Alexandre Kojève: Atheism

Atheism Book Cover Atheism
Alexandre Kojève. Translated by Jeff Love.
Columbia University Press
2018
Hardback $32.00 £28.00
248

Reviewed by: Hans Krauch (Canada)

This work was compiled from an unfinished essay originally written in 1931, a part of the vast trove of documents left behind by Alexandre Kojève that publishers are finally starting to take out and disseminate to the world.  At the time this was wrote, atheism was not just blindly implemented by Soviet ideology, but it was the sign of the final death throes of faith in its fight against the Enlightenment movement.  Indeed, the Enlightenment proved victorious, though it was a Pyrrhic victory as the Enlightenment movement itself died with the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century.

The introduction does a very good job at going over the general points of the book – and indeed the author of the intro is quite right to say that it does not take away from the joy of reading the original work.  The work reads like is a man struggling with these very difficult concepts, at a time when these concepts were shaping nations. Knowing the topics of atheism versus theism meant knowing the bloody history of the 20th century – with its creation and destruction of empires, nations, and people’s lives numbering in the hundreds of millions.

The topic of atheism was not merely academic as it had real world impacts, so one could detect the urgency and importance of the topic in the tone of Kojève’s writing. To be sure, the true philosopher is one that realizes that their work has real world implications, that it is important to all people – not just relegated to the world of academics.  In this spirit, Kojève can be understood to meet that criteria of philosopher quite easily.

Atheism is still quite prevalent today, and this book will shed light on today’s stance on this belief of non-belief in a way few else can. Kojève was there when the contemporary atheism movement begun and therefore has insight that contemporary academics cannot understand.  Kojève separates people into two camps – the theist and the atheist.  Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between these two camps, but in order to properly understand either he has boiled down the types into purities, then compared the differences between the two.

Kojève was not particularly interested in promoting one side or another, merely trying to figure out what they were and where they base their particular life-axioms.  From the spirit of the book, the best Kojève (or arguably anyone) can do is speak about both sides in general terms, mostly because the main concepts held by either side is, at best, understood in general terms.  He divides further the concept of the theist and atheist as ‘qualified’ – this would be one whose ideologies are solidified, extreme, and self-aware.

The qualified theist is one where God’s existence is simply accepted, and there is nothing more to say on that.  God is understood to be a thing with some kind of quality, a thing that makes God a God.  But, is God a ‘thing’? Indeed He is, however it is a thing that is very different from other things – other things that inhabit the material realm.  Therefore, a qualified theist is one that understands that God(s) have predicates.

The theist is a person who believes in God, whatever that may be, and the atheist does not believe in God, whatever that might be.  That being said, faith itself is considered irrational, so both the theist and atheist are more similar than they would like to admit.

The basic question asked in this work, though cannot be answered definitely, is “Is it possible for the atheist to claim that there is nothing beyond the world without entering into contradiction.” (Kojève 2018, xvii). The atheist is the one that mostly uses rationality as their basis of belief, but on what basis can they claim to be more rational than the theist (if proving the existence of God is unfalsifiable)?

For Kojève, how people believe to interact with the external world is very important to his conclusions.  Firstly, we have the human being in the world – this is one that interacts with the material world.  The concept of homogeneity is used, and this is to give us the notion that our own experiences are similar enough amongst other humans that we can all assume that we interact with the world in more or less the same way so that it can be described in general terms.  Homogeneity is the concept that things outside the self are similar enough for us all.

The concept of estrangement is that it only applies to human beings, and that the world presents itself to us and as such we cannot escape from this world and remain sane.  Kojève posits that things are ‘given’ to us, but it is God that does the giving (for the theist).  The theist is aware of this stuff given to us and therefore suffers anxiety.  The atheist cannot care less about such things and therefore suffers not.

The big question in this work is how can God reach thorough the realm of the outside world into our plane of reality?  It reminds me of the difficulty of passing from subjectivity to objectivity – are such things possible and how can we do this without sacrifice of quality?

Kojève’s greatest accomplishment in this work is the position on death itself.  He posits that we all agree that there is a passing to an outside world, to some degree, when we die.  This is simple enough to grasp as we can witness the death of others.  Where things become complicated is when it comes to understanding our own deaths, because we can never experience our own deaths (as it occurs after we lose consciousness, and consciousness is the sense that enables the other senses to process external information).  The concept that we cannot imagine our own demise or nothingness is very important, and one that is ought to have the highest dissemination to the world as possible.

Death is both nothingness and thingness at once, which is similar to the problem of the existence of God:  “Death is thus available to us only in its unavailability, as unavoidably enigmatic, the genuine, essential, and ineluctable mystery.” (Kojève 2018, xxii)  This is the basic human condition.  How we deal with that differs on whether or not we are an atheist or a theist.  All of us face death with horror, in one way or another. This is why the medieval art featuring people facing all kinds of horrible violent deaths with a stone, uncaring face is seen as ridiculous rather than pious, to contemporary minds.

Where Kojève goes wrong is his stance on suicide.  For him:  “…suicide is the highest expression of freedom.” (Kojève 2018, xxiii) He is not technically wrong, as overriding our own self-preservation instincts requires a strong will, but the problem is that if we cannot fully comprehend our own demise or nothingness then how is this freedom?  In suicide we aren’t merely experiencing the unknowable, but forcing it on ourselves.  We shall explore this topic further near the end of the paper.

The theist sees death as the release of the soul from the body.  The atheist sees this as simply being done with the world, and just wants to be done with living within it.  Most people believe in a little bit of both theistic and atheistic aspects of death.

Regarding suicide, is it overcoming pain and fear, or is it a submission to it?  There are those who survive suicide attempts all the time, so do know this we would have to ask them.  Suicide is also prevalent within other species – there are well documented cases of animals drowning themselves or stop eating until they die, after they lost a mate or suffered some other tragedy.  That being said, all the problems with our own lives end with our lives, for better or worse.  That doesn’t mean it has no effects on the living, however.

This problem is similar to God the infinite – another concept that cannot be proven.  The infinite, for Kojève, is the surpassing of limits, yet no such thing is possible because there is only the finite:  “No attempt at liberation from the world is possible.  Our interaction renders us vulnerable, limiting our freedom and ultimately tying us down to death.  If Kojève were to say that only a God could save us, it would be that God achieved by Kirillov in suicide.” (Kojève 2018, xxv)  If life is such a burden then why would we want to be free of its limits?  Satisfaction is found in the conquest of limits, with no challenges to overcome then nothing is there to look forward to, an existence without purpose or meaning.  Perhaps the true freedom is not freeing ourselves from limits, but from the shackles of fear of not overcoming limits.

Kojève is quite correct that both the atheist and theist want to break out of our obvious limits and achieve greater things, outside the world (or our perception of it).  He is correct that speculation cannot provide proof, but this is the beauty of philosophy.  We deal in matters that cannot be proven objectively, and in the absence of objective (material world) proof it is the best we have.  The same goes for knowing when to mark the proper end for ourselves (like Hegel’s ‘End of History’).  This question, I believe, is the same as understanding our own deaths/nothingness.  Our end is the end of life – therefore to go into understanding that we need philosophical speculation to take the first steps towards knowledge.

The concept of courage in the face of death is described as simply a cover up for our own fear.  Indeed that is the definition of courage – doing something in spite of a strong feeling of fear.  It must be stressed that fear will always exist, so denying it exists at our own deaths would be inauthentic.  So, an atheist would be one that feels they are ‘honest’ in the face of death – that after their body dies that is the end of them forever.  The theist would be one that ‘hides’ behind hope that there is some kind of life (existence) after death.

Kojève is quite right to posit that an atheistic religion can exist if they limit themselves to believing in a non-existent nature of whatever God other people believe in.  It is a matter of belief in the unfalsifiable versus the non-belief in the unfalsifiable, which brings us to another very interesting point in Kojève’s work – the discussion of atheism or theism does not belong within the realm of religion.  This discussion goes beyond the confines of religion to encompass the foundations of how we think – logic.

Kojève’s work does bounce back and forth between concepts, as if he is having a conversation with himself – talking himself into a position, then thinking himself out of it.  He understood that the atheist/theistic world views encompass the types of world they live in, and to understand those views properly is not so simple.  At this time it would be appropriate to interject into the rather odd style of writing used by the translator.  Obviously the translator has a firm grasp on the material, however there are some irregularities that would require some clarification.

For example, Love refers to God as ‘him (Kojève 2018, xxxii)’ when the proper way to refer to God is Him.  Love later quotes Kojève as referring to God as Him (Kojève 2018, 15), so the grammatical inconsistency must have been known.  It is not a catastrophic inconsistency, just one that peaks me to ask why such a thing was done in the first place. The other is the choice to refer to the generic person as she.  Indeed, in the past ‘he’ was usually used, and this style of using ‘she’ is certainly en vogue these days, for whatever reason.  I would have recommended to get away from any gender specific pronouns, if one’s goals were to avoid appearing sexist by using only one pronoun in particular over another.

The terms used are much appreciated, like ‘giveness’, but understand that these are not translation errors, but an expression of how a Russian or Frenchman in the 1930s would express such concepts of being an animated meat robot inhabiting a class M planet within a finite universe composed of matter and energy – and with all those things that go along with that.  Another language oddity here is the usage of the term ‘tonus.’ The use of it here does not match the English dictionary definition of the word; being “The normal tension of a muscle at rest.” (Merriam-Webster 2019, 1) – unless Love is inadvertently using the French word tonus, which is tone in English, and in that case the word ‘tone’ works just fine in the contexts of this text.  All that aside, we may now return to the text itself.

Concerning death and giveness, Kojève prompts some very interesting ideas.  For example, Kojève himself is quite dead today, yet his words still reach out to me when I read his works – so in a way he is not truly nonexistent in the same way his body no longer functions.  This paradox of ‘giveness’ Kojève talks about is quite interesting, perhaps we may need to accept this paradox as insolvable.  We cannot have a conversation with Kojève, as we can only read, listen and reflect on his works.  Kojève’s giveness continues after his physical death, but the living cannot present their giveness to him (in a way that affects himself as a living thing).  That is, the dead can give to the living, but not vice-versa (unless we count the living keeping the memory of the dead alive, this can be a sort of giveness, but what is it – the dead giving to the living or the other way around?).  This may not be solved, but at least it is something that will require more study in the future.

As far as we can understand life and death, death is seen at the destination at the end of all life, but this is not as important/valuable as the journey.  Skipping ahead to the destination (by dying early) does not do anyone any favors.  Journeys require destinations, but the destination itself gives little value in comparison to the experience of the journey.  For example – there is little value in simply getting 100% on a test if passing it required no learning or effort.  Indeed: “Life is not death, but without death there is no life.” (Kojève 2018, 61)  Therefore, death is the impassible limit on life, and without limits there is no life.  Therefore, we need limits in our lives for them to be considered lives.  Finitude is necessary to complete our concepts of life.  Additionally, one’s death is not entirely valueless – one may die well (self-sacrifice), poorly (by killing innocent people along with themselves), or everything in between.

Where Kojève goes awry is on his stance of suicide.  On one hand, the concept of non-existence is unthinkable to a person, yet:  “Suicide is the conscious and voluntary end of the existence of the human being in the world.” (Kojève 2018, 82)  So, how can anyone consciously and voluntarily enter into a state of existence in which they have no possible way of understanding it?  A contract is not considered valid unless both parties understand what they are agreeing to, so the person committing suicide is entering into a contract where they have no possible means of understanding it.  If one is unable to know what one is agreeing to, then that is hardly a decision one are capable of making.

This is why we have laws against underage drinking or sex – the individual may be physically capable of drinking beer or having sex, but we have learned that under a certain age of mental development people are unable to understand the consequences of those types of behavior.  Therefore, by granting any kind of positive attributes to suicide is at best naïve and worst morally repugnant as we know that there is no age in which we can be mentally competent enough to know that killing ourselves is the right choice.

Indeed, our freedom is linked to our finitude, both in the idea that yes we can drop dead at any moment and for a myriad of reasons.  I believe Kojève is saying that we can understand that we are mortal and can die at any time, but at the same time not truly know what it is like.  The freedom we have in life is knowing that there is an end, so we have this motivation to act in the here and now.  If we were immortal – what would be the rush to accomplish anything?  Free from the shackles of immortality, we strive to learn, to extend our ‘giveness’ to the outside world.

The concept of death and suicide aside, Kojève does a marvelous job of placing atheism and theism within their proper spheres.  Both sides pride themselves on their differences, but they are actually more alike than they would admit, and Kojève puts them together enough so that dialogues can be opened:  “By equating the non-atheist with the theist, I have identified all of what is not the world with God or, better, with divinity.” (Kojève 2018, 98)

Kojève is correct to posit that one’s atheism or theism infuses itself into their very work – most importantly into their science or philosophy.  It is a far too common occurrence for people to assume that because they do a thing for a paycheck, the particular ideology they prescribe to will not affect their jobs in anyway.  Every time someone kneels on the prayer mat, or consumes the host wine, or stands at attention to the national anthem – are strengthening their own ideology – and through it will influence the way we perceive and act within the world in a way they cannot be aware of.  Atheism or theism is an important part of one’s ideology, and since ideology is the unseen mover that shapes peoples thoughts and actions, then it is fair to say it influences everything we do or think.

Both the theist and atheist feel the other is lacking in something and do not truly understand the other’s position.  The theist has as a part of themselves that is something outside the material realm, while the atheist does not.  Kojève is right to claim that secularity and religion is not the same realm of understanding as atheism and theism – as those are matter of logics.  Religion and Secularism play by their own rules, by that they have their own axioms that fall outside logic itself.  Christian religious studies simply assume God exists, and from there all their work goes from that point.  The same for atheistic works – they assume no God exists and from there all conclusions are reached.  Kojève’s conclusions predate either and seek to understand where both views originate.

On further study – it would appear both are closer to the realms of religion than logic: “…the God of science is not the same as the God of religion, this is nonetheless God.” (Kojève 2018, 122)  Better understood, however, is that the beliefs of both atheists and theists are within the realm of religion, but the particular values of each are understood in the realm of logic.

We cannot describe either position exactly, as there are varying degrees of theist and atheism most of us hold onto.  Still, Kojève does a good job in describing each as best as humanly can.  All in all, this was a fine introductory text to Kojève’s positions on death, suicide, atheism and theism.  Additionally, even those unfamiliar with his other works can enjoy this text as an introduction to these concepts presented here.  Indeed, I would recommend it to anyone interested in these topics as a foundation to further study in the matters at hand.

The only drawbacks to the text are the few oddities of language usage, and that the text itself does not give us more.  It is as if Kojève was wise enough to have the concrete answers on what it means to be atheist and theist, but is hiding it from us – so we are wanting more (if we can call this a drawback).  A truly successful paper in philosophy, like art, is one that sparks the imagination, encourages debate, and leaves us open to a new slew of problems that we were previously unaware of.  Considering these criteria, this book is a resounding success.

Bibliography:

Kojève, Alexandre. 2018. Atheism. Translated by Jeff Love. New York: Columbia University Press.
“Tonus.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tonus. Accessed 9 December 2019.

Michael Marder: Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts

Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts Book Cover Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts
Michael Marder
Columbia University Press
2019
Paperback $30.00 £25.00
272

Reviewed by: Mees van Hulzen (Leipzig University)

Sometimes we come across a book that makes us feel uneasy, causes a degree of uncertainty and poses more questions than it answers. This does not have to be a bad thing, and it certainly is not in the case of Michael Marder’s latest book: Political Categories, with the telling subtitle: Thinking Beyond Concepts. In it he unfolds an ambitious project of developing a theory of political categories, based on a phenomenological reading of Aristotle’s Categories and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Not only does Marder wants to demonstrate how these classical categories can be translated to political philosophy, but he also aims to show that the constitution of the categories themselves is already political, as he elaborates in the two appendixes the book has. The boldness of this undertaking makes it an exciting book, filled with unexpected turns, and rich with various philosophical insights; only, one cannot help to feel a little lost at the end of it. In what follows I will give a commented summary of the book and a brief critical reflection at the end.

Marder has over the last years, in a rapid pace, published a great number of books. Not least of all on plants. Marder is probably one of the few experts on the planet when it comes to philosophy and plants. Most well-known is his book Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). Clearly his interest in the being of plants resonates in his other philosophical work where he writes about phenomenology, ecology and politics, such as in his book on Heidegger: Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology and Politics (2017). In it he tries to demonstrate how some of Heidegger’s major ideas support an ecological and leftist politics; a conclusion that Heidegger infamously failed to draw. Another noteworthy book is that on Carl Schmitt’s idea of the political: Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010). Many of the themes Marder discusses in his previous work reoccur in Political Categories. However, it is not to be thought of as a synthesis of his previous work, but rather a continuation of Marder’s explorative thinking, devoted to the project of developing from a phenomenological methodology, a critical political theory, that is directed at the political things themselves (xi).

I.

Marder begins chapter 1 of Political Categories by positioning himself in contrast to two extremes in the political landscape, who, according to him, both suffer from the same problem. The first extreme goes by many different names, such as ‚economicism‘ (7), ’neoliberalism‘ (8), ‚progressivism‘ (9) or ‚capitalism‘ (1). The other extreme is that of ‚ultranationalism‘ (98) or ‚reactionary modernism‘ (7). Marder’s critique in the book is mainly directed at the former, partly because he holds the conviction that the latter is a consequence of the former. Hence, the predicate ‚reactionary‘. The problem with both positions – that make up for the two evils that plague many societies today – is that they both represent a type of thinking that limits itself to one particular category, and reduces the whole of political reality to it. In the case of neoliberalism everything is reduced to that what is calculable and quantifiable. In the case of ultranationalism it is the exclusive and distorted application of the category of quality that poisons social relations by reducing social reality to different homogenous sorts.

By broadening the political categories, the theory of political categories provides, according to Marder, a solution to both extremes of the political spectrum. First of all, because the multiplicity of perspectives that the theory presents offers a better and more thorough understanding of political entities. Second, it would also lead to better politics, in so far as it would more adequately fit politics to the plurality of political reality (8). The idea that a theory of political categories can help to oppose neoliberalism and ultranationalism is promising, but how does Marder exactly substantiate this claim?

Key for understanding the theory of political categories is the Husserlian adage: ‚Zu den Sachen selbst!‘ We should also in the case of political theory return to the things themselves, according to Marder, not merely by directing our attention to things that are political, but first of all by perceiving politics as a thing. Not only does politics revolves around a public thing (res publica) but the constitution of things in general is a public affair. (12). Things are not just simply there, but as Marder repeatedly phrases it: they ‚present‘ themselves or ‚give‘ themselves. He warns us not to think of things as objects. The thing does not stand in front of me as a complete alien entity, but rather I unfold myself in my perception of the thing: ‚The categories and self-consciousness do not lay siege of things, walling them behind freestanding conceptual structures. From the outset, they take the side of things, sometimes with such fanaticism that they do not longer recall who takes this side‘ (15).

Categories are according to Marder crucial for the way in which a thing is interpreted by us. The role the categories play in our understanding of a thing should not be confused with classification. In classification a thing is ascribed certain fixed properties and is classified accordingly. Categories do not seek to do away with something but are directed at maintaining the borders of that which they categorize (21). They enable us to form judgments and help us to distinguish one from the other.

What does this have to do with politics? What makes the categories of quantity, relation, quality, substance etc. political? There is no political sphere for Marder per se, since he, on the one hand considers politics as a thing, and on the other hand thinks that the interpretation of things is political. However, for him this does not result in the meaningless expression: ‚everything is political‘. Everything is only political in so far as everything is potentially political or ‚politicizable‘ (24). That things are constantly politicized follows from the way in which Marder equates the ‚mobilization of the categories‘ to politicization (22). ‚Political categories‘ is in this sense a misnomer: there are no political categories but categories themselves are inherently political. They politicize the non-political by enabling the accusation of ‚this‘ as ‚that‘, without reducing the thing to one particular category. Categorization is not a static process, like classification, but rather it is the interplay of highlighting different modes of being of the thing that is given.

II.

After having introduced the political dimension of his theory, Marder gives in chapter 2, on the basis of Aristotle’s table of categories, a first description of the political workings of various categories. Aristotle distinguishes 10 categories, Marder however limits his discussion to 6 of them: ousia (beingness), quantity, space, relation, positionality and quality. He distances his own phenomenological position from that of Aristotle, by siding with Husserl. For Aristotle the categories belong to the things themselves, they are always of something. However, from the perspective of phenomenology the categories are always to something, according to the axiom of intentionality. Marder’s phenomenological critique of Aristotle remains unfortunately only limited to a few comments.

The most significant paragraph of this chapter is the first one: ‚Ousia-beingness-presence‘ which can be read as the blueprint of Marder’s project.  In it he discusses the first category of Aristotle’s table of categories, that of ousia, beingness or substance (44). It is a special category and is different from the others, since in it the passage from the non-political to the political takes place. Marder describes the way in which a thing presents itself to us as the passage of ‚this‘ singular being that presents itself ‚as that‘. This passage he defines as the passage of the first to the second ousia. The undifferentiated singular being that presents itself as ‚this‘ has to be interpreted ‚as that‘, for example: this singular being presents itself to me as human. And it is in this passage from the first to the second ousia, that the other categories play a crucial role: ‚Other categories must be in place for us to make a hermeneutical leap bridging the divide between this and that, which is why, by itself, ousia eludes identification and is a category on the verge of the uncategorizable.‘ (46). Because ousia is primary to interpretation, the possibility of various interpretations is inherent to it. The other categories are an actualization of the possibility to interpret this singular being in a particular way.

The passage from the first ousia to the second is primarily how Marder understands politics. This means that he primarily understands politics as politicization (122). But politicization can also be hindered or obstructed. He gives the example of someone who is denied interpretation as a human being based on her racial, ethnic, religious, sexual or gender identity (45).

Marder further argues that the passage from the first to the second ousia can help us to confront some of the most fundamental social problems of modernity. First of all, he argues that ousia holds the possibility of peace, in so far as it ensures the ‚equality of the incommensurables‘, by which he means that no thing ‚is‘ more than another thing, and also in the access they provide to political presence they are equal (51). Second, the category of ousia does not merely reveal the sameness between things, but in the transition from the first to second ousia also their differences. This corresponds to the idea that in this transition the gap between the singular to the universal is bridged, without reducing the one to the other. Something that is a necessary condition for the creation of political solidarity according to Marder (78).

The rest of the chapter consists of a discussion of other Aristotelian categories: how they help us to understand politics as a thing, how they complement each other, and how they become destructive when taken in isolation from each other. The tension between the category of quantity and quality is most noteworthy. In line with his general critique of the technocratic way in which neoliberalism reduces everything to quantifiable entities he points us to the inherent lack of meaning in the category of quantity. Like the category of ousia, the category of quantity does not have contraries (a square is for example not the contrary of a triangle, nor is 1 the contrary of 0), but whereas ousia, in the transition from the first to the second ousia, allows for differences, quantity remains on the level of a limitless sameness: unable to recognize real differences. This is why the reduction of political reality to the category of quantity proves to be most disastrous for politics. The focus on numbers in the census of representative democracies, for example, tends to neutralize and depoliticize the whole political spectrum to a form of ‚procedurally democratic bookkeeping‘ (60).

The category of quality, in contrast to that of quantity, brings forward the differences within politics by asking: ‚what sort?‘. The contrast with the category of quantity is that the category of quality reveals the differences of particular political orders and enables us to think of them as alternatives to each other. The quality, the sort, of one thing determines its limits in respect to the limits of others. This is why Marder emphasizes repeatedly that categories constitute the boundaries between things. The quality of a political order is reenacted and repeated in certain habits, such as democratic practices, but also the spatial embeddedness of a political order in a particular climate determines its quality. The reason why he probably wants to think of the spatiality of a political order as quality, is that it enables him to link it to his philosophy of ecology. However, it is also a dangerous move to take up the category of quality and spatial embeddedness within political theory, since it runs the risk of getting dangerously close the regressive parochial politics of ‚belonging to‘ (82). Marder seeks to avoid this risk, by emphasizing that the categories form together one whole which forms a synthesis between the particular and the universal, as mentioned before in reference to the category of ousia. It is however questionable and in need of a more elaborate argument, if and in how far, the universality of being can form a counterbalance to nationalistic concepts of belonging.

III.

The third chapter on Kant, undoubtedly presents the biggest challenge to the reader who cannot directly reproduce the ins and outs of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. However, it never becomes a real Kant exegesis, and the parts that deal with the details of the Kantian categories are clearly subordinate to Marder’s attempt of developing a theory of political categories. One might wonder why it is at all necessary for Marder to invoke the Kantian apparatus after having developed a first understanding of political categories on the basis of the Aristotelian framework. The reason for this can be found in the different orientations of both chapters. In the second chapter he discusses the Aristotelian categories in relation to politics as a thing. However, in the third chapter he redirects his attention from politics as a thing to the experience of politics, using thereby Kant’s framework of the categories. Where one might have the impression at the end of the second chapter that Marder fails to stay loyal to his phenomenological method, this is adequately reestablished when he shifts his focus to political experience.

The third chapter he begins with the dramatic statement: ‚We have forfeited, or perhaps never had access, to, the experience of politics‘ (91). By this he does not mean that politics today takes place far removed from everyday life, but that we, in the first place, have lost the capacity for political experiences. The reason for this is that we have lost the form that provides the conditions for political experiences (92). Without form, the content of experiences, such as voting or resistance, becomes empty and meaningless. For Marder this is also the reason for the impossibility of the constitution of a political ‚we‘ under the conditions of neoliberalism (97). This is one of the central claims of the book.

The way in which categories form the condition for political experience, should not be understood as taking up different categories at various occasions. Marder uses the Kantian conception of synthesis to explain the interplay between, and the mutual dependence of, various categories in experience. He uses the unity of the various categories and experience as an important normative benchmark: below the experiential threshold of the categories, things can no longer be interpreted, and all appear the same in their singularity. Above the experiential threshold we have the well-known problem of rigidity and abstract conceptualism (96 -97).

However, Kant does not hold all the answers Marder is looking for. The major problem of Kant’s epistemology for Marder is its hierarchical structure based on the divide between the transcendental and the empirical. Political categorial reason is according to Marder ‚transtranscendental‘. He introduces this neologism to describe that political categories go beyond ‚the beyond‘. They do this on the one hand by helping us to understand the political make-up of the categories (which is worked out in the two appendixes of the book), and on the other hand by going beyond the political themselves, like he shows in reference to the nonpolitical stage of first ousia. With the term transtranscendental he attempts to put Kant upside-down, denying the hierarchical order of the transcendental and the empirical. As exciting as his suggestions are for those who like to annul the subject-object divide, it is unlikely that it will convince devoted Kant scholars.

IV.

After having set up the theoretical framework in chapters 2 and 3, he puts it to full use in chapter 4, as the title of the chapter already indicates: ‚Categories at Work‘. Here he discusses four political themes: state, revolution, power and sovereignty, thereby using and mixing up both the Aristotelian and the Kantian categories. In the case of the state for example he explains how people that view it merely from the perspective of its territorial boundaries, limit themselves to the Aristotelian category of quantity. This perspective is inherently imperialistic since the only way it can be improved is through expansion (148). Kant, however, points out that boundaries are not given by quantitative but by qualitative categories. Marder implies here that taking up the category of quality impedes imperialistic tendencies: ‚limits give the thing its particular qualities, and, in exchange for this service, it gives up its drive towards a potentially infinite expansion in a general atmosphere of indeterminacy‘ (149). Not only in reference to the state, but limits and borders play overall a prominent role in this last chapter, and forms a welcome critique of meaningless popular expressions like ‚everything is political‘ or ‚everything is connected‘.

Take for example the section on power in which he develops a critique on Michel Foucault’s conception of power. Although his critique becomes at this point a bit repetitive, it is interesting that his theory of political categories is not only directed against the proponents of neoliberal politics, but also at various other continental (leftists) philosophers, such as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri et al. Like the other positions criticized in the book he also criticizes Foucault for reducing social reality to one particular category within his conception of power, namely that of relation. According to Marder power is not merely relational but simultaneously ’substantive, (…) qualitative and quantitative, active and passive, (…) potential and actual‘ (169). It is especially the category of substance, ousia, to which Marder pays most attention in relation to power. What Foucault fails to see is that in the interpretation of ‚this‘ as ‚that‘, there already is a pregiven, concrete subject (174). Marder’s claim here, in line with his interpretation of ousia, is that Foucault denies the non-political reality of being. This is of crucial importance for him since his whole theoretical framework rests on the non-political being of a thing, or its political potentiality, that offers the possibility of politicization and thereby of politics.

To conclude, Political Categories is undoubtedly one of the most interesting books today for a new phenomenological approach to political theory. The central theme of developing a theory of political categories is highly original and inventive, but also somewhat problematic. Especially when it comes to the normative horizon that Marder believes is offered by them. The difficulty for him is not to convince the reader that they offer an alternative to neoliberalism. The descriptions of the ways in which the political categories unfold the plurality and the singularity of particular beings, make up for to the most convincing parts of the book. More problematic, is the way in which he believes that a theory of political categories also gives an answer to regressive anti-modern nationalism. His answer that the political categories form a synthesis of sameness and difference, that includes the universality of the incommensurable sameness of the first being of things, seems to be too far removed from political experience, and needs at the very least extensive elaboration. This last point is a general structural weakness of the book: due to its programmatic character, it touches upon many different themes and authors, without discussing any of them at length. When he puts the categories ‚to work‘ in the last chapter this is not any different. However, it sparks the curiosity of the reader to see what the political categories bring to the surface when they are really put to work, maybe, and hopefully, in a follow-up to this thought-provoking book.

F. W. J. Schelling: The Ages of the World (1811)

The Ages of the World (1811) Book Cover The Ages of the World (1811)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
F. W. J. Schelling. Translated and with an introduction by Joseph P. Lawrence
SUNY Press
2019
Hardback $95.00
275

Reviewed by: Dennis Vanden Auweele  (Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven)

Schelling published his masterful essay Philosophical Investigations into the Nature of Human Freedom in the same year that he lost his wife Caroline (1809). One might speculate that the latter event provoked Schelling’s own descent into the abyss of being, a journey that he would try to articulate for over two decades afterwards. Up until 1833, Schelling would namely lecture and draw up drafts for a work entitled The Ages of the World (Weltalter). Most of these drafts, along with Schelling’s unpublished manuscripts, were regrettably lost when the Munich archive was bombed during World War II (1944).

Horst Fuhrmans reports there were about twenty drafts of this work, most extensively developing the first part of the work dealing with “the past.” Schelling never published any of these drafts in his lifetime. Though, he did prepare the first draft in 1811 for publication, he decided to rescind his agreement for publication after the reception of the proofs. The same happened to a second draft in 1813. Shortly after his father’s death, Schelling’s son published the most extensive draft in 1815 with some extant editorial revisions. It is this last draft that is most well-known and has been translated into English several times, most notably by Jason Wirth in 2000.

In his introduction to that work, Wirth calls for the urgent translation of the 1811 draft. The drafts of 1811 and 1813 differ in a particular way from the one of 1815. While the last draft was heavily edited by Schelling’s son—with several omissions, the inclusion of section headings and some extant corrections—the two earlier drafts were only published much later by Manfred Schröter with less of an editorial impact and thus appear, on the whole, more reliable. But it is very hard to judge the editorial reach of Schelling’s son. Because of the abovementioned destruction of the Munich archive, Schröter could not attend to publishing the drafts written between 1815 and 1833. The draft of 1813 appeared in English translation by Judith Norman in 1997 and was accompanied by a tantalizing essay by the contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. In the English-speaking world, Žižek’s essay is seminal for the interpretation of Schelling’s Weltalter. Scholars had to wait a long time for an English translation of the 1811, the urgency of which should be apparent. This is now provided for a first time by Joseph Lawrence.

The present works contain the translation of Schelling’s 1811 draft of The Ages of the World. The translator, Joseph Lawrence, offers an extensive introduction which situates the work historically and thematically, as well as justifies some of his choices when translating Schelling’s often peculiar use of German into English. Alongside the text for which Schelling rescinded publication permission , the book also contains Schelling’s extensive notes and fragments for this draft and its second chapter. Lawrence is upfront about the impact of his own Schelling-interpretation on his activity as a translator. This impact is not limited to certain choices of translation as next to these, Lawrence decided to include several section and division headings, but also adds thirty-five clarifying footnotes. These notes most often provide extra information about Schelling’s meaning and sources, but occasionally engage the existing literature on the proper interpretation of Schelling’s text.

I will not judge whether this is appropriate when translating a text—at the very least, Lawrence is entirely upfront about the matter (see 47 ff.). Rather, I found Lawrence’s editorial work helpful and the sectional division unproblematic and even helpful in manifesting a textual hidden structure. The English translation reads as Schelling would have intended: engaging, penetrating, provocative and occasionally mystifying. In his translation, Lawrence succeeded in capturing something of the enigmatic spirit of the work.

The actual text is preceded by an extensive introduction (some fifty pages). There, Lawrence provides historical context about the different drafts of The Ages of the World and their academic reception. Missing from this extensive introduction are an overview of Schelling’s argument (Lawrence takes this for granted), contextualization within Schelling’s thought (between early and later), and western philosophy (transitioning between modern and postmodern paradigms of thought). The period in which Schelling wrote his drafts for The Ages of the World coincides with his own transitioning from his earlier thought—usually called the philosophy of identity and the nature-philosophy—towards his later philosophy, where he engaged mostly with positive philosophy, revelation and metaphysical empiricism. For a very long time, Schelling was known only through his earlier work. This was due to that Schelling’s later philosophy was only available in lecture form and that those who had eagerly attended his Berlin lectures (1841 and onwards) were thoroughly disappointed. The same Schelling who boldly divinized humanity and nature, who defended pantheism, and spoke so lyrically about the abyss of reason, now sang the praises of what appears to be a relatively orthodox Christian philosophy. It is not hard to imagine how Schelling’s failure to complete The Ages of the World provoked his move from his earlier to his later paradigm. As such, the decisive locus of failure in that work offers a window into Schelling’s philosophical development.

It would have been very interesting to read Lawrence’s take on the ideological place of The Ages of the World in Schelling’s development, and to gain some insight into why Schelling abandoned the project. This remains unclear to scholars, though most agree that Schelling failed to conceptualize a transition from “the past” to “the present” through an act of freedom. This is where the three known drafts were arrested in their deveopment, and where there is an ample sum of diversity. The 1811 draft was a first attempt at thinking this through, though Schelling ultimately abandoned the answer provided here; an answer that is, compared to the other known drafts, the closest to his views in Freiheitsschrift (1809).

Lawrence does give a cogent defense of the more general philosophical relevance of Schelling’s The Ages of the World. He does this not primarily from a historical angle, but from the perspective of its unique contribution to various contentious areas in contemporary philosophical discourse. Taking issue with Žižek’s influential reading of Schelling’s work, Lawrence provides a deliberately non-psychological reading of Schelling’s Weltalter. First and foremost, Schelling would look for “a compelling alternative to the mechanical conception of time as something stretched out into infinity, with neither beginning nor end” (5). Indeed, central to Schelling’s pre-occupation at the time of writing Weltalter was the concern to do full justice to a new, non-reductive sense of time. Lawrence’s emphasis on this topic of time is undeniably correct, but it might overshadow some of the equally important ontological and theological questions that Schelling engages at that time.

When he conecptualized The Ages of the World, Schelling was convinced that it was paramount for philosophy to think of God as an entity more than in its modern configuration, namely a rationalized and abstract idea. Schelling then provocatively suggests that God must become God; a position that can only do justice to a robust sense of time and to the vast panoply of horror and suffering that scars the world. Lawrence turns to the topic of God towards the end of his introduction (30-38), but seems mostly invested in showing how Schelling’s nature-philosophy is not atheist but a renewal of Christianity. Implicit in Lawrence’s reading of Schelling’s critique of atheism would be the attempt to transition more smoothly from the nature-philosophy towards the more overtly Christian Spätphilosophie of mythology and revelation. This might be true, but not because Schelling feared atheism; rather, he feared a kind of theology that sapped the life out of God.

What is interesting is how Lawrence connects Schelling’s work to innovations in modern science, such as those of Einstein and Heisenberg (17-20), and his reflection on the trajectory of human history and its relationship to capitalism and communism (20-30). These reflections can get preachy at times—lamenting the influence of capitalism on the university—but serve as an honest and provoking attempt at making Schelling’s abstract thought more palatable to contemporary concerns.

Schelling was namely concerned with a number of basic questions that remain unsolved to this day. One of the central points of argument in The Ages of the World is that there can be nothing outside primordial matter, because it is a dense singularity, disabling anyone form explaining the emergence of life from any outside influence. There can be no external agent that impacts primordial life in such a matter that life, time and intelligence come to be. This immediately invalidates the traditional Christian understanding of creation. Life must be self-creative. Especially in the 1811 draft, Schelling follows the metaphor of pregnancy very closely, thinking of the self-fertilization of the divine substance in moments of contraction. This parthenogenesis was his first attempt to explain how a primordial matter could give birth to itself.

To summarize, Schelling wrote an introduction for The Ages of the World which stays almost entirely unchanged throughout the drafts of 1811, 1813, and 1815. The well-known but enigmatic opening sentence of this introduction is, “the past becomes known, the present recognized, and the future divined” (55), which at the very least signals that the three “ages” are known in distinct ways. Schelling intended to write three parts which respectively deal with the eternal past, the eternal present and the eternal future, but never managed to write a substantial part beyond the first age of the world. In that part, the question is asked what happened before God became God in the act of the creation. Schelling’s argument—to many a scandalous one—was that God must become himself from the Lauterkeit (translated by Lawrence as lucid purity) of a pre-temporal, pre-conscious existence. Almost all of the material known of the Weltalter attempts to investigate, on the one hand, what was going on in the pure being of God before creation and, on the other hand, how and why God would abandon that position. It is this second issue upon which the various drafts of Weltalter dramatically differ. Schelling seemed thoroughly dissatisfied with his answer to the how and why of creation.

The mood is set by the introduction. Schelling aims for a science that is “the development of a living, actual being” (56), which has at that time finally become possible because a sense of spirit (Geist) has been brought back to philosophy. There, Schelling calls attention to the dialectical turn in philosophy, most overtly in his own nature-philosophy and Hegel’s idealism. Dialectical philosophy allows for the subject to recognize himself as part of a larger process, where it can then find within his own soul the different steps of the protohistorical process in which the universe came to be. It is clear that Schelling is still mulling over Hegel’s powerful critique in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Yet, Hegel claimed that Schelling’s philosophy starts as if “by the shot of a gun” out of “the night in which all cows are black.” In other words, Hegel indicted Schelling with arguing that we move from absolute unknowing to absolute knowing without much of a real, timely transition.

Taking Hegel’s criticism seriously, Schelling became more interested in conceptualizing a proper sense of time and history. For instance, Schelling emphasizes that our knowledge is piecemeal, in a stage of becoming, and never complete (e.g. 61). Time must come to be and it must have an absolute beginning. If one would entertain a more mechanical conception of time—of an infinite series—there would be no such things as novelty or unicity because everything is caught within that infinite series. For something to have a past, a real past, it has to come to be through an act of separation or division (Scheidung). There is a point of beginning, the moment where the present starts and the past ends, but the question then becomes what precedes the moment of beginning. This is what Schelling would call the relative and absolute prius in his positive philosophy.

This beginning before the beginning must be an original purity, Lauterkeit. This lucid purity is conceptualized by Schelling in more or less blissful and simple terms. There is a peaceful self-rumination in the original state (which would change drastically in later drafts of Weltalter, especially the 1815 one). This stage of purity is somehow lost through a movement within God before he is God himself, namely a desire to intuit or represent himself. This can only happen via a contraction of himself, a contracting of being and becoming determinate. This brings out a duality of willing in God, namely purity and contraction. Unlike the future drafts, Schelling does not figure this duality in strongly dialectical terms (more in dualistic terms). For instance, he uses the following image: “Heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool” (79). Rather, this is seen as the quite peaceful interplay between two different wills which results in a spiritualized sense of matter, a so-called golden age.

Only later would Schelling discuss how this interplay leads to frustration, namely when these two wills start to strive for independence. This leads to an inner antagonism in the primal being: “This is the dire fate of all life, that to become comprehensible to itself, it seeks constriction, demanding narrowness over breadth. But after constricting itself and discovering what it feels like to be, it demands once again to return into openness” (93). Schelling is attentive to a number of objections that could be made to this view, namely that it would involve a deification of nature, whether this can be taken as a systematic representation of being and whether this does not regard matter too highly. Schelling’s response is unapologetic and emphasizes that such a pantheist self-rumination is the repressed past of the world. It seems that Schelling moved away from this point of view in his Spätphilosophie.

This leads Schelling to what Schröter and Lawrence view to be the second part of this draft, namely the move beyond the past. This cannot happen through a force from the outside, since there is no outside to the original pantheist unity. The move beyond the past happens through the Father begetting the Son (contraction, giving birth), the other through which the Father can come to know himself. While there is opposition—the Son is not the Father—their opposition is not absolute, but actually paves the way for a higher, now cognized, unity: “They are brought to a higher unity precisely by that which tears them apart, insofar as, once they have been divided from one another, they are able to embrace anew, mutually dissolving into one another with the entire wealth of their content” (126). That unity is not fixed at any point, but is in a constant state of becoming. This was put forward by all religions—or so claims Schelling—and especially in the Christian understanding of the trinity: three personalities in one person. Yet, this point is something that reason finds difficult grappling and might have been complete unable to reach without the light of revelation: “Without the light of revelation a scholarly researcher would never be in the position to follow with natural ease the inner going forth of the first divine actions, guided by concepts that are as straightforward and human as they need to be” (130). Philosophers that close off from revelation will “simply become more and more entangled in their own thoughts, losing themselves in the end in what is vacuous and sterile” (ibid.).

For Schelling, this introduces a new sense of time into philosophy, in opposition to three previous understandings of time. First, the mechanical sense of time where time constitutes an actual infinity (without beginning or end). Second, the idea that time is not needed to understand the becoming of the world or that all happens in “one fell swoop.” Third, a partial subjectification of time while allowing something of an objective time (Kant’s position). Schelling believes that there is no objective time, only the subjective time of the thing itself. Time exists because God slows down his revelation; he does not force things to happen instantly. Things develop organically becomes God holds back his self-exposure. This second part ends with a number of disparate and largely unfinished reflections on the relationship between pantheism and dualism (in dialogue with Schlegel); the freedom that enables the world to be, which happens not for the Father but for the Son; the limitations of knowledge, a point of self-professed ignorance, where philosophy runs up against the boundaries of what is can legitimately say.

After this translation of the draft, Lawrence included just under one-hundred of pages of notes and fragments belonging to this draft. Schelling never intended these to be published and their German editor, Schröter, admits that his work on these notes was hasty. Due to their destruction, he did not have the opportunity to check his work. These notes can offer a helpful view into the process through which Schelling composed this first draft of The Ages of the World.

For the most part, this is a matter of wording rather than content. Joseph Lawrence provided as service to Schelling-studies by supplying a well-structured, readable translation of the 1811 draft of Weltalter. The fluent translation reflects the spirit and content of the original text, while some of his choices are slightly infelicitous. For instance, Schelling’s confounding use of Sein and Seiendes is rendered by Lawrence respectively as “being” and “that which is.” While this translation is correct, it loses the simplicity of Schelling’s terms. Elsewhere, this couple is rendered respectively as “being” and “existing being.” The English language has no simple word pair as the German does. The choice to translate Scheidung as scission should be applauded. It is more conventional than the usage of “cision” and keeps the connection with the German Entscheidung (de-cision). For Schelling, separation happens through a free decision, not through a natural sense of decay. This is one term he uses that distances himself from his erstwhile roommate, Hegel.

On a whole, Lawrence’s translation is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of Schelling studies. For the first time, English readers of Schelling can now read and compare the three remaining drafts of The Ages of the World.

 

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