Wayne Waxman: A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism – via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein Book Cover A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism via Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Wittgenstein
Routledge Studies in Eighteenth-Century Philosophy
Wayne Waxman
Hardback £96.00

Reviewed by: Alma Buholzer (University College Dublin)

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism (2019) is presented as a more accessible and to-the-point delivery of the interpretive theses Waxman lays out in Kant’s Model of the Mind (1991), Kant and the Empiricists: Understanding Understanding (2005), and Kant’s Anatomy of the Intelligent Mind (2014). This comparatively compact 351-page book promises a unique angle on Kant’s theoretical philosophy for a range of philosophical and scientific audiences. The work is original both in its iconoclastic style and its thesis, which defends Kant’s ‘psychologism’ and interprets the titular empiricist philosophers as precursors thereof. Kant’s account of objective representation in terms of the interrelations between sensation, pure intuition, logic and concepts is argued to be firmly rooted in problems brought into the spotlight by the empiricists, such as animal consciousness and multimodal sensory perception. The book thus combines a historical sensitivity to the genealogy of Kant’s philosophy with the systematic ambition of a new interpretation, not merely of one isolated aspect of Kantian theory of mind but of the way its various doctrines fit together, from pure intuition to apperception to judgment.

The book is organized into two parts. After an introductory chapter preparing the reader for a radical departure from what Waxman presents as an anti-psychologistic consensus in Kant interpretation, Chapters 2-4 chronologically introduce key thinkers from the empiricist tradition and their contributions to the book’s central concept of psychologism. In chapter 5, Waxman uses Wittgenstein to illustrate Hume’s conventionalism, which in Waxman’s view Kant targets no less than rationalist platonism. Chapters 6-10 guide the reader through Kant’s theoretical philosophy. The sequence of chapters, “The Kantian Cogito” (6), “The Logical I” (7), “The Aesthetic I” (8), “The Objective I” (9), and “The I of Nature” (10) is prescribed less by the text of the Critique of Pure Reason than by the conceptual layers of Waxman’s reconstruction. While regularly referring Kant’s insights back to their empiricist lineage, the progression from the ‘I think’ to the objectivity of physical nature also points to Cartesian and Leibnizian influences in Kant’s treatment of logical universality. The chapters on Kant additionally argue that the doctrines of pure intuition and logical form, interpreted as elements of an ‘a priori psychologism’, can accommodate post-Kantian scientific developments in logic, geometry, mathematics and physics. The concluding chapter assesses platonism and conventionalism as the only possible routes of refutation of Kant’s psychologism, as well as indicating how Waxman’s interpretation may be illuminating for contemporary study of the mind.

One of the most original features of the book is that it makes the compatibility of Kantian doctrines with subsequent scientific advances a matter of first importance: “naturalistic theories like Kant’s and those developed by his British empiricist forebears were intentionally crafted to leave open a place for future science on which philosophy can never impinge” (12). The scope of the book is not only to radically overhaul received opinion on Kant’s methodology, and the relation of his ideas to the sciences, but to defend a biologically plausible version of Kant’s account of logical form. In the remainder of this review I will address in turn: (1) Waxman’s definition of ‘psychologism’ and how his use of this concept situates him with regard to other interpreters; (2) his reading of Kant, with a focus on the logical forms of judgment according to the psychologistic approach; and (3) some questions emerging at the interface of Waxman’s naturalistic reading of Kant and the sciences, especially neuroscience and evolutionary biology.


Waxman stresses that Kant’s ability to resolve skepticism about the objective purport of (some of) our representations is rooted in his radicalization of the British empiricists’ methods to accommodate logical universality, modality, and relational concepts. Thus, the book’s overarching thesis about the relationship between its titular figures is that Kant continues what Locke, Berkeley and Hume started, expressed as their common adherence to psychologism. Waxman has in mind a quite specific interpretation of this term:

[T]he task of psychologism is to explicate meanings, with special emphasis on identifying psychological ingredients essential to notions that, in language, are free of any tincture of psychological content. There can therefore be no expectation that the psychological contents adduced as essential to the meaning of familiar notions will themselves be familiar. (147)

Waxman’s compelling take on the psychologistic philosopher’s undermining of rationalist metaphysics is thus that psychologistic elucidation makes us distrust the appearances of the natural language of metaphysics, thereby overturning realist intuitions that the qualities we discern in appearances are properties of mind-independent objects (33f). Psychologism in this sense, Waxman is clear, is not to be confused with the fallacy of explicating the non-psychological psychologically (305). According to Waxman’s use of the term, psychologism means giving contents which are in fact psychological their due explication in terms of mental representations. Kant’s account of how we are capable of “cognitive representation of sense-divide transcending external objects” (264) equips empirical psychologism with the resources to explicate the objectivity and logical universality of our representations, where this is possible. Hence, “any representational content that neither empirical psychologism nor conventionalism can explicate, a priori psychologism can, and what the latter cannot explicate, nothing can” (147).

Waxman introduces his interpretation as a novel defence of Kant’s theoretical philosophy which rejects two pervasive trends in its reception: an anti-psychologistic consensus, and a more general obsolescence consensus that due to revolutions in logic, geometry, and physics, Kant’s philosophy is “a once formidable structure long since reduced to ruin, fit only for piecemeal salvage” (24ff). The latter engenders attempts to clear the respectable theory behind Kant’s project of its psychologistic methods, resulting in a range of approaches to ‘updating Kant’ e.g. by explaining conscious representation using anything from post-Fregean mathematical logic to Chomskyian linguistics, or Roger Penrose’s quantum theory of consciousness (15). Against these kinds of salvage attempts, Waxman argues that a properly psychologistic account of Kant’s theory of objective representation reveals its compatibility with subsequent developments in logic, geometry, physics, as well as neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Kant scholars may suspect that the anti-psychologistic consensus is by no means universal: for instance, Andrew Brook’s Kant and the Mind (1994), and Patricia Kitcher’s Kant’s Transcendental Psychology (1990) (see also Falkenstein and Easton 1997) make similar critical points about the anachronism of understanding Kantian theory of cognition ‘anti-psychologistically’. For example, “Kant clearly held that his ‘logic’ of the mind is part of what we would now call psychology” (Brook 1994, 6). Waxman takes note of these authors in a footnote, nonetheless signalling his substantive interpretive differences from Kitcher and Brook as well as Lorne Falkenstein and Scott Edgar. The problem, Waxman explains, is that these authors refer to ‘psychology’, which is concerned with “whether and how a representation comes to be in us (empirically, innately, etc.)” rather than ‘psychologism’, which is concerned with “how the representation itself comes to be” (17n). This distinction, in my view, is not as straightforward as Waxman needs it to be in order to distance himself from other interpreters as far as he claims to.

Waxman himself says in the aforementioned footnote that he agrees with Beatrice Longuenesse’s (1998) work on Kant in its essentials, despite her not using the term psychologism (16). This fosters doubts about exactly what defines Waxman’s psychologism as an interpretive approach. If we stipulate that an anti-psychologistic reading foregoes any reference to mental activity in explicating the meanings of objective representations, psychologistic approaches still come in stronger and weaker flavours, which come down to how the genesis of “the representation itself” is construed.

If ‘psychological’ is interpreted weakly, any view that endorses Kant’s references to mental activities such as synthesis and apperception as non-negotiable parts of the story about objective representation, not wholly translatable into an analytic argument, is “identifying psychological ingredients” (147) in discourse which does not overtly suggest them. I believe most interpreters today would uphold this kind of psychological account. Any particular view on what informs Kant’s psychology need not be empiricist in orientation, as one may instead emphasize the scholastic heritage of Kant’s references to mental acts (e.g. Sellars 1967). On stronger versions, e.g. Kitcher (1990), Kant’s ‘psychologism’ qua account of the genesis of objective representations is a ‘proto-cognitivist’ theory which can be re-formulated in light of contemporary experimental methods and results. Waxman’s qualifies as a weakly psychologistic interpretation, in my view, since nowhere in the book does ‘psychologism’ imply ‘experimental psychology’. In the first chapter and the conclusion, Waxman seems to reject mainly Neo-Kantian attempts to place Kant in the service of twentieth century analytic semantics, philosophy of mind and epistemology—explicitly confronting Strawson (1966) in the conclusion (306), but probably also thinking of authors such as Evans (1982) McDowell (1994), and Cassam (1997). However, they present their work as critical reconstructions and selective adaptations of Kantian ideas. Given that Waxman accuses Strawson’s interpretation of Kant of reverting to a kind of platonism, it would have been interesting to hear more about where Waxman agrees and disagrees with existing criticisms of these Neo-Kantian projects, including McDowell’s (1994) ‘naturalized platonism’.

Let us consider the specifics of Waxman’s use of the term ‘psychologism’. Psychologism is presented as a mode of conceptual explication concerned with the psychological content of the meanings of traditionally metaphysical notions, rather than the psychological mechanisms underlying conceptual meanings. Consciousness turns out to be the key ‘psychological ingredient’ reference to which constitutes a psychologistic account. Waxman stresses that all representation requires some degree of consciousness, but that for Kant and his predecessors consciousness is graded from ‘dark’ to ‘bright’ to ‘clear’ (41) and is hence ubiquitous, reaching down to the sensory representations of basic organisms such as molluscs. Another notable feature of Waxman’s psychologism is its gloss on the normative dimension of Kant’s inquiry into our transcendental justification for applying concepts:

instead of proceeding by defining notions in terms of other notions without regard to whether there is, or even can be, any corresponding conscious representation, psychologism [has] the express aim of seeking out such representations. If the search reveals that a notion owes none of the contents indispensable to its meaning to consciousness, then its scope of application is nowhere limited by it (10).

Conversely, if the notion “can be shown to be beholden to consciousness for any of the ingredients essential to its meaning—ingredients at least implicit, but often explicit, in definitions—then its scope of application is limited accordingly” (10).

In general, the distinctiveness of Waxman’s approach lies in his wholesale engagement with Kant’s more unwieldy terms and concepts, and readiness to endorse Kant’s claims as literally about psychological reality—rather than about concepts, the brain/organism, or the objective world. Despite his psychologistic approach having a foot in psychology and a foot in explication, Waxman is content neither with purely conceptual or exegetical arguments, nor ‘proto-cognitivist’ claims that Kant anticipated cognitive science on this or that front. But he ultimately agrees with many other interpreters that any staunchly ‘anti-psychologistic’ reading is a non-starter, as well as joining Kitcher (1990) and Brook (1994) in thinking that a naturalistic perspective on Kant may be able to contribute to contemporary (experimental) psychology and theory of mind.


I now turn to Waxman’s reading of Kant and his empiricist forerunners. Chapter 2 argues that Locke sets the stage for the psychologistic approach by conceiving consciousness on a scale starting with primitive animals: “Since in the entire absence of sensation no consciousness of any kind seems possible … its terrestrial advent would presumably have coincided with the appearance of the first sensation” (54). In Chapter 3, Berkeley is credited with “extending imagination into the cognitive sphere, thereby for the first time crossing the line separating reality from fiction (where Hume and Kant would follow). This is because the ability to represent space as transcending the divide between sight and touch is indispensable to all cognition of the physical” (85). For Kant, this consideration leads to the thesis that there is nothing in sensation (visual or tactual) that is intrinsically spatial, so the representation of space must be constructed in pure intuition (201). Chapter 4 links the foregoing to Hume’s well-known skeptical challenges to relational concepts:

By shifting the basis of belief in relations from objective experience to subjective feeling, Hume moved the topic from epistemology to psychology where, instead of needing to be justified by evidence and to follow as a conclusion from premises, belief is determined purely affectively, by association-constituting feeling, and nothing else (96).

For Waxman, Hume was the first to psychologistically attribute fully general concepts such as the uniformity of nature and the general causal maxim to humans and non-human animals alike (114). Waxman illustrates the theoretical development from associationism to Kantian a priori psychologism in terms of a speculative evolutionary development from a creature

capable of the kind of highly sophisticated, behaviourally efficacious conscious mentation that Berkeley and Hume devised their associationist psychology to explain. Thanks to some fortuitous mutation or other alteration in its genome, its progeny included creatures capable of the representation ‘I think.’ Having no evident selective advantage by itself, this neural capacity presumably could have established itself in the population only as a spandrel piggy-backing on some genetically connected trait that earned its evolutionary keep. (177)

Eventually enabling complex propositions and inferences, Waxman contends, the ‘I-think’ representation would have enabled behaviours with adaptive value. This evolutionary story complements Waxman’s interpretation of Kant’s logical forms of judgment as more basic than language and indeed making language possible:

The ability of linguistic propositions to blend with non-linguistic is, in its way, no less amazing than the mathematizability of nature. But isn’t this exactly what we should expect if language was originally crafted by creatures already fully conversant in the use of non-linguistic propositional representation, transcendental judgments included? (315).

The chapters of Part II centre around Kant’s psychologization of logic in relation to sensory and propositional representation. Waxman details how Kant adapts from Descartes the contentless representation ‘I think’, which “in and of itself, has no content [and hence] cannot be suspected of having borrowed any, whether from language or anywhere else” (158). Being non-linguistic, it is not attributable to convention and thus provides a purely psychological basis for logical generality that synthetically unifies all possible representable contents (174). According to this notion of pure apperception, Waxman argues that Kantian logic is based in a universal self-consciousness which includes “the totality of logical structures universals enable us to form—propositions, inferences, narratives, et al.” (149). Unfortunately, Waxman doesn’t elaborate on whether self-consciousness is for Kant always a form of ‘bright consciousness’, or could exist in ‘darker’ shades as he argues it does for Hume (120).

Kant brings what Waxman calls “intelligence”—which amounts to consciousness of universality and modality—to Humean representations of general relational concepts which lack any awareness of the “logical universe of possible representations” (171). Kantian concepts “enable us to consciously represent each and every associative combination as a grouping of denizens of the logical universe that are thereafter sortable not only by their sensible/imaginable properties but by their logical ones as well” (171). According to Waxman, Kant’s logical forms of judgment are what “make any ‘I think’-generated concept combinable with any other such concept in a single act of thought, or propositional representation” (167). Conceptual representation is thus explicated as the gradual elimination of degrees of “logical freedom” (150) by restricting the space of logical possibilities to what is representable given the content supplied by sensation and association.

According to Kant’s psychologization of logic, fixing the position of a term as subject or as predicate in a categorical judgment is a psychological act starting with the bifurcation of the logical universe (170). However, such a “logical form by itself cannot guarantee that a proposition will result. In particular, even if a would-be proposition is logically well formed, it would still fail to be a genuine proposition if, for other than strictly formal logical reasons, it cannot be thought without generating not just falsehood but one or another species of impossibility, e.g. … ‘water is not always H2O’” (175). For Waxman’s Kant, categorical form permits the unification of concepts in a single consciousness, but it does not allow a unified representation of the resulting propositions (175). In addition to the assertoric modality, then, we need Kant’s problematic modality, which asserts merely the relation between two propositions, suspending judgment on the propositions themselves. The logical form this assumes in us, hypothetical judgment, relates problematic propositions as ground to consequent in the assertoric modality. Together, hypothetical and categorical forms enable any combination of the totality of possible propositions to be unified in a single conscious act (175f).

Waxman mobilizes this account to show that Kant (1) does not restrict intelligence to language-using organisms, nor (2) does he impose our parochial linguistic structures on his model of the basic “building blocks of propositional thought” (22). Waxman takes his elucidation of Kant’s transcendental logic to counter both misconceptions:

Intelligence can be accorded to any creature, actual or possible, that is capable of pure apperception … even including beings so asocial as to be devoid of anything remotely analogous to language or socially grounded symbolic communication of any kind. This is not to deny that Kant regarded all non-human animals known to him as incapable of apperception and therefore unintelligent. (172)

But, Waxman adds, “that does not mean he would have persisted in that view had he known what we know today” (172). This is an interesting speculation, implying that animals have some form of awareness of universality and modality—not in Hume’s sense, but in Waxman’s more demanding Kantian sense of apperception—“an a priori logical universe that quite literally encompasses all possible conscious representations” (169). I fully agree that Kant’s logic is non-linguistic, but I want to know more exactly how Waxman understands our present knowledge of animal intelligence such that it could make Kant change his mind on this controversial topic.

Waxman regularly refers to his lengthier engagements with Kant’s first Critique in footnotes. These references will be necessary for scholars seeking to determine Waxman’s position on exegetical debates. Part II succeeds in presenting Kant’s account of logical forms and concepts as centrally relying on consciousness, and hence psychologistic, while emphasizing that propositional representation need not be construed as an evolutionary leap separating humans from other animals. The combination of these theses makes for an original, stimulating addition to works on Kant’s first Critique.


I now have some remarks on the book’s intriguing but somewhat ambivalent references to the sciences. Waxman’s general stance that the insights of Kantian psychologism extend beyond their own scientific and philosophical context is very ambitious, and I’m not sure his case is equally strong for each of the sciences he addresses. Waxman makes a convincing case that non-Euclidean geometries cannot falsify any of Kant’s statements about pure intuition, as the latter pertain to the necessary features of any representation of space, rather than any particular geometry:

the formal intuition of space is not only neither Euclidean nor non-Euclidean but completely indeterminate as regards number, limit, distance, metric, part-whole relationships, and everything else that makes space suitable for properly mathematical representation or objective representation of any kind (208-9).

When it comes to the life sciences, however, Waxman’s perspective is (perhaps inevitably) more in tension with the scientific context Kant was writing in.

Waxman is clearly not neutral on matters of philosophy of consciousness, stating at the outset that consciousness is for his purposes identical in existence to its neural correlates (13-14), but that there is nonetheless a distinct psychological reality (14, 57, 159, 162, 177f). As this commitment is not compared to any alternatives, I am curious as to why he has opted for this particular form of identity theory to defend the biological plausibility of Kant’s psychologism, rather than functionalism or some form of emergentism. Polák and Marvan (2018), for example, defend the view preferred by Waxman that neural correlates are not in a causal relation to conscious states but an identity relation—a position which philosophers of mind might like to see defended more explicitly in connection with Kant’s views. Also, they may ask whether there is a specifically Kantian motivation for understanding the “mystery of consciousness” as Waxman does, that is, “a purely physical existence that is at the same time irreducible to physical reality” (14). Waxman clearly wants a naturalistic position to complement his psychologistic interpretation, but he also does not want to impose too much recent theory on the historical theories. Given this concern, psychophysical parallelism—an early form of identity theory espoused in different (including Neo-Kantian) versions by German philosophers from Fechner to Feigl via Riehl and Schlick—could illuminate Kantian psychologism from this side of Darwin and experimental psychology (see Heidelberger 2004, Ch. 5). Of course, it would be possible for most Kant scholars to profess neutrality with respect to these debates, but Waxman has—to his credit—set different standards.

Waxman’s decision to adhere to Kant’s original terminology and to steer clear of issues of translation in one sense makes the book smoother. The book conveniently contains a glossary, and tailor-made terms such as ‘AUA [analytic unity of apperception] concepts’, and ‘dark consciousness’ helpfully remind us that a term is not being used in its familiar sense. Waxman’s capacious use of ‘consciousness’ clearly works in his favour insofar as Modern and Kantian philosophy become much more relatable simply by lowering the threshold (as we understand it) on what sensory and cognitive states count as conscious. Yet it would have helped for Waxman to illustrate the general features of (what Descartes, Locke and Kant viewed as) ‘dark consciousness’ in more descriptive neural or psychophysical terms—not simply because readers may have difficulty forgetting the current meanings of such terms and the controversies attached to them, but because it would improve the book’s case for making psychologism compatible with contemporary biology.

One of the book’s most interesting features is its rapprochement between Kant and Darwin. Frequent references to phylogeny and the evolutionary plausibility of psychologism (as contrasted with platonism and conventionalism) evidence Waxman’s eagerness to integrate Kant’s insights into a post-Darwinian landscape, which I take to be a very important, relatively neglected project:

[N]ot only is Kant’s psychologism consistent with evolution, it actually spotlights suitably primitive forms of empirical consciousness that would gain adaptational advantages from a priori consciousness. Most basically, formal intuitions can easily be conceived to be of use to minds grappling with the challenge of combining external sensations into a single, unified external sense capable of providing immediate access to sense-divide transcending objects. (306)

This illumination does not go both ways, however, since Waxman also says that transcendental consciousness is entirely outside the scope of scientific explanation (295)—“because the subjectivity constituted by apperception … becomes part of the explanation of the physical, it cannot itself be explained physically on pain of circularity” (23). This claim recalls circularity charges against naturalized epistemology and logic, which in my view can be convincingly refuted by pragmatic and holistic considerations. It also blatantly contradicts the book’s initial claim that “[t]he mental is causally and in every other way fully determined by its physical underpinnings, and so is in principle fully explicable by science” (21). This is surprising, after seeing Waxman go to great lengths to argue that although a priori, the most innovative aspects of Kantian philosophy are features of our natural constitution, different in complexity but not radically different in kind from the sensory sensitivity of an oyster. Placing a priori elements of Kantian psychologism beyond the reach of current and future biological explanation strikes me as a missed opportunity, and again makes me doubt what is meant by psychologism. Empirical research in animals can indicate how consciousness might have arisen, and in a footnote Waxman considers but then discards a few such accounts based on their comparatively restrictive definition of consciousness (63n). The reader may suspect that casting the net more widely would reveal theories more congenial to Waxman’s evolutionary take on subjectivity, such as Godfrey-Smith (2016).

The following passage is a good example of Waxman’s ambivalence towards his own naturalistic outlook:

The connection between the subjective psychological reality of consciousness and the objective physical reality of neurophysiology is a complete mystery in both directions, today and quite possibly for some time to come. Thus, Kantian logical forms of judgment pose no special mystery but instead are best regarded as simply an additional species of phylogeny-dependent neuro-psychological reality in addition to sensations, emotions, dreams, and the rest. (178)

Because Waxman has not restricted himself to purely exegetical argument, or the Kitcherian ‘proto-cognitivist’ angle described earlier, the reader may wonder how literally such claims are to be taken. One cannot but agree that (something similar to) Kantian a priori capacities such as the logical forms of judgment must have evolved somehow, just as there must be some neural correlates for the empiricists’ associative psychologies, as indicated in Part I. But the empirically-minded reader will want to know in more detail how forms of judgment (or their successors in contemporary science of mind) could be modelled and studied, if they are on a par with sensations and emotions.

A Guide to Kant’s Psychologism is bound to appeal to diverse philosophical audiences for its fresh take on Kant’s theoretical philosophy as a priori psychologism. It is also a lively, articulate instance of philosophical storytelling. Waxman avoids approaching Kant through the lens of contemporary philosophical problems where semantics, epistemology and metaphysics are concerned. When it comes to the sciences, however, the book makes us acutely aware of pieces of the puzzle of the mind in nature that Kant simply cannot have anticipated. Kant’s understanding of his current science needs to be confronted with today’s sciences in order to address all of the questions raised by an interpretation of Kantian philosophy as naturalistic a priori psychologism. Over the course of Waxman’s book, frequent references to neural correlates and phylogeny habituate the reader to seeing our biological reality in the same conceptual space as Kantian doctrines, which is surely a step in the right direction. As is perhaps Waxman’s intention, it is left to the reader to ponder the convergences and divergences between Kant’s account of the mind and current scientific knowledge, perhaps especially the life sciences. The book offers its non-Kantian readers a challenging, raw encounter with Kant’s theoretical philosophy, and will leave Kant scholars much to think about both on the old problem of psychologism and new ones arising from Waxman’s brand of naturalism.


Brook, Andrew. 1994. Kant and the Mind. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Cassam, Quassim. 1997. Self and World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Evans, Gareth. 1982. The Varieties of Reference. Edited by John McDowell. Oxford: Clarendon Press and New York: Oxford University Press.

Falkenstein, Lorne and Easton, Patricia, eds. 1997. Logic and the Workings of the Mind: The Logic of Ideas and Faculty Psychology in Early Modern Philosophy. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. 2016. “Mind, Matter and Metabolism.” Journal of Philosophy 113 (10):481-506.

Heidelberger, Michael. 2004. Nature from Within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his Psychophysical Worldview. Translated by Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1998 [1781/1787]. Critique of Pure Reason. Edited and translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, Patricia. 1990. Kant’s Transcendental Psychology. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Longuenesse, Béatrice. 1998. Kant and the Capacity to Judge: Sensibility and Discursivity in the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Charles T. Wolfe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McDowell, John. 1994. Mind and World. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Polák, Michal and Marvan, Tomáž. 2018. “Neural Correlates of Consciousness Meet the Theory of Identity.” Frontiers in Psychology 24:1269. DOI https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01269.

Sellars, Wilfrid. 1967. “Some Remarks on Kant’s Theory of Experience.” The Journal of Philosophy 64 (20), Sixty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Oct. 26, 1967): 633-47.

Strawson, Peter F. 1966. The Bounds of Sense. London: Methuen.

Corijn van Mazijk: Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell

Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell Book Cover Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy
Corijn van Mazijk

Reviewed by:  Daniel Guilhermino (PhD Student, Department of Philosophy, University of São Paulo, Brazil)

The decisive influence of McDowell in shaping the contemporary debate over non-conceptual content is well known. After the release of Mind and World (1994), almost any attempt to assign non-conceptuality to the contents of perception had to engage with McDowell’s conceptualist model of experience. The rich discussions inspired by conceptualism in the current literature on non-conceptual content, however, often ignore the original philosophical motivation behind McDowell’s thesis, or so goes the premise of Van Mazijk’s new book Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell (2020). This motivation comes from the tradition initiated by Kant in the 18th century, and followed by Husserl in the late 19th, known as transcendental philosophy, whose main idea is to put into question that which is the fundamental presupposition of the sciences, namely the availability of reality to us. The central aim of Van Mazijk’s book is to recover this original transcendental concern of McDowell’s thought by inserting his conceptualism within this broader tradition mainly represented by Kant and Husserl. As a result, it ends up by exploring how Kantian and Husserlian approaches of transcendental problems avoid certain inconsistencies in McDowell’s conceptualism, thus providing better alternatives for understanding the relation between mind and world.

The book is structured in three parts, each containing two chapters dealing with those thinkers’ theories of perception, since perception represents the most basic way through which the world is made available to us. Given the author’s overall aim to offer a new critique of McDowell’s thought, both Kantian and Husserlian theories of perception are analyzed through the lens of the conceptualism debate. This is made possible with the help of the distinction between weak conceptualism and strong conceptualism, which represents the key distinction of the entire book. Weak conceptualism is defined as “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercise” (4), and strong conceptualism as the view that “concepts structure sense experience, and this is in fact what first makes reality perceptually available” (4). All the discussions that follow are carried out in view of this important hermeneutical tool.

The book follows historical sequence, thus beginning with Kant and ending with McDowell. The author himself, however, suggests that the chapters could be read independently of one another, and that any reader specifically interested in McDowell and in contemporary philosophy of perception could begin with the two last chapters on McDowell. I would rather suggest that readers not familiar with the contemporary discussion of conceptualism in philosophy of perception do that. This way they will better understand what is mainly at stake in the discussions with Kant and Husserl in the remaining chapters.

The first part focuses on how Kant’s transcendental philosophy provides us the tools to have an immediate access to reality, and not, e.g., an inferential one. The overall purpose is to advocate a weak conceptualist reading of Kant’s theory of perception, in opposition to, for instance, McDowell’s strong conceptualist reading of it. After introducing the basics of Kant’s theory of knowledge in the first chapter, Van Mazijk proceeds, in the second chapter, to the transcendental deduction. An adequate reading of the deduction is essential to a conceptualist interpretation of Kant’s theory. For instance, according to Van Mazijk, McDowell’s reading of the deduction is at the basis of his strong conceptualist interpretation of Kant. The author reads McDowell as stating that Kant places the dependence of sensible intuition on the categories at the same level as the dependence of it on space and time (41). This is a mistake, Van Mazijk’s points out, as the necessity of a transcendental deduction is justified precisely due to the fact that the “pure concepts, in Kant’s view, stand at a certain distance from the world; they are not sine qua non conditions for sensible intuitions in the way space and time are” (40).

Van Mazijk’s analyses of the A and B-Version of the deduction yield basically the same conclusion, namely that Kant is mainly concerned with weak conceptualism, as long as he insists that appearances have to be relatable to a unitary consciousness (which does not compel them to be always necessarily related to a self-consciousness or standing I). Apperception, so goes Van Mazijk in a close reading of Kant, is defined in terms of potentiality: “Apperception, then, need not be understood as a permanent, onlooking I; it is rather itself the potential for the I to be awakened; a transcendental potential for becoming actively aware of what is intuited” (45).

Besides that, however, strong conceptualism seems to also play a role in the deduction, especially in the A-Version. This is due to the synthesis of imagination and its specific role in the openness of intuitions to conceptualization. The main idea seems to be the following: The adequacy of intuitions to pure concepts – what Kant calls their affinity (46) – is the product of the synthesis of imagination. This affinity is already to be found previously in the sensibility itself as an “aptitude” of intuitions to be associable with pure concepts. This means that the contents of sensibility must already have an affinity with the understanding. Now, the synthesis of the imagination, Kant states, is grounded in the categories (46). Therefore, the categories are constitutive of intuitions, which is exactly the strong conceptualist thesis. That is, intuition is open to conceptualization (weak conceptualism) precisely because it is conceptually structured (strong conceptualism). Van Mazijk concludes from this that “pure concepts might after all play an important role in intuition, insofar as they would supply the imagination with the forms of synthesis required to make intuitions open to conceptualization” (47). In the end, however, the greater prominence seems to be given to weak conceptualism: “It can be concluded that, in both versions of the deduction, Kant’s principal aim is to show that pure concepts apply unconditionally to any intuition” (49). With regard to strong conceptualism, Van Mazijk only states that we have “some textual support” (49) for it.

The second part deals with Husserl’s theory of perception and knowledge. The third chapter begins by introducing the basic elements of Husserl’s early theory of intentionality that comes from the Logical Investigations. They are the quality (the way of intending something), the object-reference and the matter (the Fregean sense) of the act (63). Another important element within the intentional structure of consciousness is the sensation content, which Van Mazijk interprets not as unstructured data, but as having some kind of non-intentional and non-conceptual structure (66). Despite being non-conceptual, sensations are not regarded as merely natural facts, and are not, therefore, excluded from the concern of philosophy as a matter of, e.g., physiology, as in Kant’s account.

Nevertheless, sensations do not play any role in Husserl’s account of knowledge as synthesis of fulfillment, as long as they do not have an articulable structure, that is, a propositional structure which can be also instantiated in beliefs. Van Mazijk begins his explanation of Husserl’s theory of fulfillment by stressing that “it is crucial to observe first that, in Husserl’s view, signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68). Knowledge is then explained as a coincidence that happens between this empty act of meaning and an appropriate fulfilling act. When I merely entertain the thought of a blackbird in the garden, for instance, I have an empty signitive act of meaning. When I look and see the blackbird, this act of intuition comes into a coincidence with my former signitive act and gives rise to a synthesis of fulfillment (69). Van Mazijk goes on to explore that not only sensible perception can provide fulfillment, but also memory, categorial intuition of ideal states-of-affairs and universal intuition. (69-70). Importantly, the fulfillment does not rely on all the aspects of the act, but only on the intentional ones: “all and only intentional contents come up for fulfillment and allow of propositional articulation” (71). From this, the author concludes that Husserl “clearly defends a version of weak conceptualism” (71). The reason why this conceptualism is weak is because “the articulable content of the fulfilling act (say, a perceptual content) can play its fulfilling part only by virtue of the fact that it is not just a conceptual content” (79). That is, the fulfillment can provide warrant for empty beliefs due to the fact that it makes an extra-conceptual contribution to it.

The clarity with which the theory is presented hides, however, the greatest difficulties of Husserl’s text. There are, for example, some problematic passages in the Logical Investigations where Husserl states that “the very thing that we marked off as the ‘matter’ of meaning, reappeared once more in the corresponding intuition” (Husserl, 2001, 241). This kind of statement seems to challenge the author’s affirmation that “signitive acts alone can be defined as meaning acts” (68), since the “matter” – understood as the Fregean sense and hence as conceptual content – would make both signitive and intuitive acts as carriers of meaning. Another problem not faced by the author is one concerned with the concept of fullness. It is only stated, at the end of the section dealing with fulfillment, that it is the “peculiar character of fullness” that “distinguishes perception (as an intuitive act) from thinking (as an empty act) – instead of, say, a real causal relation to an object” (72). Nothing, however, is said about this peculiarity itself, and the difficulties that are implied by this statement are not deemed important by the author. I find this to be a mistake, since the exact way in which the fullness gives fulfillment is one of the most important and controversial aspects of Husserl’s theory, and its clarification seems to me to be necessary to make understandable the “extra-conceptual contribution intuition makes relative to our empty beliefs” (72) mentioned above. The apparent inconsistencies in Husserl’s description of fulfillment was, by the way, one of the initial motives for the dispute over conceptualism with regard to his theory of perception.

The second half of the third chapter deals with Husserl’s transcendental turn and offers an interesting and original reading of the phenomenological reduction. The reduction should show us that all the sorts of nature-reason divide that somehow sets consciousness apart from the world are in the wrong path. Rather, reason and nature form a whole that could be investigated from the perspective of consciousness (as manifestations in my streaming conscious life) and from the perspective of nature (as real facts in the world). This results in a view the author calls “the double aspect theory” (80), which allows both natural science and philosophy to study the relation between mind and world: the former studies it as a natural fact under a natural attitude, forming a space of nature; the latter as a relation in the streaming of conscious life under a phenomenological attitude, forming a space of consciousness (81).

I find this way of presenting the phenomenological reduction to be one of Van Mazijk’s most interesting contributions that should be explored in the approximations between Husserlian phenomenology and conceptualism. Particularly important is that it understands the space of consciousness as wider than the space of concepts, thus making room for non-conceptual and non-intentional sensations in the philosophical approach of consciousness. For instance, the naturalistic psychology of Husserl’s time tended to see everything that does not have a relation to an apperception as a natural fact. By the same token, McDowell tends to see everything that falls outside the conceptual space of reasons as a natural fact. From Husserl’s perspective, in Van Mazijk’s view, this results from a failure to see that the world is not divided into two separated regions, mind and world, but is rather “one totality of being (mind and world), which can be viewed either under the aspect of nature or that of consciousness” (87). Absolutely everything is encompassed by the space of consciousness, only that under its specific attitude, which is not the same of the natural sciences. There is no reason, therefore, to exclude the non-conceptual and the non-intentional from it.

The fourth chapter turns to Husserl’s later genetic investigations in order to demonstrate how phenomenology can accommodate all accomplishments of consciousness. Van Mazijk proceeds here to the concrete analyses of non-conceptual levels of perception, showing that they are not restricted to empirical investigations, as in Kantian and McDowellian pictures. The chapter exhibits the powerful scope of phenomenology, which ranges from the most basic level of mere sensation to conceptual thought. This is considered by the author “Husserl’s master thought”, namely that “the space of consciousness can be analyzed as a unitary whole” (117), and not only as empty a priori forms of knowledge (Kant) or as conceptual capacities in the space of reasons (McDowell).

The genetic investigations present our openness to the world in a stratified manner. Three levels of perceptual accomplishments as well as three levels of conceptual ones are distinguished by the author. The analysis of these accomplishments provides an occasion for an interesting discussion with McDowell. Husserl is said to obey a strict divide between perceptual and conceptual content (105). Thus, to perceive something as being thus and so and to judge something as being thus and so are two different things, one involving a perceptual content, the other involving a conceptual content. But how do we get from perception to judgment? This is, of course, one of the most important problems of McDowell’s Mind and World, and it is there solved by appealing to strong conceptualism: the conceptual contents determine the perceptual experience. Husserl, in turn, has another story to tell. It is possible to perceive something as being thus and so without forming a judgment about that, that is, it is possible to “perceptually explicate relations between things perceived, yet lacking the ability to attain the propositionally articulated content” (104). Therefore, it is not the judgment that determines perception, but the other way around: it is because we can intentionally (albeit non-conceptually) be related to things in perception, that we can form judgments about them, and not the other way around. In order to make a judgment, “the ego must repeat the passive process, but this time in a changed, active attitude” (105). By doing this, the ego “extracts” the contents of perception and informs them with propositional articulation in judgment.

This narrative is a bit obscured, however, as Husserl speaks of the propositionally structured object being “pre-figured” in perception (105). This paradoxical statement serves to complicate the matters in the attempt to fit Husserl in the conceptualist or non-conceptualist parties. Van Mazijk does not overlook this challenging problem and engages with it in the second half of the chapter by exploring Husserl’s notions of horizonal awareness, motivation and bodily action – which form a “kinesthetic system” (107-110) –, and also his concept of habit (acquired skill) (111-117). Generally speaking, the idea is that perception considered as a simple intentional relation to an object is, on Husserl’s account, an abstraction. It is not a starting point (as it is in almost any theory of perception), but a resulting process. The original genetic analyses provided in this section show that “for us, then, perception is saddled with concepts after all” (118). This, however, in the author’s view, is not enough to assign Husserl a strong conceptualist theory of perception, since “intellectual acts are not a condition of possibility for a rich perceptual intentionality”, and  “the fact that (some) perceptual contents are fit to figure in judgments does not derive from a capacity to judge; it is due to perception itself” (p118). Husserl remains, thus, in the end, a weak conceptualist.

The last part of the book focuses on the theory that orients all the discussions of the previous chapters, namely McDowell’s conceptualism. The fifth chapter introduces the central conceptualist claim that the contents of experience are all conceptual and explains how it arises as the only way out of the epistemological dilemma between the myth of the given and coherentism. As is well known, McDowell’s solution is to expand the conceptual domain beyond the mental sphere and to place it in the world, admitting experience to have conceptual content.

Having stated the conceptualist thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to ask some important questions that challenge its overall consistency. The author lists and analyzes 14 fragments from McDowell’s writings in order to find out what exactly does it mean to say that the contents of experience are conceptual. A close and detailed reading of these fragments reveal that McDowell oscillates between a weak and strong conceptualism, but in the long run favours the strong version. Strong conceptualism, in turn, raises the most important issues with respect to the consistency of McDowell’s idea. Particularly, it does not explain which concepts specifically are necessary to inform perceptual experience and leaves unanswered the question of how perception in non-rational animals is possible (since they do not possess concepts) (124-132).

After exploring these inherent difficulties in McDowell’s conceptualism thesis, Van Mazijk goes on to discuss how Kant and Husserl could offer better answers to them. The main purpose is to show that a weak conceptualism “should suffice to establish intuition’s inclusion in the McDowellian space of reasons” (133). That is, since weak conceptualism, either in its Kantian or Husserlian forms, avoids the issues raised above against McDowell’s strong conceptualism, then the former is preferable to the latter. With respect to Kant, the author states that it is at least conceivable that an imagination functioning differently from ours synthesizes intuitional contents in a non-conceptual manner (134). Therefore, it is at least thinkable, in the Kantian framework, to have a non-conceptual relation to the world. As to Husserl, it is said that both the early theory of fulfillment and the genetic investigations of later phenomenology offer good reasons not to account for the contents of perception under the unique category of the conceptual. Both Kantian and Husserlian more detailed distinctions in the realm of perceptual content should then make room for some kinds of nonconceptuality in the contents of perception that do not fall prey to the myth of the given, thus avoiding the necessity of strong conceptualism.

The sixth and final chapter criticizes the most important assumption of McDowell’s conceptualism, namely his division of spaces. In short, this division amounts to two ways of dealing with things: as natural lawful phenomena (the space of nature) or as rationally relevant exercises (the space of reasons). Van Mazijk proceeds to analyse how McDowell, in order to avoid any threat of non-naturalism, allows everything else but conceptual contents to be placed within the space of nature. This generates several problems. Among them, it makes it impossible for McDowell to give a satisfactory account of the genesis of reason (Bildung), thus making rationality a kind of miracle (150-153). A more adequate picture of perception, which does not preclude the possibility of offering a genesis of reason, is offered by Husserl, as the author showed in the fourth chapter. Another problem concerns the transcendental significance of McDowell’s enterprise. Conceptualism, in McDowell’s view, is said to refer to “prior conditions of being directed at reality” (156). This way, any claim concerning the space of nature (actually, any claim at all) must be made through the space of reasons. But this clearly contradicts McDowell’s affirmations that “thinking and knowledge can after all be conceived of as natural phenomena” (156). In Van Mazijk’s view, there is no way to conceive the space of reasons as being both condition of and conditioned by the space of nature (156). Both Kant and Husserl show that this is a “transcendental absurdity”, since it “conflates distinct levels of explanations” (161).

On the way towards a conclusion, Van Mazijk points out that it is precisely this division of spaces which makes conceptualism attractive after all. That is, only if one accepts that the space of reasons consists exclusively of concepts, one will tend to ascribe conceptuality to perception (in order to make it rationally intelligible). But, as all the analyses of both Husserlian and Kantian framework have shown, there are good reasons not to consider concepts to be the exclusive accomplishment of rationality and therefore not to accept this division of spaces. The rest of the chapter is then dedicated to reinforcing the main conclusion of the book, namely the idea that the Kantian and (specially) Husserlian accounts of perception and reality avoid the inconsistencies generated by McDowellian conceptualism and offer, therefore, better alternatives to it. The final preference is given to the Husserlian framework, as it “provide[s] the most interesting and viable alternative when it comes to determining reference for concepts of the mental, as well as for specifying the contents of various types of sensible operations” (157).

In sum, Van Mazijk’s rich book does an excellent job of showing how the three authors work towards the same epistemological problems and have shared ambitions. To all of them, the Cartesian approach on subjectivity is misguided; and to all of them, it is precisely this approach that is at the basis of the epistemological problems concerning the gulf between mind and world. As to the overcoming of the Cartesian picture, they all want to reject transcendental realism, that is, the idea that reality is radically independent of our knowledge. This way, Kant, Husserl and McDowell intend to show that the world is a priori a world of rational experience. The conflict emerges when McDowell achieves that by appealing to the exclusively conceptual configuration of the world, which is denied by both Kant and Husserl. In this way, the book successfully accomplishes one of its purposes announced in the preface of “connecting [McDowell’s work] to key figures of the German transcendental tradition”, and so of “uncovering a continuing tradition hidden underneath today’s more specialized and fragmented philosophical landscape” (7). Therefore, it should appeal to anyone interested in a historical study of Kant, Husserl and McDowell. As to its more original purpose, “to develop new critical reflections on core tenets of McDowell’s philosophy” (7), that is principally achieved by the author’s recourse to Husserl in order to advocate weak conceptualism. I am not convinced, however, that the Husserlian perspective as offered here by the author is free of difficulties. At most, it seems to me to be as problematic as McDowell’s views. The early theory of fulfillment, as I have said, has many problems concerning the concepts of matter and fullness. As to the genetic analyses, the author himself recognizes that Husserl’s work on habit poses serious difficulties to the overall interpretation of his theory as conceptualist (weak or strong) or non-conceptualist. It seems that these problems should be faced more at length if Husserl is to be seriously considered as an alternative to conceptualism.


This research was supported by Grant #2019/01444-6, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).


Van Mazijk, C. 2020. Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl and McDowell. New York: Routledge.

Husserl, E. 2001. Logical Investigations, Volume II. J. N. Findlay, trans. London and New York: Routledge.

Walter Hopp: Phenomenology: A Contemporary Introduction, Routledge, 2020

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Routledge Research in Phenomenology
Walter Hopp
Hardback £120.00

Uriah Kriegel (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Consciousness, Oxford University Press, 2020

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Uriah Kriegel (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
Hardback £110.00

Matthew Eshleman, Constance Mui (Eds.): The Sartrean Mind, Routledge, 2019

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Routledge Philosophical Minds
Matthew Eshleman, Constance Mui (Eds.)
Hardback £190.00

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.”