen aus dem deutschsprachigen Raum von einschlägigen Husserl-Experten wie Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl, Christian Bermes und Thomas Bedorf, ist z.B. Nicolas de Warren zu nennen, der insbesondere den ersten Teil des Buches mit luziden Betrachtungen zentraler Werke Husserls bereichert.

Der biographische Abschnitt „Leben und Kontext“ bündelt familiäre Situation, zentrale Personen, psycho-soziale Umstände (Husserl spricht in den 1930er Jahren über seine Depression) und bettet sein Schaffen und Lehren sowie die Ausführungen zu seinem wissenschaftlichen Projekt gut ein. Teilweise sehr sachlich, teilweise anekdotisch, greifen die Beiträge von unterschiedlichen Autoren sinnvoll ineinander und schaffen so einen roten Faden, der plausibel zur Werk-Sektion überleitet und die Auseinandersetzung motiviert. So werden bereits hier zentrale Interessen und Begriffe in Husserls Phänomenologie angerissen, die im Lauf des Buches erörtert werden. Als Beispiel wird Husserls Analyse von Twardowski genannt, die gewissermaßen der Ausgangspunkt für Husserls Weiterentwicklung des Intentionalitätsbegriffs sei und damit eine bedeutende Rolle spiele: „Die Frage nach der Rolle der Intentionalität in der Relation zwischen Akt und Gegenstand, und allgemeiner zwischen Ich und Welt, wird dann zum Fundamentalproblem der Phänomenologie“ (S.30).

Im Abschnitt III A, in welchem die veröffentlichten Texte verhandelt werden, folgen die Beiträge chronologisch nach Erscheinungsjahr des behandelten und publizierten Werks. So macht denn auch die Philosophie der Arithmetik als erstes Buch, das auch den Weg in den Buchhandel fand, den Auftakt. Bereits in diesem frühen Text, so arbeitet Mirja Hartimo heraus, werden Konzepte angelegt und entwickelt, die Husserls gesamte Philosophie prägen werden. So wird die Methode der kollektiven Verbindung genannt, und zwar „als psychischer Akt, der mehrere Objekte als ein Ganzes begreift, ohne dass diese ihre Individualität verlieren“ (S.49). Hier zeichnet sich Husserls Herangehensweise ab, Logik und Erfahrungswissen zu verknüpfen, die Gesamtheit eines Phänomenbereichs im Blick zu haben, ohne dabei die Individualität und die logischen Gesetzmäßigkeiten zu verlieren. Originellerweise wendet er diese Methode auch auf die Arithmetik an, wenn er seinen Zahlbegriff aus der natürlichen Anschauung entwickelt: „Husserls Argument ist, dass man ohne die Idee einer kollektiven Verbindung nicht erklären könne, warum bestimmte Inhalte verbunden sein sollen, während andere von einer solchen Kollektion ausgeschlossen sind“ (S.52). Die Anschauung dient Husserl immer als Ausgangspunkt für seine Analysen, und in der Anschauung ist nunmal die Mannigfaltigkeit gegeben. Ein Problem sieht Husserl darin, „die Welt der reinen Logik und die Welt des Bewusstseins zu vereinen“ (ebd.), und hierin liegt, das legt Hartimos differenzierte Analyse nahe, der Ausgangspunkt für Husserls phänomenologisches Projekt, die formale Logik mit der Psychologie zu vereinen, um – im Sinne eines Arguments gegen den Psychologismus – „die Korrelation der objektiven Logik mit dem subjektiven Bewusstsein verständlich zu machen“ (S.55).

An dieser Stelle können nicht alle Beiträge im Band in der Tiefe betrachtet werden. Allen gemeinsam ist, dass sie Bezug aufeinander nehmen, zentrale Begriffe hervorheben und deren Weiterentwicklung skizzieren, was dieser Sektion eine große Stringenz verleiht. So wird das Projekt der Philosophie als strenger Wissenschaft thematisiert (Vgl. Nicolas de Warren, „Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie“), außerdem wird der Begriff der Epoché eingeführt, jene Methode, die durch Abschälung der Sinneseindrücke und die Ausschaltung der naiven Annahme der Gegebenheit der Welt definiert ist und die phänomenologische Untersuchung damit auf die reine immanente Bewusstseinsleistung beschränkt. Diese Methode wird v.a. in den Cartesianischen Meditationen erneut zentral.

Besondere Beachtung verdienen indes Nicolas de Warrens Text zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins sowie Dermot Morans Beitrag zu den Cartesianischen Meditationen. Beide Texte überzeugen durch ihre knappe und dennoch sehr lesbare Entfaltung hoch komplexer Thematiken. De Warren unterfüttert seine Betrachtungen durch kurze Exkurse zu Kant und Hegel, die als wichtige Einflüsse genannt werden und arbeitet Husserls eigenes Projekt in Abgrenzung zu Kants Zeitbegriff heraus; Zeit wird bei Husserl nicht als Abfolge von Jetzt-Punkten im Sinne eines naturwissenschaftlichen Zeitbegriffs verstanden, sondern vielmehr, im Rahmen seines Begriffs der Intentionalität, als Dauer, als Ineinandergreifen von Protention, Retention und Urimpression, was der Dimension des Zeiterlebens viel eher Rechnung trägt. Husserl gelingt hier, das verdeutlicht de Warren, eine Konzeption der Zeit als Struktur des Bewusstseins, welche für nachfolgende Autoren und auch für die heutige Forschung in anderen Disziplinen maßgeblich ist.

Die Cartesianischen Meditationen werden als Husserls „Haupt- und Lebenswerk“ (S.90) gewürdigt, in dem viele Hauptbegriffe der anderen Werke zusammengeführt und weiterentwickelt werden, auch werden wichtige Einflussgrößen diskutiert. Bei aller Komplexität und Detailfülle bleibt Morans Text kurz, präzise und dicht, ohne dabei einen übermäßigen Lesewiderstand aufzubauen.

Wie bereits in der Einleitung angekündigt, erfährt im Folgenden der Nachlass Husserls eine besondere Würdigung in Form einer recht umfassenden eigenen Sektion. Diese ist sehr plausibel und systematisch nach Themen gegliedert; auf besondere Schwierigkeiten bei der Sichtung des Materials gehen die HerausgeberInnen ein. Die Schwierigkeiten ergeben sich aus Husserls durchaus origineller Arbeitsweise, täglich Denktagebuch zu führen, dabei immer neue Ideen anzureißen, auszuprobieren, zu verwerfen oder weiterzuentwickeln, was zwar produktiv ist, aber auch ganz eigene Herausforderungen bei der Aufbereitung birgt. Umso mehr sei die sorgfältige Zusammenstellung der Beiträge entlang der wichtigsten Themen und Begriffe in Husserls Werk gewürdigt, die sowohl das gesamte Projekt der Phänomenologie unter verschiedenen Gesichtspunkten (als Erste Philosophie, Im Grenzbereich zur Psychologie, Intersubjektivität u.a.) beleuchtet, als auch große Themenbereiche wie Erkenntnisphilosophie und Logik und zu guter Letzt auch auf Kernthemen aus Husserls Schaffen eingeht, wie Lebenswelt und Räumlichkeit.

Im Anschluss benennt der Band Personen, die durch Husserl maßgeblich beeinflusst wurden, darunter natürlich Martin Heidegger – der wohl prominenteste Zeitgenosse Husserls, wobei wohl das gleichzeitig äußerst inspirierende und problematische Verhältnis der beiden maßgeblich für diese Prominenz war und ist. Dies stellt Thomas Nenon in seinem Beitrag sehr gut dar. Außerdem sind z.B. Sartre, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Derrida und Foucault genannt, aber auch Husserls Einfluss in Japan wird erwähnt, in Form eines Beitrag zu Kitaro Nishida. Kritisch bemerken lässt sich, dass Edith Stein keinerlei Erwähnung findet, die als Husserls Assistentin durchaus großen Anteil an manchen Werkphasen hatte – wie immerhin in der Einleitung erwähnt wird – und eine Theorie der Einfühlung entwickelte, die durch Husserl ebenfalls inspiriert war.

Die letzte Sektion setzt sich mit dem Einfluss Husserls auf verschiedene Denkrichtungen und Disziplinen auseinander. Hier wird einmal mehr deutlich, welch große Rolle seine Theorien für die – nicht nur philosophische – Wissenschaft seit dem letzten Jahrhundert spielen.

Alles in allem liegt mit diesem Handbuch ein äußerst bereicherndes Werk für die Auseinandersetzung mit Husserls Philosophie vor. Durch seinen hohen Detailreichtum, seine enorme Dichte und Tiefe bei gleichzeitig überzeugender Struktur, hoher Lesbarkeit und seiner sehr gelungenen Auswahl an Autoren bietet es Kennern eine gute Handreichung und ein solides Nachschlagewerk, aber auch Einsteigern und an Husserls Philosophie Interessierten, die sich einen Überblick verschaffen mögen, ist es eine wertvolle Quelle. Es eignet sich sowohl zum Nachschlagen einzelner Themen und Begriffe, als auch zur Lektüre insgesamt, was dem klugen Aufbau und dem sinnvollen Ineinander der einzelnen Artikel zu verdanken ist.

Rocco J. Gennaro (Ed.): The Routledge Handbook of Consciousness, Routledge, 2018

The Routledge Handbook of Consciousness Book Cover The Routledge Handbook of Consciousness
Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy
Rocco J. Gennaro (Ed.)
Hardcover £175.00

Ondřej Švec, Jakub Čapek (Eds.): Pragmatic Perspectives in Phenomenology

Pragmatic Perspectives in Phenomenology Book Cover Pragmatic Perspectives in Phenomenology
Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Ondřej Švec, Jakub Čapek (Eds.)
Hardback £88

Reviewed by: Jonathan Lewis (Dublin City University)

This volume seeks to provide a critical analysis of pragmatic themes within the phenomenological tradition. Although the volume is overwhelmingly geared towards presenting critiques of some of the most authoritative pragmatic readings of Martin Heidegger – readings by Hubert Dreyfus, John Haugeland, Mark Okrent and Richard Rorty – a handful of the fourteen chapters expand the discussion of the pragmatic dimension of the history of phenomenology by engaging with the work of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Max Scheler and Jan Patočka. Although the contributors do well to explain their ideas, useful appropriation of the volume will require a working knowledge of the developments in twentieth-century pragmatism and phenomenology, their basic features as philosophical enterprises and, most importantly, the central tenets of Heidegger (in particular), Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.

I will now outline what I see to be the primary claims of some of the collected papers (unfortunately, there are too many to be discussed with the level of detail required), linking those claims to the aims of the volume as a whole and providing some modest comments of my own.

For the editors, there are several characteristics of pragmatism:

  1. According to pragmatists, ‘intentionality is, in the first and fundamental sense, a practical coping with our surrounding world’;
  2. According to pragmatists, ‘language structures derive their meaning from their embeddedness in shared, practical activities’;
  3. According to pragmatists, ‘truth is to be understood in relation to social and historically contingent practices’;
  4. Pragmatism maintains ‘the primacy of practical over theoretical understanding’;
  5. Pragmatism criticises ‘the representationalist account of perception’;
  6. According to pragmatists, ‘the social dimension of human existence’ is prior to an individualised conception and manifestation of agency.

Although the editors and contributors do not explain whether these are necessary and sufficient conditions for a pragmatist reading of the phenomenological tradition (after all, the notion of necessary and sufficient conditions cannot be easily reconciled (if at all) with pragmatist and phenomenological approaches to philosophical method), whether by adhering to just one of these conditions makes one a pragmatist or whether these conditions are fundamentally interrelated, we may claim (in no particular order) that pragmatists tend to subscribe to one or more of the following (indeed, individual contributors touch upon some of these themes):

  • ‘Subject naturalism’ (whereby naturalism should be understood as ‘naturalism without representationalism’) is either prior to or a rejection of ‘object naturalism’ (Price 2013);
  • The representationalist order of explanation, which, broadly speaking, presupposes the non-deflationary structure of identification between representations and states of affairs, is a misleading explanatory model from ontological, linguistic, experiential and epistemological points of view;
  • The notion that something is ‘given’ in experience, that is, that there is something existing ‘out there’ – in reality but independent of our minds – to which our claims, beliefs, justifications, theories and meanings should correspond, is a myth;
  • Semantics does not come before pragmatics – notions such as reference and truth are not explanatorily basic and cannot account for inference;
  • Metaphysics tends to be deflationary in the sense that the contents of our concepts lay claim to how the world is;
  • In addition to the fact that the sense of a word, term, proposition, sentence, belief, fact, value or theory is how it is used in actual practices, semantic notions of truth, reference and meaning are to be understood in terms of social norms;
  • Judgments that concern normative statuses, fact-stating talk and objectivity-claims are to be understood in, and gain validity from, the realm of giving and asking for reasons.

The revival of pragmatism during the latter half of the twentieth century and a renewed focus on exploring the nature and origins of normativity in other areas of philosophy has coincided with an increasing body of literature dedicated to exploring some of these pragmatic themes in various canonical texts in the history of Western philosophy, particularly those of Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. That said, the majority of today’s most prominent pragmatists draw inspiration from their immediate predecessors. In terms of Anglo-American pragmatism, for example, references are almost always made to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wilfrid Sellars (who, in turn, engaged extensively with the work of Kant), W. V. O. Quine, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Indeed, when pragmatists engage more broadly with the history of philosophy (as is the case with Robert Brandom, for example), the focus tends to be on the work of Kant and Hegel. Consequently, in the context of twentieth-century pragmatism, Rorty and Hubert Dreyfus were peculiarities in the sense that they were two of the first self-professed pragmatists (in English-speaking academic circles) to explore the pragmatic dimension of phenomenological traditions of Western philosophy. Through their correspondence, the pragmatic interpretation of the history of phenomenology, and of Heidegger in particular, began in earnest. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that Rorty and Dreyfus’ respective interpretations are, perhaps, the paradigmatic pragmatist readings of Heidegger and a driving force behind pragmatic appropriations of other well-known phenomenologists, specifically, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. In terms of Heidegger exegesis, not only have they inspired equally famous readings by Haugeland and Okrent, the interpretations of Rorty and Dreyfus, as this volume testifies, continue to demand critical engagement from Heidegger scholars.

It is apt, therefore, that the book begins with an essay by Okrent – an implicit focal point for the majority of the discussions and criticisms that follow in the other chapters. Along with Okrent’s introduction to some of the most important features of a normalised pragmatic reading of Heidegger, part one of the volume is made up of chapters dedicated to elaborating the pragmatic dimension of the history of phenomenology. Part two critically engages with extant pragmatic readings of the phenomenological tradition and addresses some of the issues that emerge through pragmatic engagements with texts by non-canonical authors such as Scheler and Patočka. The final section contains four contributions that attempt to advance the debates in the history of phenomenology through new perspectives.

After the editors’ introduction, Okrent begins by outlining two features of normative pragmatism – a position he attributes to Heidegger and one that is also affirmed by certain figures in the current Anglo-American pragmatist movement, specifically, Robert Brandom. For Okrent, normative pragmatism is, firstly, committed to the idea that an object’s nonnormative, factual properties are ‘possible only if there is some respect in which it is appropriate to respond to certain situations or to certain entities in certain ways’ (p. 23). Secondly, après Wittgenstein, normative pragmatism is committed to the claim that it is correct to respond to certain situations or to certain entities in certain ways primarily due to ‘the norms implicit in behaviour rather than with following explicit rules’ (ibid.). To speak about appropriate responses to objects, whereby appropriateness is measured according to the norms of social practices, is to think of objects as tools or equipment. According to pragmatist readings of Heidegger, tools are not primarily conceived in terms of their hermetically-sealed physical make-up in space-time. Rather, tools are understood, initially, in terms of what they are used for – the practical contexts and instrumental ends that will be fulfilled through their use. Furthermore, whether tools are used ‘correctly’ comes down to whether they are appropriated according to the norms of tool-use derived from social practices. The key point is that both Okrent and Heidegger view linguistic phenomena as tools. In accordance with the two theses attributed to normative pragmatism, Okrent states that ‘to grasp an entity as merely present, then, an agent must grasp it as essentially a possible object of an assertion. But to grasp something as an object of an assertion is to use the appropriate group of assertions as they are to be used within one’s community’ (p. 26). It follows that an object’s nonnormative properties are ‘simply invisible to an agent if she can’t use assertions to make claims about that entity’ (ibid.).

Okrent’s chapter is a response to criticisms that Brandom has levelled against Dreyfus, Haugeland and Okrent and their respective interpretations of Heidegger. In laying out the central tenets of normative pragmatism, Okrent highlights the similarities between Brandom’s reading of Heidegger and his own. However, disagreements emerge over their respective conceptions of intentionality. According to Brandom, Okrent, Dreyfus and Haugeland adopt a ‘layer-cake’ model, according to which our meaningful, norm-governed, practical responses to certain objects in certain ways is, in a sense, pre-predicative and nonconceptual and, therefore, distinct from (but also the basis of) the propositional articulations we make concerning such objects and our engagements with their nonnormative properties. In other words, the view that Okrent supports, and that Brandom believes is based on a misinterpretation of Heidegger, claims that ‘there are two layers to Dasein’s intentionality, the nonlinguistic skilful coping involved in the utilisation of equipment as tools that are essential to Dasein as Dasein and the linguistic, assertoric intentionality that intends substances as substances and is not essential for Dasein as Dasein’ (p. 29). Okrent goes on to defend the layer-cake model of intentionality on the basis that, for Heidegger, not all interpretations of entities as what they are involves assertion.

In terms of defending his interpretation of Heidegger as a layer-cake theorist in the face of Brandom’s reading, Okrent is convincing. That said, in terms of defending the layer-cake model of intentionality against Brandom’s claim that intentionality does not contain a nonconceptual component – that all experience can be understood in terms of the space of reasons – he is less successful. The other contributions in this volume do far better justice at demonstrating some of the problems with Okrent’s account than I can here. However, what I will say (paraphrasing the main issue in the Dreyfus-McDowell debates) is that although one can claim that propositions, assertions, sentences and theories are embodied, and even originate in our practical activities, that does not mean that our absorbed involvements that grasp the world as what it is are fundamentally and distinctly nonconceptual. Indeed, Brandom’s starting point is to conceive the world ‘as a collection of facts, not of things; there is nothing that exists outside of the realm of the conceptual’ (Brandom 2000: 357). On that basis, he has presented a whole system of normative pragmatics and inferential semantics to support his non-representationalist metaphysical project. Whether we agree with him or not, it follows that Brandom has the means to defend the view that even those interpretations, repairs and improvements of tools and equipment that seemingly operate outside of the bounds of general acceptability, and that Okrent takes to be nonlinguistic, are predicated upon a (at least implicitly) conceptual understanding of intentionality. In other words, our perceptions and skilful copings are permeated with the as-structure of interpretation that fundamentally understands seeing something as something in discursive terms (regardless of whether those concepts are made explicit in discursive practices).

The theme of layer-cake interpretations of both pragmatism and intentionality and the question of the dependency of skilful coping on conceptual meaning are taken up again in Carl Sachs’ contribution. The starting point for Sachs is the debate between Dreyfus and John McDowell regarding the relationship between rationality and absorbed coping and the consequences of this relationship for understanding intelligibility and intentionality. Like Brandom and McDowell, Sachs recognises the problems inherent in the layer-cake model of nonconceptual skilful coping – a distinct kind of intelligibility with its own internal logic. He also acknowledges McDowell’s claim that layer-cake pragmatists make the mistake ‘in thinking both that rationality consists of detached reflection and that rationality is the enemy of absorbed coping’ (p. 96). Unlike Dreyfus, Okrent and Haugeland, both Brandom and McDowell argue that rationality should not be construed as detached contemplation. Furthermore, intentionality is fundamentally conceptual. However, as Sachs observes, the problem with claiming that conceptuality permeates all of our skilful copings is that intentionality tends to be treated as only ‘“thinly” embodied’ (p.94). Through the work of Joseph Rouse, and by confronting the question of how absorbed, embodied coping can fit within the space of giving and asking for reasons, Sachs provides a convincing and highly innovative critique not only of layer-cake interpretations of the phenomenological tradition, but of approaches to contemporary pragmatism that do not pay sufficient phenomenological attention to the embodied dimension of intelligibility. Undermining Dreyfus’ distinction between the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘space of motivations’, Rouse follows McDowell (and Brandom) in, firstly, rejecting the view that rationality is found in detached contemplation and, secondly, claiming that discursive practices are embodied. Where Sachs sees McDowell as paying only lip service to an embodied conception of rationality, Rouse uses developments in evolutionary theory to naturalise the space of reasons and, by implication, our norm-governed engagements with the world. Having arrived at the claim that discursive practices are conceived as ‘highly modified and specialised forms of embodied coping’ (p. 96), Sachs builds on Rouse’s account by defending a distinction between sapient intentionality and sentient intentionality in order to demonstrate that ‘McDowell is (mostly) right about sapience and that Dreyfus is (mostly) right about sentience’ (p. 88).

Whereas Okrent and Sachs’ respective contributions tackle the Dreyfusian tradition of Heidegger scholarship, Andreas Beinsteiner provides a critical assessment of Rorty’s engagement with the pragmatic dimension of Heidegger’s thought. The focus is on Rorty’s purely language-oriented interpretation of the ‘history of Being’. According to Beinsteiner, even though Rorty agrees with Heidegger’s claim that our vocabularies and practices are contingent, Rorty’s criticism of Heidegger’s ‘narrative of decline’, which is characterised by a lack of recognition regarding the contingent nature of both meaning and language, is problematic. For Beinsteiner, the issue Rorty has with the idea that contemporary Western society, when compared with previous epochs, is less able to grasp the contingency of language rests upon Rorty’s two conflicting versions of pragmatism – instrumental pragmatism and poetic pragmatism. According to Beinsteiner, when Rorty argues for social hope as opposed to decline, he has seemingly failed to acknowledge the contingency of his own language and has, as a result, fallen into the trap that instrumental and poetic pragmatism disclose in different ways. Ultimately, Rorty is trapped within his linguistic conception of intelligibility, one that, he believes his instrumental conception of language has some sovereignty over, when, in fact, according to Beinsteiner, our conception of meaningfulness not only precedes the purposes of our language, it grants Rorty’s language with the purpose of instrumentality in the first place. In the remainder of the chapter, and in the face of what he sees as Rorty’s linguistic treatment of meaningfulness, Beinsteiner offers a challenge to Rorty’s critique of the narrative of decline by demonstrating technology’s ability to guide our understanding of intelligibility.

One of the problems with Beinsteiner’s critique is that Rorty is clearly aware of the dangers of becoming trapped in non-contingent conceptions of one’s language and understanding of meaningfulness. Rorty acknowledges that we can and, indeed, must aim for as much intersubjective agreement as possible by opening ourselves up to other cultures and their associated languages. As he explains, ‘alternative cultures are not to be thought of on the model of alternative geometries’; ‘alternative geometries are irreconcilable because they have axiomatic structures, and contradictory axioms. They are designed to be irreconcilable. Cultures are not so designed, and do not have axiomatic structures’ (Rorty 1991, 30). Consequently, by engaging with different cultures, it is at least a possibility that our language and conception of intelligibility can be destabilised and transcended. However, Heidegger claims that exposure to other cultures through media technology will fail to transform our conceptions of language and meaningfulness. As is evident from Beinsteiner’s contribution, Heidegger’s claim rests upon a one-sided interpretation of technology, one that is justified by criteria located in his own ‘final vocabulary’. This raises a problem, one that is emphasised when Beinsteiner makes claims regarding the pragmatic dimension of technology that coincide with Heidegger’s narrative of decline (even though Beinsteiner states that his point ‘is not to defend a supposed Heideggerian pessimism against Rorty’s optimism’ (p. 64)). A critic would likely argue that if Beinsteiner wishes to argue for the contingency of language and meaning and, thereby, avoid falling prey to the criticisms he levels at Rorty, he needs some criteria for judging the ‘primordiality due to new media and communication technologies’ (p. 64). Indeed, in order to avoid the charge that he is trapped within Heidegger’s vocabulary, such criteria would need to come from elsewhere. Unfortunately, a comprehensive and justified account of such criteria is noticeably absent in both the work of Heidegger and Beinsteiner’s contribution.

Returning to the Dreyfusian tradition of Heidegger scholarship, Tucker McKinney’s contribution addresses a long-standing problem with layer-cake approaches to pragmatism; specifically, the issue of whether and how (what Okrent calls) ‘the nonlinguistic skilful coping involved in the utilisation of equipment as tools that are essential to Dasein as Dasein’ (p. 29) can be reconciled with self-conscious inquiry and the resulting ‘first-personal knowledge of one’s activity’ (p. 71). In the face of traditional approaches to philosophy of mind that interpret self-consciousness in terms of self-representing contemplation, which he acknowledges is a form of self-consciousness that Heidegger criticises, McKinney sees Heidegger as advancing a conception of positional self-awareness ‘as an action-guiding practical knowledge of what to do to sustain one’s being in the world, realised in our affective lives’ (ibid.). Whereas typical pragmatist readings of Heidegger claim that our nonconceptual and non-representational ability to skilfully and habitually cope with the world means that the capacity to represent (the world and our representations of the world) through concepts is both merely derivative and something we can identify or attribute to ourselves only after our unselfconscious practical activities, McKinney defends the view that, according to Heidegger, ‘our engagements with entities are permeated with a sense of our own agency, our own active and participatory engagement with objects’ (p. 78).

In the face of problematic normalised and normalising pragmatic readings of Heidegger, many will welcome McKinney’s contribution. Whether it provides ‘a new ontology of self-possessed activity’ is questionable. Indeed, the approach shares some affinities with Hegel’s account of self-consciousness, Wittgenstein’s conception of private language and (more obviously) Habermas’ work on the relationship between self-awareness, affectivity and intersubjective communicative action. The basis for divergence stems from McKinney’s focus on ‘attunement’ [Befindlichkeit], which he translates as ‘findingess’ but can also be interpreted as ‘affectivity’ (Crowell 2013) and ‘state-of-mind’ (Braver 2014), and its concrete manifestation as ‘mood’ or, more literally, ‘tuning’ [Stimmung] (such as when the sound of a musical instrument changes depending on how it is tuned).[1] At a very basic level, Heidegger describes moods as ‘fleeting experiences that “colour” one’s whole “psychical condition”’ (GA 2, p. 450). From a phenomenological point of view that McKinney adopts in his discussion of the concept of fear, moods influence how things are meaningfully encountered in the ways they are during my practical engagements. On the basis of moods, my activities express an understanding of my own agency (p. 83). Furthermore, and this is matter that McKinney does not discuss (but Heidegger does), it is an existential-ontological condition of my capacity to interpret the world that I, myself, must be affectively attuned. Without attunement, any act of skilful coping would not present itself to me as intelligible. Consequently, in terms of a phenomenological reading of the concept of mood and ontological considerations of attunement, there is, as McKinney recognises, scope to innovatively extend non-Cartesian debates regarding the nature of self-consciousness.

Turning to part two of volume, in which the contributors focus specifically on the phenomenological dimension of the work of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Scheler and Patočka, Jakub Čapek’s contribution exemplifies some of exegetical challenges that face traditional pragmatist readings of the phenomenological canon. On the basis of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘perceptual faith’, which describes ‘how our involvement in the world precedes and sustains all perceptions, the true and the false’ (p. 141), Čapek argues that although Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s pragmatic readings do not address ‘perceptual faith’ directly, their understanding of objects as mere correlates of our practical involvements, which Čapek sees as a consequence of the ‘primacy of the practical’ in pragmatism, generates a restricted interpretation of Merleau-Ponty’s account of perceptual experience. Čapek acknowledges that Merleau-Ponty does in fact claim that perception is an engaged, interested and skilful activity that allows us to cope with the world (in contrast with the interpretation of perception as an intermediary in a two-step, realist epistemological model, whereby passive receptions of something like sense data are synthesised as representations of external objects). However, that does not mean that the objects we perceive can be completely reduced to the meanings we accord them in our practical dealings. Even though Merleau-Ponty claims that our ontological commitments are embodied to the degree that an object is, as Čapek says, ‘a correlate of the body’, it is a feature of phenomenologically-oriented ontology that an object transcends ‘action-relevant predicates’ such that it is irreducible ‘to all that makes it a familiar part of our surroundings and of our activities’ (p. 152). In the sense that the ontology of things is dependent upon embodied perception to the degree that ‘in perception, we are directed to the things themselves, not through their appearances but to things themselves as they appear’ (p. 147), Čapek draws upon Merleau-Ponty’s conception of the transcendent dimension of ontology to argue that the latter’s account of ‘perceptual faith’ leaves room for an ‘interrogative, non-practical or disinterested’ dimension to perception (p. 143).

The only downsides to Čapek’s chapter are that he provides neither an in-depth account of the meaning of ‘the interrogative mode’ of perception (minimal references are made to perception as ‘transcend[ing] things’ and affirming ‘more things than are grasped in it’ (p. 154)) nor a discussion of how specifically pragmatic interpretations of the history of phenomenology could be revised in light of such a phenomenologically-oriented conception of disinterested perception. This is indicative of the limitations of the volume in general. Specifically, because the majority of the contributions employ interpretations of texts in the history of phenomenology to either elaborate upon or challenge more paradigmatic readings, there is little room for exploring the implications of such scholarship for debates at the forefront of contemporary phenomenology and pragmatism.

Bearing in mind the limitations imposed on the volume due to the purely hermeneutical approach taken by the majority of the authors, it should be said that James Mensch does offer interpretations of Aristotle, William James, Heidegger, Patočka, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas in his contribution. But these readings are for illustrative purposes only, employed to elaborate upon the respective natures of pragmatic and theoretical attitudes in philosophy and their relationships to broader concepts of objective truth and freedom. For Mensch, what defines the pragmatic attitude is not only (as Čapek highlights in his contribution) the treatment of objects and their properties as mere correlates of practical involvements, but, more specifically, the reduction of an object’s essence to instrumentality – ‘its function as a means for the accomplishment of my projects’ (p. 191). The pragmatic attitude is seen as particularly problematic for the philosopher ‘who seeks simply to understand’ (p. 194) as it results in a performative contradiction. Conversely, the theoretical attitude deals with the ‘objectivity’ of phenomena ‘in terms of the evidence we have for what we believe about them’ (p. 195), evidence that can transcend our means-ends understanding of objects. Mensch goes on to explain the relationships between the respective ontological commitments that arise from the pragmatic attitude and the theoretical attitude in terms of the concept of freedom. Following Heidegger, Mensch recognises that there are many possibilities for the intelligibility of objects and their properties, and it is up to the philosopher to choose which possibility to actualise. In short, for Mensch, freedom is an ontological condition on the basis of which philosophers choose to adopt a theoretical attitude that suspends their pragmatic concerns in order to inquire into the ‘intrinsic sense’ of objects qua their objectivity. Furthermore, whereas the pragmatic attitude does not allow the object to ‘transcend the [pragmatic] conventions that govern our speaking’ (p. 199), the ‘intrinsic sense’ of an object does make room for such transcendence because (due to the fact that it is conceptually constituted and predicated upon intersubjective agreement) we can recognise the alterity of other objectivity claims that call my claims into question. Indeed, Mensch states that it is the alterity of the ‘Other’ that makes both philosophical freedom and a theoretical inquiry into the ‘intrinsic sense’ of things possible.

Critics would likely argue that Mensch’s distinction between pragmatic attitudes and theoretical attitudes is altogether too simplistic, resulting in an argument that is explanatorily weak. Indeed, due to the reification of pragmatic and theoretical attitudes, it would be difficult to abstract any genuine pragmatic (let alone broader metaphilosophical) concerns without being charged of straw-man-building. For example, contemporary Anglo-American pragmatists would challenge the claim that the pragmatic attitude purely apprehends the essence of objects in terms of its instrumentality. For example, as Beinsteiner observes earlier in the volume, Rorty advocated both instrumental and world-disclosing dimensions of pragmatism. In addition, as already mentioned, Brandom is a pragmatist, one that, simultaneously, adopts a theoretical attitude in order to inquire into Mensch’s conception of the ‘intrinsic sense’ of objects. Brandom is clear that not only do the contents of our concepts lay claim to how the world is, the meaning of our concepts is derived from the reasoning practices and inferential processes of discursive practitioners in the space of giving and asking for reasons. Furthermore, Brandom is also aware that freedom plays a pivotal role in the realm of contestable objectivity-claims. He argues that judgment, in terms of committing oneself to deploying concepts and, simultaneously, taking responsibility for the integration of the objectivity-claims and their associated conceptual contents with others that serve as reasons for or against them, is a ‘positive freedom’ (Brandom 2009, 59). I do not have the space to expand further. Suffice it to say, however, that Brandom’s inferential semantics and normative pragmatics articulates a number (if not all) of the themes that Mensch attributes to the theoretical attitude.

If Mensch’s characterisation of the pragmatic attitude is representative of a concrete approach in pragmatism, then perhaps one could claim that it only holds for layer-cake readings of Heidegger. Even then, however, the likes of Dreyfus and Okrent are careful to explain the fact that what Mensch apprehends as the theoretical attitude is dependent upon, and, ultimately, derives from, our shared, practical involvements in a world that is constituted by the activities of others, rather than something we can ‘choose’ to adopt completely outside of our practical copings and activities (a choice, based on Mensch’s account, without any causal repercussions and considerations and no rational constraint or motivation). Furthermore, whereas Mensch claims that the ontological condition of the ‘Other’ allows us to disclose a theoretical alternative to the pragmatically-apprehended world, the Dreyfusian tradition is well aware that we, as a skilful and absorbed copers, are ‘being-with’ [Mitsein], in the sense that when we encounter something as both meaningful and as what it is, it discloses to us those ‘others’ that also find the same thing meaningful in the same ways. To stress the importance of the ‘Other’ for the conditions of the theoretical attitude in particular, as Mensch does, is to severely misinterpret or (worse still) ignore the concept of the ‘Other’ in layer-cake pragmatism. This begs the question that if what Mensch defines as the pragmatic attitude does not successfully capture the complexities that surround layer-cake approaches to pragmatism, let alone contemporary pragmatism in general, then why should pragmatically-oriented philosophers take Mensch seriously? Furthermore, why should they care? Perhaps one could argue that Mensch’s chapter is a lesson in what can happen when not enough attention is paid by phenomenologists to developments in pragmatism, just as this volume as a whole discloses the problems that arise from pragmatic interpretations of the history of phenomenology.

Does the volume as a whole succeed in meeting its aims? If the aim of the volume is to offer a ‘complex analysis of the pragmatic theses that are present in the works of leading phenomenological authors’, then (despite the proclivity for Heidegger at the expense of other central figures from phenomenological tradition, including those that are still alive and still researching), I would say ‘yes’. However, as the volume is oriented towards the relationship between pragmatism and phenomenology through interpretations of canonical works in the history of Western philosophy, there is very little meaningful discussion of the theoretical implications of the dialogue for either current phenomenologically-oriented philosophical research or the pragmatic dimensions of contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of science and ethics. In this sense, the title of the volume is misleading and perhaps should be taken as ‘pragmatic perspectives in the history of phenomenology’. Nevertheless, there are some excellent papers here that not only articulate the pragmatic turn in the history of phenomenology, but offer much-needed insight into the problems associated with long-standing pragmatic interpretations of the works of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Husserl.



Brandom, R. (2000) ‘Facts, Norms and Normative Facts: A Reply to Habermas’, European Journal of Philosophy 8 (3): 356-74.

Brandom, R. (2009) Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas, Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Braver, L. (2014) Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Crowell, S. (2013) Normativity and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1977) Gesamtausgabe, GA 2: Sein und Zeit, ed. F. von Herrmann, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Price, H. (2013) Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rorty, R. (1991) Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] Sachs also addresses the concept of attunement when he argues that affordances and solicitations (traditionally distinctive of embodied coping) should also be contextualised within the space of reasons.